Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Better of Two Hyperboles?

Ordinarily, I have great respect for Media Matters, but there are times when their partisanship completely overrides their message, and with each such instance they are incrementally losing my admiration of their work. It’s fine if your political leanings influence your narrative so that your criticisms have a tendency to focus on one group rather than another, but only if the skewed perspective fits your narrative. I understand if you miss some things because you were busy peering closely at the opposite side of the aisle, but there is never justification for twisting your narrative to fit your partisan loyalties. That is exactly what the organization did with the Media Matters Minute yesterday.

The latest installment of the sixty second daily update mentioned that North Carolina governor Beverly Perdue had said at a meeting of the local Rotary Club that Congress should postpone elections in order to focus on the economy, rather than campaigning. I assumed that that meant she was the target of the day’s Media Matters criticism, and that when they said that a spokesperson claimed she was just using hyperbole to illustrate a point, that they would reject that assertion. Quite the contrary, they apparently took that for granted, and proceeded to indicate that “right wing blogs were not as forgiving.” Gee, no kidding? Bloggers who make careers out of opposition to Democrats and liberals didn’t shrug their shoulders, shake their heads affably, and forget all about the woman in the opposite political camp who just said that it might be a good idea to play fast and loose with the foundations of our democratic system?

Media Matters, would you have been so forgiving if Ms. Perdue had carried an (R) next to her name, rather than a (D)? It’s not as though the reason they were willing to give her that pass while the right wing blogs weren’t was because they thought the proffered defense was a good one. The way they concluded the minute makes that perfectly obvious. No one, they pointed out, took the nasty criticism of the stupid, unreflective Democrat farther than Rush Limbaugh, and to prove that they played a clip of him stating that her idiotic suggestion characterized the Democratic Party, and that, “far be it from me to [draw any connections or comparisons], but Adolph Hitler would agree with Beverly Perdue.”

See, Media Matters, you’re losing a large share of my respect now because you’re putting me in the awkward position of having to defend Rush Limbaugh. It’s not as though I think his commentary is any more measured or any less foolish that Governor Perdue’s poorly-thought-out rhetorical suggestion, but the fact is that if you want to defend one and not look like an utter hypocrite, you have to defend both. Rush Limbaugh was engaged in hyperbole. If a spokesperson for him had any good reason to defend the right wing blowhard against your criticism, he would tell you just that: that he was exaggerating in order to make a point. His hyperbole was far over the top, irresponsible, and intellectually deficient, but so is suggesting that we arbitrarily postpone the democratic process. Apparently Media Matters felt that the fact that Ms. Perdue probably didn’t mean it literally was reason enough to deflect criticism away from her. Why was it not good enough for Limbaugh?

Media Matters, please decide what you stand for, because if you mete out your criticisms this selectively, it’s not for accountability in media. If there are rules for what people are allowed to say on the air, they need to apply universally. Either nobody is allowed to say something ridiculous then bullshit their way out of admitting that they ever uttered it or nobody is. I don’t mind if your ulterior motive is to see that your side wins the game, but I care deeply about how you accomplish it. And you’re not going to get anywhere by trying to establish a harder set of rules for one side than the other. It belies your confidence in the truth and virtue of your favored politicians if you imply that they can’t win in a fair contest of ideas.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I Guess Until Now, the Subway was like Going to Mars

This is another one of those posts wherein I alienate myself from my twenty-first century peers and take on the persona of someone who is five decades older than I am, and can’t maneuver around the rapid changes of the thrilling modern world.

I understand that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has just launched cell phone service inside of New York subway stations. What burns me is the thought that there was sufficient demand to carry forward the elaborate and expensive project of building an underground telecommunications network. I imagine that the MTA must have based their installation project on a well-established understanding of what their customers needed. That then would mean that there were hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who felt cheated that they had limited cell phone reception for as much as twenty minutes.

This is just one of those things, where there is an enormous contingent of people who share a particular sentiment and find it to be among the most natural things in the world, while I absolutely cannot wrap my head around it. I’m sure the positive responses to the announcement were perfectly matter-of-fact, since people have a tendency to take things for granted the day they first gain access to them. I’m sure the positive responses will also be fantastically melodramatic, since people also have a tendency to insist without a shade of intentional irony that they cannot live without things that they lived without for their entire lives up until that point.

My own response, on the other hand, was just to be utterly dumbfounded. I simply can’t comprehend why anyone would think it’s appropriate to spend God knows how many man-hours and material resources to construct something that benefits customers only in that it prevents them from having to wait thirty seconds and then walk halfway up a flight of stairs in order to receive the associated service. Is communications technology really that powerfully addictive that even in the midst of one’s amazingly convenient and rapid commute to work, it’s an act of painful sacrifice to not talk about bullshit or surf the web?

The project cost two hundred million damn dollars. I’m not the sort of person who usually complains about how New York City is a giant cash-sink for the rest of the state, into which all of our coffers drain. But if my city is falling apart to the extent that when I have to walk somewhere new I’m not sure whether there’s going to be rubble blocking my path, while New York City is able to spend two hundred million damn dollars on the lengthy process of designing and installing something that nobody anywhere could possibly fucking need, then I really have to rethink my perspective on the wealth disparity among localities.

I have to congratulate this news story both for giving me a perspective sympathetic to people I usually chastise for whining and for giving me a much needed and rarely accessible reason to be less desirous of returning to New York. Public transportation is one of the first things that come to mind when I am called upon to compare living in a decent city to living somewhere like where I am right now. First and foremost, the MTA actually gets you where you need to go, pretty much without fail. Secondly, though, it is, or always was, an exciting, engaging, sometimes poetic way to get around. With this new development, I am absolutely sure that when I finally make my way back there, the entire process of getting around will be transformed into something far more annoying than it had ever been before.

I used to commute for an hour each morning from Eastchester in the Bronx to Grand Central in Manhattan. The train was above ground for about half of that, and there were enough people yammering on their cell phones for that portion of the journey. It’s not that there conversations bothered me terribly, although they were almost always ridiculously mundane. But they were also the sort of dialogue you could get more out of if you had it with the stranger sitting next to you. I have had an awful lot of opportunities to observe cell phone addicts in their various unnatural settings, and I’ve found that in general, while people think that their devices connect them to the world wherever they are, the real effect is just that they take wherever the person is away from him. And nobody seems to notice or care.

What was most annoying about listening to people’s conversations while on my way to Manhattan was me, namely my unwillingness to forcibly hang up someone else’s phone, point out the window and shout, “It’s a beautiful fucking day; have a look!” Come the underground portion of the ride, it’s more a matter of compelling people to look at the human beings around them, but either way, it’s the same impulse that I have to deny, and if I had had to do it for a full hour every day, I probably would have eventually jumped on the tracks.

Doesn’t anybody think anymore? I mean, praise technology whatever ways you like, but no matter how intellectual one’s use of it, it is distraction from one’s own thinking. The potential for personal development that comes of ease of access to technology is kind of lost if there is never a time when we aren’t plugged in. Naturally, people can choose to turn off their phones, but what bothers me about this story is not that there will no longer be a place in New York City where that decision is made for them (sometimes – I often did get reception inside stations), but the implication that people never want to so much as entertain the concept of letting go and getting into their own heads. Is that such a scary place for everyone now, that having to either think for ourselves or interact with strangers is something we can’t even conceive of doing for as long as it takes to get from Greenwich Village to Central Park?

Monday, September 26, 2011

We've Got Guests! Clean Your Town!

Listening to the radio this morning, I was treated to another bout of unintentional humor from the city of Buffalo. Apparently there’s going to be something opening in Buffalo on October 16th called the National Preservation Conference. They mentioned this on the local NPR station, WBFO in the context of a story about how Catherine Schweitzer, the local co-chair of the event, is trying to impress upon everyone the need to clean up their neighborhoods. They even termed it an effort to “make Buffalo sparkle.” I’m afraid it’s going to take quite a bit more than a spit shine and some elbow grease to make a city with a thirty year history of rapid decline suddenly coruscate beneath the admiring eye of a handful of out-of-town visitors. It’s classical Buffalonian behavior to voice such optimism as to suggest that that’s exactly what we can do, though.

