MOVIE REVIEW: Living for 32 or Living off 32? Docuganda and the Institutionalization of Victimhood
by Brian Anse Patrick
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence (formerly Handgun Control, Inc.) has for several months been touring a new documentary film around the country. Living for 32 stars Colin Goddard, a handsome and clean cut young man—a recent graduate of Virginia Polytechnic University—who was shot four times by murderous degenerate Seung-Hui Cho in April of 2007 in an event known in popular culture as the "Virginia Tech Massacre." Fortunately Mr. Goddard survived and appears to have recovered well from his injuries: 32 other students and faculty members died. Brady Center's press materials and spokespersons refer to Mr. Goddard as a "Virginia Tech victim."
Victim status conveys certain tangible benefits in modern mass propaganda. In the documentary and personal appearances that accompany its tour, Mr. Goddard functions as an unimpeachable, entirely sympathetic source to be critiqued only at one's peril. Unlike many liberal arts graduates who are happy merely to find that proverbial foot-in-the-door-entry-level position, Mr. Goddard has been able to parley his perhaps unique qualifications into a high visibility professional job. He is now a symbol in the employ of Brady Center, and a very good symbol at that. He personalizes a social problem.
Cinematographic technique shows him as larger than life by using camera angles from below. The amplified, Mr. Goddard, darkly-suited in a lobbyist outfit, strides through the halls of governmental power on a crusade for public safety. We also accompany him on a walk-through of an urban neighborhood, a consultation with a community leader who points out where a 13 year-old boy was allegedly shot in the head. We drop in on stages of the transcendence of personal suffering and misfortune—the supportive family in and outside of the hospital and revisiting the VT campus scenes upon which horror had descended, a meditative pilgrimage modeled after the stations of the cross.
It makes for a nice, positive human-interest story that belongs on Oprah—in fact has been on Oprah—and one suspects the documentary to have been crafted with the Oprah audience in mind. The 45 minutes or so of highly disambiguated reality-lite contains no shades of grey: all is black, white, good or evil, an uplifting tale of oversimplified solutions.
There are of course no accidents in the synthetic narratives of documentaries, where a hundred or more feet of film are cut for every one in the end product. In this curiously constructed dimension, arbitrary juxtaposition conveys meaning if not absolute causality. Because the documentary game is one of connect-the-dots, selecting and deselecting both the dots and the nature of their connections, it appears to links ideas in ways that even the vapid may absorb, by substituting predigested gobbets of images and sounds for thought. Non sequitur and spurious causal attribution abound.
For these reasons the documentary has long been an ideal medium of the propaganda business. It allows storytellers to interpret reality in ways most advantageous to themselves. For this is what propaganda is essentially all about, its first commandment: control of the flow of information (Patrick, 2011). The documentary style helps makes nonsense appear coherently plausible.
Living for 32's producer Maria Cuomo Cole has been listed as a director of Brady Center and also of that phantasmagorical organization called the Million Moms March. The latter exists more as a media simulation than an actual organization. It began as an astro-turf media event of the Al Gore presidential election campaign (also crafted for the Oprah audience) when Democratic activists from various locations were bused to Washington DC to appear in a mass rally before national news cameras. No one ever marched anywhere as far as I know, however, thusly the March recalls somewhat the pedestrian tour of Europe that Samuel Clemens made by train. But there really was a Samuel Clemens; despite a fair amount of seeking, I have yet to find any local Million Mom—but somehow, mysteriously, they have turned up fairly often in New York Times articles and other news media. From this one can infer the smoke and mirrors of the press agent at work.
The button being pushed here is of course the near-universal societal value of maternal protection in the care of children and of innocent victims. The propaganda techniques used to do the pushing are two old propaganda standards—the credibility-enhancing front organization and the media pseudo-event, M.M.M. serving as a paragon of both illusions. Brady Center acquired the symbolic assets of the defunct March, and displays the name prominently on its website. Somewhere in the Brady office suites one must presume the existence of a little box labeled "Million Moms March Front Organization" which is taken down off the shelf for artificial pseudo-events staged for the press.
