Tempting as it may be to scoff on principle at MTV’s latest advertising campaign, there might be something more to it than another tawdry attempt at incorporating social conscience into a branding strategy. The ads, which depict Holocaust-like events transpiring in modern-day settings, could potentially bridge some glaring gaps that are all too common in the thinking of many Americans. In particular, they address the disconnect between the past and our potential futures, as well as the one between the imminent language of the universal and the alienating pedantry of the particular.
There is arguably no greater challenge to the developing polities of the day than the lack of a sense of history. But one can’t be too quick to blame the victims. At this particular intersection of pop culture and official American ideologies, it is clear that video games and MTV actively sculpt the ideal free market consumer — one whose ethics are kept at bay through irony; one who will embrace obsolescence because their historical faculties have been dulled. And, in the digital age, when commodities are becoming increasingly abstract, the ideal consumer must feel more at home in the realm of abstraction than in the realm of real events, bodies, choices, and consequences. Convincing such a consumer army of the rightness of a war in the real world to punish perpetrators of genocide is naturally becoming a near impossible feat, thanks to the very dynamics of the culture that breeds fresh free market participants.
While MTV certainly won’t be able to reverse even a fraction of the amount of the problem it helps create, the videos “Subway” and “Family Room,” which are in some ways obsessed with the present, actually have a remarkable power to jarringly peel back the veil that is the perpetual present and expose both the short and long distances between the events of the Holocaust and present-day America. The fashionable protocol for political thinking in many quarters today insists on prioritizing difference and historical particularity, but what’s most interesting is the translation of the event — a translation that illustrates the universalism of suffering and human evil.
“Subway” begins with the somber faces of a variety of people on a crowded subway car. A woman comforts her crying baby, an elderly man holds an expression of stoic unease, and a young woman appears to be helplessly contemplating each following second. The train halts abruptly, the lights flicker and darken, and men with automatic rifles appear in outside the train window. The doors open and passengers are corralled out of the train. A child is is separated from his mother and the old man watches in disbelief as the passengers are marched away. The final shot freezes and the modern dress, scenery and color picture fade seamlessly into a vintage black and white photograph of actual Holocaust victims in an identical scenario. A message flashes in bold letters: “The Holocaust Happened To People Like Us.” The second video plays out similarly, depicting a middle class family going about a familiar evening routine when they are forced out of their houses and herded into a truck outside.
These videos will probably not become a cultural phenomenon, but for those who see them they are likely to make an impact. One prominent advertising blogger remarked after seeing the spots that the commercials made her feel guilty about enjoying the now very popular Hitler Xbox video. That video, which now has many variations and even more views on YouTube, was created by adding new subtitles to a scene from the film Downfall that depicts the moment the dictator realized he had been defeated. While these spoofs don’t make light of Holocaust events directly, they help cultivate an ironic distance from the realities of horrific events that in turn can lead to the frivolous postmodern disregard for lived historical and material realities. This phenomenon combines with the much-needed rejection of political correctness to form a curious, rancorous, yet prevalent understanding amongst many: that taking the Holocaust seriously is old-fashioned and uptight.
Of course the debate about humor and the Holocaust isn’t any more groundbreaking than its results are conclusive. But the convergence of media technologies, economic systems, and certain competing cultural ideas is unquestionably new. With so much being made to appear fuzzy, distant, or overparticular, these videos from MTV are a refreshing exercise in the contiguity of lived experience, past, present, and possible future. They may be but two drops in the flooding pond of viral video, but amidst the idle white noise of thought it brings, they resound with refreshing clarity and purpose.
Josh Strawn is a writer living in New York.