Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Good Timing, I Guess

I think it’s fascinating that Farley Granger’s death got so much media attention. I’ll confess that I had no idea who the man was, though seeing as I was born in 1985, that shouldn’t be read as an attempt to impugn his significance in the history of film. It’s not that I find the ubiquity of reports of his death to be interesting because I don’t think they’re deserved. I’m just surprised that he wasn’t overlooked in the way that so many other deceased celebrities have been in recent years.

The reason I feel this is worth blogging about is that I think it says something remarkable about marketing and public relations. It goes to show that even in death a person’s public image is not immune to the random influence of fortuitous coincidence. Remember when David Carradine died in the summer of 2009, followed that same month by Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson, who died on the same day? I’ll be you do. And the popular media was on quite a death kick for a while in response.

Remember also in 2009 not hearing about Ricardo Montalban and Henry Gibson passing on? That’s because Montalban’s death came in January when there were other things to focus on, like the Obama inauguration, and Gibson waited until autumn to leave the mortal coil, long after the media’s deathwatch ended. It’s not as though either of those men was especially iconic, at least as compared to Fawcett and Jackson. But they were both better actors than David Carradine, and they were both more visible to people born after the seventies than was Farah Fawcett. You may not even known Henry Gibson by name, but I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that his face triggers an acid flashback of filmological memories. And that being the case, I’m sure his role in the history of cinema was roughly as notable as Farley Granger.

I think Granger’s immediate legacy benefited a great deal from his death coming right on the heels of that of Elizabeth Taylor, whose passing nobody could have possibly ignored. There’s a tendency for the news to pick up on a narrative and follow it for a while, cherry-picking the news in order to mold it into that shape. The “Summer of the Shark” is a prime example that I will always remember. In this case, I think that after Taylor’s death, the media was looking for a sequel, and Granger benefitted by way of the pure luck of dying. It’s kind of unsettling to know that it can work that way, and it may be rather cynical to think of it as roughly the same as the effect of adjacent magazine advertisements on one another. But that’s the way of things, and while I’d like to see a breaking point in the media’s construction of narratives, when it comes to the marketing and public relations aspect of this story, I’m comfortable with taking it as a purely instructive tale.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Always Black and White?

There was a remarkable lead story at Salon today detailing the ten most segregated urban areas in the country, according to the newly released census data. When I got the third item on the list, each of which were accompanied by impressive maps of the demographics, I was strongly reminded of a breaking point for which I’ve been waiting a long time, and am likely to go on waiting.

That third place on the list was Cincinnati, its map showing small enclaves of red depicting areas of black majority surrounded completely by a light, faded blue, indicating areas of slight white majority, with a far more vibrant blue extending out from there in every direction. The moment I looked at it, I had the clear sense that I was looking at a perfect visual representation of the social class distribution in a modern urban area.

I could go on for pages and pages, and respond to several of the academic quotations given in the article, and I may do so if, for instance, nothing else catches my attention tomorrow as this has today. But my main point is simple enough. I think we need to stop talking about segregation and related issues as issues pertaining to white and black. It’s more appropriate and more useful to describe it as a problem of rich and poor.

To talk about this topic in terms of actions and attitudes of black people and white people just reinforces the idea of some separateness of the two groups that applies across the board on the basis of nothing other than skin color. That idea is precisely the underpinning of racism, and even if it’s well intentioned, even if the purpose of speaking in those terms is to criticize the white majority, it gives the impression that race itself is the problem. But if race is the problem, it can’t be fixed. If poverty is the problem, there’s work that can be done.

Even if one hundred percent of the white population in a given region is virulently racist, not all of them contribute to the ongoing segregation of that area. Some of them are just too poor to move, as much as they might want to get away from the blacks that have become their neighbors. And while that racism would have to be addressed on its own terms, there are poor whites who live amongst black majorities, and so cannot be said to be culpable for the segregation of their region. But the discussion of the topic always seems to refer to black ingress and “white flight.”

I strongly disapprove of that term. How did it ever come about that we saw the underpinning of segregation as “white flight” and not “rich flight”? It’s not really racism that causes segregation, so much as it is the divergence of social classes that lays the groundwork for both racism and segregation as collateral effects. Poverty is the problem, and segregation is a symptom. To talk about segregation in terms of black and white only serves to pit the two sides against each other in places where they are actually coexisting, despite segregation. We can beat racism and yet not have the slightest effect on segregation if only all those who are poor now are kept poor, with blacks comprising the majority of the impoverished, incapable, along with their poor, white neighbors, of moving to places of affluence. But we can beat racism, at least among the lower classes if we understand that we’re in this together, that it’s not black against white, but poor against a system that makes poverty practically inescapable.

Buffalo happened to come in at number six on the list, which further makes it clear to me that I have just the right opinion of this place. There is so much racism here, coming from all sides. And I think that realistically the segregation that puts us in this ignoble top ten upholds all the racism more than the other way around. What is needed is for whites to understand that their neighborhood isn’t poor because of all the blacks who live there, but rather all the blacks live there because their neighborhood is poor. And the blacks need to better understand that if any identifiable person is holding them down, the white cashier or plumber isn’t him. If there must be an enemy his color is not white or black, but gold or silver.

