Friday, March 26, 2010

On Death Threats

The first time I ever became aware of the concept of a "death threat" was when I read a book about Hank Aaron. My childhood mind was horrified by the concept that people could threaten to murder a baseball player because he was black and was going to overtake Babe Ruth's home run record. Several years later I read that Barry Bonds had received death threats on the way to breaking Aaron's record. Although I certainly wasn't happy to read this, I was decidely less affected. For me, somewhere along the way, the death threat lost its sting.

I hadn't thought much more about death threats until this week, when seemingly everybody in Congress who voted for the health care bill received death threats. But they weren't alone in getting necrological missives in the last couple months. College football coach Lane Kiffin talked about threats on his life after leaving Tennessee for Southern California. Climate change scientists lamented a flurry of threats. And if Scott Baio is the target of death threats for making fun of Michelle Obama, nobody is safe.

And lest anyone think that the death threat is the exclusive province of the political right, I found a now ironic item on a right-wing blog. Dated March 3, the blog notes that death threats had recently been made against GOP senator Jim Bunning, and rhetorically asks: "Ever notice it's always Republicans on the receiving end of death threats?" (I give them credit for not editing out that sentence in recent days).

So it seems that despite the increased public attention this week, the truth is that the death threat is not at all uncommon in our society; any public figure who does anything slightly controverial is at high risk of receiving a communication that references the possibility of impending doom. But that leads to the question: who exactly are the people making these death threats? Certainly in a nation of over 300 million, you have a pretty good pool of potential culprits (who I will refer to as "death threaters"). Everyone has encountered a fair share of shady characters in a lifetime. And everyone has certainly encountered a fair share of people who make others uncomfortable with the vehemence of their rhetoric. But I can't think of anyone I have ever met who I would classify as a likely suspect to make a death threat.

A sociologist at San Jose State by the name of Stephen Morewitz recently delivered a lecture in which he profiled death threaters as "younger males who are of low socio-economic status, own firearms, are mentally disturbed, have a criminal record, are child abusers, domestic abusers and substance abusers." But I think there is a problem with this profile (well, there may be a few flaws, but I'll focus on one). I think there is a difference between the type of person who makes death threats against people they know and the type of person who sends anonymous death threats to public figures. He's describing the former. And those are the people who might actually carry through on their threats.

But poverty-stricken drug-addled women-beating gun-toting young men don't have the attention span to watch baseball games, so they are not sending death threats to Barry Bonds. They are not on Twitter, so they don't know what Scott Baio is saying about Michelle Obama. And though they might have political opinions, they are not quite plugged in to the 24-hour news cycle, so they are probably unaware when Jim Bunning is fillibustering, or when Bart Stupak is changing his mind about health care legislation. Actually, the truly violent and dangerous people in society by and large don't know who Jim Bunning and Bart Stupak are, much less how to find their contact information and send them communications.

I won't presume to offer a comprehensive counter-profile of anonymous death threaters, but it does seem likely that they are fairly well educated. And the fact that they never, ever follow through on their threats tells us something, too. They want to communicate displeasure in the harshest possible terms, without suffering any personal consequences. "I'm going to kill you" is code for "I have very strong feelings about something you said or did, but I do not have the language to accurately or eloquently convey the depth of my feeling, and even if I could express my thoughts in a worthwhile manner, I have a deep-seated insecurity about my power to affect my external environment, so I will exact what small measure of control I can and attempt to terrorize your psyche."

So based on the above, feel free to construct your own profile. But there is one more interesting paradox to consider. I assert that people make death threats in part because they feel powerless over their environment. But more than ever, people have the ability to articulate their opinions and attempt to influence the public sphere. In theory, the existence of Internet communication should allow people to blow off steam that would otherwise be directed toward making threats against public figures. But if anything, Internet culture seems to make people feel more hopeless than hopeful. The more we talk, it seems, the less confident we are that people out there are actually listening. And for some, the only recourse is to cynically drop out of the discourse altogether.

