Salem 66: Dispatch #3 – September 19-October 10, 2015

An hour come round… the first salvos of the twenty-first century… Sim City 2000’s fatal bug…

DogWelder was an Australian who, in later years, wrote short horror stories to some acclaim. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, he wrote a brief comment on the forums of the then-popular website Something Awful. The thread was titled: “the World Trade Center is on fire.”

“Oh my fucking god,” he wrote. “Another plane just hit the second tower, a 767 or something.” Line return.”This is fucking insane.” Below this lay his signature: a jpg image of Tyler Durden, from Fight Club, hunched above a cluttered desk, engaged with splicing together two lengths of film. With one hand he points upward, to a dark oval above his head. “In the industry we call these… cigarette burns,” read the text, attractively arranged in an acid-eaten font.

In Fight Club, both the film and the book, the “cigarette burns” line is one of many useful facts imparted to the viewer by Durden — a macho phantasm dedicated to the anarchic collapse of industrial civilization. Cigarette burns, he explains, signal film projectionists about approaching reel changes. They blip across the screen, barely noticeable, reminding the savvy among us that the illusion of film is not magic, but mechanism… Armed with this knowledge, and employed as a night projectionist, Tyler is free to explore “interesting opportunities… like splicing single frames of pornography into family films.” And why? Why not, basically… Tyler Durden, who became a guru for angry young men at the turn of the century, saw nothing in mainstream society worth respecting. It all needed to be subverted, insulted and, ultimately, destroyed.

Something Awful's Logo

The Something Awful people loved him, in 2001.

DarthVersace, who is now a respected author of comic books, chimed in several minutes after DogWelder. “The BBC World Service is pissin’ itself,” she wrote. “I’ve never heard the Brits so flustered. They don’t know anything. No one knows anything. And I don’t know anything. But if I had to hazard a guess, kiddies…”

She attached an image of Osama Bin Laden, smiling and self-satisfied.

“ROTFL Owned Great Satan.”

Her signature at the time was a piece of her artwork — a randy looking young man with horns and pointed ears. “THE DEMON LOVE ARMY,” read its caption. “Because jesus won’t give head, THAT’S WHY.”

In those days, new users were publically shamed. Their “avatar,” or representative image, was a baby wearing sunglasses, decorated with the rainbow caption “FORUM NEWBIE.” After making a certain number of posts, a user could trade up for a more advanced title, like “Attention Whore,” and a more humane image – like a close-up of a corpulent woman smiling through jpeg artifacts.

ToasterOven, who had registered that June, was not shocked by the attack on New York. “It was inevitable,” they wrote. “Thank God it wasn’t a nuke.”

Oxymoron, a more seasoned user, speculated as to the pilot’s motives. “This could only mean three things,” they said:

“a) both pilots were members of anti-capitalist terrorist groups or suicidal

b) some terrorist group hax0red* the planes to automatically crash into the towers

c) pilots are fucking idiots and rely on their navigation systems despite the fact that they’re on collision course with a freaking skyscraper.

This also kind of reminds me of SimCity 2000, where I used to build my arcologies as close as possible to the airport.”

A brief time passed. Then, Oxymoron altered the message: “Edit,” began the postscript. “I forgot about the hijacking possibility.”


“If this was terrorism (which it appears to be) the smoking crater left over where Terrorist HQ once stood will be [its] start and the end,” added GPF.

“We need to turn the fucking desert into a sheet of glass,” wrote graedus.

DarthVersave followed up the thought with a jpg of a mushroom cloud. “I’ll open the bay door if you’ll ride it down, graedus. Time and place, just say when and I’m there. These fucking people are no goddam good to anyone.

“Of course, they probably say and think the exact same thing about us.”


Small Gods of Simi Valley… a big win for the Cable News Network…

Like many of those currently under thirty , I exist at pains to watch as little CNN as possible. Which is why last month’s republican primary debate, broadcast by the network from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California looked more like a three hour car accident than a policy discussion. I tuned in, and so did the rest of the country – but at what cost?


For those three hours, on September 16th, CNN commanded what Brian Stelter, writing for the network’s financial news offshoot, CNN Money, called “NFL-level ratings.” Twenty-three million people watched the event, on average… a total slightly below Fox News’ August debate, but far in excess of any previous CNN programming. The network’s 9/11 ratings are difficult to procure, but unlike the debates, that particular disaster was presented without commercial breaks. Simi Valley was, in a way, more real… You can sell those kinds of numbers to Pepsi Cola.

Donald Trump immediately took credit for the inflated viewership, in keeping with his usual strategy of taking credit for everything. “Just announced that in the history of @CNN, last night’s debate was its highest rated ever,” he wrote to twitter, on the day following the contest. “Will they send me flowers & a thank you note?” More than 10,000 people “favorited” the remark — whatever that means.

