Read Barthes


From Guernica:

The ad was meticulously crafted to foster outrage. I reposted it, commenting that it was “the most disgusting ad I’ve ever seen,” disregarding the inevitable: that my conservative friends might repost it.

Which is what happened. The end-result of my anger was a retweet for the NRA, an inconsequential increase in impressions and earned media—the sole purpose of the video: propagation. Whoever message-tested that ad probably received a bonus for the amount of “liberal media” coverage. They probably focus-grouped it to calibrate the exact tenor of liberal outrage, knowing that if they infuriated the left, the right would become emotionally engaged. This video would be as good a fundraiser for Mike Bloomberg’s Every Town for Gun Safety as it would for the NRA. My indignation fed the machine designed to outrage me. Social media’s ability to disrupt society had dovetailed with a corporate mastery of those tactics. I’d been sucked into the “us vs them” message I despised.

What bothered me about the experience wasn’t the momentary glimpse of the ouroboros of phones, computers, and TVs that systematically spew viral indignation in perpetuity. It was a relative’s comment:

“Isn’t that what the anti-Trump movement has been doing?”

To him, the video told it how it was. He didn’t read the implicit suggestion of vigilante justice, or the justification of lethal action by the police (or armed citizens). He didn’t read “us,” “we,” and “our” as “white Americans.” And “they,” “their,” and “them” didn’t mean “blacks,” “immigrants,” or “Muslims.”

No, “they” were the losers of 2016, obstructing democracy. His comment encapsulated the ad’s narrative: protest was anarchy, resistance was un-American. It was the same message Loesch used to defend the ad as nonviolent—a counterpunch to the resistance. Since there was no call-to-arms, you couldn’t accuse it of inciting violence. My relative took the message at face value while absorbing the subliminal message. The other subtext—the way I interpreted the ad—was a conspiracy propagated by the left to expedite our nation’s descent.

I couldn’t counter that narrative. I couldn’t write, “You’d realize you were being conned if you read Roland Barthes.”

That’s a painful truth about a liberal-arts education. For those who achieved it for the sake of upward mobility, we often find that people back home are proud of us, but disregard much of our education as pretentious—irrelevant in the real world. My education was Fake Knowledge.

Which seems unfair, because so much post-2016 analysis, party soul-searching, and personal introspection, revolves around comprehending the Trump Voter. How did Trump slither out of his privilege, misogyny, paradoxes, and become a working-class hero?

“Semiotic Weapons”, Stewart L. Sinclair, Guernica