The tide of history often hinges on a single moment. We like to think of great events as inevitable, as tides that sweep across societies and reshape worlds like the inescapable pull of gravity, we imbue these events with supernatural power, declaring them the will of whichever god(s) is favored in that moment, by those people. But the more I study history, the more I realize—history is stupid. Great events are shaped not by the will of gods or the greatness of ideas, it’s shaped by dumb f-cking luck. History is cyclical but chaotic, full of stupid people doing stupid things and often getting the absolute dumbest results. Even celebrated moments in history contain some of the dumbest sh-t you’ve ever heard, if you don’t believe me, pick up literally any history book, and I promise you will read something that will make you shake your head at how f-cking dumb history is.
But dumb does not preclude scary. Plenty of dumb sh-t in history is also petrifying. The eleven-and-a-half-minute video released by the House Jan. 6 Committee is a perfect example. The January 6th insurrection has been memed to death, many late-night jokes have been made about the participants, but this video is a stark reminder how close the United States came to an overthrow of government. (Content warning for violence/language.)
This video is an excellent piece of visual storytelling, but people are already raising the point that this video is a “supercut”, suggesting it trivializes the events it depicts.
the Daily Show supercut style migrating to Congressional hearings— Sam Adams (@SamuelAAdams) June 10, 2022
I’m not quoting Sam Adams to put him on blast, but because this is a concise interpretation of the Committee’s visual timeline of January 6. It IS a supercut. And it IS a piece of “infotainment”, designed to engage, not just inform. This video sits at the cross section of journalism and 100 years of cinema teaching us to understand visual storytelling in a certain way. The entire reason The Daily Show’s supercuts work is because we understand it is shorthand and how it relates to the broader subject, thanks to cinematic conditioning. The editors of this video are deliberately exploiting that cinematic conditioning to not just lay out the timeline for how the insurrection developed, but to make us feel a certain way about it. To feel scared, shocked, to have a visceral realization of how close we came to utter chaos on January 6. This isn’t just a piece of evidence, it’s a short film.
That choice is deliberate. The Committee elected not to lecture us, but to tell us a story. And to tell that story, they chose not a dry reading of events, but to show a short film of January 6, incorporating multiple POVs and perspectives on the event, gritty and on the ground like a Soderbergh movie. But it’s a fine line to walk between using cinematic language to unravel a chaotic sequence of events and treating the whole thing like an actual movie.
This is where the danger of collective stupidity arises. I have no doubt the history of January 6 is laden with individual anecdotes of supreme idiocy and that we will recognize the sheer dumb luck that it wasn’t a much worse day, but even as we understand the cinematic quality of the Committee’s first piece of evidence, we must also remember its purpose. The Committee is telling us a story, but they are telling it to achieve a specific result, like a prosecutor on Law & Order. These hearings are being televised not to entertain us, but to galvanize us to demand more information, more accountability, more protections for our democracy—this is the “info” part of “infotainment”.
History is dumb as sh-t, and this history will undoubtedly read as completely insane in the textbooks a hundred years from now, assuming, that is, the hinge of this particular moment swings in the direction of democracy. One thing that isn’t dumb, though, is this video, and the decision to lean into the inherently emotional appeal of the visual. It’s too easy to reduce the insurrection to memes, it’s important to remember how scary it was, and is, and nothing accomplishes that better than the immediacy of visual storytelling. In that regard, this video is a brilliant stroke. But the hearings have only just started, and there is so much to be done to hold people accountable and protect democratic institutions. Someone has played a stupid game, and is about to win a stupid prize, I just hope it isn’t the entire concept of “democracy”.
Live long and gossip,