Don Quixote Syndrome: Mass Media and Epistemic Identity in Extremism
Benjamin A. Budde
In studying and preventing extremism, we continue to believe the ideology, the community, and the means of conveyance are distinct, the latter being merely a logistical consideration, and that the community or message are the true locus or center-of-gravity.
But what we fail to understand is that it is the mode of conveyance, its ubiquity and simultaneity, that legitimates the extremism ideology and community in the first place. The medium of communication makes extremism a community galvanized with a shared worldview and ideology, broadly an “epistemic community”, the way it conveys and therefore makes an act of political violence a terrorist act, through the simultaneous ubiquity of the conveyance.
Benedict Anderson wrote about this in terms of the early state-making of the 1600s, mass media’s involvement in the development of shared national identities of states being similar to the development of the shared identities of non-state epistemic communities; a kind of national consciousness for the non-state. For roughly the first century following the advent of the moveable type printing press, the language of choice for print was Latin. The market glutted, printers looked elsewhere for vulgates in which to print, and therein began the Early Print Capitalism Era.
What this lent to was a shared ethno-lingual identity. Prior to the mid-1600s, the Treaty of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years’ War by establishing de facto state sovereignty, and eventually the modern Westphalian system as we know it, states were largely defined by ones proximity to a center of power, and vulgates like French were considered little more than gutter-speak.
But when printed materials hit the streets in French language, suddenly there became a French identity or national consciousness; or as Anderson called it, an “Imagined Community”.
That is the power of mass media; it conveys and catalyzes an epistemic community. And this phenomenon continues today. Since the advent of broadcast and motion picture technologies, 20th century national zeitgeists have been set in much the same way, for good or for bad; the clinically sterile broadcast spaces of the mid-century USA glossing over a country in the throes of the post-war Civil Rights movement and social conflict.
Fast forward a couple decades and up to 33% of households with TVs (1971) in the United States simultaneously watched such poignant expositions on race in America as the inimitable All In The Family, about a curmudgeonly conservative man, Archie Bunker, lamenting a world changing around him. Sammy Davis Jr. once guest starred as himself, kissing Bunker on the cheek, documented by a prop camera, and in that moment taking so much wind out of the sails of white patriarchal 70s society. Like Gandhi’s Salt March, they were not untouchable, he said in that act. And the country shared in the experience at a critical time for US race relations. Knowing they shared it together at or about the same moment lent to a sense of consensus of the majority the way elections are a mechanism of consent.
In transnational or sub-state groups, this same phenomenon has been identified. Mark Seal wrote about it in Vanity Fair regarding Francis Ford Coppola’s contentious relationship with the New York organized crime Five Families in making his THE GODFATHER, and their complete reversal upon seeing the film, giving a sense of chivalry to organized crime, original author Mario Puso reportedly even coining phrases like “Godfather”. “It made our lives seem honorable,” mafia hitman Sammy “The Bull” Gravano would later say. Paul Schrader wrote eloquently about a similar phenomenon among the Japanese Yakuza and the genre of the same name, student radicals further using the films to reaffirm their own purposes in agitation.
Narco Cultura in music and film are genre that celebrate and mythologize the rags-to-riches stories of individuals in Latin American Transnational Organized Crime groups. (I have struggled in writing responsible features around this genre. Rather fish-out-of-water stories, we believe good can come from stories of virtuous ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances.)
These are examples of media representation in pecuniary crime, and not necessarily politically-expansionist conflict, all be systemic organized crime arguably the antithesis of Westphalian statism, not unlike extremism, in chiefly the profane use of deadly force, most notably Pablo Escobar’s infamous car-bombing and the subsequent US-Colombian manhunt for him. But organized crime does illustrate the nature of the existence of sub-state or non-state actors under a narrative of self-autonomy in contrast to the narrative of the supremacy of legitimate state domestic power under the Weberian definition. Not unlike THE GODFATHER’s fictional Michael Corleone volunteering for service in WWII against his father Vito’s objections, placing duty to country over the historical sub-state patronage networks of old world-rooted organized crime and their challenge to state hegemony, competing with the state for autonomy, Gravano, a Vietnam veteran, took exception with Gotti on similar grounds.
