Michael Brown, senseless death and the weight of history

We live in a new era -- a crisis of faith. Our mourning reminds us of the capacity to feel and desire to improve

Published August 23, 2014 1:45PM (EDT)

A makeshift memorial for Michael Brown, Aug. 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.       (AP/Jeff Roberson)
A makeshift memorial for Michael Brown, Aug. 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (AP/Jeff Roberson)

How are we to make sense of senseless death anymore?  There’s the horror of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown; Sandy Hook and Isla Vista; Syria, Iraq, Gaza and that whole extended neighborhood where the numbers don’t even seem to represent actual humans because we can’t put memorable faces on them.

We are right smack in the middle of yet another in a seemingly endless, almost ritualistic, episode of the American documentary series, “A Nation in Mourning.” Now, if we allow ourselves to focus for a moment on what lies ahead, we have to realize that we will soon be seeing (over and over) even more tragedy, perhaps another death caught on tape. We know it will happen and that the news media will be there to gobble it up for hours, days at a time between airline crashes and Arab Springs. As memory of us dims, this is what the 22nd century will remember, however selectively it remembers us.

Who are we? Where are we as a civilization? It is not meaningless to pose such open-ended questions. More and more victims of violence in the world are surrendering their lives without being touched or even seen by their destroyers. It is not just the drone operators who commit to missions from thousands of miles distant – all of us have come to accept the impersonal as normal. Because there is just too much to process.

Even in “simpler times,” Americans were drawn to sensation. In late December 1799, on the eve of a new century and on the heels of the cataclysmic death of George Washington, symbolic public funerals for the national father were taking place across the young United States when the body of missing teen Gulielma Sands was discovered at the bottom of a well in downtown Manhattan. The news went viral. Was it suicide or was it murder? In a tasteless, publicity-generating move, the victim’s relatives put the disheveled corpse of the beautiful Quaker good-girl on display outside the Greenwich Street boarding house where she had lived. Concerned citizens – and gawkers – filed past.

Attention soon focused on clean-cut Levi Weeks, another lodger there, who was the last to see her alive. The victim had stepped into his horse-drawn sleigh, and rode off with him into the night. Weeks was politically connected through his brother Ezra, a major builder in the city, who hired a dream team of attorneys that featured as co-counsel the brilliant pair of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Newspapers covered the sensational trial, and hot-off-the-press pamphlets published the sordid details of witness testimony. Poets wrote odes to the lamented girl. Did he do it because she was pregnant? People remained divided on Levi’s guilt or innocence, even after the dream team got him acquitted by pointing the finger at another suspect, a lower-class man with the dark and sinister name of Croucher.

The antecedents of Anna Nicole Smith are present in the Manhattan well mystery, if not hints of O.J. Simpson, too. Historical examples abound in U.S. history of mysterious disappearances and grisly unsolved crimes, many of them connected to racial and sexual violence. We still remember the way life ended for General George Armstrong Custer, and the parents of Lizzie Borden, and the London prostitutes who met up with Jack the Ripper. We go back to make sordid sense of the persistence of lynching in the last decades of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century. We know the stories of the Alamo, Jesse James, John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima. The Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Patty Hearst. In terms of media coverage, Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin are close cousins. Newspapers covered all of the foregoing with predictable panache and dramatic headlines.

But something feels different these days, and America can’t quite put its finger on it. It’s big. It has “new era” written all over it. Future historians will tell us what it was; but right now all we can do is start to speculate.

We are in the midst of a crisis of faith, which is to say, we don’t know where to put our faith anymore. If access to the best medical care couldn’t save Phil Hoffman or Robin Williams, and if America’s extraordinary air power and omnipresent spy satellites can’t make us any safer, and if our African-American president has only served (through no fault of his own) to aggravate race relations, how do we, as a society, cope?

The failure in empathy is concerning, too. What is the reaction to Spanish-speaking children who cross the border? They are not seen as tragic figures in a larger drama, or as a challenge to the humane principles Americans have traditionally claimed as that which made them an “exceptional” people. Reality is only as potent as the energy we can muster to pay attention to it. “The News” tells us when to move on and forget. We are seeing more “reality” these days in television programming that makes stars out of the mediocre – Kardashians, "Duck Dynasty" – where “real life situations” are manufactured. The passive viewer finds meaning in mediocrity while thinking in shallow ways about the world-transformative.

Human crises that we should feel deeply about – poverty and hunger, gun violence, abuse of females – ought to register a power over the mind, but these are made to seem intractable, remote from us; they draw us in less effectively than programmed entertainment does. Despite the first, bold attempt of youth to organize in Egypt and overthrow a corrupt regime, the Internet has generally not succeeded in supporting positive democratic activism. More routinely, it enforces passivity.

Can’t we do something to reverse what’s happening? The answer is far from obvious. Having the power (literally in our hands) to communicate globally – instantaneously – has ironically led to the individual becoming less influential and more anonymous. The World Wide Web has not liberated us; it has colonized us. Over the course of one political generation, the average American’s capacity to register his/her reality has been compromised; inner life is being transformed along with our tastes.

So, are we really suggesting that our individuality is at risk when we log on? “The network” joins us not to sentient beings we actually recognize but to innumerable faceless others whose alphanumeric identities are ripples of neurons impressed into interactive service with a commercializing, homogenizing power that exhibits no human virtues. The commercial Web is abusive: tactless, heartless, amoral. It obliges us to learn the syntax that virtualizes us.