It seems that racists and academics must reach roughly the same breaking point, and understand that we’ve been fighting the wrong enemy. We need to properly identify our social class first, and stop thinking of black and white as somehow more different than rich and poor. Much of the academic commentary in the Salon article suggested to me that scholars on the topic have a harmful preconception of segregation as a problem related only to color and not to class, but none more so than this line from Colin Gordon of the University of Iowa, talking about St. Louis: “What we conventionally think of as white flight is now black flight as well. The city itself is just emptying out and the predominant area of African-American settlement is in St. Louis County."

No doubt for Gordon and for most people considering this topic, it’s always black and white, and so it’s just natural to talk about the two groups as separate entities, and it doesn’t occur to them that if there’s black flight and white flight, maybe they’re both following the same impulse, not demonstrating two different behaviors determined by their colors.

If there was no racism, there could still be segregation. If there was no segregation, there could still be segregation. The poor and the rich will always live apart, and people are kept unequal. If we’re going to start addressing that, we need to stop drawing false lines of demarcation among ourselves, which blur the line that should be clearest and most important. I pray for that breaking point.

Monday, March 28, 2011

It's Personal

I feel somehow very detached from myself right now. I can't seem to make myself take an interest in politics, or foreign affairs, or pop culture. It's as if I trend towards self-obsession as a way of overcompensating for the feeling of uprooted identity. I specifically didn't want this blog to be of a personal nature, but I do want to keep to a habit of updating it daily. It can be hard to reconcile those two things.

I feel that the groundwork for whatever is respectable in my intellect is my tendency to take myself quite seriously. I am constantly thinking, in large part because there isn't much that I let pass casually. I am a good essayist because I like to draw out the deeper significance of my ordinary life. At least, I like to do so when my life is less than painfully ordinary. Even the central idea of this blog grew out of looking at one way that I engage with my own life and applying it to social, cultural, and political issues.

But if I lose sight of the idea of personal breaking points, I will lose sight of the broader application of the same. So sometimes I have to take a moment with nothing else to do but comment on myself.

I need to change my habits. It's appalling how much time I waste when I don't have the imposed rigor of numerous deadlines. Some of it is just me being idle or blowing off steam because of the stress of my own insecurities. But I'd say that the lion's share of wasted time actually goes to me trying to do the right thing, the responsible thing.

I don't know how many times I have to acknowledge the fact that the better means of freelancing is to promote myself broadly and let clients come to me, before I begin to steadfastly heed my own advice and stop casting out vastly many very narrow nets. I get so caught up with the immediate goals that I spend entire days trying to win over a sequence of individuals when I could be building a better personal brand.

The bitter irony of it is that in the effort to be successful at my work in the short term, I limit my long-term marketing potential at the same time that I pull myself away from the awareness of why I'm doing this for a living in the first place. All this time spent looking for new clients could be better put to creative use. There's so many stories in my mind that crave expression, and so many puzzles that need to unraveled with good language.

And that brings to mind the other irony of this situation: That I have poor practices when it comes to marketing myself, but would make none of the same errors of excessive caution or shortsightedness in dealing with marketing for someone else. It's one of the strangest things about the human condition - the impossible need to see yourself from the outside.

I've got to hit a breaking point very soon. It could be the improvement of my self-promotion, or just a wholesale casting off of all the needless things that devour the time that could be put to better professional or creative use. Or it could be any of numerous other breaking points that seem to be looming on the horizons of a multitude of possible worlds. I just know that my current way of doing things can't sustain itself for much longer. God, just give me some time. Give me some time for the untapped energy of all these wasted hours to build up pressure and burst out of me like fireworks in my mind. I'm pretty good, and I can be better. Adaptation for me is not the process of transforming, but the process of reaching the moment in which I am transformed.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Common Thoughts

I don’t think people give enough respect to the thin, weak boundaries of their ideological convictions. I actually take notice of, and am alarmed by, the ideas that I entertain, which have the potential to push me in either of two directions – towards a more extreme, less rational extension of the political views I already hold, or towards an eventual reversal of my closely held beliefs. If we don’t live our lives in a self-imposed vacuum, our ideas certainly are capable of dramatic, almost inconceivable change. Just look at Arianna Huffington for a prime example. It just happens that most of us don’t notice the turnaround until it’s already happened. As romantic as the notion of epiphany is, it’s not the way things usually go. Most of the things we come to believe are grounded in a gradual accumulation of evidence and, hopefully, logical analysis.

I remember being twenty years old, working in a gas station over my summer break from college, and finding myself deep in thought while stocking the walk-in cooler one night, actually praying to God to not let me become an anarchist. My own political engagement, my own earnest considerations of where I stood seemed to be pushing me that way, even though I knew that anarchism, however well-intentioned, is stupid. My genuine concern was therefore grounded in the threat that if I didn’t go on reminding myself of the glaring flaws of that view, of its neglect for the numerous salutary effects of living in a civilized society, the appeal that stood beside that foolishness could overtake my mind.