"Producer" seems an uncannily accurate word in describing Ms. Cuomo Cole's involvement. By all appearances she has made a prominent career as an entrepreneur in the commodification of victimhood. A socialite also, many photos of her can be found online in the company of celebrities at fashionable charity events. Blurbs describe her as a "public advocate." She seems to specialize in running high profile non-profit (not to be confused with volunteerism) organizations working on behalf of various alleged constituencies. "Alleged" because these constituents seem, on the whole, mute; the advocates do the scripting and most of the talking too, except for the few symbolic victims displayed on occasions. Such mute constituencies include the needy, the homeless, at-risk youth, domestic violence victims and other conditions of imperiled existence as designated by human services professionals. Ms. Cuomo Cole has professionally represented them all at one time or another—if not simultaneously—e.g., a national organization called Help USA that seems to embrace all social work trends bright and virtuous.
If one knew about guns and gun violence from watching television entertainment and popular movies, then Living for 32 might be perceived, as goes the standard movie review line, as a powerful and hard-hitting film. But it is not designed for people who substantively know. The film reinforces preconceptions of mass media-audiences. Such audiences, I know from my research, tend to construe guns as a symbol of evil. They exhibit generally an undifferentiated perception of firearms, appearing to perceive them from within the stereotypical limitations of the lurid media stories to which they have been repeatedly exposed, i.e., "gun is bad, therefore un-gun good." Such systematically misinformed persons, for example, mostly cannot differentiate the national concealed carry movement, with its millions of licensed honest citizens safety-trained and background checked, from felonious illegal carry by criminals such as Cho (Patrick & Hart, 2011). Non sequitur passes as profundity for such an audience.
Living for 32 shows apparently wherever a friendly venue can be found, and so far this appears to be mainly university campuses. The University of Toledo audience was about 50-60 persons, mainly associated one way another with the university, some human services college faculty members, and a smattering of students including a reporter from the student newspaper. Also present were the two highest-ranking members of the university public safety force in uniform and about ten students from Students for Concealed Carry on Campus and the College Republicans, including their faculty advisor. I had contacted the film's promoters a month or so previous about arranging a showing. I wanted especially to have my American Gun Policy seminar honors students see it, but after an initial cordial response the promoters stopped responding to my emails. The UT showing was apparently arranged in collaboration with the local foundation-funded antigun professional, the director of a local "coalition," invisible except for the director and a secretary, who greeted me at the door.
The film is competently made, professional, but no more. It has been entered in various film festivals to simulate cutting-edge artiness. Footage of Mr. Goddard and family is interspersed with news file footage of police response—the standard news visuals of black-clad SWAT officers standing around menacing with AR-15s—and deeply touching scenes of a mass candlelit memorial service on the campus put on by the university community. And there is the Devil himself: Cho's mumbled rants, "You made me do this," sounding like the ostracized villain in the old superhero comic books. This latter material, Cho's homemade documentary and suicide press kit, makes one wonder why anyone, university bureaucrat or otherwise, tolerated Cho's presence on campus or anywhere else. His family, one might begin to suspect, may have rid themselves of him by sending him to college.
The two big messages of the film and Mr. Goddard's presentation were (1) close the so called gun show loophole and (2) change or improve federal and state crime reporting systems so that the mentally ill cannot, through lack of reporting, slip by the mandatory federal instant background check to purchase a gun.
Regarding the loophole, a favorite motif of anti-gunners, who are really interested in outlawing all private transactions at gun shows or anywhere else, Mr. Goddard is shown via the now-standard investigative hidden camera video technique purchasing an AK-47 semiautomatic rifle from a private seller at an Ohio gun show without a background check. The private seller was in no wise required to do such a check, although must not knowingly sell to a disqualified person. Mr. Goddard and a friend convinced the private seller that the friend was an Ohio resident—which apparently was true. The rifle was later turned over to police, a nice but needless dramatic touch suggesting imminent danger, but there is nothing illegal or illegitimate about such a rifle.