”John's rooting for Iraq to win the [Persian Gulf] war, for our troops to die and this and that. I told him one day, 'Look, it could be our kids in the Army. . . . O.K., we hate the Government. But what do these kids got to do with it? I mean, like it or not, we belong to this country.'”
Here Gravano’s identity as a self-made autonomous sub-state actor, a man with high criminal ties, collided squarely with his identity with the state due to his national military service. This reportedly was the straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back for Gravano rolling over on his boss.
But Anderson’s Early Print Capitalism Era of the 1600s provides a valuable precursor to twentieth and 21st century film and television; emerging mass medias galvanizing new epistemes that rattle existing geo-political systems. The ubiquity of moveable type and print capitalism unified national consciousnesses, not unlike 20th century broadcast media. Yet in a seemingly reverse effect, the increasing balkanization or atomization of 21st century medias tests those very unities.
Don Quixote was the fictional character lionized in two volumes (1605 and 1615) by Miguel de Cervantes; himself a Spanish Marine combat veteran, held as a slave in North Africa for years, and escaping home to Spain to write what is not just considered the first modern novel, but a critical tract skewering the contemporary public’s fascination with what he considered to be the terrible fiction prose and drama of the day, and its negative effects on society. Sixteenth and 17th century Spain, more than most, voraciously consumed nostalgic romance novels, or books of chivalry, on a fictional bygone era of knight-errantry as if they were historical drama.
Quixote read so many such novels, he gained an “enchantment” and thought himself a knight-errant in quest of adventures, driven by a chivalric code, saving damsels, and lashing out at the Muslim peoples of North Africa and former conquerors of Spain.
Michel Foucault, the French Post-Structuralist, used Quixote as an example of “Epistemic Shift”; a man incapable of accepting the movement of pre-Classical to Classical thought, where Resemblance and Similitude give way to Representation and categorical, taxonomical thought. Pre-Classically, the signs of the world were considered to be divine, interconnected messages to be deciphered.
Not unlike Archie Bunker, Quixote lamented the modern world around him. He saw enemy armies in flocks of sheep, and giants in windmills, unable to accept how the emerging Rationalism of Classical thought was tearing from the daily experience the mystique of, not just a timeless connection to the supernatural, but a one-in-the-sameness, and thus leaving him with the sterile doldrums of his own modern life.
But “fiction is always the better, the nearer it resembles the truth,” one of Cervantes’ more sober characters, Toledan, opines near the end of Volume I; one of a number of scenes where the supporting cast effectively attempt to de-radicalize Quixote, and belying Cervantes’ own sentiments as a writer and combat veteran.
“[A]ll such fables ought to be suited to the understanding of those who read them, and written so, as that by softening impossibilities, smoothing what is rough, and keeping the mind in suspence, they may surprize, agreeably perplex, and entertain, creating equal admiration and delight; and these can never be excited by authors who forsake probability and imitation, in which the perfection of writing consists”
Yet books of chivalry…
“their stile [is] usually harsh, their atchievements incredible, their amours lascivious, their courtesy impertinent, their battles tedious, their dialogue insipid, their voyages extravagant, and, in short, the whole void of all ingenuity of invention” (Smollett translation, 1755)
Does that sound like Hollywood?
The tropology of Don Quixote as madman, like any societal madman, is a taxonomical incising of an individual out of one episteme, better suited to another; the proverbial “other”, or deviant. In Quixote’s pre-Classical, pre-Rational reasoning, he is perfectly rational, so to speak. Modern iterations of Quixote as madman or mere dreamer continue to miss this point, he actually being portrayed by Cervantes as an intelligent, educated man of birth, and otherwise quite rational. Though admittedly, the very act of modern fiction-making is itself a Classical pursuit, in its mechanisms of time and specificity of language, and therefore problematic in criticism of the pre-Classical.