On quite the other hand, I’ve worried about the potential for getting conservative as I get old ever since I heard the famous, now clich├ęd, Winston Churchill quote about a young man who isn’t liberal having no heart and an old man who isn’t conservative having no head. But the threat of late-onset conservativism really took on a dimension of terror after I read Rabbit Redux, and saw that John Updike’s character, in whom I had seen so much of myself, for good or ill, had become belligerently conservative as he emerged from his twenties.

The effect of fiction is bad enough, but would not resonate at length if I did not observe warning signs portending wrong thinking in my own mind, as well. Sometimes I’ll entertain what I think is a typically conservative thought, and then I’ll consider that really what is in my mind is not an ideological statement, it’s an observation. But it’s the sort of observation that it is easy to imagine dominates the senses of a right-wing person. It is the groundwork of an objectionable ideology, but the presence of that actual ideology depends on building an interpretation onto that foundation of observation.

Rational assessment of observable facts and arguable solutions is the thing that has held extremist liberal mindsets at bay, and if I retain an active mind, that will be what keeps me from conservativism, as well. Thinking about this has led me to a very interesting thought: Liberals and conservatives may very often have the very same idea about a particular subject. The thing that differentiates the two is the way each interprets his own observational thought, or even his own emotion. From my liberal standpoint, I would venture to guess that it’s often a matter of degree, with the liberal giving a greater amount of consideration to the topic, as opposed to, say, stopping short with an easy answer.

It worries me when I find myself thinking, “I can’t stand seeing all these recent immigrants in all these same positions of employment.” The thought passes through me as if it was not my own, and then my mind reels, and the first thought to follow upon it is, “holy shit, I’m betraying everything that I respect in myself.” And then I have to wonder why that is, when it seemed to me for a moment that I was just observing an obviously true state of affairs. Then I realize that I had imposed emotional content onto that observation, and that it reflected badly on me. But in the next second, I start to relax as I reassure myself that I hadn’t directed my despisal at the working class immigrants themselves, but at the circumstances surrounding them and me in kind. My comment hadn’t dislodged any of the beliefs that I hold and consider laudable – such as that everyone, regardless of race or national origin, deserves an opportunity to work.

But the fact remains that I think it’s terrible that I sometimes see white-owned, corporate chain establishments staffed entirely by very recent Indian immigrants. I don’t like that virtually all of my produce is picked and packaged by Mexican migrant workers. I know that conservatives object to these things, too. But they take the easy route of blaming the individuals who had the audacity to try to better their lives. They acknowledge what’s happening, and they acknowledge their own frustrations that things are bad, and that perhaps they themselves are out of work, but they stop there, and don’t give a deeper consideration of what’s wrong.

Every time I buy a cup of coffee from an Asian immigrant laboring for a Western company, I think about the fact that there had no doubt been dozens of applicants for that persons job from white, native Buffalonians, and that the job went to the immigrant. In several places, the job went to the immigrant in every god damn case. And it’s not because they’re coming here to take our jobs. It’s not because they’re invading us in droves and robbing the white man of what should be his. It’s because of the white men who set the hiring policy at these places, knowing that they can comfortably pay a substantially lower wage to a recent immigrant. I look at these things and I experience what I think must be a conservative’s anger. But thank God that I have a liberal’s mind, because I have no right to be angry at another person who is as lowly as I. My anger is for the system that disregards one group in order to thoroughly exploit another.

I don’t think we partisans recognize often enough that we’re living in the same world. We’re facing the same problems. And if my experiences are not anomalous, we are even having some of the same thoughts. We just need to do a better job of understanding what we’re all thinking, what we’re all feeling. And if we focus on that common ground, those of us who have thought through the facts, observations, and theoretical solutions can better explain that the issue is deeper than you realize – deeper than the conservative notion at which it’s easier to arrive.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bias in Favor of Bias

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship have an article at Salon today, in which they claim that when conservatives deride NPR as liberal, they mean something much different from the idea that NPR is equal and opposite to Fox News and conservative talk radio.

They mean it's not accountable to their worldview as conservatives and partisans. They mean it reflects too great a regard for evidence and is too open to reporting different points of views of the same event or idea or issue. Reporting that by its very fact-driven nature often fails to confirm their ideological underpinnings, their way of seeing things (which is why some liberals and Democrats also become irate with NPR).

My own opinion is that NPR is the most reliable source of good reporting left to the American public. And it's certainly far from perfect, but evidently not as far from it as most media consumers want it to be. I deeply appreciate that Moyers and Winship parenthetically note that liberal partisans as well as conservatives are given to criticism of the outlet when it doesn't serve their ends. I encounter entirely too many liberals who take their stand on each piece of news not because they arrived at the liberal view based on an internal coherence of their ideals, but because tribalism picks their side for them.

The best of us are concerned with truth over and above all else, and it is my firm belief that the truth upholds a more characteristically liberal viewpoint. But the best liberals will reevaluate their own views when that is not the case.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of contributors to the public discourse, representing all social and ideological camps, do not hold themselves to that standard. They look for the news that supports their presumptions, and surround themselves with the people who cheer lead the same, not the people who provide them with the most information.

At its best, NPR is of the latter class, but it is disregarded by most conservatives and by some liberals as not upholding their ideas about how the news should be filtered, focused, and distorted.