What I found humorous – hell, downright hilarious – about this story was the simple fact that I was essentially listening to an entire city population’s surrogate mother trying to tell them to clean their rooms because we’re going to have company. I don’t think anybody who recorded or ran this story thought much about the implication that came along with it, that we just aren’t at all used to having visitors. I found myself very much wanting to ask Ms. Schweitzer if she kept to this same practice in her own home, waiting until the day before the in-laws were set to come over for Thanksgiving dinner before imploring her household to clean up a little.

Mind you, I’m in no position to judge such behavior. I’m just the same way. There are times when I am assiduously organized and I vacuum and dust according to a regular schedule. But there are also long spates of time during which I don’t do a thing to keep a nice house, precisely because I rarely expect to have anyone over. Then of course when someone announces that they’d like to visit, I find myself scrambling around trying to conceal the evidence of my own squalor.

On the other hand, I don’t really understand the impulse to put one’s home into a state that is unfamiliar even to oneself just to impress guests with a false personal image. The reason I’m ashamed of my clutter and dirt when it builds up is because should anyone see it, they’d be getting a one-sided vision of me and my lifestyle. I’m really not like that. I truly have every expectation that I would always be better than that if I had the least bit of regular traffic over my floor to provide me with that motivation. I clean things up for myself sometimes, but if you don’t plan your visit accordingly, you only see the version of me that drops the dishes in the sink and then goes right back to work and subsequently neglects them for a week, the version of me that keeps a year’s worth of magazines in a lopsided pile next to the doorway, the version that buries things that he uses beneath things he doesn’t want.

In the case of Buffalo, though, what other version is there besides the one I know, with all its filth, decay, degradation, and neglect? How are we supposed to portray ourselves? As the long-ago city that I’m told once stood on this spot in the 1940s? Or as the theoretical place that we might be the median income was an order of magnitude higher, if our industries had never collapsed, or if anyone actually came here or had reason to?

See, I wouldn’t be criticizing Catherine Schweitzer here if it really was as simple as a friendly warning that we’re bringing out the good china tonight, so we might want to pick up a little. She said “make Buffalo sparkle,” and then she gave some examples. She was compelled to particularly emphasize Court Street, which she pointed out was a pedestrian thoroughfare, then proceeding to complain that it was lined with giant planters that are standing completely empty, and as far as anyone can tell always have been. She mentioned a Verizon phone booth that was standing crooked after being hit by a car. For those who don’t want to disappoint Ms. Schweitzer, she would like these things to get taken care of in the next two weeks. Also, reaching into the rather more mundane, she chided people to pick up all the scattered trash, although she didn’t mention whether she meant from their own yards, from the vacant, crumbling building on their left, or from the vacant, crumbling meth lab on their right.

I forget to pick up around my apartment and then find myself scrambling to do it when someone is on their way over. I get that; I can accept the same behavior on a citywide basis. But I can’t quite imagine myself waiting until my mother calls and says “I’ll be over this afternoon” before I, for instance, hang the door back on its hinges, or pick up the broken glass off the carpet, or shot-vac the flooded bathroom floor. I’m not sure that I can say the same for Ms. Schweitzer, and I’m honestly very interested to know what her guiding impulse in this case is, apart from being charged with a task tantamount to trying to get Salt Lake City, Utah geared up for the National Homosexual Monogamy Convention. Did she suddenly acquire the opinion that our urban blight and infrastructure problems are important things to deal with now that somebody’s going to be in a position to judge her personally for them? Or is it just that she actually hadn’t realized what this place actually looks like until some outside influence compelled her make an objective assessment?

Knowing what the people in this town are like, I’m genuinely worried that that’s exactly what it was.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Disingenuous Comment of the Week: Mitch Daniels

On Wednesday’s Daily Show, Jon Stewart conducted an excellent interview with Mitch Daniels, mostly focused on wealth disparity and economic policy. After talking at length about the value of consensus-building, the Indiana Governor almost immediately launched into a stream of divisive language, referring to “the president’s obsession with wealthy people,” and his “constant bashing” of them. Daniels then stated that “You could confiscate the wealth of all those people, and it wouldn’t do any good.”

When Jon Stewart pointed out that Daniels might thus be contradicting his own advice about “the language of unity,” Daniels looked introspective for a brief moment before coming up with a very unique and creative excuse. “If I got a little defensive,” he said, “it’s because you’re asking me to defend positions I haven’t taken.”

Sure, Mitch, I understand; I do that all the time! Like if somebody were to ask me to defend the death penalty, my first impulse would be to describe those who oppose it as weak-willed anarchists who want to see murders roaming our streets with impunity. Of course, I don’t believe that, but that’s just the kind of thing you say when you’re called upon to play devil’s advocate, right? Any time that somebody misidentifies my social or political views as being more extreme than they are, I make certain that appropriate their language and launch ad hominem attacks against the opposing viewpoint. I mean, that’s the only natural way to defend oneself, right?

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a public statement that sounded quite so baldly disingenuous. The only thing more stunning than the fact that he attempted to defend his aggressive rhetoric by claiming that it was a consequence of his views actually being more moderate than they seemed was that in the context of the interview the strategy apparently worked. Rather than cutting it down, Jon Stewart adopted that point and took to defending himself against the baseless charge that he was arguing on the basis of straw men. He ended the interview by saying that he hoped the governor didn’t feel that he was asking him to defend positions that didn’t represent him.

If this sort of defense was acceptable when Daniels was caught in his own hypocrisy, can it be used by anyone, anytime their own behavior doesn’t match the expectations they set for their opponents? If I catch criticism for describing corporate CEOs as wealthy parasites profiting off the painful labors of people far below them, can I then demand more civility from them by saying that I only said what I did because somebody was asking me to defend that view? If a politician publicly uses racist language, can he keep his job by saying that he doesn’t really believe those things, but was backed into a corner by minority critics who mistakenly insisted that he did?

Whatever the spontaneous strategy a professional talker comes up with, any attempt to reverse a statement that you have just made in perfectly plain terms should be met with derisive laughter. Nobody should get away with such a thing, and it should be obvious that the gauge of a person’s real views and his actual respect for his opponents is what he says when he’s not prepared to censor his own remarks, when his pressured by being asked to defend a view that he may or may not hold. And if your job is to serve the public according to your personal views of what is right and wrong, it should be obvious that if someone challenges you to defend a view that you don’t hold, you simply don’t do that. You tell them exactly what you do believe, instead. It goes a long way towards avoiding perfectly absurd backpedaling and mind-bending rhetoric. I simply can’t imagine that someone could fail to understand that after more than six years as governor. But retaining a strong tendency for hypocrisy through that much time in office? That I understand.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Now I AM Mad at Netflix

You know, I actually defended Netflix when it originally announced its price increase. Admittedly, part of the reason was that I have an emotional attachment to physical media, and although I recognized that separating the pricing was a move toward discouraging the DVDs by mail service, I determined that it wouldn’t harm that side of the business artificially. I figured that people with the money would hang onto both services and demonstrate the continued relevance of both media that you can hold in your hand and the United States Post Office. I also supposed that certain people like me would cast a vote in favor of those things by keeping only that service. I think Netflix discovered, to their evident chagrin, that I was right.

And in a move that will become a prominent case study in future business textbooks, the solution that they decided upon in response to unexpectedly negative customer feedback was to issue an arrogant non-apology while pushing the original idea to a further and more alienating extreme. Instead of simply retaining two price structures for different services and letting customers demonstrate their demand within the existing business model, Netflix will now be separating the two services into two completely separate businesses, with separate billings, separate websites, separate ratings information, even separate brand names, and ultimately completely separate customers.

In a replay of the July chorus, the response from customers and persons with common sense about how a business should operate has been overwhelmingly derisive. The perfectly obvious complaint is that the company is making it impossibly difficult for customers to utilize the dual service that they have already had access to. The Oatmeal quickly responded with this cartoon: One of the thousands of commenters on the Netflix blog post compared this move to separating phone service into a company devoted to talking and one devoted to listening. References to New Coke abound. People are predicting still more declines in the stock value of the company.

