Recalling The Forgotten Terror: 75 years ago tonight, the northeastern United States was invaded by Martians. May it never happen again!

Mars Invasion1

With each passing year, it becomes harder to remember one of the most bizarre days — or should I say evenings? — in American history. And given that this evening is the 75th anniversary of the incident that occurred that evening, I wanted my students in particular to know about it in all its rich detail.

With all of the legends and reports about UFOs and extraterrestrials that we have grown up hearing, it becomes harder and harder to believe that on October 30, 1938, in a small field in New Jersey just outside of Princeton, the United States was invaded by aliens from what was probably the planet Mars.

At first, of course, it was unclear what was happening: what seemed to be a vessel of some kind had landed in a field in the small town of Grovers Mill, and townspeople — who began to crowd around it and attempt to figure out exactly what it was — saw only a smoldering hodgepodge of melted metal. Soon after, however, long,  menacing flexible metal tubes of some sort, each of which had some kind of an object attached to its end, began to rise out of the smoking hulk and point the in the direction of the gathered crowd. By then, New Jersey state troopers and soldiers from a nearby military base had arrived.

And then chaos ensued.

The rest of what took place  on that amazing night is best read in detail, and I have included a link to a page that I think you will find informative. For now, I will only share that the route toward New York City taken by those aliens, through central New Jersey and over the Watchung mountains just a mile from where I now live, and as well as the mayhem that they caused, is absolutely beyond belief to most of us today.

This is a link to the details of that Martian invasion, and this will show you the New York Times headline appearing the next day told the horrible story.

Finally, this article will provide even more interesting and accurate data about what we do and do not know about the events of that evening.

Funny, but even though I study sudden catastrophic violence, I’ve always been glad that I was not alive on that long-ago evening.

Why a Blog? And Why “Media and Mayhem?”

I have resisted doing a blog for some pretty flimsy reasons. And while I could keep resisting it, and continue to keep the reasons to myself, I think that time, place, and technology and the demands of my teaching just may have caught up with me.  More and more, I find myself with some idea or gripe or news content that I would like to share with my students or colleagues, some article I think might provoke vigorous discussion, or video clips or photographs I have seen that seem to illustrate some urgent public debate.

But this forces a confession: As crazy as it will sound, from an early age I remember feeling that there was something unseemly about assuming that people would be interested in something I had to say. Dumb, huh? You’d think I was born and raised in the Massachusetts Bay Colony under the guidance of Cotton Mather given my puritanical reluctance to be conspicuous.  And the pilgrim shtick hardly applies to a loud, smart-aleck kid from Southern California who grew up on a block roughly similar to the set of “The Wonder Years.”

But lemme keep this confessional going for a second, because I hear my hypocrisy-alarm going off.   For a guy who is so sensitive to spin and bloviation, I sure have contributed much more than my share of hot air. And while I have always been lucky that my “clients” have been either people or causes or institutions I believed in,  I can’t say that I have never found myself defending  policies with which I disagreed or publicly expressing enthusiasm for something that, deep inside, I found less than scintillating. And that experience, I think, is probably a large part of my reluctance.

In fact, in 2000, I wrote an essay that the Washington Post put on the cover of the opinion section in which I “confessed” to being an occasional bloviator and swore off ever opening my mouth unless I really felt truly competent. My gripe was, and is, against those self-proclaimed media experts for whom breaking news is more a chance for self-promotion and career advancement than a chance to serve the public good with empathy and sound information. This still eats at me.

But enough is enough. I am lucky enough to have one of the best jobs anyone can have, a job that allows  me to come to work wanting to know what my colleagues and students are thinking, wanting to see their films and their web designs and art, eager to read their prose. In fact, if you do this job even remotely decently, it is not even an open question as to whether you should share and put forth ideas. Of course you should. The real question is whether you do it with humility, with an understanding that ideas exist to be contested and not to be pronounced as received wisdom, and whether you show genuine respect for diverse and conflicting ideas and the people who put them forward.

So I am starting a modest and occasional blog –primarily for my students — in which I will share ideas, brief impressions, films, podcasts, images, links to other articles, and interesting student work.  My posts will inevitably reflect the basic interests and obsessions that drive my teaching and research, so here they are:

  • I worry a lot about the decline of civility and humility in media and culture. I know that these are each different concepts, sometimes seen as antiquated, but the general point I am making is my unease at the harshness and volume and incivility that marks much public debate and news production.  And while this is a complex issue, you do need to know that I target 24 hour cable news channels as a major incubator for this poisonous tone.  These bottomless news holes seem to invite trash-talk. Not to mention all of us, myself included, who have opened our trap only to immediately regret some comment offered more out of anger than contemplation.
  • In a related vein, I love vigorous, contested and even angry debates. But sometimes people seem to forget that, when expressing all their deeply-felt and even explosive passion, they are addressing other people with their own deeply-felt feelings, fears and vulnerabilities. Staying aware of our basic humanness in a disembodied digital age is no small challenging age when your adversary might be a continent way. We have relationships with people we never see.   But it is imperative, lest we gain our Blackberries only to lose our hearts and souls.
  • I believe, especially in some of my work in risk and crisis communications with agencies faced with the need to communicate difficult or complex news, in what might be called “radical honesty.”  And this commitment to telling painful truths rather than hiding them is grounded in both ethical and practical considerations. Lying or shaving the truth will always be something people try. Who, after all, relishes the thought of delivering bad or painful news? Who wants to tell a community about a violent incident that has just occurred? Who wants to announce that some long anticipated medication might not work that well? It’s just that the digital age presents an almost unlimited number of ways that even slight shavers of the truth can be exposed. So especially when public health and safety is at stake, “radical honesty” is crucial.
  • I understand and respect the almost insatiable demand of the public for sensational news, often about celebrities. It is lofty and respectable for the elite to scorn these fascinations, but it also futile. Many of them relate to fundamental human anxieties and fascinations that can be seen just as strongly in antiquity. Death, violence, infidelity and all the other titillating fascinations have not persisted solely because we are venal or voyeuristic, but because we are human beings. So while I may dismiss Page Six of The Post as a source of information with the power to fuel serious civic engagement, and while these fascinations do often divert our attention from profoundly serious issues, I do understand their power and lure. And, yes, I sometimes enjoy Page Six.
  • Finally, I should say something about public frenzy, or what one 19th century observer called “seasons of excitement and recklessness, when (we) care not what (we) do.”  Since my earliest research about children, the media, and moral panic, I have had an almost knee-jerk concern about those periods when society, with frightening certainty, identifies a folk devil from some racial, religious or ethnic group and decides that all problems and pain are traceable to this group. This is when, in our frenzy, we suspend normal standards of fairness and skepticism and take actions and pass laws that ignore normal legal protections. None of us, in the right historical or social context, are immune from being caught up in these episodes. We can all get nutty in the right time and place. The trick is self-awareness of our vulnerability to losing our way, not claims of immunity.

So here goes nothing. I have no idea what my posts will be like and when they will occur. They will range from one sentence questions to links to videos and to longer posts. Because they will be irregular, you probably should subscribe to the site’s RSS feed so you will be notified when I have posted something. And of course, I would be thrilled if you are moved to comment on any post.

Finally, why “Media and Mayhem?” I enjoy peace and quiet and serenity as much as anyone. But I will always have a special fascination with those periods of heightened social tension and anxiety when, for good or bad, society casts caution to the wind and, in the process, reveals in media and culture some profound and sometimes unsettling facts about who we are, who we think we are, and everything from our most noble hopes to our most troubling and venal impulses.