Moyers and Winship say further:

If "liberal" were the counterpoint to "conservative," NPR would be the mirror of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and James O’Keefe, including the use of their techniques as well as content. Clearly it isn’t. To charge otherwise is a phony gambit aimed at nothing less than quashing the public’s access to non-ideological journalism, narrowing viewpoints to all but one.

That's exactly right. But worse than the fact that that's what is happening is the fact that that seems to be exactly what we want. Or at the least, the ubiquity of ideological journalism has made overwhelming segments of the population blind to the fact that there even is an alternative. It is apparently reflexive for people, conservatives and liberals alike, to class every media outlet, story, and personality as being politically on one side or the other. The notion of unbiased journalism seems to be viewed as some sort of mythological creature that has no purpose for the reality in which we presently live. The powerful irony of that is that unbiased journalism is the only thing that can keep us living in reality.

Unbiased, or at least only lightly biased journalism is not a myth, but it does seem to be facing extinction, and practically every one of us is guilty of encroaching on its habitat and destroying the food source that comes, oddly enough, of us consuming it. We've slowly built to the broad acceptance as normal of media that takes a clear side. I see no reason to believe that the omnipresence of bias will fade by the same mechanism. We've got to realize collectively that we've been going down the wrong road, and indeed, we have to actively remind ourselves of the fact that there even is another road. It's going to take a breaking point in the collective action of media consumers to snap us back to the reality in which reality is still something worth reporting on.

Please help us get there. Turn off talk radio, and give your support only to the news reporters that give you more facts than opinions. Remind everyone you know that we don't have to be pointing at one side of the fence or the other in order to be pointing at something worthwhile.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Corporation

I watched the 2003 documentary "The Corporation" last night. There was a lot of excellent material in the film - a lot that seriously affected me, and a lot to analyze and extrapolate. But the ideas most relevant to this blog emerged from my consideration of the section that discusses corporate collusion with twentieth-century fascism and moves on to, perhaps with a slight tinge of melodrama, draw lines connecting the nature of earlier fascism with the nature of modern corporations. There was expert commentary discussing the notion of multi-nationalism and how it lets business transcend the need for direct influence over government. The main idea, I take it, was that the same craving for power that drove fascist dictatorships can be evoked by corporate businesses in much more subtle ways.

Another portion of the film shows an old business training film explaining the virtues of incorporation, namely limitation of liability. This, as far as I can tell, is practically the sole reason for the existence of the corporation. And as a consequence of it, even if there is the same mad grab for power in a corporate business as in a fascist regime, and even if there is a similar perversion of morality, there is no dictator to whom we can assign blame. There is no face that we can identify as a mask of evil.

The liability is spread thin in a corporation, but so too is the damage it does. It is much harder to be angry at something amorphous that does a lot of harm in tiny increments the world over than it is to be angry at a dictator commanding the military that oppresses your own people as well as others.

It brings to mind ideas that have been in my mind a long time. I feel that there are many evils that mankind does not destroy, but rather just channels into different forms. When we have risen up against evil in one form often enough, it learns to adapt and camouflage itself. Western society will be long without brutal dictators not because we are through with barbarism and base impulses, but because it no longer needs brutal dictators to indulge those impulses.

Dictators fall. They practically ordain their own demise when they take power. When you possess that power all on your own, everyone can see that you have it, and the masses beneath you or the external interests around you will wrest it from your hands sooner or later. All they need is for the dictator to push them far enough that they reach their breaking point. Such a breaking point requires two things: a critical mass of conviction or frustration or pain, and someone against whom to direct it.

But we can't overthrow the proverbial Corporation. And it's difficult to reach a critical mass when we're all directing our fears and concerns and frustrations to different directions. Some of us agitate against the pollution, some of us the plight of oppressed workers, some of us mindless consumerism, and even if we're all angry, it's hard to articulate why or at whom.

The evils that man does on a grand scale today are so much harder to pin down than they were in past generations. The change happens slower. The control over men's lives is more subtle and gradual. The harm done is more widespread but less spectacular when its mechanism is not militarism but capitalist imperialism. So what does that mean for us that aspire to breaking points? It could be, perhaps, that with the evil effects taking hold more slowly, broadcasting themselves more quietly, the same must happen with the good. The change that we want to see in the world comes about step by step, matching the evil that it is fighting in spiraling, slow-motion conflict.

Or it could be that we still need to reach breaking points sometimes, but that they're harder to get to, that the container in which that critical mass must build is larger, that the place to which the eventual eruption must be directed is not particular and minute, but is instead everywhere. And maybe, if this is the case, the result of mankind itself being pushed too far will be a spectacular triumph beyond anything that has been witnessed before.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Small-Minded Press

Last weekend, I attended the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair. While I took an interest in a handful of the vendors that were present, for the most part I came away with quite negative thoughts about the driving forces behind most of the projects represented.

First and foremost, after about five minutes of looking, I had the distinct feeling that, more than anything else, affluence drives all of this. I don't have a great deal of respect for those sorts of small presses, which are clearly not struggling to stay financially afloat, but are led by people who can pour money into them without ever needing to break even. They may love what they're doing, but I think the event was advertised to the public as a showcase for industry professionals. Instead, it was comprised almost entirely of people who are able to maintain their presses and publications purely as hobbies, because they have neither the need nor the ambition to be demonstrably successful with it.

