The Unsafe World We Live In
Whether people wish to discuss or ignore Trump’s presidency, it’s hard to refute the fact we’re living through an event that will leave a lasting impact, ultimately “structur[ing] our social lives and giv[ing] reference points for our life stories and global histories” (Sonnevend 109). To attempt to investigate the unfolding of this event in current media would require work longer than that of a blog post, but it is possible to take a look at smaller, constituent events. By examining how these are handled in today’s digital media, we can begin to see themes, to see some of what is at stake overall. For the sake of untying one of these threads, I’d like to examine one question: How can something that didn’t happen become the basis for an event?
Although Sonnevend is careful to note of events that “we easily forget them” (113), the cumulative effect of the smaller events in a larger one can be quite heavy. One recent argument and controversy has surrounded Trump’s executive order to ban travel from predominantly Muslim countries, with concerns including whether the act was constitutional; conflicted with human rights; actually guards against terrorism, as is claimed; or promotes racism and violence. During media coverage of this event, something even more bizarre occurred when Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway referred to “the Bowling Green massacre” as an example of why the ban was necessary. It was nearly immediately revealed, however, that such an event never happened. Although Conway claimed that she misspoke, many were quick to accuse her of purposefully trying to distort reality in pushing the necessity of Trump’s executive order.
We can use Sonnevend’s five dimensions of an iconic event’s narration to show that although this Bowling Green massacre never took place, it is nevertheless an event in the sense that it has had recognizable and lasting consequences. The five dimensions are as follows:
Foundation: The ongoing legal battles and struggle to convince or confuse the American public on the “travel ban” EO set the stage for Conway’s comment and show what is at stake.
Mythologization: The comment led many who already mistrusted Conway to push harder for the administration to admit that she is a liar and dangerous; the comment was mobilized to show the current administration’s bending of events and speech to suit their own agenda and ultimately plays into the larger commentary around “alternative facts.”
Condensation: The term “Bowling Green massacre” quickly became a joke, inspiring Twitter hashtags and often accompanied by witty comments, videos, and pictures.
Counternarrative: Conway was quick to defend herself, saying she misspoke. Others were quick to bring up examples of the same thing happening on the Left, e.g., Clinton’s claim about facing sniper fire in Bosnia. (Side note: Curiously, it’s tough to be sure whether this example was held up to prove that Conway is only human and makes mistakes, as have others before her, since the claim is that Clinton knowingly lied in order to achieve a certain effect. What, then, is the difference between the two acts? It’s difficult to claim that Conway is innocent while Clinton did the same thing and is a liar. It would seem that if you’re going to claim that they slipped up, then it’s an accident on both parts; but if you bring up the Clinton incident, the implication is that Conway is also guilty. It seems a strange bit of cognitive dissonance to claim the Conway incident was pure unmotivated accident but then bring up the Clinton occurrence in the same breath as malicious or as some kind of defense.)
Remediation: The “event’s brand” quickly spread from TV news reporting to online forums, internet news sites, print newspapers, and social media, each time changing and churning under different accounts and new info. Cosmopolitan, for instance, claimed they had heard her use the same phrase before, which is one example of influence regarding how the event is talked about and portrayed in media as the story unfolds.
Overall, we might locate this event-from-non-event in part of the larger conversation regarding the administration’s use of language as persuasive tool, whether they are committed to working with language to represent and explain reality or shape it in the way that they see fit, regardless of how much of the population agrees. When the event of Trump’s presidency is examined through the lens of history, the use of words to obfuscate or illuminate will certainly be a hot topic, and although the Bowling Green incident might be one footnote among many more prominent examples, by looking at it, we can see a clear example of how event travels through media.
Sonnevend, Julia. “Event.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 109-117.