November 4, 2007

Bush And The Comfort Culture



At the Visual Democracy conference I attended over the weekend, NYU professor of Media, Culture, and Communication Marita Sturken discussed how post-9/11 America has evolved into a “comfort culture.”

In this climate — especially when something really goes wrong –  the aim is to make people feel better rather than make the situation itself any better.  Rather than recognize complex feelings or actual pain, reality is warded off by sentimentality, often symbolized by comfort objects (including teddy bears, memorial trinkets and other kitsch commemorative goods) which serve as formulaic Band-Aids to affirm that everything is going to be okay.

We can see this reflex playing out in the newswire photos in the immediate aftermath of the San Diego firestorms.  In the comfort culture, we are all children and our cheerleader President, who conveniently never grew beyond adolescence, is the Comforter-In-Chief.  In this fairy tale world, of course, the man is the hero, and the woman is the damsel in distress.  (And then, in the second picture, you can get a double layer of comfort, where the rescuee is herself a hero of the security state, in the guise of a branded post 9/11 “first responder.”)

In this smiley face world, there is no need to bother with emergency response, resource management, or fire-related zoning and development problems, and the like.  You need only relax, and collect your hug and your fuzzy bear.


To see the whole package in action, check out this CNN video stream in which Bush, while physically attending to fire victim Kendra Jeffcoat, suddenly realizes that husband, Jeff, obviously feeling excluded, and issuing a mock plea for his own hug to address the awkwardness, ends up getting one too.

Or course, if any real (i.e. adult) empathy was involved, as opposed to simply the gesture of it, Bush would demonstrate more than a surface compassion.  Instead, however, note how after the cut (in other words, after Bush is fairly certain the photo op is over), the C-I-C loses interest as Jeff give account of his losses.

More on the “comfort culture” here.  More on the book “Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero” here.

(image 1 & 2: K.C. Alfred/A.P. October. 25, 2007.  San Diego.  via YahooNews.  screen grab: CNN.  via

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Michael Shaw
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