A non sequitur here is that Cho did not purchase at a gun show. Nor did he use an AK-47 or its equivalent. All his purchases were legal, under auspices of federally licensed dealers who did the required background checks that Cho indeed passed. Mr. Goddard admitted this when asked, but said, "Even if it only saves five people it is worth it." Shamefully expensive, ineffective social programs are sometimes justified on such speculative feel-good nonsense—which is basically a slight of hand trick designed to make it appear that those who reject a misdirected proposal do not value human life. The argument itself is vaporous. Actually, if one considers the matter well, the private seller probably made a good decision—as Mr. Goddard and his friend appeared to be good, earnest people. The private seller seemed cautious, but judged well: he may well have rejected an offer from someone he judged sketchy. All federally licensed dealers, however, are required to do background checks on all sales, at guns shows or otherwise. Despite an alleged loophole, there is no way to prevent straw sales where a legally qualified person buys a firearm from a federal dealer and then passes it on illegally to another person who is barred by law; even though both straw sales and possession of a gun by a disbarred person are federal felonies. But, as NRA so often reminds, criminals are by definition people who do not obey laws. All this says nothing of thefts or other illegal transfers such as the practice of renting guns said to take place among some criminal elements.
Changing the system so as to better report who is mentally ill is a more reasonable argument; at least it more or less follows from the madman-with-a-gun emotional premise of the movie. No member of gun culture would oppose a better reporting system if it could be done fairly and justly. But Cho himself, however, although obviously, to some people at least, as crazy as a best-bug* (a Tennessee-ism, unrecognized by that official psychiatric doomsday book the DSM-IV) managed to stay out of the system. The Addendum to the Report of the Review Panel (2009) on the Virginia Tech shootings, a considerable document, summarizes Cho's lengthy mental history. In eighth grade he was credited with suicidal and homicidal "ideations." So was he crazy? But when examined by a hospital staff psychiatrist shortly before the shootings, after his behaviors in intimidating fellow students attracted official notice, he was pronounced as no danger to himself or the community. So was he then not crazy? Apparently we may take our pick.
University administrators may well have dithered instead of taking reasonable actions in response to this and other warnings provided by more than one professor. And even after the first shooting around 7 a.m., administrators did not bother to adequately warn the campus. A full two hours later Cho appeared at Norris Hall, chained shut the doors while classes were ongoing, and killed as many people as he could, including wounding Mr. Goddard. Mr. Goddard could not comment on these matters, he acknowledged, because of ongoing civil litigation. You think?
Throughout the presentation and in the questions of human services faculty ran a curious strain of unreality concerning the nature of "the system." Entirely missing was recognition of the difficulty of knowing who and what is mentally ill, and how people are to be officially designated as such, and accordingly deprived of the rights, immunities and liberties of citizenship. Remember that the Soviet Union routinely designated political dissidents as mentally ill and confined them. In many ways being designated mentally ill is worse than being convicted of serious crime: criminals have exercisable rights and protection from cruel and unusual punishment, while the mentally ill merely have symptoms that must be treated whether they like it or not, indefinitely. The official boundary between legal sanity and insanity need be carefully guarded, hence the need for commitment hearings before impartial judges.
Many at the presentation seemed to have religious-like faith in some higher administrative omniscience to discern, track and absolutely identify that which has so often been trackless, anomalous or just weird. It recalled to me the simple faith of my mother's generation and her innocent working class hermeneutics. It was believed in those days that things such as report-card checkmarks for "Disrespects Authority" would "Go on your record," which was inferred to exist in some eternally sacrosanct space accessible to all authorities, accompanied by the letter from a first-grade nun who thought that a child who swung his legs while seated during mass was a threat to self and society.
Personally I do not think that Cho was mentally ill; being a menacing little asshole is not a disease. He was apparently directed to attend "counseling" by a judge, which may or may not trigger the federal standard barring gun sales to those having been involuntarily committed or adjudicated as mentally ill. But on the other hand, Cho appears not to have been either formally committed or adjudicated mentally ill in any sense that I understand the terms, and was allowed to leave when he agreed to make an appointment that he apparently never kept. I lack the legal expertise to form an opinion whether this constitutes a disqualification under federal law, but I suspect it does not. Commitment means being locked up and "observed." Further, obtaining counseling or therapy, however, does not indicate madness and may be instead a sign of mental health and good so-called reality-testing mechanisms. Cho, in any case, does not seem a person who would have benefitted by "counseling" and apparently did not on various occasions. In a sense the system, or the people constituting it, may have failed. But, again personally, I believe that Cho, purely on the basis of demonstrated behaviors, should have been ejected or suspended from campus as soon as he began to harass and intimidate other students. He was not.
