Between puppy videos and snazzy floral arrangements, the violent facts of the news invariably enter our mind’s fray. Terrorists seizing hostages and destroying buildings full of people in Israel is the most recent harrowing barbarity. Fake news and dubious facts give way when we see other people’s lives become all-too stark and harrowing and real. Once the shock and awe has furnished us with horror and compassion for victims, we’re wise to turn our academic minds to a sense of historical awareness where, all too often, entertainment has bristled with such verisimilitude that a performance comes to stand in for real war and violence. When entertainment plays fiction with attacks on life and limb, we as a society are easily drawn in, almost as though we know that savage carnage could be unleashed in our direction at a moment’s notice.
In October of 1938, radio presenter Orson Welles gave a genius recounting of H.G. Well’s terrifying tale of a Martian invasion titled War of the Worlds. With sombre similarity to Israeli music festival attendees who a few days ago found themselves inundated with gun-toting terrorists who shot at them and took hostages, Welles’ radio show gave a sense of civilized reality hideously fractured by external intruders:
“Dance music played for some time, and then the scare began. An announcer broke in to report that “Professor Farrell of the Mount Jenning Observatory” had detected explosions on the planet Mars. Then the dance music came back on, followed by another interruption in which listeners were informed that a large meteor had crashed into a farmer’s field in Grovers Mills, New Jersey. Soon, an announcer was at the crash site describing a Martian emerging from a large metallic cylinder. “Good heavens,” he declared, “something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me … I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it …it … ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.” (online)
Like realizing we’d forgotten to hit send on a crucial assignment email, though in a comparatively piddling way, such moments of abject horror affect us in our minds and our bodies. Pupils dilate like tiny supernovas playing on a TikTok loop in our mind’s eye whenever our physical self expresses responses of revulsion. Sometimes the external entertainment world can seem real, too real, and this experience is augmented by the digital experience of something Jean Baudrillard termed hyperreality. “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning” he said, and yet sometimes real reality finds its way in during acts of callous brutality such as Hamas unleashed on Israel. To overcome the morass of meaningless facts it behooves us not only to absorb information and perspectives but also to find, craft, and create meanings and interpretations that match our reality – not forgetting that only when we know that the personal is, as the feminist slogan goes, inherently political can we truly enact our lives and lifestyles and empathy as political animals (Aristotle famously termed humans zoon politikon for a reason).
War of the Worlds was so effective on the radio in no small part because the hideous NAZI menace was haunting the world in 1938. In social science courses we learn that present-day media blitzes follow us around on our smartphones: it’s not only advertising for items, its also advertisements for states of mind and ideologies “should-ing” all over our creative identities. Propaganda haunts us wherever we turn on the television or internet, but the present state of cultural affairs is by no means lasting or permanent. For much of modern history, a radio broadcast fireside chat was how people learned what political leaders (such as President Roosevelt in 1938) were up to, and also for most of modernity the daily newspaper was quite literally our window onto the world.
Now that these windows of questionable veracity and diminished enlightenment occur within the private space of our cell phone news feed, customized by an algorithm’s tentacles than can feel clammier and more alien than even the most epic Hallowe’en costume, we can easily feel claustrophobic and isolated—adrift in a sea of apathy and Armageddon even as our day to day lives unfurl based, largely, on the same mundane facts of breakfast and homework and toilet paper supply. History unfolds and plates break but someone must still wash dishes and wipe counters and these heroic gestures remain the same now as they were in 1938.
Happily, AU can help us sort and organize our thoughts and put calamities in personal perspective. Besides empathy for those in awful life circumstances made deadly due to the treachery of entitled villains wielding a sense of oppression in one hand and a machine gun in the other, the geopolitical realm can also be fodder for further learning as we place current events into sociological and historical (not to mention psychological) context. Applying our course themes and concepts to the present day is also a grade A ticket to top marks and it just might help ourselves when dealing with the darkest aspects of our tortuous times.
Our barely-consenting brains are daily bombarded with images like some 21st Century character in A Clockwork Orange, mentally snarled by all the news and items we are told that we must know, not to mention by the real world realities of rooms buzzing and howling with intense conversations that create countless messy diasporas of disparate opinions. Yes, this same social swamp remains a fertile ground for hearty academic research. Just add the word university to an internet search for a given topic and voila, you’ll find usable material for your next essay. And the same is true when analyzing current events; it’s never only a menagerie of smarmy podcasts and soap box sloganeering, any topic also has its more graceful and intellectual progenitors. Best of all, we can gleefully and with mature adult aura in tow, grab our requisite AU coursework and retire to our personal study haven. And from there, we can really learn about a topic while retaining our humanity as compassionate beings. Its the legitimate and authentic researching, reasoning, writing, and comprehending of ourselves and the world around us that we’ll take forward with us when our AU days are through. So, with heavy hearts for the Israeli victims of Hamas’s atrocities, at AU let’s remember that learning from reality is a core reason for our life’s present season as distance education students. As Karl Marx famously wrote, in a way that rings true when we consider the memes and social media debacles that frame even the most serious of news events: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” (online).