LA Burning: The Rhetoric of Denial | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

LA Burning: The Rhetoric of Denial 

How It Played in the Media

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Americans speak of their social crisis gingerly, if at all, with the practiced euphemisms of a people deep in denial. Like "codependent" spouses attempting to cover their partners' alcoholic indiscretions with apologies and excuses, too many Americans seem to think that the best way to deal with the country's worsening divisions of class and race is to pretend that the problems aren't there at all, and to attack those who insist on bringing the issue up for being "divisive." Amid evidence that the crisis is deeply rooted in the structure of the nation's economy, Americans insist that all will get better if we can only "get along." Amid evidence that free-market capitalism is the root of the growing inequality, Americans insist that self-help (now perversely called "empowerment") is the answer. When Dan Quayle, after attacking Mother Murphy Brown, blamed a "poverty of values" (not material poverty) for the riots in LA, commentators chuckled for a moment over Quayle's inability to tell fiction from reality, then soberly decided that the boy vice president "had a point." A good dose of family values, and all will be well again.

This shopworn rhetoric of denial, untenable and dangerous as it is, has shown a remarkable resilience; the American public has shown an incredible willingness to avoid, or simply forget, all evidence challenging the standard evasions. Remember how the LA riots were going to be the wake-up call for America, a spur to new thinking and new awareness of race? The dawning of a new era of racial harmony, of social healing? Of hope rising from the ashes? You won't find much in the papers about all this these days; the media have moved on to new and pressing topics--Clinton and his sax scandal, the farewell of Johnny, the impending farewell of Charles and Di--while the problems that led to the explosion in LA continue to fester and grow. The talk is now of law and order--symbolized, in its petty excess, by the antiloitering ordinance recently passed here in Chicago, a law that makes it virtually illegal for anyone in a gang to set foot outside except alone. What remains of the talk of healing has degenerated to the level of the most mind-numbing banalities--the empty dreams of a massive, interracial group hug. The riots now seem to be symbolized primarily by two events--the beating of Reginald Denny and, more recently, Bill Clinton's attack on the allegedly inflammatory comments of rapper Sister Souljah--both of which serve to divert attention from the deeper questions surrounding the riots toward a victim-blaming focus on black "irrationality" and violence.

What happened to the riots? Looking back on it now, it is clear that the present amnesia was implicit in the media coverage of the riots in the first place. Even as the riots raised questions of extreme importance for the future of America, the media spin-doctors began to envelop the subject in lines of interpretation that managed to deny the significance of both the questions and the questioners. No one, of course, could deny the basic facts of the case--that the riots erupted in a nation divided across lines of class and race--and few could deny even that the King verdict had been more trigger than cause. A few in the media, it is true, came close to such denial, describing the riots as bizarre and inexplicable events, beyond human comprehension--a bad dream. But for most, the process of denial was more complex than this. Some in the media fell into the bland evocation of a mystical "healing process," promising a simple psychic closure to the unsettling events. In the LA Weekly, Steven Mikulan noted (quite accurately) that "the concept of healing has immediate appeal to people weary both of the King verdict violence and of having to watch it on TV. Coupling the word 'process' also offers a purposeful, soap-operaish feeling of closure: after pain, comes the balm." Others were less interested (as Mikulan and others also noted) in "healing" than in simply bringing South-Central LA to heel. Denouncing the rioters as "barbarians" and "savages" and the riots themselves as an irrational outburst of uncivilized violence, these writers demanded a different kind of closure: a crackdown, the assertion of "law and order," the reestablishment of Civilization through force of arms.