The idea that most people suffer from what might be considered mental illness at some point in their lives, college students were specifically named, was brought up several times. This perhaps can be dismissed as social work imperialism attempting to lay claim to more human territory to control. But think about the claim's unstated implications regarding improving the system for reporting the mentally ill. Here is the syllogistic formulation that underlies this, may I say crazed, assertion: Most people have been mentally ill; the mentally ill cannot own guns; therefore most people cannot own guns. It seems also that to many health and human services professionals, owning or wanting to own a gun is a sign of mental illness.
Another religious-like tenet that suffused the ceremony of the Toledo showing is the epidemiological credo promulgated by Brady Center, namely guns as the pathogens or germs of violence. Availability, in this belief system, equates with homicide. Thus we see attitudes as expressed in a college newspaper article by a public health student at the event, "I didn't realize how easy it was to access firearms in America. When he said the fact that there are enough guns in America for every man, woman, and children, it personally blew my mind." The pathogen credo appears to be accepted on faith alone by Brady spokespersons, who routinely (and disingenuously, I feel) claim they are not against legitimate gun owners or the Second Amendment, but belie this posturing by opposing any law whatsoever or modification of existing law that would help honest people own or use guns for self defense. The reality is, however, that for several years homicide rates have decreased, despite recent record sales increases of guns (especially handguns) to the American public. This is to say nothing of the concealed carry movement, Wisconsin being the most recent state to liberalize arcane laws that prevented citizens from obtaining carry permits, that now allows more than five million Americans the legal licensed carry of concealed firearms. The numbers grow, especially for women. States track licensee statistics: there has been no accompanying surge of violence of any sort. The result has been, well, peace. This statistical fact in itself mocks and nullifies the epidemiological argument, which, if it were true, then this recent massive firearm proliferation would necessarily be followed by increased violence. Violence has not occurred despite the greatly increased "availability" represented by licensed concealed carry. Further, non-representative sampling and methodological issues flaw the public health research used to advance the epidemiological model. Findings are stretched to support inferences that lie far outside of study limitations. For example, the oft brandished Kellerman study is purported to show that gun ownership increases homicide risk in households, and if one only read the article's title that is indeed what one would suppose. But when one really looks over Kellerman's findings, renting a home turns out to be a far greater risk for homicide in the home than gun ownership, as do personal histories of substance abuse or assaultive behavior. Practices such as the chlorination of drinking water to kill pathogens and gun ownership are conceptually distinct; the pathogen in this matter seems to have been Cho.
Considering the overall Toledo audience for the documentary, though, the epidemiological credo is an excellent thematic choice. The credo, inaccurate or not, functions as a metaphor which, as Aristotle mentioned 2,400 years ago is highly useful in persuasion because it facilitates quick transmission/understanding of the persuader's central idea. This is perhaps doubly true in mass propaganda. The "epidemic of gun violence" metaphor can be grasped without thought. It is yet another example of the sort if predigested idea-gobbets conveyed by propaganda that save the audience the trouble of thinking for themselves when it is easier to swallow whole the ideas of the propagandist.
Additionally, the epidemiological model perfectly suits the values of the audience—My Second Commandment of Propaganda is "Reflect the values and beliefs of the audience." The human services faculty tend toward what might be called an administrative hermeneutic or worldview. They see themselves as scientific social managers, experts who apply knowledge to social problems. The idea of the heroic social scientist or human services professional battling an epidemic is right up their alley, providing not only a sense of a secure, manageable world, but also of a personal ego-enhancing position of relatively high status in this world.