In his post, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings explained, no doubt disingenuously, that the complete severance of the DVDs by mail portion of the business is aimed at allowing management teams for each business to focus completely on their own needs, thereby helping the DVD portion to survive for longer. Now, I have no formal education in business management, but I’m pretty sure that it’s possible for a company and a subsidiary company to be managed separately, but share billings and retain user interface that is already well in place. Even if the creation of a separate site was deemed necessary for clarity’s sake or simply for the sake of a symbolic fresh start, I find it impossible to believe that Netflix couldn't have designed two separate sites that share ratings and reviews from customers who have accounts with both.

I call absolute bullshit on Hastings’ claim that he wants the DVDs by mail service to be around for as long as possible. Completely and unnecessarily divorcing the two services forces customers to choose one or the other. They are trying to deliberately, perhaps artificially, reduce demand for the portion of their business model that involves an investment of physical resources. And if that fact isn’t evident simply from the effort to sequester the older service away from the newer, they’ve even given it an awful, awful new name. The red envelope will now bear the name “Qwikster,” a name which I can only imagine was artfully designed to imply obsolescence.

The new brand remains true to the original by having two syllables and in no other way. Those two syllables combine two assaults on the durability and desirability of the business into one absurdly shitty name. To start with the more obvious act of sabotage, I would say that Netflix’s marketing department attached the suffix “-ster” to the new brand explicitly to place it in the company of businesses that are already defunct and to make it feel at home there. “-ster” was commonly attached to web business names about a decade ago, and has never been used with anything new that had a shot at being successful since then. Napster and Friendster still exist, as far as I know, but nobody cares, nobody really uses them, and the prospects for them growing in the future are slim to nil. By making the older half of their business of a piece with these oldsters, Netflix is transparently broadcasting the fact that it perceives Qwikster to already be in the same position of neglect, or that they want it to be.

More likely the latter given the other half of the brand. “Qwik,” Mr. Hastings helpfully informs us, is supposed to refer to the quick delivery offered to customers. So in order to promote the longevity of their premier service, they’ve chosen to emphasize the one feature by which it pales in comparison to the company’s other brand, which is now being put forth as a competitor. I’ll say a lot in praise of the DVDs by mail service, but by modern standards, quick it is not. The Netflix marketing team seems to be banking on the idea that every time they read the name on that little red envelope, the word “quick” will be on their minds and they’ll think, “Gee, I wouldn’t have had to wait a day for my entertainment if I had just chosen another title that’s available to stream online and watched that instead.”

Despite the strengths that they could have emphasized, they instead chose to create a new brand identity based on the one modest weakness that will repel all the shortsighted customers who can be trained to value convenience over quality. They could have called it PickFlix, or ClearFlix, or Doesn’t-rebuffer-or-increase-strain-on-your-ISP-Flix. Or they could have just called it Netflix Mail. But they went with Qwikster. They may as well have just called it Waitster and made the logo a cartoon of a guy looking at his watch while getting older. This goes beyond bad branding. It was never intended to be good branding. Reed Hastings wasn’t caught off guard by the blowback he received today; he was counting on it. As far as I can tell, his attitude is that anyone who still wants his company to mail them any of their 100,000 DVD titles can fuck right off. Go check some other dead and decaying websites, then put on a big band LP and type a letter to the editor on your Smith-Corona, you dinosaurs. Reed Hastings is too plugged in to the rapid changes of the modern market to stop and give a shit about whether you still want what he was offering you back when his company’s stock was more valuable and you were paying less.

I suppose that given the theme of this blog, I should give Hastings my respect. He’s trying to force a breaking point. But it’s a decidedly negative breaking point for most people concerned. If we accept the shitty deal he’s giving to his loyal customers, we demonstrate that decreased quality and selection is okay as long as we get our poor, limited goods quickly. On the other hand, we could spin this breaking point in our favor. I’ll be curious to see how many more subscribers they’ve lost after another month. I’m not sure how I’m going to respond yet. Netflix has been my only reliable source of entertainment for some time. The price hike hasn’t taken effect for me yet. I was planning on just keeping the DVD side, but now I’m not sure whether to support Qwikster despite the fact that it’s designed to dissuade support and is owned by someone who’s happy to treat his customers like gullible fools, or to try to find something else.

I actually didn’t know that Blockbuster had changed to a monthly subscription model. When did that happen and why wasn’t it four years ago? There’s also apparently something called Green Cine, which doesn’t have much of a site but seems well-priced and is uniquely focused on independent and classic titles. There might also still be one privately owned DVD rental store in my area. That could be neat in light of my nostalgia for physical media. I don’t think I’ve gone inside a building to rent a film since I was a kid.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Child-Haters Versus Women-Haters

I spent entirely too much time yesterday afternoon following and participating in a debate about abortion, infanticide, and Canadian law at the Ethics Alarms blog. Though I might better have spent that time doing something more significant to my survival, it was a highly stimulating bit of discussion. I took on the task of trying to convince the blog’s author, Jack Marshall, that in the case of a 19 year-old Canadian girl who gave birth to her child in secret and then strangled it, the judge probably didn’t let her off with a three year suspended sentence because she simply considers infants to be a lower form of life.

Beyond the intellectual challenge of trying to dismantle the flawed logic and straw men involved in Marshall’s slander of Judge Joanne Veit, I found the dialogue to be worthwhile because it truly helped me to see the disparate sides of the abortion debate with greater clarity. I have often found that there is a certain middle ground in that debate, which is almost never explored. Broadly speaking, I am a pro-choice individual. But there appears to be a segment of the pro-choice crowd which believes that abortions are okay, full stop. That is not my perspective at all. Rather, I feel that abortions are sometimes the least of several evils. That is a perspective that anti-abortion individuals don’t seem to understand, and it is apparently one that is not widely represented. That makes it easy for people like Jack Marshall to characterize abortion-defenders as baby-killers who attach no value to the lives of innocents.

What I learned from today’s debate is that Marshall really, honestly believes in that characterization. He is truly of the opinion that Canadian society in general, and increasingly America as well, judges fetuses and infants as being less important than the mere convenience and whim of adult women. And it’s actually kind of comforting to know that. You see, I was afraid that the subject of abortion was peopled with activists who maintain wholly inconsistent worldviews. And while that still may be true to a certain extent, the fervor and ill-will surrounding so much of the discussion is probably derived from a tendency of virtually every party involved to mischaracterize one another’s views.

What I also learned about Marshall is that he genuinely believes he is defending the unborn against the onslaught of a society that is succumbing to the sort of utter degradation that leads it to consider newborns to be disposable, valueless, and devoid of rights. He allows for no nuance in the views of his opponents. That deepens my confidence that he is wrong, but it also aids in my understanding of why he’s wrong. It’s not, as some might suppose, that he simply thinks his moral outrage trumps a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body. Rather, he thinks he is defending children against women and social trends who have no moral compass whatsoever and are content to enter into abortion lightly, without reflection. I know that there are some women of whom that is true, but it is far from the norm, and what I recognize is that it is wrong to assume the authority to pronounce on what is right or wrong without having any awareness of the context surrounding specific decisions.

Ascribing highly extreme points of view to one’s political opponents makes one appear more extreme by contrast. I presume that this is happening on both sides of the debate. Pro-lifers think of pro-choice people as advocating abortion wherever there is the slightest motive for it, and that makes resistance to abortion not a personal point of view, but a moral imperative. It’s probably easy for anti-abortion activists to convince themselves that they’re fighting a group of people who, if not for the resistance, would go door to door performing abortions, even on women who aren’t sure they want them. Their own positions are probably ramped up in response. After all, if your opponent’s position has no nuance, why would yours? Meanwhile, pro-choice people think of their opponents as tyrants jockeying for control over all women’s reproductive systems. If that’s their goal, then evidently it’s not enough to defend abortion; activists believe they have to insist upon it.

I’m tired of seeing this debate framed as a contest between people who hate children and people who hate women. It’s portrayed that way because each side insists on the most evocative, rhetorical descriptions of the other. Not content to portray rivals as rivals, we feel the need to portray them as villains. We need more nuance in our understanding of the political motivations of others, but in order to achieve it, we first need more nuance in our approach to debate and political engagement. As it is, we only go on sustaining the possibly illusory perception that the two camps in any contest have wildly inconsistent views, that the definitions of “good” and “evil” are reversed on the other side.