What all these interpretations shared was a simple impatience to be done with the story once and for all. Once the initial shock of the verdict and the voyeuristic thrill of the riots wore off, CBS news begged to be allowed to go "Beyond the Rage"; Newsweek magazine wanted to go "Beyond Black and White"; Time magazine (echoing Rodney King) asked simply "Can we all get along?" Implicit in all these headlines was the media's simple frustration that any tough issues had been raised at all, and a desire to simply wrap things up with a few somber op-ed pieces. As the country continues "meandering amid its own collapse," as critic Gary Indiana has so aptly put it, the media peddle an interpretation of the world that studiously avoids examining the structural explanations of the present mess in favor of a bland psychologized rhetoric that transforms the all-too-explicable symptoms of America's deepening inequality into irrational, individualized problems that will disappear if only people can "come together" and wipe all bad thoughts out of their minds, or if the police and military are simply allowed to have a free hand to protect "good people" from the "bad." Americans may want a simple closure, a happy ending for even the most distressing stories, but it's unlikely that the real world will comply with the demands of this comforting, if delusional, narrative.

LA, as far as the media were concerned, was no aberration: anyone who watches the evening news on a regular basis will realize (with a little reflection) that the desire for closure is built into the very structure of the news. These shows offer not simply the news, but a narrative as formulaic as the story line of any TV cop show, teasing the viewers with voyeuristic thrills on the way, ultimately, to a comforting ending. Like a cop show, the news invariably begins with a shocking, apparently irrational (and usually violent) event; by the end of the show, though, irrational reality appears almost tamed. Moving away from the big, frightening world, the shows invariably turn to simple stories of individual heroism--focusing on "role models" for disadvantaged youth, drug programs that work. If only we could all be like this, if we would all just chin up and roll up our sleeves, poverty and racism and drugs would vanish at once--and without costing anyone a penny. It sounds almost too good to be true, and of course it is. By highlighting the exceptional individual (and ignoring the big picture), these stories offer advice no more useful than the self-help homilies of Horatio Alger. But this is almost beside the point: the happy endings reassure anxious viewers that all, ultimately, is right in the world, and that they can slip back into their nightly dose of sitcoms and melodrama without bothering to think again of the issues in the real world.

Over the past year, this simple narrative has become increasingly untenable as the country's deepening social crisis has begun to envelop not only the poor and the working class, but the middle class as well. But the formula endures; the media have shown a truly astounding inability to grasp the obvious, when the obvious reflects badly on America. Even Newsweek magazine, that esteemed weekly compendium of news and trends, found it hard to admit for the longest time that we were in a (say it softly)--recession. In a cover story last winter about the country's obvious malaise, chief pundit Jerry Adler found it hard to accept the gloomy mood as anything other than the irrational emanation of fevered doomsayers. "It's only logical for people to feel bad," he conceded, briefly. "On the other hand, it's crazy." Peddling the standard line of the Bush administration at the time--that the end of the cold war should have brought us all into the streets whooping and hollering, even though it ground our economy into dust--Adler lamented that the "glooming of America is occurring at the precise moment that America's great historic rival has literally disappeared from the map. . . . America's armed forces proved it [sic] can still win wars, something that had been in doubt for 20 years. George Bush, a hero when the war ended . . . is now taking the blame for the recession." Buck up! We kick butt! Recession is all in the mind! Repeat after me: every day, in every way, the economy is getting better and better.

As the winter of our discontent segued neatly into, well, the spring of our discontent, this kind of outright denial became more and more rare; there developed a virtual consensus in the media that the problem was more serious than simple irrationality. But the media still drew back from the more unsettling implications of the current trends, viewing the social crisis only insofar as it affected the middle class, portraying the confusing political developments of the past year as part of a grand narrative about the middle class and its discontents. So we were said to be in the midst of a "voter's revolt," because middle-class voters expressed dissatisfaction with their political choices, though the bigger story may well be the ongoing rebellion of the nonvoters--since in most elections half or more of the eligible voters (especially among the poor) see so little difference between the candidates that they don't bother to vote at all. (Who can blame them?) We heard a great deal about the suffering and the anger of the middle class (families now having to get by on $40,000 a year!) and barely a peep about the much greater, and much longer standing, suffering and anger among the poor (families having to get by on $4,000 a year). We were said to be witnessing (in the electoral support first for Buchanan, then Brown, now Perot) a new outburst of "populism," though few of the new populists were willing to extend their sympathies beyond the vague boundaries of the (white) middle class (otherwise known as "ordinary Americans") and to actually talk about the poor. Events are moving so quickly that even these cliches have grown outmoded; mainstream pundits, whose very livelihood depends on their ability to successfully collate the cliches of the moment, have had to scramble a bit to frame the ongoing crisis in terms that will make sense to the middle class.