Obviously, my class-consciousness bears upon my perspective on the event. It would be one thing had I observed collective ventures supported by many individuals each with modest means, spurred on by an earnest belief in the literary alternative they're providing. But in fact, the vast majority of tables were manned by individuals with professionally bound copies of their own books and magazines, and I must say that it just doesn't seem fair that they be able to disseminate their works on account of their affluence, while seriously committed artists elsewhere struggle to make ends meet.

And I find that impulse among the small press owners frustrating for this other reason: Why wouldn't you, if you don't actually have to sell your work in order to make a living, devote yourself to developing a presence in large presses, so that you can be more visible as an artist? I can't avoid coming to the same conclusion about this that I've come to about other artists and groups in the past. In particular, it reminds me of criticisms I've made of the large but stubbornly amateur audio drama community on the internet. It seems to me that there are a great many artists who insist on remain amateur, and won't entertain the ideas of either profit or editorial oversight, precisely because being professional opens them up to a great deal of criticism.

There was one table at the book fair that encapsulated the problem of small presses better than any other. I was there with a friend, and as we were taking a second pass of the exhibition space, we both paused in front of a table displaying a pile of chapbooks and a large white board with a network of multicolored scrawls, seemingly designed by a schizophrenic, under the heading "The 21st Century Dude." I'm happy to ignore things that I don't think are worth trying to understand, but my friend was practically transfixed by the bizarreness of this thing, and quietly commented to me that she wanted to ask the person behind the table what it meant, but was concerned about offending her. I said that the woman was there to talk about what she was selling, and that my friend should just ask her to explain her project. Somewhat crudely rendering my advice, she timidly walked up to the table and, pointing squarely at the white board, asked a more direct question. "Hi, um, could you tell me... What is this?"

I don't think the vendor's answer could be considered an answer, and it certainly didn't seem to register the obvious confusion. "Well, this is a chart of all the categories that we think make up the twenty-first century dude. And it looks at their different combinations, and how they interact. And, I mean, they've all existed before, but..."

I came up alongside my friend and picked up a chapbook to peruse the table of contents. "Okay," I said to the vendor, a tall bespectacled woman of about thirty, "So could you tell me, what is the focus of your publication?"

"What is the focus of the publication," she repeated flatly, as if not comprehending the words, and then picked up one of the books herself, as if ready to search for the answer. "Well, it's about the twenty-first century dude - trying to define it, what it is, what he believes, what it means."

"Okay," I said as I set down the book. The most forgiving thought that I could entertain was that maybe this was some kind of hipster irony that I was simply not cool enough to understand. I gave a look to my friend, and walked away with her, thoroughly convinced that this was just not going to make any sense to me. When we got a safe distance away, we laughed our asses off.

What really struck me about that table was how off-guard the woman was when I just asked her to explain what she was publishing. Honestly, she reacted as if she had never been asked that question before, and never even anticipated that it might come up. And that's almost understandable. These small presses, and other creative ventures like them, are used to dealing with their friends, or repeat customers, or with people who already think the way they do. Most of them, thus, are unprepared for the culture shock of thrusting themselves into a public event where they need to reach out to people not already in their niche. Consequently, virtually none of the vendors at this event had any marketing sense.

Apart from general curiosity, I had gone to the event in the hopes of doing some networking for both my creative and business writing. I really should have passed my card out to everyone I found interesting, but I had the same problem as my friend did in asking the vendor to explain her white board. How do I approach people who need help marketing without insulting them? "Hey, your table sucks because I have no idea what you're selling. You look like you could use my help." Besides, is it worth offering my services in the fields of marketing and advertising to people who are specifically not interested in professional success anyway?

It's really a shame. There were a few publications, presses, and artisans represented there who seemed to have terrific talent and focus, and those ones I would love to help move in a more professional direction. But I don't think they'd be interested. I've seen it before, and it always makes me feel sad and, as a person with earnest creative aspirations, lonely. I want the people around me to take themselves as seriously as I take myself, and hell, as serious as I take them. I've known many people whose multi-faceted talents fill me with jealousy, but who just aren't committed to utilizing them. Can our own skills and overly delicate aspirations drive us to a breaking point?

I'd love to start seeing that. I want the people I respect to start looking around at the overwhelming volumes of people all trying to express themselves creatively, and decided it's time to snap themselves away from the crowd. It's worth it to be professional, because that's how you'll have an influence outside of your own circle. It's worth it to open yourself up to criticism, because that's how you'll learn what works and what doesn't, and that's how you'll learn to be better. As a writer myself, that's what I want. Am I alone in that?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Clash of the Trifles

It seems that within the tremendous armed conflict in Libya, there is another tiny battle raging between the American news outlets covering the events. Harsh professional criticisms and personal insults have been passed back and forth between Nic Robertson of CNN and Steve Harrigan of Fox News, each on-the-ground correspondents in Libya.