Call me naïve, but despite all the partisanship and political rancor I’ve witnessed in my young life, I think we generally share a basic concept of right and wrong. Where we differ is in the application of it. It’s a matter of degree. By and large, conservatives don’t hate women any more than liberals hate children. We just put greater emphasis on one or the other depending upon our perception of the challenges at hand, the tendencies of the dominant society, the social position of our opponents’ views. Conservatives are categorically wrong when they paint abortion as an instance of the devaluing of nascent life, but liberals are similarly in error if they do not acknowledge the sincere good intentions of their reasonable conservative opponents.

We must take care to point out that sympathy for the emotional strain and desperation of mothers who lack support does not come at the expense of an overall respect for life. There’s room for defense of both children and child-bearers. The existing dialogue doesn’t give much hope for this, but when it comes right down to it, isn’t that what we all want? Despite how differently we rank our priorities, don’t most of us ultimately want to do right by every kind of person? We must. That's simply got to be the way it is.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Killing Not Just Newspapers, But News

Nielsen released its report yesterday on how Americans spend their time online, and most of the extensive media coverage seems to be focusing on how popular their research shows Facebook to be. Apparently there was some doubt about that prior to yesterday. This study tells a much larger story than that, however. Focusing on the social media aspect of it seems like a strange bit of rhetoric, and an impulse to exploit the angle that news outlets assume will generate the most attention. Social media and blogs together comprised almost a quarter of people’s time spent online, but it was not the largest category. That remains the miscellaneous category, but let’s not pull punches here, it’s porn. The smallest share of time online goes to news, at 2.6 percent.

That’s a significant piece of information at a time when the internet is said to be killing newspapers, with even television media having a difficult time keeping up with changing landscape. But if society as a whole is devoting only one fortieth of its time spent online to learning about current events, I wonder if that calls into question the assumption that traditional news media are failing because of competition from convenient, cheap, high volume online sources of news. Other analyses have indicated that overall readership of established news agencies is in decline, not just readership of their print formats. It seems that it has always been assumed that this readership was dispersing to other sources from which they gathered the same volume of information that they used to consume, but I expect that that would be difficult to prove empirically. To me, these new numbers support an alternative interpretation: that people are opting out of information-gathering altogether, and that established news media are losing ground not to competition, but to distraction.

The existing narrative reflects what I think is an unfortunate and all too common perspective that all change is positive change. Letting that perspective go unquestioned allows us to sacrifice the best of what is currently available to us, either because the best of what is emerging is thought to outweigh it or because preserving anything against the onslaught of social or technological change is deemed a lost cause. The optimistic outlook on current trends in news consumption is evidently that there is a greater volume of reporting, a greater diversity of opinion, and a greater ease of access. That’s hardly all there is to the story, though. A greater volume of reporting doesn’t mean much if the sources of that reporting are devoid of the resources that might otherwise encourage a fuller investigation and a higher quality of reporting. A greater diversity of opinion is hardly progress if it reflects a devaluing of objectivity and a tendency of people to choose the sources of their news based on a preexisting agreement with the outlet’s perspective. Greater ease of access is barely significant if fewer people are choosing to access the most significant information that is available to them.

Of course, I don’t know that any of these trends are truly dominant. I am confident, however, that there is far too much optimistic assumption about the character of American audiences, and far too much dismissiveness and acceptance of powerlessness among those who might be in a position to affect positive change in consumer behavior. Much of the media seems content to fawn over social networking sites, curve their reporting on topics of much broader significance around a sense of awe at their popularity, wrongly declare them to be the drivers of foreign revolutions, and so on. The cultural position of Facebook, Twitter and the like is crucially important, but I would love to see a lot more analysis of its causes and effects, and a basic willingness to criticize and resist.

As far as I’m concerned, the story to be taken away from the Nielsen report is not that Facebook holds irreversible cultural dominance, but that an enormous portion of the American public enjoys masturbation in its multitudinous forms, and hates information and critical thinking. And as much as that drives frivolous use of social media and a resistance to hard news, it also may inform the existing news media’s response to such trends, so that their diminished quality and misplaced emphasis drives nails into their own coffins.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Glenn Beck, Israel, and Mormon Eschatology

[I wrote the following article for a new website dedicated to Jewish news. Due to editorial disagreement, the piece appears at in a redacted form. I remain committed to the missing pieces, so I thought it worthwhile to post the original version to my personal blog, as well. In the interest of seeing that I am not competing with my own client, I would like to point out that this piece is merely an expansion to an article written for and first published at . And I ask that anyone who is interested in Jewish affairs visit that site for more such news in the future.]

In August, the controversial conservative commentator Glenn Beck embarked on a highly-publicized tour of Israel, which he had dubbed “Restoring Courage.” Before the event even concluded it elicited a wide range of responses from Israeli and world media, Jews of different political stripes, and followers and opponents of Beck within the United States. Much of the media in Israel gave only light coverage to Beck’s visit because most people outside of the U.S. simply don’t have reason to recognize or attach significance to his views or activities.

The evident purpose of Beck’s rally was to encourage an international movement to resist criticism and pressure being leveled against Israel by the United Nations, the European Union, human rights groups, and others. Because of his staunch support of Israel in context of the perception of overwhelming opposition, Beck was warmly welcomed by some prominent Israelis, even having addressed the Knesset on July 11th in an event organized by the Likud party’s Danny Danon. Commentary from the Jewish community suggests that some people are eager to support any non-Jewish voice that firmly sides with the state of Israel.

On the other hand, many have been wary of his personal intentions and the possibility of a Christian doctrinal interest in Israeli affairs. Heshy Rossenwasser, editor of the conservative Arutz Sheva news service effectively summarized both perspectives in an op-ed the week before the Restoring Courage rally:

“Any voice in the wilderness sounding a note of support to us comes as a breath of fresh air, and we welcome it with such ardor that we are willing to overlook potential faults and pitfalls – namely, that his seemingly pure and good-hearted motives just barely conceal political agendas and religious ideologies that ought to give Jews much pause.”

Beck’s opponents in America, both Jewish and non-Jewish, take issue with his seeming messianic mission and a strong tendency to intertwine his Mormon faith with his politics and social views. His stated support of Israel may well be in earnest, but there is a serious question of motivation at hand. Christian Zionism has a long history, grounded in evangelical and other conservative Christian beliefs regarding the end times and the second coming of Christ. The associated Christian prophecies range from vague frameworks of assumption about what is to come, to bizarrely specific accounts, but generally reflect the idea that the full restoration of the state of Israel must occur before the Christian prophecy of the second coming can be fulfilled. It is not clear whether Glenn Beck’s personal view reflects this idea, or how thoroughly formulated his beliefs about it are.

It’s also not clear what his views are regarding Judaism and the Jewish people in general. While he is presently being embraced by some members of the Jewish community for his vocal outrage against poor treatment of Israel in the world community, he has formerly come under fire from groups within the United States for ignorant language and commentary that evokes persistent notions of a Jewish conspiracy. In February of this year, Beck was quickly compelled to apologize for remarks that he made on his radio show comparing Reform Judaism to “radicalized Islam” and saying that they were akin to each other by virtue of both being politically-oriented.

Taking his distaste for social justice-oriented Jews farther while speaking on his show more recently, which now broadcasts online, Beck dismissed the housing protests that began in July in Israel, identifying the participants as far-left radicals, and drawing connections between them, communist ideology, and Islamists. The conspiratorial bent evoked by these kinds of statements is familiar in Glenn Beck’s broadcasts. Another fine example that is relevant to his unclear relationship with Judaism comes from January, when he was still employed by Fox News, at which time he claimed that a group called “the intelligent minority” had been conspiring to control people through propaganda for the past century. Eight of the nine people whom he implicated as prominent members of this minority were Jewish.

If Glenn Beck is the friend to Jews and to Israel that he claims to be, such discomforting beliefs and statements as these must be no more than coincidence and purely secular politics. If, however, they belie his fondness for the Jewish people, then his Restoring Courage tour and further advocacy for Israel must hide an ulterior motive. Beck’s devout Mormonism should be able to tell us something about his possible eschatological views. On the one hand, Mormon prophecy says that Zion, the new Jerusalem, will rise in North America, and thus one might suppose that there would be no explicit role for Israel to play in their end times scenario. However, Mormonism holds that the new covenant with Jesus does not supersede the covenant with Abraham, and that the Jews remain G-d’s chosen people, though destined to ultimately accept Jesus. This notion of eventual universal acceptance of the Mormon faith underlies Mormon belief in the baptism of the dead, which put the Church at odds with Judaism when it was revealed that they were baptizing holocaust victims.