The riots, to put it mildly, didn't quite fit the neat middle-class narrative so beloved by the media. For a moment, it looked as though the narrative would have to switch--from middle-class discontent to class conflict, from white to black and brown. Fat chance; the fires had barely been lit before the denial set in. A few in the media--particularly in the first days of the riots and their aftermath--relied on the crudest forms of denial, attempting simply to wish the unpleasantness away entirely. Professing surprise at the anger the verdict brought forth--though anyone who didn't expect LA to blow after the verdict just hasn't been paying attention--these writers saw the riots (as Tribune columnist Jon Margolis wrote) as simply irrational, "the latest in a series of bizarre occurrences that have captivated the nation . . . as though reality was being . . . designed by a cynical playwright who engineered events for his amusement." Others expanded on these theatrical metaphors, depicting the rioters as easily manipulated "actors" playing out their appointed "roles," with nary a conscious thought intervening between the actions and the script. Nicholas Horrock, also in the Tribune, described the rioters ("the characters of this drama") as "devil dancers on a concrete stage. . . . The rioters . . . seem to know their role: to steal, to leer, to dance and gesture, to chat with television reporters, comfortable in impunity." In the Sun-Times, Vernon Jarrett was more blunt, though equally extravagant in his rhetoric: "All of the performers," he wrote, "followed the script [in] this updated version of the 'Theater of the Absurd.'" There was no point, of course, in asking the residents why they did what they did (few writers even thought of doing such a thing) because they were simply playing by the script. The riot, in all these accounts, became little more than a dream or a melodrama--unreal, inexplicable. Perhaps when we opened our eyes (or the performers closed the curtains) the trouble would simply vanish.

Others, while not denying the riots themselves, stepped back from the savage inequalities of the inner city to blame the events on vague failings of culture. Tribune columnist and nostalgia-monger Bob Greene, playing his part as a befuddled observer of the modern world, lamented that sometime in the last few years "We somehow learned to hate ourselves." (Darn!) In this vein, New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal weighed in with a typically lightweight column deriding "the cultural nut-house" of American society. In his vision of the world, the true enemy is not racial inequality, or even racism, but public incivility, the "slap in the face" style of American politics. The solution? Militant civility! Instead of attacking the growing inequalities (of race and class) in American society, Rosenthal recommended (in a typically muddled mixture of metaphors) the healing power of babble. "So we must seize the advantage of the moment," Rosenthal trumpeted, "by talking with each other--whites, blacks, liberals, conservatives, all who believe America is not glass, to be shattered by a rock, but is flexible, and adventuresome."

Of course, talk had its limits. While LA was still in flames, the media studiously avoided discussing the root causes of the riots--afraid that bringing up the subject would simply lead to more anger. As Tom Carson noted in the LA Weekly, the media tried both to provide information and serve as a "guardian of order," making clear in their coverage that "talk" was allowed only insofar as it could be seen to have obviously therapeutic (that is, calming) value. Those who dwelled too long on injustice, not calm, found themselves cut out of the debate. "Repeatedly," Carson observed, "when those interviewed on the street brought up militant black grievances, and especially if they suggested that there was a lot more fueling this riot than the King verdict, reporters would shush them or the cameras would quickly cut back to the studio, on the grounds that such talk risked 'inflaming' the situation. The upshot was that hardly any rationale for the riot coming from its participants . . . got aired without interference."

The desire for "civility" at any price (no justice, just peace) underlay as well the all-pervasive rhetoric of healing, the endless faith in psychic nostrums. One LA radio station, according to Frank James in the Tribune, "dared the media to break away from its obsession with videotaped beatings, lootings, flames and gunfire to cover the city's early steps toward recovery." They needn't have bothered to offer the challenge: even before the rioting itself had stopped, the media had begun to talk about little else than the cleanup and the riot's immediate victims. The cleanup, of course, proved much more congenial than the continued rioting to television reporters instinctively primed to search out uplifting human interest stories in the midst of the most horrible chaos.

