Perrspectives - Bringing light to Darkness

Faux National Tragedy

February 9, 2004

(Originally published March 13, 1997)

Did Michael Jackson murder Jon Benet Ramsay? Was Samantha Runyon killed by Scott Peterson? Was Robert Blake behind the abduction of Elizabeth Smart? Aside from the 24/7 media's fixation with young, attractive, well-to-do white children, what do these episodes tell us about the crisis of American values, culture and society?

Nothing. As we reported all the way back in 1997 in the aftermath of the Heaven's Gate cult mass suicide, these faux national tragedies portend no larger societal breakdown. At best and definitely at most they can make us feel good about our own mental health.

The Heaven's Gate cult mass suicide in posh Rancho Santa Fe, California last week dominated virtually every news medium since first word of the grisly discovery on Tuesday. The lurid spectacle of uniform, often androgynous and occasionally castrated computer geeks seeking intergalactic salvation through the Internet and the comet Hale-Bopp was featured on Nightline60 MinutesABC's This Week, and every other newscast. Other once-newsworthy stories, such as the JonBenet Ramsay mystery, the Academy Awards, and Vice President Gore's trip to China disappeared into oblivion.

Despite this media feeding frenzy, we are witnessing much ado about nothing. The Heaven's Gate cult's extinction under the leadership of Marshal Applewhite is only the latest in a series of titillating spectacles, crimes, and horrors with no lasting social or cultural impact, no lessons for the nation. These non-crises, like Heaven's Gate or the Susan Smith murder case, are prototypical examples of a new American cultural phenomenon: the Faux National TragedyTM(FNT).

A Faux National Tragedy (not to be confused with any statement regarding GATT, NAFTA, or other global trade issue by Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute) has four identifiable traits:

  • Unlimited Media Frenzy. This is the necessary but not sufficient first indicator of an FNT. The event in question, through its pure horror, strangeness or scatology, completely mobilizes the national media, which in turn immediately proclaim the awful crime symptomatic of a deeper breakdown in the American moral and social fabric. That this is not the case (see below) is what is so characteristic of a faux national tragedy.
  • Limited Occurrence and Participation. As sad and tragic as it may be, the impact of an FNT must be limited to a relatively small group, with the event itself isolated and non-recurring. Frequency tends to engender the use of terms like "outbreak" and "epidemic", lending credence to the media frenzy already described.
  • Personal/Group Psychosis as Cause. Despite a frantic search for societal "causes", the horrific and despicable actions in question will ultimately prove to be solely the result of individual psychosis, mental illness, or sociopathological behavior. Dan Rather and Peter Jennings notwithstanding, there is no larger social breakdown; the crazy mass suicides or the murder of unfortunate children are essentially the acts of unfortunate, crazy people.
  • No Lessons to be Learned. Question: What larger message should be read, what lessons learned from the insular act of an individual with less than stellar mental or moral health? Answer: Probably none. Though the media may posit the role of childhood poverty, parental molestation, the prevention of similar future FNTs is neither possible nor necessary.

Before assessing the Heaven's Gate suicide as the textbook faux national tragedy, a little background is needed. Heaven's Gate had it origins in the 1970's, as the charismatic minister's son and failed academic Marshal Applewhite began to recruit converts to his millenarian vision. He apparently assembled a collection of loners and misfits, often separated for decades from friends and family, uniting them behind his notion of a heavenly, extraterrestrial evolutionary life form "beyond human" accessible through UFO intermediaries. Applewhite's perverse combination of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Timothy Leary reached its fruition with last week's suicide triggered by the convergence of the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet and, perhaps, Easter. Adding to this bizarre theory of cosmic redemption, the cult's use of the oft-discussed, little-understood Internet for both its livelihood and method of disseminating its beliefs only deepened the public mystery surrounding Heaven's Gate.

With this unique history, the Heaven's mass Gate suicide emerges as the quintessential FNT. First, that the media seized upon and inundated the airwaves with the story is unquestioned. Had the timing been different, it's easy to imagine ABC, CBS and NBC interrupting the OJ civil trial verdict's interruption of Bill Clinton's State of the Union address. In addition, the tragedy was limited to an insular, almost hermetic community. And regarding the primary cause, the pathology thesis goes a long way here. In a sense, the Rancho Santa Fe drama seemed inevitable, a suicidal perversion of Ben Franklin's admonition to the Continental Congress that if they did not hang together, they would most assuredly hang separately.