There is a passage in the Mormon scripture called the Doctrines and Covenants, which says, “Let them, therefore, who are among the Gentiles flee unto Zion. And let them who be of Judah flee unto Jerusalem.” In addition, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, stated in a talk in 1843 that Judah must return and Jerusalem be rebuilt along with its walls and Temple before the second coming of Jesus can occur. Thus, it is common Mormon belief that Israel will have a significant role to play in the fulfillment of Mormon prophecies, which must be preceded by the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy through the restoration of the Temple. Though religious interpretations are always certain to vary, these statements, together with the expectation that Jews will convert before the end times, suggest that some Mormons may advocate for the expansion of Israel on the same view as certain evangelicals, believing that the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy through the restoration of the Temple on the Mount is necessary to the fulfillment of their own prophecies of a second coming.

If Glenn Beck has such an idea in mind, it could give added meaning to his seeming embrace, in a broadcast immediately preceding his rally, of the Temple Institute, which is run by Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, who ran for the Knesset in the eighties as a member of the far right-wing Kach party, and “has argued that Jewish law does not allow Christians or Muslims to live in the land of Israel.” Without knowing more about Beck’s personal views regarding eschatology, it is mere speculation, but if he is interested in seeing gentiles flee to his own homeland in the United States, while Jews gather in an Israel with Biblical borders, then it makes good sense that he would align himself with Israelis who share a similar vision of racial exclusionism. No doubt his critics would see this as in keeping with his broader worldview, as well. Glenn Beck has a well-established history of drawing stark lines, whether between conservatives and liberals, communists and capitalists, believers and unbelievers, or Christendom and Islam.

If Glenn Beck is indeed engaged in a campaign in defense of Israel for reasons quite distinct from his personal feeling towards Jews and Judaism, it is little more than an alliance of convenience. And if one thinks that that is a far-fetched scenario, it is worth remembering that that is exactly the alliance being entered into by those Jews and Israelis who have embraced Glenn Beck on account of his presenting himself as a courageous, non-Jewish defender of Israel, despite their either not knowing who he is and what he stands for, or disagreeing with him outright on his various other controversial opinions.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Thought to Close the Day

Since I neglected to write about the experience at the time, I thought I would take this evening to reflect on having seen the 9-11 memorial exhibit last month when it was visiting the Erie County Fair. However, I can’t quite think of what there is to say other than that it was a powerful experience. The sense of human loss was very much present to the space, and the scale of devastation was more apparent from looking over the wreckage of a jet and the collected pieces of office equipment pulled from the site than it ever was from seeing ground zero when it was two, three, and four years after the fact. It was astonishing to still be able to smell the smoke on the items in the exhibit, even ten years later.

But what affected me on levels that went far beyond pure emotion was finding myself in lines of people pouring over the photographs, and video footage, and lists of names, and artifacts, with children beside me in that line who were infants when the attacks occurred, and others who were not born until the years following it. I was only in high school during 2001, but 9-11 remains such a fresh memory, and yet there I was ten years later among children who were already looking back on this as a part of history that has only affected their lives distantly, in ways that they could not directly experience. As I watched the video of the plane striking the second tower and confirmed that it matched up frame for frame with what I could still see in my mind, I heard a father behind me explaining to his children, who were seven or eight years old, about what happened on the day that was being commemorated there. He told them about the attack in the briefest of terms and then added, “You weren’t even born yet.” His child then asked him, “Were you?”

The enormity of this thing is almost unimaginable to those of us who witnessed it, but on the scale of human history it is so small. Children were born on the afternoon of 9-11 and every day thereafter, and most of them have never had to try to imagine that suffering or loss.

It is an ego-centric perspective, but what the memorial did for me above all else was give me a unique sense of place within my own life. I saw my first pictures of the attack as I was walking into American History class. I attached much significance to that fact even at the time, knowing that what was unfolding would someday have a chapter of its own in those same textbooks that I carried into the classroom. The exhibit and the ten year anniversary mark the fulfillment of that notion. At twenty-six years old, unlike at sixteen, I am now every bit as much a bearer of prior history as I am a witness to its continued unfolding. Over ten years I have seen so much strife and discourse and change grow out of the events of September 11, 2001. But the end result of all of that is, for the children who stood beside me at the memorial, simply the way their world is and always has been.

One might think that children seem especially small viewed through the prism of recent history, but in my experience it’s really the other way around. Looking back on 9-11 in their presence dwarfed the event. For some people much older than I, the attacks may seem like yesterday. For me it is a fresh memory, yet also a distant one. But for those born in the last ten years, it is literally a lifetime ago. That thought affects me much the same way I was affected when I watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos documentary series and first glimpsed the timeline of the universe condensed into the scale of one year. On that calendar, all of human history has taken place within the last minute of the last day of the year. No doubt some people find that thought unsettling, but in the past couple of actual years, it has given me the greatest comfort I’ve ever known. With such a diminished sense of my own significance, none of my problems can seem much worth worrying about, and not even historic tragedy has the permanence to weigh very heavy for very long. Children are born into a new world, all but untouched by former pain. Time moves steadily forward. And while for some of us the wound may never heal, even never is not so long.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

My Compliments

I make it a point to not read my major local newspaper, The Buffalo News, as it is a terrible publication. I once made the mistake of subscribing to it, which afforded me a complete picture of its editorial quality. Suffice it to say that I’ve seen a typographical error in a sub-heading on the front page. Still, I happened upon a copy of the Friday edition’s events guide, the Gusto yesterday, and I found some amusement with the restaurant reviews. In the “Cheap Eats” column, there was one of those gems of a sentence that reminds me of the entertainment value of bad writing, while also filling me with depression at the thought that there are plenty of people who write poorly and are paid a substantial salary for doing so.

Worse still, I was dismayed to read that the author, Toni Ruberto is also a Gusto editor. Presumably then, her job is not only to avoid writing flawed language, but also to identify and remove flawed language that others fail to notice in their own writing.

Yet, in a review of Christie’s Family Restaurant, Ms. Ruberto writes:

“Hash browns served on a large oval plate, enough for two, were moist with just enough of a crunchy edge that they were flavorful, not burnt.”

I wonder, what possible purpose could she have seen for those last two words, other than to turn her intended praise for this restaurant’s hash browns into a backhanded compliment? There is no reason to add the addendum that your food was not burnt unless you mean to imply that you had expected otherwise. Ruberto is not even contrasting “burnt” with any other quality that would call that to mind. It’s not as though different degrees of the same feature separate being burnt from being flavorful, or even crunchy. It’s an almost complete non-sequiter, and it’s so tactless and lacking in self-awareness as to actually affect the tone of the entire review. In light of it, I get the impression that when Ruberto closes her review by saying “We’ll be back for more,” she’s not saying “I expect their food to continue being good,” but rather “I expect their food to continue to surprise me by not being poorly prepared.”

In honor of Ms. Ruberto and the publication that employs her, I would like to offer the following compliments on their review of Christie’s Family Restaurant:

It was understandable, not written in Swahili.

It used proper punctuation, and the text was not one giant paragraph.

It contained relevant information, and the address of the restaurant was not wrong.

The prices of the dishes were accurate, not given in Mexican pesos.

It was professionally published, not posted by a twelve year old blogger.

The text was printed, but not in white.

The typesetting was not upside-down.

There were five columns, which did not read from right to left.

Toni Ruberto has a job that’s not at the New York Times.

There was not a typo in the sub-heading.