Jeb Bush

Trump didn’t score much in the debate itself. His biggest hits that night were both non-verbal: a disbelieving series of facial expressions and an enthusiastic low-five offered as a congratulation to Jeb Bush. Both have been memorialized in numerous gif files – a candidate in pantomime.

CNN might still owe him flowers, though. What Fox News did on accident in their August 6th program from Cleveland, CNN accomplished by design. Fox, eager to assert their position as the media gatekeeper of the Republican party, ran that first debate like a state firing squad… From their initial question (“is there anyone on stage … who is unwilling, tonight, to pledge their support to the eventual nominee … and pledge not to run an independent campaign against [them]?”) the machinery of the night was turned to singular purpose: embarrassing and destroying Donald Trump.

And it worked. For about forty-eight hours.

On Friday, August 7th, the day after the Fox debate, Trump lashed out at one of its moderators, the journalist Megyn Kelly, in an audio interview with CNN. “There was blood coming out of her eyes,” he said, recounting her approach. “Blood coming out of her wherever.” In response, Erick Erickson, editor-in-chief of the right-wing website RedState, withdrew Trump’s invitation to a gathering of Atlanta conservatives. For Erickson, the “blood” remark was a clear allusion to menstruation, and a step too far outside of common decency. As the weekend arrived, Trump took to the air again and again. “Wherever,” he explained, was meant to refer to a few of Kelly’s socially acceptable orifices: her nose and ears. Anyone who thought different was a “degenerate.”

On Saturday, Roger Stone, Trump’s most experienced political adviser, resigned his position, citing dissatisfaction with the “high volume” of “provocative media fights” surrounding the candidate. Writing for the Washington Post, journalists Philip Rucker and Robert Costa reported that “Republican leaders who have watched Donald Trump’s summer surge … now believe that his presidential candidacy has been contained and may begin to collapse.”

Dark days, apparently. But Trump stayed on the offensive, calling in to practically every outlet that would have him. Every outlet, that is, but Fox. To the consternation of the network, messages from viewers grew increasingly hostile. They thought Donald Trump was in the right, and that Fox News hadn’t given him a fair shake. They also, apparently, sent death threats to Megyn Kelly.

On Monday morning, reported Gabriel Sherman for New York Magazine, “ [Roger ]Ailes called Trump ‘multiple’ times yesterday morning ‘begging’ him to tweet out that they had made peace.” Sherman’s source was, the journalist explained, “briefed on the negotiations.” Trump’s tweet was more direct: “Roger Ailes just called. He is a great guy & assures me that ‘Trump’ will be treated fairly on @FoxNews,” it read. “His word is always good!”

The firing squad had missed. Victory had been declared on Twitter.


An alien world reveals itself… a reality of degradation and shame… you wanna be safe? Buy a bomb shelter

In 2015, it appears, cable news can’t coronate anyone. It can, however, still attract ratings. The only thing the networks lost is their last vestige of prestige.

Almost every question asked at Simi Valley was constructed as a direct attack, quoting one candidate’s unfavorable remark about another and then demanding an address of the insult from both parties. As an example, take the night’s first query, which was directed at Carly Fiorina.

“Booby Jindal has suggested that your party’s frontrunner, Mr. Donald Trump, would be dangerous as president,” said Jake Tapper, one of the night’s moderators. “You as well have raised concerns about Mr. Trump’s temperament …would you feel comfortable with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear codes?”

Where do you go from there?


Jeb hits Trump, and yet survives… The great reptile revealed…

There was a curious Trump-Bush exchange that night. The original question was both fair and interesting — Hugh Hewitt, the former Reagan staffer and current right-wing radio host, pushed Jeb Bush on the familiarity of his foreign policy advisors. What, exactly, would he do to distinguish himself from his father and brother on the world stage?

Bush dithered, promising an unconvincing policy of “peace through strength.” At which point, Trump attempted to break in. Hewitt allowed him to, by pivoting his question to the frontrunner. When would he announce names for his foreign policy team?

“I’m meeting with people that are terrific people,” Trump said, before pivoting himself. “I am the only person on this dais,” he continued, “the only person who fought very, very hard against us … going into Iraq…”

He circled the point several times, swiping at Rand Paul in the process (this, alone among the nights indignities, prompted gasping in the crowd). Jeb, hitting back, accused Trump of poor judgment for calling Hillary Clinton a good negotiator. This got Trump riled.

“Your brother and your brother’s administration gave us Barack Obama,” spat the mogul. “Because it was such a disaster those last three months that Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have been elected!”

“You know what?” said Bush, in a voice trying for steely. “As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure. He kept us safe. I don’t know if you remember, Donald… You remember the — the rubble? You remember the firefighter with his arm around it?”