It is not often that I can say I'm inclined to take the side of the guy representing Fox News, but that's the situation here. From the reports that I've read, Robertson fired first. It seems that it's become common knowledge that Fox is a shitty news organization, with an entrenched narrative that evidently considers the truth irrelevant. So it's also become commonplace for people to reflexively point to Fox News when launching criticisms of broader news reporting, or when a journalist tries to build up his own esteem by comparison. But let's keep two important points in mind here: First, the facts of Fox News' bias and disregard for journalistic evidence doesn't make that criticism equally applicable to every individual within the organization, or every instance of reporting by it. And second, Fox News is only the worst individual player in the entire, overwhelmingly shitty industry that is the modern news media.

The current story, in short, is thus: Fox News anchor Jennifer Griffin made a dubious report about the Libyan government utilizing journalists visiting the Gaddafi compound were effectively used as human shields. This prompted Nic Robertson to deride the report and accuse Fox of "lies and deceit" before moving to attacks on Steve Harrigan, Fox's only correspondent in Libya, whom he implied was a lazy, hands-off reporter. Harrigan has subsequently shot back, explaining his journalistic practices, his rationale for not visiting the aforementioned compound, and describing Robertson's own journalism as "Bullshit."

What that journalism entailed in this case, for Robertson and for numerous other reporters, was getting on a bus tripped organized by the Libyan Ministry of Information in order to tour a bombed site. Harrigan has claimed that such trips occur almost every day, and has described them as essentially propaganda, and as often being a waste of time. In light of that commentary, Robertson was evidently also irked that Harrigan sent a member of his staff to gather footage at the site, without going himself to report on it first-hand.

You know what? That seems like the appropriate delegation of responsibility for a competent journalist working in tight conditions. I see no reason why Harrigan should have been personally present to a trip led by one side of the conflict he's supposed to be covering. If the regime wants to try to lead the narrative, I praise the reporter who exploits that effort to gather resources for the story while focusing his personal attention elsewhere.

What gets to me about Robertson's position is that he's taking a self-righteous stand in favor of the ineffectual habits that have become endemic in journalism since the first Gulf War, when most reporters stuck to designated "press pools," and utilized direct access to the US government and media as their sole means of information-gathering. Since then, it seems that in foreign conflict, and indeed in every story whatsoever, the role of the media is simply to parrot official sources. The notion of pounding the pavement and gathering information from diverse people and places seems to be lost on most modern reporters. And the fact that people like Robertson take umbrage with those who object to media excursions amidst those who have only one side of the story to tell just goes to show that bad reporting has become so normal, so accepted, that its actually considered wrong to do anything else.

I'm not saying that Harrigan is an exemplar of good journalism. I'm just saying that he's probably trying to do the best he can, considering that he's the only correspondent in Libya from his news organization, and has to make live reports from his hotel roughly every half hour. So I think he's right when he says of Robertson's criticisms:

I can stand outside my balcony and report what I see," he said. "I can talk to people about what they see...but for someone to say I'm lazy who doesn't know me, who's not in our working condition, who doesn't know our schedule...this guy has a screw loose! (Source)

In short - and it's absolutely tragic that this is the choice we're left with as media consumers - I'll take no reporting over awful reporting. And even if Robertson is getting the better story out for CNN than Harrigan is for Fox, unless he's stepping into the combat zone to report on events first hand, and talking to people on the ground, he has no business criticizing anyone else for not properly doing his job as a journalist. There are precious few journalists left who are doing their jobs properly, and those few are heroes, and they don't need to lash out at their competitors to present themselves in a better light.

Again, I'm firmly in Harrigan's corner when he says:

Is that heroic what he’s doing? He puts on his blue blazer and gets on the government bus, and then pats himself on the back and calls that news? Bullshit.

Yes, it's bullshit. No better than the bullshit that Harrigan's outlet peddles every broadcast day. It's all part and parcel of the standard operational bullshit of the modern-day news media.

So the breaking point that I'm most hoping to come out of this is two-fold. I'd like reporters to realize that if your organization is better than another, it's no grounds for a self-righteous conviction that you're better than any member of that organization. And over and above that, I'd like them to realize that if one organization is better than the absolute worst in the business, that doesn't mean that it's any damn good.

Additional Sources:

Recent Viral Media

Last week, there was a delightful little video making the rounds on the internet, depicting a fifteen year-old school kid being attacked by a bully and retaliating in a spectacular fashion. A few days ago, the story gained a layer of depth when the Australian teen was interviewed by that country's "A Current Affair" news program.

Watch it on YouTube.

There's a lot that I could say about this. I could use this as yet another jumping off point for criticism of the news media, as the presentation of this is sort of silly, in the typical fashion of news magazine shows. I could recall some of my earlier posts about children and teens, and praise the young man's articulateness and maturity. I could comment on the problem of bullying, and the public's responses to it, and I could certainly still criticize the tendency of this story to put the responsibility for dealing with it on the shoulders of the victim, rather than acknowledging that more should have been done before he had to fight.

But what most impresses me, and what I most want to comment on is a simple matter of language. I find it interesting, and very encouraging, that both in links to the original video of the kid, Casey Heynes, going all Zangief on his attacker, and in the subsequent interview and commentary on both, that the word "snap" is used in a glowingly positive way.