Unfortunately the health professors are not expert on gun related issues, and seemed to possess the undifferentiated perspective on guns mentioned earlier. One faculty member, apparently unable to grasp the difference between licensed concealed carry and felonious carry, said that she is always afraid of her students bringing guns to class. It was difficult to tell exactly, for she seemed muddled, but she seemed to directly equate Cho, who had no concealed carry permit and thus carried illegally while murdering, with licensed carry by honest non-violent people (Ohio law currently bans licensees from carrying on campus.) Conversely she seemed to think that not allowing licensed concealed carry on campuses would prevent Cho-like actions, apparently having no conception that anyone could illegally carry a gun onto campus at anytime, whatever the law might say. The American experience with licensed concealed carry has shown that the licensees are not the people one need worry about. I was surprised at her apparent level of fear and its irrational basis.
The question and answer session after the film was part of the show. Mr. Goddard did creditably well in handling himself. The Brady doctrinal team obviously has worked with him. He handled the questions aimed at him by the few pro-gun conservatives in a non-abrasive way. For one response he gave the old standard Brady answer that he was not opposed to NRA members, but he was opposed to NRA "extremist leadership." This is of course nonsense, for NRA has an elected leadership that represents its 4 million plus members quite democratically, unlike Brady Center which is essentially a staff-run group lacking any mass membership. If anything, NRA leadership is more moderate in my experience than its general membership. Mr. Goddard also repeated the Bradyism that NRA has been effective because it has more money than Brady. The implication (false) is that somehow an evil firearms industry underwrites NRA lobbying. Of course NRA has more money. It is a huge voluntary association representing a decidedly non-mute collection of real people who give their time and money. NRA is not run top-down from an east coast office. The firearms industry, by the way, has its own professional association and lobbyists. NRA is funded by its membership. No membership, no funds. Invisible victims do not contribute. That’s the problem with Brady Center, although they do receive foundation and patron funding of various sorts.
If one did not listen carefully one might conclude that Mr. Goddard is a volunteer. Apparently he was initially, but that was in the past. Good. A young college graduate needs a career and that first job is vastly important for setting the tone (and levels) of subsequent positions. If I were advising him as a student, I would suggest that he learn as much as he can, taking advantage of an excellent opportunity to network, to gain perspective, and then after no more than three or four years to move on to something bigger and better than the victimhood industry.
I will add a copy of the Living for 32, when it becomes available, to my docuganda collection. It is a fairly competent piece of work that well suits its intended audience. It might usefully be assigned to students as an exercise in propaganda analysis.
But much more importantly, I congratulate Mr. Goddard on his recovery and wish him and his family well. Afterward I did get to ask him a question that had been on my mind ever since I saw the film's promotional materials. I wanted to know what impressions he, the only firsthand witness I have so far encountered, had formed of Cho. Apparently, however, Mr. Goddard was on the classroom floor and never even got a good look at his would-be murderer. That is something I would have wanted to know.
Brian Anse Patrick Ph.D., M.A., B.A. GED, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Toledo, OH, He blogs at RiseofAntiMedia.
* It is indeed "best bug," as my source explained when I too asked for clarification, as I too thought it should be bed bug. My source was an old friend from Smithville TN who told me this. He had taken his aged mother , who was indeed, shall we say, rather "odd," to a court-mandated psychiatric evaluation. About a half-hour into the evaluation the psychiatrist came out of his office and asked my friend, "What is best bug?" as mother had been saying that she was as "crazy as a best bug." I asked my friend's wife, also from TN, the same question about the nature of the best bug and she provided the completely tautological response: "Why, it's this little bug that runs around like crazy," and then looked at me as if the whole thing were self evident.
Mass Shooting at Virginia tech: Addendum to the Report of the Review Panel, November 2009. available at: http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/prevail/docs/April16ReportRev20091204.pdf
Patrick, Brian Anse (2011). The Ten Commandments of Propaganda. Ann Arbor: Goatpower Publishing, in press.
Patrick, Brian Anse & Hart, Kylo-Patrick R. (2011). The Gun as Symbol of Evil: Exaggerated Perceptions of Firearms Violence as a Media Artifact. Journal on Firearms and Public Policy, in press. Note: Only 44 percent of college students surveyed could identify the correct definition of semi-automatic from a list of four definitions, while only 23 percent of senior citizens could do so, which is a less than chance percentage. Approximately 80 percent of the students and 94 percent of the seniors wrongly thought it was legally possible to just walk into the local gun store and buy an M-16 automatic rifle of the sort used by the U.S. military.