The crowd — mostly establishment republicans — burst into thunderous applause. They remembered.

Neither candidate in the above exchange actually answered the question asked of them. Their foreign policy strategies, and the composition of Trump’s team, remain vague. Even “Peace Through Strength,” a good old-fashioned Orwellian buzzword, went over like a wet fart.

But there were cheers – long, sustained cheers, for “he kept us safe.” And they rose for the images: the “rubble,” the “firefighter,” the World Trade Center on fire.

Trump is right, in part. The Bush administration of the twenty-first century did give us Barack Obama –his success does owe much to his predecessor’s failures. But Obama isn’t the only thing we gained. The Bush years gave us everything.

Since this century began, we’ve been reacting and reacting and reacting… adding our jokes and our plans and our lies and our anger to a thread of human thinking that began fourteen years and twenty-some-odd days ago. We are not reacting to the event itself – some of us aren’t even sure what it was. We’re reacting to the images.

Those constructs of words and pixels and celluloid were chosen well, if arbitrarily. The rubble, the firefighter — the World Trade Center on Fire. We avoid them and enshrine them and worship at their secret altar. These images are CNN – proof of its value and prestige. They are Fox News – the unspoken paranoid drive behind their swirling flags and garishly patriotic sets. Their importance cannot be questioned in mass media, because doing so would mean questioning the utility of mass media itself.

In January of 1942, Tiffany Thayer, then the editor of the Fortean Society Magazine, a publication dedicated to radical doubt, proposed that the Second World War was really a sham. “We can shut off the radio, stop reading newspapers and stay away from the movies,” he wrote. “Their ‘war’ stops automatically as soon as you do these three things.”

It was heresy, of course. Thayer lost friends. But in much of America, I’m sure, his prescription was true.

Mass media presents us with a cosmography – a model of the universe that takes special care to delineate our place within it, and our responsibilities to the whole. As sure as Billy Sunday, it demands belief.

And people might tune into it. They might read it and watch it and share it. But they can’t be compelled to believe it – at least not wholesale.

The rubble, the firefighter, the World Trade Center on Fire – they’re not just images that orient us as Americans in the twenty-first century. They’re evidence of the mechanism by which that orientation is enacted.

Cigarette burns.


And now, the hero of our story…

In October of 2002, there was another thread posted to the Something Awful forums. This one was called “anything+benny hill theme = funny.” Its premise was layering the theme from Benny Hill, Boots Randolph’s swinging “Yakety Sax,” over incongruous video footage. At the beginning of page 2, a user named DrScorp posted a link to a video file: tribute.avi. It combined Randolph with footage of the towers falling from CNN, played back at faster than normal speed.

The reviews were unanimous:

“I think there are only a few times in my life when I’ve laughed so hard,” wrote Cutlass Supreme.

“I can’t help laughing,” said MDDevice. “I can’t STOP laughing.”

“I lost bladder control at the 40 second mark. I can’t believe it.”

“Words fail me. There is only laughter.”

Vorheese, a user registered that February, wrote a brief play about the video:

“50 years after watching tribute.avi

Satan: Hello

Me: Hello Satan

Satan: You know why you’re here, right?

Me: Oh yeh”

That was a catchphrase, at the time. In an awkward way, it was meant to convey victory – to laud a post that had succeeded in being funny. Since Something Awful was a comedy forum, at the time, “gold” was synonymous with their stated goal. The funnier something was, the more attention it generated.

CNN and Fox are playing a game for attention, too – but measured by different and less personal metrics. They move slowly, and hold on to the images and concepts which they broadcast for a long time, comparatively. For them, and for the audiences of their debates, the images of 9/11 are still sacred.

People like Vorheese recognize that they have crossed a line – but, in the end, they can’t bring themselves to care. Next to lols, damanation don’t mean shit.


See you space cowboy… grim chatter beneath the escutcheon…

4chan is an anonymous message board which began as an offshoot of Something Awful. The 4Chan culture, however, eschewed usernames and registration dates and the strange gradations of newbies and veterans in favor of total, democratic anonymity. Everyone has the same voice on 4Chan, and the same tools of broadcast. Posts succeed or fail based largely on popularity alone, regardless of their author’s pedigree. It’s been the Internet’s most accessible red-light district for years – a place to share bestiality videos, child pornography and, occasionally, jokes.

On the 30th of September, a warning appeared on 4chan. “Some of you guys are alright,” it read. “Don’t go to school tomorrow if you are in the northwest.

“happening thread will be posted tomorrow morning

so long space robots.”

On October 1st, an angry man named Chris Harper Mercer opened fire on Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, killing ten and wounding seven. According to an eyewitness, he ordered his victims to stand and state their religion — then fired.