However, fictional Quixote was in fact a product by birth of the Classical era. His was a personal or felt episteme, a worldview and identity untied from a community, racked upon his gullible brain by the consumption of countless media of the day, mass produced books of chivalry read through late nights alone in his study, that informed his own need for meaning. It is this kind of enchantment from where comes much modern Western extremism. As the lesser known yet poignant extremism writer, Olivier Roy, has asked…
“If the causes of radicalization are structural, then why do they affect only a tiny fraction of those in France who call themselves Muslims? Only a few thousand, among several million [and] practically no ‘first-generation’ jihadis (including recent arrivals), but especially no ‘third-generation’ jihadis [and who are] in no way socially integrated in the Muslim societies they claim to defend.”
Overwhelmingly second-generational homegrown European jihadist acts are spree killings committed by maladjusted young men and women for the sake of radicalization. This so-called Islamist extremism happens to be “the only thing on the market for radical rebellion,” or one of the few. In years in the past they or others filling this void may have been coloring their Mohawks and slam-dancing to punk rock music. And nowhere is that more poignant than the British convert whom defected to ISIS, Sally Jones; a former punk-rock singer herself.
Roy rightly continues, second-generational and convert Western jihadists are “not the expression of a radicalization of the Muslim population, but rather reflect a generational revolt that affects a very precise category of youth." They are radicalized “around the fantasy of heroism, violence, and death”, a personal felt episteme, and they “explode the generational gap, which is to say, quite simply, the family.”
“This is not, then, the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism.”
And this applies not just to the extremist, but also an oddly similar and virulent strain of counter-extremist that persists in the marketplace too; both seeing themselves engulfed by war and driven by a great chivalric code, informed by the grandiose apocalyptical-ism of the Samuel Huntingtons of the world, promising their readership, for a small price, a Clash of Civilizations; that they are locked in a catastrophic cultural-religious war and should therefore believe they alone are the true defenders of their West. Or their East. Extremism meets extremism. Ironically, Western Islamophobes seem to fail to understand Jesus of Nazareth is considered a pre-Islamic prophet of Islam, the way King David features prominently within Christianity, or Jesus himself as a Jewish rabbi, and Christians celebrate with relative freedom in much of the Islamic Ummah in a level of multicultural pluralism unseen in much of the West. Precisely wherein lies this civilizational war?
But mass media, entertainment or news, as if there was a difference anymore, doesn’t just misinform and reaffirm cultural norms about violence (and the individual’s own probable Quixotic incompetence at it), or perpetuate norms of gender and race bias for that matter. In all its forms mass media is the very venue for the transmission of the terrorist act itself; horrific and tragic, but often lower casualty events than a pile-up on the freeway (illustrating in the state it’s not that you die, it’s how you die) wrongfully elevated into glaring and inescapable acts of geo-political importance committed by the maladjusted few with closer ideological ties to Ronald Reagan’s shooter, John Hinckley Jr., trying to impress an actress, or the Columbine killers (interestingly, themselves an emotionally co-dependent dyad, not unlike the Boston Bombers or DC Snipers, as well as Quixote and squire Panza themselves), by a journalistic class whom simply don’t know how far they have fallen from the selective moderation of Edward R. Murrow and his ilk, choosing what is news-worthy and how much coverage is appropriate.
In fact, on some occasions media outlets with otherwise testy relationships have colluded to keep quiet the abduction of a fellow journalist in attempt to protect their lives. They however are not willing to moderate themselves over terrorist acts, while terrible and deserving of coverage, perhaps less Earth-shattering than the Pearl Harbor attack, which would take away the spotlight and therefore allure of such repeat attacks in the first place. So, the public is of less value than one of the journalism trade’s professional own? We turn cameras away from fans who run onto sports pitches to disincentivize the act but we don’t when people are being slaughtered.
The medium of conveyance, or more to the point that the act is simultaneously and ubiquitously conveyed to a people, doesn’t just elevate the act, it legitimates the extremists and the extremism as a combined epistemic community in the first place; a people with a shared world view, like the birth of a nation, and two political events not unrelated. None of this should be a surprise to anyone who has ever studied Solomon Asch’s Conformity Test, which showed in 1951 the high rate in which people will conform to a majority.