We heard, over and over again as the riot wound down, about the new "heroes" who had emerged from the crisis, those who went into the streets with brooms and bags to clean up the mess. The television news anchors, most notably Dan Rather, were almost unctuous in their celebration of the cleanup, particularly the broom-handling celebrity Edward James Olmos. In the pages of the Tribune, Frank James (in what purported to be a straight news story) waxed rhapsodic about those who fought "for the city's survival and against the anarchy and destruction that had beset it for several days. . . . These volunteers, both regular citizens and celebrities, represented the forces of light." If everyone could get together long enough to clean up the mess, James suggested, "a new understanding [might] arise, phoenix-like, between the races and between the haves and the have-nots." (It didn't occur to James, of course, that perhaps the have-nots might have good reasons for distrusting the haves.)

Healing, healing, healing: the phrase was repeated endlessly, like some New Age mantra. "While President Bush proclaimed Thursday a national day of healing a spirit of unity began to grow in the nation's most ethnically diverse city," USA Today correspondent Sally Ann Stewart gushed. "Celebrities did their part, too." (Bless their little celebrity hearts!) Invariably, the "healing" proposed in these stories was of the most limited kind possible, an attempt to provide a simple psychological mind-cure for racial "divisiveness," not a systematic or structural cure for racial injustice. The focus on "healing"--redolent of the happy-talk human interest stories that routinely close the evening news--informed those familiar with the media's narrative codes that the story was coming to an end. And, predictably, it did. Stories about racism and injustice appeared from time to time in the newspapers, but they seemed more a result of institutional momentum than continuing interest: as far as the media were concerned, the moment had passed. (We're healing--don't pick at the scabs.)

As the more liberal-minded among the press corps trumpeted the power of positive thinking, conservatives moved in with epithets and wild denunciation. In their version of the events, the conditions of South-Central LA vanished entirely, and analysis gave way to invective. In the writings of the more conservative commentators in the Chicago papers (and elsewhere), the complex story of the riots becomes a fairy-tale drama of good versus evil: A bunch of "gangbangers, thugs, thieves and other nasties" were drawn to riot not by anger but by their own psychological defects, by the "contagious excitement of the violence . . . the lure of loot and the emotional high of being part of an out-of-control mob." The riots were not in any way "a form of protest," but rather a series of random events "all criminal, and all inexcusable." Those fomenting the "savagery" and "anarchy" were, in large part, "unneedy opportunists who looted and stole as a lark," who "had seen an opportunity to run amok and had taken it." They weren't the victims of brutality, but rather uncivil, irresponsible louts looking for "excuses to riot and loot." (All quotes from the Sun-Times and Tribune.) In these accounts, name-calling substituted for any attempt to understand what had really happened in LA. In a more recent piece along these lines, the Tribune's John Kass argued (or, rather, asserted) that Chicago's own basketball riots stemmed simply from America's "moral decline," fomented not by poverty or injustice but by simple "evil," augmented by (steady, now) the teaching of situational ethics in our nation's schools.

The message in all these accounts was simple: the uncivilized "bastards" were just hurting themselves. Rein in your sympathy--it's a jungle out there. Tribune columnist Joan Beck was insistent on this point. "The veneer of civilization," she pontificated, "is thinner than we realized." Neoconservative Linda Chavez, writing in USA Today, predictably lamented the "total breakdown in social order and mores . . . the moral breakdown of our inner cities." Given this view of the riots, it makes no sense to attempt to alleviate the poverty of such ungrateful folk: the problem is the breakdown of civilization itself, and so we must shore it up in any way we can. In USA Today, Paul Ruffins ("a Washington writer and parent") opined that with a little assistance from the civilized, the problems of the inner city would be "easily solved." His specific suggestions? That white middle-class parents "help the good people" by shopping downtown at stores that hire poor people (and thus give them something to do), and (as if that weren't enough!) that they "help make violence uncool" by forbidding their children to rent violent movies. (That oughta do it.) For its part, the National Rifle Association recommended guns as a helpful safeguard of civilized values against the forces of anarchy; our own Mike Royko suggested that civilized folks armed only with motor vehicles should just "stomp the gas pedal and run the bastards down." So spoke the guardians of civilized virtue.

