McCarthyite Mashup

It happens every summer. Newsmakers go on vacation, real news gets slow, and novelty stories rush in to fill the vacuum. One summer it's child abductions; the next it's shark attacks. The theme of the 2010 summer news slump seemed to be the triumph of postmodernism, as seen in the detachment of the "signifier" -- words, images, symbols -- from the "signified" -- i.e. any objective, verifiable, mutually acknowledged "reality." And as we roll into fall, this condition looks more and more like the new normal.

First there was Shirley Sherrod, the African-American USDA official who, in July, was mugged by an out-of-context, cut-and-paste video clip. The Obama administration fired Sherrod immediately when the clip surfaced showing her "admission" of bias against a white family farmer. We all know the rest. If the White House wise guys had taken half a day to breathe, they'd have learned that the offending clip was only the "sin" part of a "sin and redemption" testimony. Everyone looked stupid, except Sherrod, who was, of course, right from the start, and had her revenge when she refused to be rehired by a penitent Obama administration.

However, despite the great knitting of commentators' brows and wringing of pundit hands, the Sherrod story wasn't mainly about race. At the core, it was about the slippery relationship between reality and perception in the digital age. Digital tools allow anyone with a decent computer to slice, dice, and recombine information (text, sound, or image) making unrelated items appear to be part of a seamless whole of the creator's imagining. This radical recontextualization was thrilling when it first emerged in the world of the arts. The possibilities seemed endless back in 2004 when Danger Mouse concocted The Grey Album, an epic mashup combining the vocals from Jay-Z's The Black Album with unauthorized music tracks from The Beatles' White Album.

But be careful what you wish for. It wasn't far from The Grey Album to all those emailed Photoshop images of Barack Obama melded with Osama bin Laden. In the world of politics, the mashup has just become a shiny new version of the old McCarthyite smear. And "recontextualization" can be just another word for "guilt by association." In the postmodern digital funhouse, facts don't matter. The point is to plant visceral associations in the lower brain of the target audience.

This phenomenon is not limited to the right wing. In the decade past, some on the Left had a little too much fun with, for instance, George W. Bush's big ears and fractured syntax. And who could resist casting Inauguration Day's wheelchair-bound Dick Cheney in the role of Mr. Potter, the villain of It's a Wonderful Life? But, as the Sherrod case indicates, the Right has really made the digital smear its own. That's because there is no ironic wink-and-a-nod with the right-wing mashups. They are propagated with dead earnestness by people for whom the only right is victory, and the only wrong is defeat.

By summer's end the subject on the eternal news crawl had changed. The August rage was the so-called "Ground Zero mosque." But the theme remained. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader behind the planned downtown Manhattan Islamic community center, is a Sufi (the non-dogmatic mystics of Islam), a political moderate, and a documented America-lover. He wrote a book called What’s Right with Islam Is What's Right with America. In fact, he’s exactly the kind of Muslim that the Sunni extremists of al Qaeda might target for beheading. But in the world of blogs and tweets, none of that matters. He's a Muslim, so he's part of the faceless "they" who brought down the towers. Facts are just so 20th century.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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