A case study (the hijacking of our minds)

by Leanne Ogasawara

Fox newsThis is a true story.

I first noticed Marco a few years ago when he was playing in a local university orchestra here in town. It was around Easter. My mom happened to be playing as an extra second violinist in the orchestra since they didn't have enough student musicians. And while they were not the Berlin Philharmonic, still the musical director at the college had great style, and I had come to really look forward to seeing the group perform several times a year.

On that particular evening, Marco, as a graduating senior, gave a stunning final solo performance.

The kid definitely had the right stuff.

Coming out on stage, he casually carried his cello like a rock star.

I recall he played the Sonata for Solo Cello by Zoltán Kodály.

I had never heard that piece of music before and was delighted to hear the strains of Hungarian traditional music. I would call it gypsy music, and the technical skills required to play the piece meant that only the most skilled musicians need apply. And Marco did more than play it. He knocked the ball out of the park. I think what really grabbed me about him was the soulful quality of his playing. He nearly broke my heart that night. His playing was that beautiful.

Everything about this kid was unexpected.

First, was his name. He didn't look anything like a Marco, looking more like a Mark. He was good-looking by sheer virtue of his talent and charisma. I remember wondering how he would look without his cello. Stout, with a manicured beard and very light blonde hair, his pale skin was so thin you could see every passing emotion wash over him in flushes of color. My mom told me his face would turn as red as an apple during the frequent rows he had with the artistic director during orchestra rehearsals. It wasn't that his talent was unusual for our town but it was his charisma and the soulful way he played that took him into orbit beyond mere skills. He was out of place somehow. The school too was an unexpected place to find such talent. This was not Julliard but a private liberal arts university, known more for football than music.

Like a lot of young musicians in my mom's town, I knew Marco from his mentoring and volunteer work with the local youth orchestra. He was a dedicated volunteer mentor to the children.

So fast forward to maybe six months ago when a photo of Marco shows up in my newsfeed on Facebook. There he was in what looked like the desert wearing fatigues and holding an assault rifle. He had dark shades on and what looked to my eyes like a white and black keffiyeh tied around his neck. What? Mad Max in Kabul? He had joined the military maybe? What on earth was going on?

And no cello?

No cello indeed. For Marco was now working in "security" –whatever that means.

Photo after photo then appeared in my newsfeed over the coming weeks of him with his guns. And he started loudly expounding on gun rights and saying things like the anti-gun people should try and "come and get them!"

I should add here that we are in Pasadena. Not El Paso.

This escalated in June of this year when California expanded the California gun laws to include AR-15s, the weapon of choice for many California militia. (This was the weapon used in San Bernardino).

His spiral downward was very rapid from here.

By then, he had changed jobs and was employed by a TV personality right-wing activist. Now, he was seen on news media and was being flown out to protests. It was only after Charlottesville when his friends from college began writing blog posts about him in absolute horror.

"What? Marco is a Nazi?"

Of course, I am seeing all of this because the kid loves drama and is posting it on his own Facebook wall!

After Charlottesville, he became a self-described spokesman for "the movement."

But what movement?

HaaretzThey call themselves "patriots" and talk about fighting "communists…" He repeatedly claims he is not a racist because– wait for it– he has a girlfriend of mixed blood. He says he has friends who are black, hispanic. But, he and his friends all believe that a white genocide is taking place (their words not mine). Even his own mother has called him an antisemite and doesn't have time for him. Again, how do I know this? Yep, he posted their entire message exchange on Facebook. He and his friends talk of cutting ties with family over their beliefs-even parents. They also are very "supportive" (the word of the generation) encouraging each other onward by remarking how their grandchildren will remember their patriotic actions while their friends only cared about money.

These are not kids lacking in opportunity.

But as a friend remarked to me,

"After all the lectures to Muslims about letting their young men get radicalized, white folks are discovering that stopping it isn't as easy as it sounds."

My friend's remark about the challenges of stopping young people from being radicalized is to the point, I think.

There is an interesting documentary called The Brainwashing of my Dad, which reports on one man's transformation from gentle old soul to rabid right-wing bigot. This transformation happens vis-a-vis media. "Dad" is quite elderly and spends a lot of time watching TV. And by chance, hits upon some conservative talk shows and it goes from there. Before long he is very angry and also very misinformed. The documentary does a fine job showing the control the media has. In fact, it is a blanket control.

My sister once spotted a bumper sticker on a car out where we live that said, "Don't watch Fox News or you'll end up mean and stupid."

If anyone has ever watched a loved one totally transform in front of their eyes through the consumption of too much Fox news, they will understand exactly what this means. It is a real phenomena and it is indeed a form of brainwashing. It could also be considered a kind of conspiracy since it is willfully designed by media corporations to create fear, confusion and generate profits. But is the rest of corporate media any better? At least at Fox the bias is fairly in your face. I mean, just because it is governed by the liberal "free market" it is not that this media is any less biased than government media, whether CNN or Fox. It is absolutely in corporate media's interest to divide people and get them angry. So-called social media even more so. To repeat over and over tropes and hammer them in. In the past twenty years the nature of news media changed completely. In the old days, news was not even for profit, as most networks made their money off sitcoms. News shows that were opinion were clearly understood by their audience as being opinion not truth. We also used to have a vibrant public educational channel. I really believe this change has wreacked havoc, turning us into true media "consumers" instead of viewers.

