Cult of disaster paper v4


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One of the prompts for an English 100 essay was violence in the news. Several people have asked what "gave [me] the idea for this." I love Don Henley's song and I was thinking about the prompt and during a free write it hit me: the 5 o'clock news only shows disaster because the audience buys it. So the question became, "If we hate it so much, why do we love watching it?" Here is my take on it. Note: Paragraph 1 on Page 3 should read "California may be a coastal STATE ..." The error calls California a "coastal CITY."

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Cult of disaster paper v4

  1. 1. Wischnewsky 1Louis WischnewskyQuirkEnglish 10030 March 2011 The Cult of Disaster: A Morbid Human Instinct The most common stories in any news media involve, to one level or another, death,destruction and general chaos. It is because of this precept the following story, involving naturaldisaster and calamity, itself was nothing unusual. It came across as inaccurate. The story had tobe wrong. On local news stations across California, viewers watched the story for two days. Itseemed as if the tale of five tsunami watchers was getting as much air time as the much greaterdevastation the people of Japan had and continued to endure. The fascination, though, was notthe footage of near death experiences: there was no film of the haphazardly wave watchers beingconsumed by the lick of Mother Natures waves. No, what was fascinating was a combination ofthe many hours advance warning and the sheer stupidity of the people that still managed to bevictims of disaster. In a song few Americans do not know, legendary rocker Don Henley sums up the news ofany given day. The song, “Dirty Laundry” starts off, “I make my living off the Evening News.Just give me something, something I can use. People love it when you lose: they love dirtylaundry”. The inclination is to associate Henleys “dirty laundry” with a Lindsay Lohan type ofscandal. Further in the song though, it is discovered that Henleys dirty laundry are actuallyevents over which even the mightiest of humans have little control. Everyone may laugh thinkingof the gleam in the eye of the “bubble-headed-bleach-blond” associated with Henleys song, butis she the one he condemns? This is the cult of disaster and it has an overlooked aspect. Whether the ending is happy
  2. 2. Wischnewsky 2or tragic, all tales must have conflict to be a story. Watching disaster unfold, even though viewersare not in immediate danger, there is the sense of success that the viewer overcame the fiercest ofantagonists: nature. Warped as it may be, viewers find it comical to see what happens when thewarnings of danger go unheeded. As children shift from primary education to secondary education, the student movesbeyond basic writing skills into the organization of messages. While the mechanics of literatureare a primary concern, of seemingly greater importance are what has been called the “seven basicconflicts.” The Modern Language Arts organization may argue that contemporary theory holdsthere are more than seven types of conflict readers will encounter in story-telling. What MLAwill not argue, however, is that every story has conflict. William Shakespeare, in this light, isprobably the most prolific writer to ever demonstrate that conflict can be memorable whethertragic or comedic. Still, more modern story tellers like Wes Craven theorize that the moregruesome the story, the more captivated will be the audience. Whether the viewer prefers taleslike Gone with the Wind or Nightmare on Elm Street, the reality is that people live their entirelives believing that all stories must have conflict. Consider that part of human culture with Milly Getachews analysis of violence in thenews. In her article, “Compulsive Viewing”, she considers modern viewership a kind ofpornography ultimately surmising that what is viewed is not as important as what viewers chooseto do with what they have just viewed (Getachew). This is a reasonable argument. True, stories inthe news are telling an actual conflict, not a glamorized battle for entertainment value. Yet, whatother value can the story of a volcano in Iceland have to Americans living upwind and 2000miles away? Glorified or not, fictional tales involving horrific or tragic devastation are meant tofollow Aesops lead: to teach a lesson. Stories of disaster in the news actually do the same thing.Whether it is to know of a freeway accident or the exact cause of the accident victims death,