In the end, what makes the rhetoric of denial so striking is that the basic facts of class and racial injustice are well-known and often acknowledged. Though the riots caught most newspapers off guard, and reporters at a distance were forced for the first week or so to rely on cliche and conjecture to cover their initial ignorance, the media (the print media in particular) were soon filled with serious and substantive accounts of poverty and sometimes (even more striking) its causes. The rich are, indeed, getting richer and the poor, indeed, getting poorer: in the years between 1977 and 1991, the income of the top 1 percent of American families doubled, while the income of the bottom three-fifths dropped by 5 to 10 percent. Racially, the situation is similar. In 1954, before the civil rights revolution, black families earned 53 percent of what whites earned; by 1975 the figure had increased to 62 percent. Since then, the figure has dropped to 56 percent, nearly as bad as it was in the days of official segregation. For the black poor--for the poor in general--the situation has grown much worse. These facts and others are easily available for anyone who reads beyond the headlines. In Newsweek, hardly an organ of unreconstructed radicalism, Tom Morganthau noted with admirable directness the simple fact that "victory over Jim Crow did not bring much progress for [poor] blacks. . . . Let's be candid," he went on to note, "America did not really intend to win [the war on poverty.] Time and again, through the '60s and '70s, Congress considered programs (like a guaranteed-income floor) designed to attack the root causes of poverty and turned those programs down." It's true, it's honest--and it's in Newsweek to boot.

Our problem, then, stems less from ignorance than from our unwillingness to face up to facts we know all too well, to admit that the present "divisiveness" in America does not stem either from the irrational "nihilism" of the poor or the "moral decline" of the cultural elite--it stems rather from a bitter class war, intensified over the last two decades, and directed against the working class and the poor. Unfortunately, few in the media seem willing to come to terms with our country's real crisis. Among politicians, candor is even rarer. Bush and Clinton both responded with opportunistic strategies of denial, combining condemnation of the "uncivilized" violence of the riots with empty appeals to harmony. Clinton evoked a rhetoric of healing ("Let us . . . bind up the wounds of this nation") even as he condemned the rioters as "lawless vandals"; Bush took a harder law-and-order line but he too called out, disingenuously, for "healing and reconciliation." If conventional politics remain mired in denial and evasive banality, what of the alternatives? Or, more precisely, what alternatives? The present politics of protest offers nothing more than the old-fashioned politics of denial; those rightly disgusted with politicians have turned to a succession of self-proclaimed "outsiders" who, despite a rhetoric of insurgency, offer more of the same--if not worse. In his response to the riots, current "outsider" fave rave Ross Perot was if anything more evasive than his more conventional counterparts, suggesting only that he would have "gone to LA"--presumably to wrestle rioters to the ground with his bare hands, to put out the fires with his jacket, and to bind up the city's wounds with his own first-aid kit. Lies and silence. Same as it ever was.

What if they gave a wake-up call and nobody came? It wouldn't be the first time. In the late 60s, radical journalist Andrew Kopkind detected a similar obliviousness among America's leaders to the implications of a succession of inner-city riots--Watts, Newark, Detroit. Even the Kerner Commission report--describing America in stark terms as a nation moving toward "two societies . . . separate and unequal"--made barely a dent in the consciousness of conventional politicians. "Editorial writers express the hope that the commission report will 'shock' white America into acting, even if it provides no blueprint for action," Kopkind noted. "But it is doubtful that there is much left to shock . . . we have been hearing about the effects of racism for years now." Just like our counterparts more than two decades ago, we are aware on some level of the extent of the problem; then as now the only response is arrests and vague appeals for "reconciliation." For the moment the cities are calm. But we don't have justice, just peace. Same as it ever was.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner.

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