Innovation nowadays occurs primarily at the “micro” level. As a culture, we bow to unseen forces as never before, and as individuals we suffer degradation when we fail to imagine a face-to-face solution to day-to-day issues. As we become too quickly sated by digitized eye candy, human intensity suffers. On some fundamental level that we can only imperfectly make sense of, and which future historians may grapple with, nearness to others doesn’t happen quite the way it used to.

The printed word embodied intimacy and introspection both. The computer screen and “smart” phone deliver, in glaring pixels, moving color, what we accept as truth. But it is not individualized – it is collective. The added irony here is that the phenomenon of interactivity is making people lonelier.

Lonelier and less connected to the positive potential of culture. Studies have concluded that a dangerously high percentage of the rising generation, whose very essence is drowning in the shallow waters of texting and sexting, are so enthralled by what can be had at the push of a button, or a single keystroke, that they read only in bits and pieces, and can no longer concentrate long enough to immerse themselves in a book-length treatment of any kind.

How will these people make sound choices at the ballot box? Money-driven, poll-driven politics already converts candidates into sound-bite-spewing ciphers and hypocrites. They are told what they can and cannot say in order to lock up this or that demographic. Reality TV has come to national politics is a huge way. It’s a poorly (if slickly) manufactured representation of the “popular will” the American founding generation sought to incorporate into the federal Constitution. Our present political system is so corrupted by cynicism that the human – in equal parts rational and empathetic – dimension of republican democracy is sacrificed to the collectivity of poll-taking and robocalls. No wonder our individual voices feel muted, even as we see national news programs running anonymous people’s banal tweets at the bottom of the screen. There’s something obscene and dehumanizing in this.

We overcompensate for what we’re losing as individuals. Why leave it up to chance when you can meet your perfect mate online, when there’s an algorithm for all that, and time-tested statistics available with a click of a button? A generation ago, people worried that Social Security made them “a number.” We are so past that now.

If our active choices are more like cognitive subroutines to the rulers of this new, consumer-driven cyber-world; if political arguments take place in a sensationalistic free-fire zone; if the inner life is compromised by the lure of the microchip, are we going to continue losing the power to discriminate among choices? Step by step, are we to surrender completely to the psychologically violent technological leviathan that infantilizes us?

We think not. Because even if change is taking place faster now than ever before, it is a historical fact that every generation lives in a different mental world than its predecessor. We trust that enough of you will find reading material that deepens and widens your capacity to discover your own truths. You will light your lanterns in the dark and make your way forward. Reason is not forfeited just because individuality is differently charged; feeling is not darkened just because commercial manipulation is more challenging to the ego. Charlie Chaplin protested the depersonalizing forces of his world in the film “Modern Times.” Art and literature continued to prosper, and hopefully it will for us, too, because no people lose their memory overnight.

Reading is a balm. Perhaps even on a Kindle. It is nothing short of time travel of the mind. The cautious discipline of history, soulful music that lives on, the descriptive literature of past eras, all combine to offer an inward satisfaction (and a nearer knowledge of past humanity) that allows us fulfill a widely shared fantasy that does not die. Communion with the past marks our greatest capacity to experience our humanity. Herein lies the road back to meaning. Shakespeare is not dead. We can coexist with nanotechnology.

The Great Depression bequeathed to us a wealth of culture. We still know the wonderful photography of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, the humane writing of James Agee and John Steinbeck, and such films such as "I’m a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" and "The Grapes of Wrath." Classics in all fields abound. In the Depression, Americans came to understand the devastation of poverty and the pervasiveness of downward mobility. And yet, it is inevitable that in flush times, we always return to our comfortable cocoons, hoping that by ignoring it we can wall out the pain our ancestors experienced. Our humanity, our individuality, endures because artistic memory lasts; it inhabits our culture. We retain the ability to step outside our daily routines and meaningfully embrace the experiences of people we did not know ourselves.

As for the violence and pain of the present moment, and the crude efforts of our degenerate media to concentrate on today’s victim (or mass victims), or a celebrity suicide, or the real war games taking place in the streets of our cities and across the globe, these phenomena are not all that define us. Robin Williams was a brilliant and beautiful human being, an amazing puzzle, a tortured mind; and if we are not as special as he was, we can at least identify with the complexity of the world he observed, inside and out. Michael Brown’s deeply disturbing death forces us to ask, paraphrasing John Kerry’s iconic query with regard to the Vietnam War: “Who is going to be the last to die before young black males can grow up certain that they are valued in this country?” In both cases, our mourning reminds us of our capacity to feel and of our desire to improve.

Levi Weeks left New York sometime after the controversial not-guilty verdict was handed down in 1800. He tried to put his past behind him, reinventing himself as an architect-builder in distant Mississippi. With tabloid readers and gossipers having made up their minds about him, the public moved on to new scandals: just two years later it was President Jefferson and a woman he owned named Sally. Once again, we’re talking about a still thriving story of power and race and sex, and the awkward attempt of Americans to arrive at some kind of national self-definition through sensational dramatization.

This is what it means to be an American. It’s never quite knowing whether to feel better or worse about our prospects as we try to exercise control over our collective selves.

By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

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