Friday, March 19, 2010

We're Not There

One of my favorite movies is I'm Not There. Granted, I have seen fewer movies than anyone else you know, and granted that I will probably uncritically like anything associated with Bob Dylan, I still think it is a great work of art. I appreciate that Todd Haynes (the director) acknowledged up front that a traditional narrative wouldn't work to ecapsulate Dylan's life and art, so he served up a fragmented jumble of overlapping stories with multiple characters portraying different "Dylans" (without actually using the name "Bob Dylan" at all). I also appreciate how utterly ambitious Haynes was, to the point where he started to conceive of his stories and characters not only as metaphorical stand-ins for Dylan, but for an almost Platonic ideal of American culture. He came to regard Dylan as the great 20th Century fulfillment of an essential American mythology--namely,the possibility and the promise of identity construction. Haynes argued through his film (and more explicitly, in his DVD commentary) that the great idea of America is that anyone can choose to be someone else. He cited Dylan's supposed interest in the Rimbaud quote "I is another." The movie posits that Dylan suffers for his constructions, but portrays him as ultimately rewarded by the culture he signifies, recognized and regarded as a heroic ideal.

But there is a bit of a contradiction there. An essential part of the Dylan mythology involves the backlash he received after "going electric," at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival (This was also the focus of the much more traditional Martin Scorsese biopic No Direction Home). Every good story has to have conflict, and the conflict in the Dylan narrative comes into play vis a vis his audience's rejection of his new direction. And the narrative is made complete when that audience recognizes the error of its ways and embraces him. And that's a good story and all, but why did the audience have to reject him in the first place? Why weren't his fans hip enough to embrace his new identity from the outset? It would be tempting for a Dylan hagiographer to respond by saying, "Well, Dylan is just that much more hip than his audience." But there is a little problem with that theory: The Beatles.

Haircuts aside, when the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan they conformed to the expectations of a 1964 "singing group." They wore suits. They bowed after numbers. They shook hands with the host and smiled. They performed "Till There Was You" (a Broadway show tune) for crying out loud. Almost three years to the day after their Ed Sullivan debut, they literally mailed in another performance to the same program:

The contrast couldn't be more jarring. No more suits, no more bowing, no more audience interaction, not even any smiling. With extreme close-ups, experimental use of audio and video technique, and a radically different sound, even altered physical appearances, they are scarcely the same group. And yet the fans still loved their Beatles. Nobody showed up for Beatles concerts and yelled "Judas!". (Granted the Beatles had quit doing concerts, but even if they hadn't, would anybody have thought to do such a thing?) Why were their changes embraced while Dylan's earlier transformation was regarded with suspicion?

My theory: 1966 happened. While the term "The '60s" has become a shorthand term to describe social change in America, the first half the decade was rather placid, certainly relative to the second half. 1966 saw the formation of the Black Panthers, NOW, and the emergence of large-scale Vietnam protests. 1966 saw Time magazine give the "Man of the Year" (still not yet "Person of the Year") award to everyone under the age of 25. In such a climate of all-encompassing change, an individual (or in this case, a band) stands to be able to "get away with" a personal metamorphosis that would be more suspect in a time of relative stagnation.

The implication of this theory is that if the Beatles had put out Magical Mystery Tour, or even Yellow Submarine, instead of Help! in 1965, they would have been castigated by the majority of their fanbase. And if Dylan had waited until Newport 1967 to "go electric," nobody would have cared. And a further implication: if America had not undergone its own transformation roughly concurrently with Dylan's early career, he would not be recognized by anyone, even Todd Haynes, as the fulfillment of an American ideal--which naturally calls into question the validity of such an ideal. It still makes for a nice fragmented and disjointed story, though.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

What We've Learned from Lil Wayne

Elton John had the best selling album of 1974. If Elton John had been sentenced to prison in early 1976 for any reason at all, I believe that it would have been a really huge deal. Michael Jackson had the best selling album of 1983. If he had been sentenced to prison in 1985, it would have been a world-shattering event. Heck, he was a commercial has-been by the time he had his legal problems over ten years after that, and it was still a huge deal. Bruce Springsteen had the best selling album of 1985. I can't even begin to imagine the media storm that a Springsteen prison sentence would have generated in 1987. As recently as 2002, Eminem was the best selling artist, and I have got to think that an Eminem prison sentence in 2004 would still have been a major story.

This week, Lil Wayne, the artist who sold more albums than any other artist in 2008, was sentenced to prison on gun possession charges. And the media attention has been about 2% of what Paris Hilton received when she spent less than a week in the slammer a couple years ago.