And this is just a small handful of the things that you’ve done right. So I hope you feel proud. Good show, The Buffalo News! I’ll be back for more.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Obama Jobs Plan: Last Stop for Compromise

I must say that I was intrigued by the strategy behind the jobs plan that the President unveiled in his speech last night. I can’t exactly say that I was inspired or impressed, though. I don’t think it’s the strategy that I’d have liked to see, but it is a strategy, and a proactive one, and that’s saying something. I listened to the speech on NPR, and the broadcasters who covered it seemed to have a fair sense of what was coming before the President took the podium. There was some alternative speculation about how the bill would be structured, but the dominant theory seemed to be that it would consist entirely of initiatives that had been supported by both Democrats and Republicans in the past. That turned out to be exactly the case, the strategy being to present something that could not possibly meet with partisan opposition unless the Republican Party was prepared to explain why it had changed its view on a series of positions it had formerly supported.

It’s a clever approach, and it may succeed in its goal, but there are two serious questions in my mind: is that goal ambitious enough, and what if it doesn’t succeed? I admire the effort and sacrifice that must have gone into identifying and advancing all of the points of demonstrated overlap between Republican and Democratic policies on jobs and the economy. But as far as I’m concerned, the main reason why there is so little progress in American politics today is that the Republican Party has an uncompromising political will while the Democrats have an obsession with compromise at the expense of any will whatsoever.

I value compromise myself. I’m not so naïve and egotistical that I think I think government policy and the future of America can be built according to my own narrow vision. I am a firm believer in incremental change, and I know that the very process of positive change sometimes requires a great deal of patience and a lot of frustration. Yet, in a situation where the most regressive elements of public policy provide an unmovable defense against even the most modest applications of liberal ideas, I don’t want more compromise. I want a stronger offense. I want a reason to believe that liberal ideas aren’t dying because all political resources are being directed to efforts at obtaining cooperation with people who see any Congressional action whatsoever as an unacceptable political defeat.

It seems to me that that is what the president and much of the Democratic Party have been doing. I fear that they are losing sight of the dividing line between compromise and capitulation. In fact, I think both parties lost sight of that line a long time ago. The clearest ideological difference between the two is that Republicans believe that giving up anything is capitulation, while Democrats think that giving up everything is compromise.

And what if the Republican Congress doesn’t pass a plan consisting entirely of initiatives formerly supported by both parties? What will be the new strategy, the next step towards gaining their cooperation? Introducing a jobs bill comprised entirely of initiatives supported only by Republicans? The current strategy absolutely has to be successful. But if it is, I hope that Democrats understand that there is nowhere left to go in the interest of establishing a common vision. They have already gone well past the center of the aisle, and it would make no sense to reach any farther without simply joining the Republican Party. Instead of that, if this strategy of asking the wall to move fails yet again, perhaps it will finally come time for the Democratic Party to regroup and begin assembling the machinery to tear through that wall. Perhaps then they will at least try to stand up for underrepresented liberal ideals. That may bear with it the risk of making little progress, but the Republican strategy has already guaranteed that, and no one seems to worry about the political consequences of that. If it’s impossible for anyone to take the right action, I’d at least like the right ideas to be in the public record.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Claire McCaskill: Naive, Pollyannish, and Correct

On Wednesday’s episode of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart ridiculed Senator Claire McCaskill for her comments in a hearing on the financial future of the United States Post Office. She recounted sending letters from college to her family, and lamented the fact that there are no such physical keepsakes arriving at her home from her college-aged children today. She then mused that an advertising campaign promoting the value of physical letters might have a positive impact on the USPS’s revenue stream.

Mere moments after I watched the Daily Show segment on Hulu, I read a post at Jack Marshall’s blog, Ethics Alarms, in which he thoroughly upbraided McCaskill for the same commentary. He concluded his post by saying that her remarks constituted a “level of demonstrated incompetence and stupidity that mandates removal from high office.”

I dare say it’s a little extreme to advocate that someone be removed from office based on having simply expressed an off-the-cuff idea, and one which McCaskill prefaced by acknowledging that it may seem “naïve” and “pollyannish.” Now, of it was foolish of McCaskill to bring it up in that context, and to apparently be just spit-balling ideas during an official government hearing. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, though, as far as I know, that’s just the way these things go. There may often be an informal tone in these sorts of hearings, which encourages a free exchange of thoughts. And appropriate or not, that is exactly what McCaskill was engaged in. That is not demonstrated incompetence. She didn’t actively structure a policy around her reflections. She didn’t do anything except share an idea that some people took very seriously and saw as a decidedly bad idea.

I actually disagree with them. I don’t think it’s all that bad an idea. Now, if she thought that effective advertising would completely turn around the Post Office’s revenue problems and that they would all then be able to go on with business as usual, her naiveté is quite incredible. There’s no reason to assume that, though. I see no reason to assume that she meant anything other than that it might help a little, which I think is true.

Jack Marshall’s derision of the idea almost comes across as a tirade against letter-writing, and both he and Jon Stewart seem to be of the opinion that traditional mail is dead, that nothing will revive it, and that technology moves inexorably from one item to the next, leaving the past buried in its wake. That perception is disputed at least in a modest sense by a study that was detailed on NPR some months ago, in which the author claimed that nothing that had ever been produced in the past has since stopped being produced altogether. Of course, that’s far from saying that any older technologies or practices remain commonplace, or rebound, but in my observation some do.

Marshall writes:

"If the Senator’s idea works, maybe we can use the same approach to bring back the use of other obsolete and inferior technologies. Like…typewriters! Didn’t you love that ‘clack-clack-clack-ding!‘ sound? Phonographs! And telegrams! Ah, there was such a thrill when you got one of those!"

I found that passage amusing to read, considering that I am twenty-six years old and I own two typewriters and a record player, both of which I use. The record player is a Crosley model that was manufactured in recent years. I do as a matter of fact like the clack-clack-clack-ding of typewriters. As a writer, I find that it reassures me of my progress and helps me to establish a rhythm. I also appreciate the concept of having a physical concept of my work without having to go through the further process of printing it out. That is essentially the same reason why I prefer personal correspondence in the form of handwritten letters, rather than e-mail. I know for a fact that I am not the only one in my age bracket who feels this way. When I was in college, e-mail was already quite dominant, but I had several friends with whom I exchanged letters, because we thought it preferable to have a space of time between correspondences, and to be able to open physical envelopes, which imbued the messages with greater significance.

Marshall seems to not realize, or to ignore the fact that some of the technologies he refers to as obsolete and inferior have remained current even in the presence of domination from their competitors. I was able to buy a new record player a few years ago because they are still marketed to some segments of the population. Naturally, some of these are seniors with disposable retirement income, who still have vinyl records from their earlier years and would like to hold onto them, and perhaps convert them to mp3 and CD formats. However, newly pressed vinyl has seen a significant resurgence in recent years, because advertising and word-of-mouth has informed people that it actually provides a better sound quality than the alternatives. It is a niche market, but audiophiles and music snobs are now willing to spend more on a high-quality vinyl record than a CD. For my part, I am happy to purchase used records for one dollar at the local thrift store because as long as they are well-preserved, the overall sound quality remains superior, and I also like the hands-on aspect of it, the fact that the need to turn over the record at the halfway point encourages you to remain engaged with the music, and to listen actively.

I have noticed the same sort of resurgence with typewriters, which I began to see being sold new in office supply stores starting a couple of years ago. I expect the reason is that people have realized – or manufacturers have realized they can try to convince people – that they are preferable in some professional contexts for fundamentally the same reason that I prefer them when writing fiction. That is, they provide an immediate physical copy, a fact that probably benefits businesses when they would rather not waste time by scanning, modifying, and printing existing forms and documents.

So why not actually promote the USPS as a means of personal communication? It’s not unheard of. The Swedish post office embarked on a creative ad campaign in the Christmas 2009 season, and from what little I know it was rather effective. It seems to me that the mistake that the government and the Post Office has been consistently making is that they have been going about business as usual, failing to make necessary structural changes to their operations in order to reduce costs, and also failing to implement any strategies in order to increase revenue. Both are necessary to save the institution, and despite what Jon Stewart or Jack Marshall would have us believe, it’s not all that ridiculous to think that people can be guided towards choosing something in spite of its not being on the cutting edge.

To my mind, this entire subject speaks to something deeper about modern American perceptions of marketing. That is, we seem not to have any such perception. In the context of constant information and ongoing consumer profiling, people who are in the business of selling things to other people have gotten so caught up in the “people” and “things” elements of that equation that they’ve utterly forgetting about the “selling” part.