This raises the more important issue of larger messages to be gleaned by the American people. One could argue that we must be vigilant against those who prey upon the weak and insecure. This, of course, is not particularly instructive: Applewhite is not the first, and certainly not the last, charlatan of this ilk. History is full of them; the more successful being called prophets. A second possible societal warning could pertain to the Internet itself, which in the wake of Heaven's Gate may be viewed by some as a dangerous and demonic medium. This is neither true nor useful. While it is accurate to say that the cult made its living through its Higher Source web site design consulting business, it is also irrelevant. They could have been paperhangers, fast food franchisees, or free-lance proctologists, and the outcome would have been no different. That they used the web to publish their beliefs is also immaterial; much of their propaganda is no different from that contained in pamphlets given out by attendees at any Star Trek convention. (It is important to note that an estimated 315 such fans committed suicide following the death of Spock in Star Trek III.)

So what lessons are to be learned from Heaven's Gate? First, avoid being psychotic and dangerously anti-social, if at all possible. Second, based on the footage of Marshal Applewhite, don't trust people who never blink. (Remember this the next time Steve Forbes talks about the flat tax.) Third, it's OK to question figures who advocate blurred gender roles and androgyny, even if, like Dennis Rodman, they have their own national syndicated TV show. Last, stick to groups like the PTA or K of C, which generally don't require castration for membership.

Despite this recommendation that society has nothing to fear or prevent as a result of this mass suicide, there is the possibility that other, tangential aspects of the affair, or unintended consequences of its portrayal by the media could leave a lasting mark on American culture. This is called the Principle of Collateral Damage (PCD) and is in fact the one route by which a seeming faux national tragedy can become, well, tragic.

In the case of Collateral Damage, society is not impacted long-term by the main drama per se (in this case, the cult suicides), but by ancillary activities surrounding it. In the JonBenet Ramsay case, a likely candidate for FNT status, the dangers of child beauty pageants have been laid bare. With Heaven's Gate, the PCD could take many forms. For example, Marshal Applewhite's catastrophic haircut (a "Do Hazard?") could potentially sweep the country, with the same devastation as the coifs popularized by Dorothy Hamill or Geraldine Ferraro. Similarly, the Heaven's Gate jump suit might renew a fashion craze that had mercifully died with the breakup of the band Devo. In addition, Heaven's Gate may have sensitized us to what may be called "The Year 2000 Problem". This involves not only the predictable rash of suicides to be expected with any new millennium, but more importantly, the potential for multi-billion dollar computer system breakdowns. We can only find comfort in the fact that Applewhite's cult was not named "Heaven's Door"; we no doubt would have been endlessly subjected to Axl Rose's abominable rendition of "Knocking on Heaven's Door."

Before concluding, it is worth noting that Heaven's Gate is only the most recent faux national tragedy. In 1994, the nation was horrified by news of South Carolina mother Susan Smith's brutal murder by drowning of her two young children, an act made more insidious by her use of race in initially blaming an unidentified black assailant. Commentators decried the breakdown of family values, most notably Newt Gingrich, who linked the murders to the Democratic Party's support for social safety net, civil rights, and other dangerous counter-culture policies. (The ironies of this charge were double; Gingrich's own family values include telling his wife in her cancer sick bed of his intent to seek divorce, while Smith's own step-father was a prominent Republican fund-raiser.)

Ultimately, Smith's case lacked larger lessons and a call for action, offering only the truisms that typify faux national tragedies: don't be mentally unstable and don't kill your children, if you can avoid it. The one possible moral of the story perhaps shows the progress of American society. That is, while American public opinion clearly showed its residual ugly racist history with its unquestioning acceptance of Smith's initial story of a Willie Hortonesque African American assailant, the subsequent realization and broad-based societal outrage indicated how far we've come and how far we've got to go.

In conclusion, the theory of Faux National Tragedies shows that just because the media says there is smoke, doesn't necessarily mean there is fire. Some media events, like the OJ Simpson case or the Los Angeles firefight bank robbery are real national tragedies, with social, cultural and political policy implications. The former revealed the depths of the nation's racial divide, the latter raised real issues of gun control and police armaments. In the end, FNTs like Heaven's Gate at worst create bogus news networks like MSNBC, elevate talking heads with names like Stone, and force us to endure Dan Rather's on-going prime-time abuse of the English language. At best, faux national tragedies do serve one valuable function; if nothing else, they can make us feel pretty good about our own mental health.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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