And it’s not just the extremism of political violence and its relationship to Westphalian state-making or non-state/sub-state coercion that is legitimated. Similar phenomena can be seen in growing fringe ideologies of people who “feel small and powerless” like the internet’s role in legitimating Flat-Eartherism, and other pseudoscience.
While there is and will be no panacea for inoculating the world of extremism, the root communities, marginalized by economy, incompetency, irrationalism, geography, systemic racism, etc., have always and will always be present. But it is no coincidence that the rise of at least the awareness of extremism, and thus the celebrification of the extremist and subsequent appeal to a few, has coincided with the advent of the internet. If it wants to survive, democracy will have to sophisticate itself quickly in the face of growing managed democracy and its relationship with extremism and associated illicit economy. The locus is the conveyance. The more we attack the community and ideology, the more we reaffirm the allure of the identity of extremism as an assailed community. There are a few ways to protect Free Speech while attacking the conveyance, involving manageable media representation.
Firstly, stop broadcasting the identities of the terrorist act perpetrator, and their victims. We already do this in the USA with underage victims, or victims of sexual abuse. And we should do so for anyone who is only accused, not yet convicted, of a crime, illegalizing so-called “perp walks”. As above, we even do it for people who run on sports pitches, and explicitly for the purpose of disincentivizing copycats. If news has shown it can cover a newsworthy event without invading the privacy of the victims, why can’t news as an industry do so for the sake of the security of the public? The act must be covered by the news without question. Rendering the act as anonymous does not delete it from the news cycle. It just robs the perpetrator of his or her celebrity, and therefore much of the appeal.
Secondly, and most importantly, repeal the wrongfully entitled “Good Samaritan” clause (Section 230(c)1) of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA). This was a horrifically misguided clause signed into law by Congresspeople with little understanding of what the internet was or would become. And in their defense, it was little more than a mail service at the time, but quickly careened into publishing, there being over 4.55 billion web pages today.
These publishing platforms, companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Google, etc., are the only forms of publishing immune from prosecution for disseminating, even profiting from, unprotected speech. A television station, newspaper, or other private citizen, cannot publish or distribute child pornography, terrorism recruitment propaganda, stolen intellectual property, etc., without criminal and civil charges ensuing. Yet, the Mark Zuckerbergs and Cheryl Sandbergs of the world have been wrongly indemnified under starry-eyed notions of the infallibility of free markets.
It is imperative that this clause be struck down or repealed. The ensuing criminal charges may or may not stick. But in instances like the Orlando Massacre, where the assailant was radicalized by material hosted by privately owned servers, companies that even profited from the postings, the civil suits will inform corporate risk management in such a way that these platforms must spend a little (i.e., 300,000 human monitors) or risk paying billions of dollars in Wrongful Death settlements. And if exclusions for domestic terrorism can be removed, notwithstanding Constitutionality issues and the risk of misuse, a similar use of civil courts could further curtail internet company complicity in the greater and growing threat of white supremacy and related terrorism. Let the courts do their jobs.
These are by no means everything that can be done, nor suggested in lieu of kinetic operations. Targets must be hardened, and networks decapitated and disrupted. The new reality is, regardless of reforms, the era of balkanized and atomistic publishing, as well as private and encrypted networking, is not going away. But just as heavy-handed counter-measures wrongly relieve extremists of the onus of the acts within their felt episteme as an assailed community, so too can media representation of the extremist as possessing outsized threat, monstrously dangerous and therefore to some heroic, legitimate and advance the allure of extremism; the role of media catalyzing extremist and act into extremism the way simultaneity and ubiquity of message catalyzes national identity.
State and non-state epistemic identities are galvanized by mass media in the same way. Disallow the celebrity of the act, allow people their recourse in the courts, and Quixote dies in bed where Cervantes left him.
Thank you, Malte Riemann PhD, RMAS