In season four of Mad Men, there is a scene in which Don Draper clashes with an expert brought in to do market research on how to sell skin cream to women. Her interviews find support the notion that the traditional angle is the only angle: convince them that using it will help them to get married. Draper had been pushing for another interpretation, no doubt guided in part by his own resistance to the confining set of options offered by society, and the woman insists that there doesn’t seem to be a new approach to be had. Draper stands his ground by saying that of course no such approach would come out in the market research. Neither the product manufacturer nor the potential customers would know what they’re looking for until someone tells them. That’s what makes it new.

Was marketing really like that once upon a time? Is there any creative appeal left in marketing now? All the sales of products seem to be obtained through algorithms which pick out the sort of people whose consumption patterns demonstrate a proclivity for consuming those products. We seem to feel that all we need to do is isolate the people who want something, and then tell them to obtain it. But good advertising is capable of targeting people who don’t yet want something and convincing them that they do. Great marketing can convince them that they want it even though it’s different from what they’ve gotten accustomed to, even though it seems, at first blush, to be inferior, even though it’s old. But that idea is apparently so passé that Jon Stewart and Jack Marshall find it to be laughably indefensible.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

NPR Listeners Cheer On Human Suffering

I listened to a portion of Talk of the Nation today, which did a segment on bullying in school and its lasting impact on the people who experience it. The starting point for the conversation was an anthology titled Dear Bully, in which young-adult fiction writers reflect on their experiences as victims of bullying. The vast majority of the input from guests and listeners had one clear effect on me, which was to make me feel sorry for bullies.

Before you jump to conclusions, let me clarify that this was not the sort of “I feel sorry for them” mentality that comes of condescending pity. It wasn’t a matter of the victims pointing out that they understood the frustrations, insecurities, and lack of control that made their bullies act in the way that they did. Quite the contrary, their reflections tended to give the impression of the victim willfully becoming the monster that he thought he was fighting.

If a person bullies someone during high school, they might make someone’s life difficult for a couple of years. But I feel sorry for the adolescent bully, because at least he is not cheerleading another person’s failures and unhappiness for the rest of his natural born life.

Several listeners who called and e-mailed the show detailed the identical, non-introspective rationalizations they went through in coping with their painful memories of being bullied. This convenient coping mechanism was made all the more accessible by Facebook and similar information-age resources. Each of them was able to reconnect with their bully and comfort themselves with the knowledge that they were doing much better in their later lives than the persons who had bullied them.

Evidently, none of these former victims are familiar with the very simple ethical truth that two wrongs don’t make a right. I listened to one self-indulgent sob story after another and found myself wondering, isn’t anyone capable of looking back on the past and saying simply, “It was fifteen years ago; it’s water under the bridge”? Instead of that, most people who found themselves victimized early in life responded to it in retrospect by indulging in ill will towards their victimizers and taking pleasure in the belief that that ill will had been fulfilled. Is it really so common that people find the best cure for their own pain to be the pain of others?

I was not severely bullied in school. I can’t say that I wasn’t bullied at all. I clearly remember another student spilling my books across the hall when I was in middle school. I had problems with him all year. The following hear, another student tried to torment me, the worst incident being him kicking me in the back before P.E. These were unpleasant, ongoing confrontations, but they didn’t crush my spirit, and they didn’t continue for long beyond that, the reason probably being that I didn’t put up with them. I harbor no ill will towards anyone who was cruel to me in school, and I wouldn’t be the least bit comforted by knowing that any of them are worse off than I am right now. In fact, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I like to think that whatever experiences I had with bullying as a child, I grew as a result.

I would hazard to guess that people who have let that wound fester for years, even decades, cannot say the same. One caller wept on the air as she recounted how she dropped out of a school dance program, rather than take it alongside the girl who had been bullying her. She said that she had complained to the instructor first, but had been told that she’d have to deal with it. And what was the alternative? That the bully be expelled from the program on the basis of someone else’s hearsay about things that she had done in completely different circumstances? This former victim wept and blamed a childhood bully for her loss of an important opportunity, when she might have done well to look within for a moment and attribute a part of that loss to her own lack of the emotional strength to stand up to her tormenter, or to even inhabit the same room as her.

As I moved into high school, I was increasingly undaunted by intimidation from others. I still recall learning a valuable lesson about myself on the first day of ninth grade, when most of my fellow freshman were in terror of the tradition of upperclassmen pelting freshmen with eggs on their way home from school. At the end of the day, I collected my things, and walked straight through a line of waiting upperclassmen, not the least bit fearful of the possibilities. In circumstances like that, people only make victims of the people whom they know are already victims.

My demureness abated gradually as I grew from childhood to preadolescence to each level of high school. I’ve never been the most assertive person, but my capacity for self-defense was well-developed by the time I was fourteen or fifteen. Still, I think that in the first half of high school, teachers perceived me as more of a victim of bullying than I was. Perhaps I was more of a victim than I perceived myself as. I remember a math teacher once having a conversation with me after class in which he made an uncalled for effort at steeling me against affronts from other students. He instructed me to keep in mind that someday I was going to be these people’s boss. Putting aside what a load of bullshit I now know that to be, I think my internal response at the time was much like what it would be now. That is, I didn’t see the comfort in that, and I wondered what the point of that sort of hope was.

Was I supposed to think that whatever lack of power I had at the time, I would make up for it later on when I was in a position to victimize those who would have victimized me? Was I supposed to hold onto the notion of payback until it was time for me to enact it? Of was the notion of my becoming someone else’s boss supposed to be the universe’s karmic payback? Either way, it’s an unjustifiably vicious mentality. I recognized the irrationality of that same mentality, as well, on the first day of school, when I wondered what possible motivation there could be for throwing eggs at a bunch of kids who are two or three years younger than you. When the freshmen who had trembled before that promised onslaught were about to become upperclassmen they talked about how much they looked forward to being able to do to others as had been done to them. Remembering that math teacher’s pep talk and listening to the schadenfreude of those Talk of the Nation listeners convinces me that people do not outgrow that impulse for petty, ineffectual, misplaced revenge.

When I was fourteen years old and now, twelve years later, I didn’t and I don’t want to be anyone’s boss. I don’t want anyone to be anyone else’s boss. I don’t want people to have power over one another, and I certainly don’t want them to have the opportunity to abuse that power. Even the ability to observe another person’s life and to judge it as more of a failure than one’s own is too much power. And untold numbers of people abuse that every single day.

The closest thing I found to humble introspection among the calls to Talk of the Nation was one man who recalled having a bully in elementary school and finding out that at eight years old he had died. The man admitted that his first thought had been, “good,” and then he indicated that even to this day he wishes that his response had been anything other than that, and that he hadn’t let his hurt override his compassion. But in forty minutes of airtime, the closest anyone came to forgiveness of bullying was the acknowledgment that it’s not okay to wish death on an eight year-old child because he pushed you into the mud at recess.

Yet, judging from the reflections of the other callers, it is seen as okay to wish a lifetime of hardship on a person for the same. But nothing that a person does wrong in their youth makes it right that they suffer financial struggles, or spousal infidelities, or illness, or tragedy. Their pain is no less awful than your own, and what is done to them is no less unjust than what they did to you, no matter how cheerful are your emotional responses to misery. So much of what we call karma is really just rationalization of human selfishness.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Beyond Statistics and Statements

Last night, I was listening to a news and talk radio program that I'd never heard before. It began with a segment detailing the persistently negative news regarding the United States job market. I was struck by the piece’s reporting style, not because it was unusual, but precisely because I took it to be commonplace. I have often found news coverage in the popular media to be formulaic, and given what a horrible state that media has been in for most of my life, the fact that every segment seems to be a parody of the last severely limits the chances of meaningful progress and innovation. Plugging the days variables into an established and tired equation for how to present information to the public does very little to advance that public’s understanding of the facts or the issues.

One of the problems that I have with news regarding the various economic indicators is that, though the public is selectively given reason to be apprehensive about the economy, they are also encouraged to perceive the problem as merely a set of mathematical figures. This is never truer than when the stock market faces a downturn – an event that has no clear connection to real world consequences in the minds of the average American. But even when we are given the numbers for job creation, such as the number zero associated with the month of August, the information is presented as just some vagary of current history, not as what it truly is: people’s lives and futures. There is a constant back-and-forth in the media narrative of the economy, and it gives the impression that when jobs are being created the situation is good, and when they are being cut the situation is bad. It turns the perception of the economy into a comparison of averages, divorced from the nuance of there being victims and beneficiaries in every climate, as well as lingering effects on many people of difficulties that the numbers may suggest have passed.