Or perhaps the more apt comparison may be to Plaxico Burress. Burress was a fairly good NFL receiver over the course of his nine-year career, but he never led the league in any receiving category once. Yet his 2008 arrest on gun possession charges and subsequent trial and imprisonment have been afforded far more public discourse and dissection than "Weezie"'s. (The same could be said for Gilbert Arenas, an NBA player currently embroiled in a gun-possession investigation).

The website Pro Football Reference lists Louis Lipps as an NFL player with a very similar statistical career to Burress's. I do remember Lipps playing for Pittsburgh (Burress's original team) about 20 years ago. But in contrast to Bruce Springsteen, if Louis Lipps had been tossed into prison for owning a gun in the late 1980s, I can assure you that nobody outside of Pennsylvania that was not related to Louis Lipps would have invested two seconds thinking about it.

So what has changed between then and now? While most entertainment mediums have fragmented and condensed (Lil Wayne's 2008 album has sold less than three million copies; the Titanic soundtrack, the best selling album of 1998, has sold over 30 million), the sports market has done the opposite. The rise of a monopolistic national sports network and the increasing prevalence of fantasy leagues have created a new breed of sports fan, interested in not just the local teams, but the entire national landscape.

So when ESPN hypes their "sports nation" on-line polls, they are not engaged in hyperbole. Our interest in organized games is one of the few things that truly still unites this nation. And we don't necessarily need to compare gun arrests to realize this. When viewership for this year's Super Bowl finally eclipsed that of the last episode of MASH, a symbolic torch was passed, with the pop culture world ceding its influence to the sports world.

And as for Lil Wayne, what are his prospects once his prison sentence is up? Perhaps that depends on whether ESPN lets him resume his sports blogging.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Dead Letter Column

When Paul McCartney got the inspiration for the title of his 2007 album Memory Almost Full from his cell phone, it couldn't have been more appropriate. More than 40 years prior, his primary muse must have been a postal envelope. When he wrote lines like "P.S. I Love You," "While I'm Away, I'll Write Home Every Day," "Picks up the Letter That is Lying There," or "Two of Us Sending Postcards/Writing Letters," or played a cover version of "Wait a Minute Mr. Postman," he was clearly in touch with a dominant medium of long distance conversation. As late as 1986, he was writing lyrics like "If you need love, write a letter/you need love, write away." But in a world where Miley Cyrus sings lyrics like "If you text it, I'll delete it," Sir Paul is keeping up with the times.

At a time when the U.S. Postal Service is lobbying to cut out Saturday delivery, letter writing has never been more irrelevant. And it is at precisely such a time that I have discovered the website It is an amazing treasury of historical correspondences, updated daily. Recent examples include J.D. Salinger sharing his thoughts about Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mark David Chapman inquiring about the value of his John Lennon autographed record, Harvey Milk standing up for Jim Jones, and Albert Einstein distancing himself from Zionist extremists.

But out of all the letters I've read so far, the one that fascinates me the most is an October 2, 1979 missive from 14-year-old Saul Hudson to his ex-girlfriend. Saul would grow up to become "Slash," guitarist for Guns N' Roses (and less notably, Velvet Revolver). The girl in question would later become the biographical subject of a GNR song, with the non-McCartneyesque opening lyrics: "Your daddy works in porno/Now that mommy's not around/She used to love her heroin/But now she's underground." In the letter, the high school underclassman casually speaks of hanging out at a club where "The drugs are cool," and "a guy mouthed off to this black guy, and the black got a hundred friends and chased him around all Hollywood."
The future Slash also adorns the white space in his letter with an illustration of a pot leaf.

So clearly, this communication is between youths whom the establishment would consider to be "at risk." And that is precisely why the form of the letter, if not the content, is so interesting to me. Rather than the type of incoherent prose that I often see in on-line communications today, there is instead a full page of carefully scripted language, with the appropriate salutation and signature, properly dated, and divided into neat paragraphs. To be sure, there are a number of grammatical errors, but they take the form of comma splices instead of fragments, and run-on sentences instead of shorthand abbreviations.

There is a school of thought that says that because of computers and mobile phones, people are writing more than they ever have before, and therefore we are in a literacy renaissance. I do find some validity in such arguments--I'm always skeptical of overwrought claims that society in general or education in particular is going downhill. On the other hand, one has to be dubious about whether the preserved text message of a 14-year-old "at-risk" future guitar star to his ex-girlfriend today would be worth anyone's interest in 2040. Perhaps it is best that the memory on Macca's phone is almost full.