  3. 3. Wischnewsky 3viewers learn something. They learn what freeway to avoid on the way to work that morning, orwhether to support the politician that wants a new safety device to be standard on allautomobiles. This makes the realization that what is witnessed is not so much a cult of dirtylaundry, but human instinct to survive by learning from calamity. Thus, it makes sense that eventhough viewers are not in immediate danger, they are glued to the tube as disaster unfolds beforetheir very eyes. The immediate danger does not surround the viewer. California may be a coastal city, but the overwhelming majority of its residents are well-enough removed from the relatively low reaches of large waves that there is no need to fret overthe same fate the tsunami watchers mentioned earlier met. Why, then the incessant hope of just afew seconds of film showing those five embraced by the throes of nature? The answer is rathersimple: because the individual viewer can feel the hormone-induced rush of relief that survivalbrings. Sure, the viewer was not there, but that only proves the viewer survived. This mindsetpervades more personal conflict, as well. Watching the ID Discovery channel, viewers maycringe as pre-rape events unfold and foreshadowing makes the hair on their necks stand on end,but the viewers minds also race with the most important, eternal question: “What would I havedone if that had been me?” The existence of this question is immediate among group watchers assomeone inevitability asks, “Why didnt she see what he was up to?!” People not even need be taught to place themselves in the shoes of the main characters oftragic news. Automatically this happens. Perhaps this should be studied and that is moreevidence of a misunderstanding of the cult of disaster. For whatever reason, people do placethemselves in the story. In the case of the rape-murder, viewers, with hindsight the originalparticipants never could have had, assure themselves of a different course of action they wouldhave taken that the actual victim did not. As a result, the viewers confidence in his or her ownwisdom is solidified: the viewer must be correct because the viewer is still alive. The actual
  4. 4. Wischnewsky 4victim did not take the same course and is dead. What more proof does one need? In any case,the tragedy, the disaster, must be watched closely, minute by minute, second by second, to becertain. Thus, the cult of disaster flourishes. In 1982, Harry Waters idolized George Gerbner who assured the world that violence onTV would result in a more violent society (Waters). Years later, David Trend solidly argues thereis no way to know if this is true or not. Are there more wars being fought around the globe in2011 than there were in 1911? The reason this is hard to know is because the world was not aslinked together in communication in 1911 as it is in 2011(Trend). What is known is that War ofthe Worlds is more than 100 years old and that novel was a violent tale even by todays standards.So violence as a means of entertainment is certainly nothing new. However, if “moreentertaining” can be defined as how much people laugh at a story, then academic study of dirtylaundry can certainly be a comedy. The California tsunami watchers that were swept to sea might be a side story to theworrisome event taking place an ocean away, but even in an academic setting, the retelling of thestory elicits raucous laughter. Upon reflection some might be taken aback at the insensitivity inwhich even they were a participant. To find the perceived humor sadistic, though, misses a valid,actual part of human instinct. Think about the entirety of the story: five would-be tsunamiwatchers were swept out to sea. These five individuals could not have known of an earthquakethat took place more than 4000 miles away had they not been told of the event. Yet, every tale ofthe earthquake in Japan came with the warning that tsunami waves were likely, to one degree oranother – and probably to a very dangerous degree – along every coast lining the Pacific Ocean.Since the five knew of the impending danger, viewers of the California tsunami victims story areleft wondering: did these people think they were immune to the power of nature, or did thevictims just not grasp the power of nature? Considering that every warning of imminent tsunami
  5. 5. Wischnewsky 5danger was accompanied by images of a destructive force greater than the tsunami disaster of2006, it is difficult for the average person to imagine the victims did not grasp the power ofnature. That leaves one conclusion to the students considering the event: these victims must havethought themselves immune. The sheer ridiculousness of such a thought elicits laughter at thefive victims tragedy. No longer are the viewers deep in thought of what they would have donedifferently because avoidance of the disaster should have been so obvious the only conclusion isthat the victims were not ignorant, they were plain stupid in their boldness. The actions predicating the five California tsunami victims devastation, in that regard,initially comes across as impossible. Thus, viewers are glued to the television desperate to knowwhether or not their fellow man can genuinely be that dumb or if Don Henley was right and thenightly anchors are simply wanting “... something, something [they] can use ...” because “Peoplelove it when you lose: they love dirty laundry.” The oft forgotten aspect of the cult of disaster, or“dirty laundry,” is the human institution of conflict. Whether Scarlett gets her man or Rhett“[doesnt] give a damn,” people are drawn to the battle. Immediacy of danger does not matter tothe human mind; what matters is that each individual “survives” the most horrific of tragedies.Shakespeare saw hundreds of years ago that, sadly, sometimes there are tragic comedies where itis the sheer stupidity of man that causes his own demise, not the might of the force he is against.Under this consideration, the bubble-headed-bleach-blond is not the purveyor of dirty laundry, itis the morbid human instinct of survival that has institutionalized the cult of disaster.