That same day Barack Obama, in grieved comment given from a White House briefing room, again made his case for gun control, advocating for the formation of a less intractable advocacy organization than the N.R.A. “And I would particularly ask America’s gun owners who are using those guns properly, safely…to think about whether your views are being properly represented by the organization that suggests it is speaking for you,” he said.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, speaking in a New Hampshire town hall on Monday, October 5th, took the line a step farther: “What I would love to see is … responsible gun owners, hunters, form a different organization and take back the Second Amendment from these extremists,” she suggested.

The N.R.A. has yet to make an official response.

4Chan, like all “new media” is more nimble.

The post on September 30th was clearly constructed by someone familiar with the cultural conventions of the board. “Happening” is a phrase commonly used on their political board, /pol/, to refer to a blooming scandal or disaster — and typically, a scandal or disaster that seems to portend some larger societal break down. “See you space robots” is a riff on the traditional closing line of Cowboy Bebop, a popular Japanese cartoon from the 1990s about bounty hunter astronauts with impeccable taste in jazz. Each episode ends with white italics in the bottom right of frame. Typically the sign off is “see you space cowboy…” but like The X-Files, special episodes mix it up a little. The show’s finale concludes: “You’re gonna carry that weight.”

pepeThe culture of 4Chan, speaking broadly, is one of shame and paranoia, bleeding into white-hot rage. Its most socially awkward posters, sometimes called “robots,” see themselves as fundamentally separated from the mainstream of human life. In post after post, these nameless and faceless young men complain about “chads” and “staceys,” the “normies” who have no trouble fitting in, going out and getting on with the activities of modern work and leisure. Part of this divide is sexual — “robots” and “betas” (short for “beta males”) can’t get laid, while the “chads” of the world can. But that’s only part of it. Despite what you may have read, 4Chan is not a “men’s rights” collective – or any other kind of organized hate group. They’re a disorganized hate group – and a far more unnerving thing by far.

Reading 4Chan can be melancholy. Many of its posts are focused on emptiness and alienation – adolescent paeans to the feelings of “robots” who feel hectored and bullied by a world that barely notices them.

On October 5th, while Hillary Clinton was grabbing headlines with her milquetoast position on the N.R.A., another post appeared on 4Chan. Like the pre-shooting post on the 30th, it ran beside an image of Pepe the Frog — a kind of unofficial mascot for the board and a visual stand-in for every nameless “beta,” “robot,” and “virgin” posting on it. In the warning, Pepe was depicted as scowling and brandishing a pistol: “Pepe_gun.jpg.” The post on the 5th was more downbeat. Its image, of Pepe sitting morosely on a couch, was “alone at party.png.”

“At parties all the time,” it read. “No one ever talks to me… they know I’m there but they never include me … I don’t know why I stay around … I can barely manage a squeak when I talk to people.

“Paralyzed by fear of losing ‘friends,” it concludes.

On Friday, October 2nd, another post appeared, this one beside a masked Pepe. “The first of our kind has struck fear into the hearts of America,” it began. “On October 5th, 2015 at 1:00 PM CT, a fellow robot will take up arms against a university near Philadelphia. His cries will be heard, his victims will cower in fear, and the strength of the Union will decay a little more…

“I plea to thee, brothers! We have only once chance, one spark, for our revolution. The United States will soon condemn us to the status quo forever …Don’t let our one chance at winning history slip away.”

There was no shooting in Philadelphia on October 5th, thank God. But there was a slew of news stories about the post and, by the weekend, an official statement of caution was issued by the Philadelphia field office of the F.B.I. Gawker and Salon registered their disapproval, and images of the “beta uprising” threat spread far and wide.

It may not have pulled in NFL numbers, but it was, in the small manner of an internet post, a rousing success. It was seen and it was meant to be – and, in my estimation, it was about as tasteless a maneuver as CNN leading its bacchanal with the threat of nuclear annihilation.


Whadda you got — an Oreck?

As of today, on 4Chan, parodies of the September 30th post have become a trend.

A picture of Hitler running beside “some of you guys are alright, don’t go to Poland tomorrow.”

Gavrillo Pincip, the assassin of the archduke Franz Ferdinand, warning against going to Sarajevo on June 28th 1914. “Some you guys are alright,” he says.

Jim Carey’s version of the Grinch, masked and armed: “Some of you guys are alright. Don’t go to Whoville tomorrow.”

George W. Bush, smiling and raising a glass: “Some of you guys are alright. Don’t go to the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.

“happening thread will be posted later

“so long space robots.”



Illustrations for Salem 66 are the work of Matthew H. James, a painter, sculptor and performer living in Brooklyn, New York. His website is here:
You can read all of the “Salem 66” dispatches here.
Don Jolly looks human but isn’t. His work has appeared on Boing Boing, the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Ampersand Review.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *