Dr. Dawg

Once upon a time you dressed so fine

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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, charged in the Boston Marathon bombing, is on the front page of Rolling Stone, and there’s already an uproar brewing. The mayor of Boston is unhappy, to say the least:

Among those we lost, those who survived, and those who help carry them forward, there are artists and musicians and dancers and writers. They have dreams and plans. They struggle and strive. The survivors of the Boston attacks deserve Rolling Stone cover stories, although I no longer feel that Rolling Stone deserves them.

And retailers are refusing to stock the issue:

Tedeschi Food Shops supports the need to share the news with everyone, but cannot support actions that serve to glorify the evil actions of anyone. Music and terrorism don’t mix!

Here’s the Toronto Star’s take:

The cover of the magazine’s Aug. 1 edition is a photo in which Tsarnaev looks more like one of the rock stars that usually grace it than a suspect in the April 15 bombings at the marathon finish line that killed three and wounded more than 260.

What does a suspect look like?

In this case a young man with rockstar looks, his photo appearing over a caption that says it all: “How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.”

Isn’t that the promise of an answer to a question on many people’s lips? Isn’t it something we not only want, but need, to know?

But the buried issue here is one of stereotypes. We don’t want terrorists to look glamorous. We prefer them all fierce and bristly, with off-white skin colour.


Ah, that’s more like it.

Rolling Stone, in case people need reminding, has always done solid, award-winning journalism that has no connection with the world of rock. One thinks of Matt Taibbi, and earlier, Joe Eszterhas, not to mention the legendary Hunter S. Thompson.

The article on Tsarnaev, which I have yet to read, may or may not be up there with Fear and Loathing, but it deals with a major topic of compelling interest, and the central question is entirely appropriate. So why all the anger?

Framing may be part of it—Rolling Stone is about pop culture, and it’s natural for folks to do a double-take when they realize just whom they are looking at. But I suspect that the real problem here is the jarring contrast between the image and the act. It is indeed excruciating. We don’t want to feel the way the picture makes us feel. No such reactions arose when Charles Manson, a truly scary-looking beast, or Osama bin Laden, every inch an Other, appeared on magazine covers.

It seems only natural that we blame the messenger when something we see or hear makes us feel deeply conflicted. When live coverage of the Chicago police riot of 1968 against young anti-war and anti-racist protesters began running on national news networks, people got upset—at the networks:

Huge majorities blamed the protesters for their own fate, though many also blamed the media — CBS received thousands of calls accusing them of hiring cops to beat up the kids. [emphasis added]

The upset over the Rolling Stone cover is just more of the same cognitive dissonance. In 1968, people believed cops were the good guys, but they also believed their eyes. How to resolve the conflict? Assume media trickery. In the same vein, people like to think of the bad guys as actually looking bad. Their characters ought to be stamped upon their physical appearance.

anarchist trope.JPG

Yeah, like that.

But such is not the case with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. That’s deeply disturbing to many. And so, once again, the messenger takes the heat.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on July 18, 2013 10:38 AM.

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