Think about it. How often do you really hear that word, in the context of someone lashing out or retaliating, used positively? The temporary loss of control or reason that that usually denotes is generally presented as a weakness of character, and as something that needs to be apologized for after the fact. But not in this case. In this case, it is the perfect embodiment of what this blog is all about. Heynes was pushed over the edge, and because he channeled all that pent-up rage and frustration into a perfectly appropriate, justified counter-attack, his life is in all likelihood taking a huge turn for the better.

Nobody who watches the original video thinks Heynes made a calculated, deliberate move against his attacker. He stood against the wall for a few moments, and then he let loose a sudden, powerful burst of narrowly channeled aggression, then walked away, leaving his bully unable to stand under his own power. In short, he snapped. That is the way it is being roundly described in media, and in discussion of the event, and everyone is praising it.

In the interview, the term is used at least three times, both by the presenter and by Heynes himself, who goes on to explain that he has no regret about what he did. Nor should he, and nor should anyone else think otherwise. Some of us probably would regret acting out as forcefully in the same situation. Many of us would probably feel conflicted about it. Even I would. Hell, when I got mugged, I pulled my punches while fighting back.

But I hope that in light of the story surrounding Casey Heynes, the positive usage of the phrase "he snapped" becomes more widely recognized and accepted. I hope this helps people to realize that when you're being pushed in the wrong direction, to snap - to reach a breaking point - and destroy something that's just no good is a beautiful thing. It may mean losing control, and it may even mean going too far, but sometimes the only way that necessary change can occur is by snapping under the pressure from that which is wrong, and fighting back against it in a way you couldn't have mustered when you were better in control.

In Casey Heynes' case, he not only destroyed the punk that would have made a victim of him, but I'll bet he destroyed the Casey Heynes that would be made a victim, that would not be given due respect among his peers, and would let himself put up with all the shit they therefore sought to dispense on him. It is in just that way that I want society itself, through all the breaking points I seek, to destroy its older self, and emerge stronger, purer, better, on the other side of that right of passage.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Film Commentary: Rango

Given my child-like innocence, my admiration of Johnny Depp's acting career, and my tendency to be taken in by good marketing, I decided almost immediately after seeing the previews for it that I wanted to go to see Rango. I went to a showing with my friend last night, and about ten minutes into the film, when the title character found himself stranded in the desert looking down upon the plastic fish that he had considered his closest friend, and coming to terms with the loss of everything that had defined him up to that moment, my companion turned to me and inquired, "How is this a kid's movie?"

"Who says it is?" I answered.

Andrew O'Hehir at Salon wrote an article titled "Rango and the Rise of Kidult-Oriented Animation" in which he outlines the growing trend towards gearing animated films not only towards entertaining parents who are accompanying their children, but towards adults who might attend the film by themselves and for themselves. Certainly, that has always been in spite of the implicit understanding that these films are first and foremost for children. With Rango, however, I think the balance has tipped. Whereas the "children and family" genre has long been producing material that is fun for the whole family in the sense that it has roughly equal entertainment value for both children and adults, Rango, while still fitting that formula generally, seems to me to be geared primarily towards adults, with the intention of being equally entertaining to children as a secondary consideration.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film. As a matter of fact, if Rango is intended as a children's film, I expect that I shouldn't have related to it as closely as I did. But I think the major themes were artfully designed in just that way. They can be interpreted for children, or they can be read against the backdrop of adult experiences and understood in another way. The hero is presented in the opening scene as having no genuine sense of self, and he spends some moments daydreaming about the heroic roles he could play out for himself on stage. This provides a familiar point of connection for children, who simply have not determined what course their lives will take yet. But read differently, and in a way that I think becomes more appropriate as we come to know the character and his situations better, this film is not about the lizard as a child who is just finding his way in the world, but rather the lizard as a man who has come to face a crisis of identity and alienation.

Beyond that, the film is rife with biting social commentary, some of which actually stunned me as I watched the plot unfold. The story relies at times on dense metaphors, which can certainly be expected to fly right over the heads of children, and are likely to be difficult for even some adults to grasp. These do not hide deep within the story, either, but present themselves early and directly, as with the armadillo that Rango meets at the very beginning, who councils him on the quest to reach the other side of the road, which the armadillo has undertaken many times, Beckett-like, before being run over by a vehicle and starting back on the near side.

But after we are introduced to that conceptual dialogue, we are immediately thrown into a minute of Rango riding the currents of passing cars, bouncing among windshields, and entertaining children with perfectly cartoonish excitement. That is the way it is throughout the film. There is adult humor, reference to numerous films, depiction of people struggling through economic hardship, and spiritual visions, but all the while there is slapstick comedy, gunfights among a cast of animal characters, and flashy visuals. Amongst all of this, there is entertainment enough for children and adults, and for those who seek a cerebral experience at the movies as well as those looking to indulge in pure escapism.

As the cerebral sort, I enjoyed this movie enough to rate it four and a half stars, both on account of its thought-provoking content and its skillful balance of that content and the simple, immersive spectacle of children's entertainment.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Got Any Change?

