James Lee, a 43-year-old man with a long history of grudges against Discovery’s networks and their programming, was shot and killed by police yesterday after he entered Discovery Communications headquarters with a gun and explosives and took hostages. None of the hostages were harmed.
Lee left behind a manifesto that collected a grab-bag of screeds and rants. But they were unified by one familiar theme: the exaggerated belief in a media institution’s ability to single-handedly create, and impose solutions upon, social problems.
Lee’s “demands,” collected at his website savetheplanetprotest.com, are fixated on human population growth, which he said was destroying the world (“All human procreation and farming must cease!”). Citing Malthus’ theories of population limits and the philosophical novel Ishmael, the manifesto is a goldmine for pundits wanting to blame Lee’s unhinged behavior on environmentalism (“Find ways so that people don’t build more housing pollution which destroys the environment to make way for more human filth!”) or illegal-alien hysteria (“Programs must be developed to find solutions to stopping ALL immigration pollution and the anchor baby filth that follows that”).
But mostly it’s a big bag of crazy. (“Nothing is more important than saving them. The Lions, Tigers, Giraffes, Elephants, Froggies, Turtles, Apes, Raccoons, Beetles, Ants, Sharks, Bears, and, of course, the Squirrels.” Of course.) Doused with FULL CAPS and multiple exclamation points, it flashed the signifiers of an increasingly frustrated mind that believes it sees The One Real Truth, and—maddeningly, infuriatingly—can’t see why everyone else doesn’t just get it.
There had to be a reason the rest of the world didn’t see things James Lee’s way. That reason, he decided, was the channels of Discovery and their programming. The biggest culprits, apparently, were the slew of shows on Discovery Health and TLC about birth and giant families (Kate Plus Eight, 19 Kids and Counting).
Discovery was making people want to have babies—”filthy, human babies.” It was making people over produce and over consume. It was doing that because—well, if the rest of us couldn’t see what James Lee saw, it was because we were brainwashed. And now Discovery was going to have to brainwash us into seeing the truth.
How would it do that? Lee’s demands were unhinged, but they were also an exaggerated, funhouse-mirror version of critiques that are common enough from people with all manner of grievances against the media, whether over social causes, politics or morality. The media makes people believe the things they believe with entertaining propaganda, and the media can—if it chooses—whip up some entertaining propaganda that will make them believe the right things. So just do it!
So Lee—who on earlier, less tragic versions of his crusade tried to sponsor a contest to develop pro-environment TV shows—includes in his screed against Discovery a list of programming suggestions. Discovery must develop primetime programs to make the idea of ceasing the production of “filthy human children” more palatable. “A game show format contest would be in order. Perhaps also forums of leading scientists.” Also, “Develop shows that will correct and dismantle the dangerous US world economy.”
Even as he writes, his frustration seems to grow: “Talk about Malthus and Darwin until it sinks into the stupid people’s brains until they get it!!” He writes like someone trying to fix a TV by banging on the side until it starts working. “Do all until something WORKS and the natural world starts improving and human civilization building STOPS and is reversed! MAKE IT INTERESTING SO PEOPLE WATCH AND APPLY SOLUTIONS!!!!”
Violent outbursts like Lee’s are, fortunately, rare. Less rare is the tempting belief that people’s minds are simple black boxes, to whose buttons and switches TV has easy, transparent access. It’s not that I don’t believe TV—and literature, and art and all media and communication—affect the way people think. They do, and profoundly. But they don’t affect it in easily predictable and controllable ways. Ideas, communication and the mind are just far more complex than that. One person reads a classic novel and decides to write his or her own story; another person reads it and shoots a celebrity.
But there will always be people who believe that everyone else—the stupid people, the sheep—are being obviously programmed by the media, a programming to which they themselves are immune. Another of James Lee’s demands was that Discovery use its shows to eliminate war and weaponry: “Stop Future Weapons shows or replace the dialogue condemning the people behind these developments so that the shows become exposes rather than advertisements of Arms sales and development!” James Lee died after he was shot by police and an explosive he was wearing detonated. He learned to make the explosive, he said on the day that he died, by watching Mythbusters.