In so many ways, the story of what happened to Marco is the story of what happened to the US media.

OR

In so many ways, the story of what happened to Marco is the story of what is happening to all of us. Steadily, entertainment, targeted content, advertisement, and groupthink via well-filtered self-selected social media has replaced straight-up news and free communication among differing backgrounds and perspectives. The new model sells, stocks rise, investors invest, and more minds are plugged in and turned off.

++

Las Vegas.

Like everyday, I woke up to Facebook to see a tidal wave of reactions to the devastating news. By the time I logged on, Marco and his friends were already busy trying to get to the bottom of "what the hell happened." Intent to fit it into a narrative that works for their ideology, by day three they were spending what seemed like hundreds of hours scouring online videos, traveling to Vegas talking to people and trying to dig out the truth (as I write this, they are kicking around the idea that this was a conspiracy whereby the "actual actors" stormed into Paddock's room and killed him and then used the rooms to kill the white Trump supporters down below).

Much of what I see online from the liberal side, though, is manifesting a similar quality. That is, there seems to be little discussion about actual concrete actions people are engaged in (working with groups) to bring about local changes; as indeed, most online talk remains in the realm of performative self-expression in terms of what can only be described as media-generated tropes. Self-expression is fine, but it's not changing anything. Such is the degree of polarization that we have probably reached a point where meaningful national discussion is impossible. What do you say to people who believe that mens' access to guns "trumps" children's access to healthcare? There is nothing left to say. It is hopeless. And it is terrifying to me that educated and smart people seem to think that the performative action of repeatedly declaring you "hate 45" and "believe" in climate change on social media just before driving two miles to Target and Costco to load up on more cheap, cheap, cheap manufactured crap and industrialized food is doing a damn thing to change the underlying problems. Whether it's in terms of the climate or gun control, we are not improving things. Indeed, I have nothing against self-expression, but the other side is armed to the teeth! And I cannot help asking why we seem unable to think outside of these media-generated tropes. Are we being controlled or what? And what effect do you think this is having on our democracy and our world?

From a recent article in the Guardian about how our brains can be hijacked:

“'Eighty-seven percent of people wake up and go to sleep with their smartphones,' he says. The entire world now has a new prism through which to understand politics, and Williams worries the consequences are profound."

“The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will,” he says. “If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on.” If Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are gradually chipping away at our ability to control our own minds, could there come a point, I ask, at which democracy no longer functions?"

Let's face it, all people want meaning. Some people cannot construct their own and will be happy to have it presented to them in a way that resonates with their suspicions and preferences and forms a simple and well-ordered world construct. They are susceptible. Other people have the capacity to construct meaning for themselves out of a rich stew of contradictory influences. They don’t need it to form a simple and well-ordered world construct. But it can and will be structured on a set of principles. The media is working hard on the former group of folks. And the media is conditioning ALL of us to believe that political action= verbal self-expression.

This is confounded by the echo chamber effect. Information endlessly repeated has weight and ultimately “truth”. A predisposition or prejudice is reinforced and amplified by this repetition. Relentless 24-hour news, comedy and talk shows, websites and social media are all self-selected, circumscribed and filtered to include only opinions that "work for us." This seamless stream of brainwashing provides a very stable consumer share for the media corporations. It is entertainment masked as news, tropes masquerading as information, crafted, digestable narratives in place of real and messy stories. People are less and less able to sit down with one another and actually hold a thoughtful conversation with those with whose opinions they disagree. How many Hillary voters have unfriended their Trump “friends” rather than make a rational and respectful case for their views that does not assume the other person is crazy? They are also less able to recognize in their own choices their small contribution to amoral corporatization and overall civic dysfunction. Indeed, for me the representative behavior is stating your opinion on social media and declaring that anyone who doesn't agree should unfriend you.

The echo chamber effect is real. It tempts us to conflate words with actual action. But it also fossilizes our thinking.

To wit, most of Marco's friends have "culled" him. He contaminates their ideological purity zones–he also poses a serious challenge since he is engaged in action. He contaminates my zones too! I have to say, he crossed a serious line. As his good friend Dave (who I have known as long as Marco) said to him, "If you march with Nazis you are a Nazi." Couldn't agree more. But at the same time, watching Dave continue to try and reason with his old friend has been impressive. Over and over this young man has called out Marco on his faulty logic. He does not condescend or talk down to him, but rather very patiently offers checks or balances or even a counterarguments. Moderation is required and if people can't even talk to each other any more (growing up on spoon-fed on polarizing narratives) what can be done, really? Dave stands tall here. He is engaged. Sometimes, I think this is all that is standing between Marco and total brainwashing–because that is what it is. Indeed, it might already be too late.

(For those not living in the US, believe it or not, all the photos above are from news organizations depicting actual armed civilians–in Charlottsville and Oregon).

I don't know anything about the writer, but I do tend to see things in terms of economic struggle–so there is this on Vegas: I Went to School with the Vegas Shooter (short and shocking? Short and thought-provoking?)

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