I was leafing through the New Yorker at the cafe, when I turned with interest to an article subtitled "A Frank Gehry apartment tower," about a new structure that's been built at 8 Spruce Street in downtown Manhattan. I was unprepared for the photograph taking up the entire second page of the article, which depicted a beautiful high-rise building with twisting patterns of steel climbing up its side, giving the entire structure a sense of motion and fluidity. And standing just to the left of and behind this thing that was completely alien to me was the once-familiar Woolworth building.

I'd like very much to be able to comment on the historical significance of this new Frank Gehry work, the tallest residential apartment complex in the Western Hemisphere. I'd like to talk about it as the mark of a breaking point in the usual tendency of developers to eschew form for the sake of function and short-term profit. I'd like to talk about my admiration for Gehry's goal in design this to revive the bay window. But when I look at that picture, all I can think about is the fact that I left New York only three and a half years ago, and in that time, this has sprung up to make a profound and distinct impact on the city skyline.

And meanwhile, where I am nothing much has changed. Not my life and not my so-called home. Very little has changed in Buffalo since I was a little boy, save for the gradual changes of job loss and population decline. And there have been salutary changes, as well. I doubt I could ever be convinced that they outweigh the negative ones, but that's neither here nor there. What is of issue for me is that there have been no changes of dramatic stature, and that reminds me not that I'm living in a terrible place, but that I'm living in a fundamentally insignificant place. Not only with regard to region, but with regard to station in life, nothing changes enough to have an impact on me. I feel as though I'm in limbo, and though I'd most like to see a marvelous work of art ascend from the streets of my town and paint the sky with its radiance, I'd rather see a portion of the city fall down than have nothing change at all.

So despite my intent to focus on the social, political, and cultural, the breaking point that I'm looking forward to right now is purely personal. I'm wondering when the time will come that my too-long pent up affection for a metropolis of bustle and constant alteration and dynamic purpose will swell my heart so that it breaks its cage of reason, and I get myself free from where I am, regardless of the cost. And that is the way it will be, if it comes. I will either stay here, dying by stages, or I will disregard the cost of leaving, which may be my life.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Childish Opinions

In the interest of keeping this post in line with the last, I thought I'd comment on a viral video that was making the rounds last week, depicting a five year-old girl insisting that she will not marry until she first has a job.

While some of the first comments to appear in response lamented the child's evident "brainwashing," the vast majority of those that followed took umbrage with that kind of commentary, with many emphasizing that the alternative is a role into which young girls are constantly brainwashed by toys, media, and the like. I can't argue with that, but I can argue that it seems a little misguided to defend the girl's parent by saying that her indoctrination is no different from society's indoctrination. For most people on either side of the argument, the decision to criticize or laud the instillation of an ideology in a child just comes down to whether they find the ideology to be agreeable. I think that misses the point by a seriously wide margin.

I happen to think that marriage is an antiquated institution, so I'm in favor of what the little girl has to say. In fact, I don't think she goes far enough, in that she still seems to take it for granted that she will marry eventually. That's not to say that I want her to enhance her views in another video. Actually, I want her to say nothing whatsoever on the topic, because, you know, she a fucking five year old child. The problem, in my mind, is not the kind of ideas we instill in our children, but the fact that we think it's okay to instill ideas in children.

Perhaps this commentary belies my respect for youth, and my belief that even children are capable of independent reasoning, because when it comes to things like this video, I find it impossible to believe that I'm witnessing anything other than repetition of something an adult has said. Five is awfully young, but I would be so bold as to say that by something like age nine, a child may well have the mental development and range of experience to make a decision about their own beliefs. Still, I don't think that they would tend to actually do so, because they'd probably be too busy being children. Marriage and careers aren't something we need to be thinking about at five, or even at nine. We should be teaching our children the skills and information that they will need to live full lives and have successful careers and personal relationships, but it's not necessary to have then planning out how they're going to utilize those skills before they can do long division. In fact, I would say that if we're raising out children right, it's for precisely that reason that we shouldn't be filling them with our ideas: we're giving them the tools to arrive at the right decision on their own.

Honestly, what bothers me about this video is not the sentiment. It's not even the mere sense that the girl's been told what to say. What bothers me is the aggressive intensity with which this five year-old girl speaks. A child that age should not be capable of such condescension. That's what makes it brainwashing: that the views a parent has instilled in her child come with their own safeguards, and those safeguards are not reason and logical analysis, but rather anger and rehearsal. When you fill a child with ideas rather than with the means of arriving at their own ideas, you tend to provide them with an undue sense of certitude, which makes every alternative appear not as a reasonable challenge, but as an attack on an ingrained part of their belief system. I don't think you can put an idea into the mind of a child without also giving them increased resistance to new ideas.

Is my view on this really so out of the ordinary? I can't seem to find much discussion that looks past the question of whether what a seemingly opinionated child is saying is right or wrong. I'd like to see a breaking point in this discourse, whereby we stop arguing over the content, and start analyzing the source of the content. And more than that, is there a way to reach a breaking point that makes us collectively realize that it's not our job, our right, or our responsibility to tell children what to think? Or will the breaking point only come when we have an over-arching structure of education that finally makes our children smart enough, early enough that they can resist any efforts of indoctrination by their parents, whether those ideas are good or ill?