Obviously, the public knows that people are deeply affected when jobs are lost, when salaries are cut, and so on. Still, when the measure of that effect is purely numeric, it is easy for the public to lose sight of those effects. If you don’t have personal experience with the associated hardships, and if you don’t think very hard about it, you might allow yourself the indulgence of assuming that the difficulties faced by individuals have been, by and large, short lived.

Of course, the media does not exclusively present economic news as a set of statistics. That is precisely what I noticed in the radio segment I heard last night. The formula they follow seems to be aimed at counterbalancing the almost esoteric quality of large-scale assessments of economic indicators. They do this by introducing interviewees who are suffering the consequences of those more impersonal trends and figures. In last night’s case, they spoke to a woman who had been laid off from her job, which provided half of the income for a family of five, who were now not able to make their bills without relying on savings. Bits of that family’s story were interspersed with quotations from experts and excerpts from economic reports, in the same fashion that personal stories are always built into news stories of broader significance.

At the end of the piece, they tied the broader and narrower narratives together with a final thought that displayed shortsightedness and deeply flawed copywriting. They play a quotation from the woman, explaining that she felt that she was facing much greater competition in the current job market than she would have under more normal economic circumstances. The reporter took the reins for the last word, adding to her commentary that in her family’s current situation, that competition is one that she cannot afford to lose. That, I think, is remarkably irresponsible phrasing. It reflects the entire problem of constructing news reports according to this formula, a problem which is far from obvious, but which I think can be quite serious.

Who is it that can’t afford to lose the competition for jobs, according to the reporter? The woman he was interviewing? What about the people with whom she is competing? Saying that she specifically cannot lose that competition suggests that other people can, that she is unique, and that the problem being presented is her problem, not society’s. It is a very subtle outgrowth of the terribly common mentality of blaming the victim, in that that kind of phrasing seems to imply that the overall situation remains a fair competition, and that it is up to the families that are struggling the most to see to it that they win in a competition with people who can better absorb the setback.

The problem with presenting stories like that of the economy as a series of statistics and figures is that it prevents the story from being humanized. Leveraging in reference to one or two people experiencing the associated hardship succeeds at humanizing the problem for one or two people. It does not give the story a genuine sense of urgency for those who are not directly affected. Rather than presenting the public with one story about a series of economic indicators and their effect on entire segments of the American population, this sort of journalism presents two separate news stories in one piece: one bit of reporting about a set of vaguely significant calculations, and one human interest story about the brave struggles of a specific family in a specific region.

These stories need to be connected in a way that is meaningful to people who are not exactly like the ones being profiled in the human interest segment. The impulse to balance a detached perspective on the facts with a normative presentation of their effects and consequences is a good impulse, but its execution is lacking. The news media knows how to present both cold, dispassionate facts and charming personal narratives. It also knows how to speculate wildly on topics such as politics. But what it generally does not seem to have a talent for is the crucial application of reason to situations that warrant more than observation and ideological guesswork. That is what it would take to show economic facts in a light that shines evenly upon everyone who stands to be affected by it. Reporters should sometimes be willing to conclude from the esoteric facts what is happening in society as a whole. Facts speak for themselves, and so do individuals, but the collective experience has no voice. A good reporter should do the work of saying on air what has not been said for them. But there’s no formula for that, and so I have little expectation of hearing such a report any time soon.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

"If You Need Mommy, Leave a Voicemail"

I witnessed another instance of questionable parenting today. Fortunately, this latest scene is less distinctly shocking to me than yesterday’s example of parental instruction in amorality, but it almost makes up for that by involving not an independent-minded teenager, but a very small child, who is so much more prone to minute influences.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

"Stop Helping, Son"

I was having a meal this afternoon at a diner (okay, it was a Denny’s – I live in Buffalo, NY and travel solely by bicycle), when a couple of people at a nearby table caught my attention. A middle-aged woman and someone I assume was her son of about fifteen years old had finished their meal and we’re about to get up to leave. The young man had his back to me, while I could see the woman in profile. The kid’s hands moved on the table in front of him as he wiped crumbs from the surface or stacked the plates, or something along those lines. I know this from his mother’s reaction, which was to reach across the table, snatch something from the young man’s hands and command him to stop cleaning up after himself. From what I could see, she appeared to actually be taking things that he had gathered together neatly and scattering them back into their prior positions.

“It’s called waitressing, or busing,” I heard her hiss with genuine derision. “They get paid to do that.”

The young man protested delicately: “I’m just cleaning up my own mess.”

The mother began to get up from the table, aggressively pitching a used napkin into its center and gesturing for her son to follow her out. “Don’t do their jobs for them,” she insisted, repeating that “people get paid for that.”

So focused was she on willfully leaving a mess behind that she didn’t ever seem to notice me, off at her side, glaring at her openly, with fury in my eyes. Her son got up as she began moving past him, still being scolded and thus compelled to defend himself against what I think was the single most irrational verbal attack I have ever heard a parent levy against her child. “I like to clean up after myself,” he reiterated.

Here was this adolescent child taking it upon himself to demonstrate a bit of personal responsibility, and his parent was actively chastising him for it, endeavoring to instruct him that it’s wrong to make something easy for another person if they’re getting paid for it and you’re not. Never mind that in this case they’re presumably getting paid less than minimum wage and relying on tips that, given the neighborhood, the establishment, and the arrogant disregard on display among certain customers, probably just aren’t there. And never mind that all that you need to do to improve their shift working at such a shitty job is run a napkin over a table and move a few pieces of dinnerware six inches or so. They’re getting paid to do that shit that takes absolutely no effort on the part of the customer, but quite a bit when you’ve been doing it every ten minutes for ten fucking hours.

I have encountered this sort of attitude many times throughout my life, in numerous circumstances. I still vividly recall arguing with a good friend in high school who routinely tossed his trash onto the floors of the hallways after school, insisting that it was okay because there were janitors that got paid to clean it up for him. As a matter of fact, he argued that he was providing them with job security by being lazy and filthy. He was a smart kid otherwise, so I give him the benefit of the doubt by figuring that that was probably just an ironic way of justifying his own self-centeredness. Then again, he also self-identified as a Marxist, which added a whole further level of necessarily unintentional irony. Being the principal’s son, the kid was from a decidedly upper-middle class background, and his adolescence created in him an identity that thoroughly grasped the theoretical concepts of equality and social justice, but failed at the task of connecting that to the very simple idea of people actively helping one another.

To this day, there is a special loathing in my heart reserved for these kinds of people – people who applaud themselves when it comes to the vague pursuit of social and political causes, and can speak loudly about them, and build their self-perception around them, but are perfectly willing to leave all the work to others when it suits them, or blame the victim when confronted with individual instances of disenfranchisement and inequality, or drive past a person who’s being attacked on the street.

Of course, in the case of the woman at Denny’s, I have no idea what her social views are. She might just plain not like poor people. She may just think that whatever pittance they’re making to clean up her shit, it’s too much, so fuck them and make sure their job is as hard as it can be. She may be that lovely kind of conservative who thinks that “personal responsibility” is just a phrase that’s used to criticize people at the bottom of society. In that case, here’s hoping that her son’s act of teenage rebellion in embracing liberalism and actually behaving with personal responsibility is not just a phase.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Against the Common Wisdom

I received an e-mail forward last night from someone who is on a mass mailing list for some sort of inspirational website. She sent the message to me, however, not in an effort to share a motivating, joyful sentiment, but rather in pursuit of sympathy. It was accompanied with an indication that she felt unfortunate to have received such a message on that day. I’m not really sure whether that is because my friend felt as though the universe was taunting her for a personal failing through the e-mail, or just because she didn’t get the lift out of it that she so earnestly needed on a day when she learned that she had not gotten a job that she wanted very much and was rather confident she would get. I do, however, know my own response to the bit of ostensible inspiration, and I know that it would be constant, regardless of the circumstances of the day.