Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for June, 2007

Whose space?

Posted by digglahhh on 30 June 2007

So, as the family sociologist, Meta asked me to write about America’s class divisions as signaled by the choices teenagers are making between Myspace and Facebook. The issue comes up because of an article by sociologist Danah Boyd that is circulating the net. The crux of the Boyd’s argument is that teens of higher socio-economic class and other “good” teens are more likely to use Facebook, and those of lower socio-economic class are more likely to use Myspace.

Here’s a more detailed description of Boyd’s “good” teens:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other “good” kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we’d call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

Boyd acknowledges that “good” and “bad” are loaded terms here, but she persists in using them. Here are the “bad” teens:

MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, “burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

One of the arguments put forth in the essay, and particularly the comments section on the accompanying blog entry, notes the differences between making “friends” and “contacts.” Facebook, particularly because of its genesis in the collegiate world (originally in Harvard), is more suited to “networking” and cultivating relationships that can be professionally advantageous. Myspace relationships are less substantive. I fail to see a major distinction on a behavioral level. I don’t differentiate talking to a classmate because her dad works at Smith Barney from talking to a classmate because her breasts are three-quarters exposed. They are both inherently selfish actions.

The distinctions make for some glaring contradictions. For example, “jocks” are included in the hegemonic group, and associated with higher socio-economic status and social mobility, the group that is considered mostly white. Does that imply that there are no “jocks” in poorer schools, or that the moneyed class disproportionately produces our best athletes? Surely schoolyard culture has its jock heroes. Boyd might want to tune into some professional sports that are popular in America, or introduce herself to Pacman Jones or Tank Johnson. She might also want to educate herself about the dark underside of recruiting and academic eligibility slight-of-hand often used to siphon top high school athletes into collegiate athletic programs.

I’m not going to get wrapped up in the Facebook versus Myspace socio-economic question. If the usage differs along socio-economic lines, it is merely another manifestation of a phenomenon we’ve seen with cellular phone providers, e-mail servers, etc. Why the known fact that “taste” is inherently dialectical would not apply to technological applications is beyond me.

What I want to take issue with is the way social and economic class is discussed in this article, and the value judgments that accompany the discussion. This essay is full of broad generalizations, arbitrary characterization, and contradiction; these characteristics belie the ethnographic methodology the author professes. Ethnography’s greatest strength is dealing with nuance, getting beyond stereotype. Early in the essay, we read:

In sociology, Nalini Kotamraju has argued that constructing arguments around “class” is extremely difficult in the United States. Terms like “working class” and “middle class” and “upper class” get all muddled quickly. She argues that class divisions in the United States have more to do with lifestyle and social stratification than with income. In other words, all of my anti-capitalist college friends who work in cafes and read Engels are not working class just because they make $14K a year and have no benefits. Class divisions in the United States have more to do with social networks (the real ones, not FB/MS), social capital, cultural capital, and attitudes than income

All her anti-capitalist college friends who work in cafes and read Engels?… Whoa! I have friends who work in low-level service jobs and read Engels, and they disagree with one another about politics and culture as well as the really important matters (for example, whether the spitting incident on the Keith Hernandez episode of Seinfeld [“The Boyfriend”] centering around a key Hernandez error, on June 14, 1987, that “opened the door to a five run Philly ninth” compromised quality of the episode, because the actual box score from that date contradicts all those circumstances). If this is the level of stereotypical depiction she’s going to use to describe her friends, how imprecise and sloppy can we expect it to get when she begins discussing people she doesn’t know personally?

I’m not doing justice to ( Kotamraju’s) arguments but it makes sense. My friends who are making $14K in cafes are not of the same class as the immigrant janitor in Oakland just because the share the same income bracket. Their lives are quite different. Unfortunately, with this framing, there aren’t really good labels to demarcate the class divisions that do exist. For this reason, I will attempt to delineate what we see on social network sites in stereotypical, descriptive terms meant to evoke an image.

Oh, okay, that was intentionally stereotypical and shallow. But, your friends may want to read Engels again. If your friends are making the same money as the “Oakland janitor,” but are somehow living in materially better conditions, either somebody needs to call H.U.D. or they are being supported by their boomer mommies and daddies, and that’s the reason they aren’t the same class as the “Oakland janitor.”

By the way, the Engels argument is dropped for the rest of the piece, which talks about those of lower socio-economic class without delving into why they may have lower income levels. Are their parents Engels-reading baristas, or are they Oakland janitors? This is especially curious since some of the sub-categories of the predominantly Myspace-teens are “art-fags,” “punks,” “queer-kids” and others whose identities are related to a rejection of dominant value structures more than a failure to live up to them.

Boyd breaks down the teenagers she studies into two groups, “hegemonic” teens and “subaltern” teens. Later she speaks about them in the terms of “good” and “bad” The first set of terms are weighted with academic baggage, and are bad choices, which she acknowledges. The other set is terribly oversimplified, almost guaranteeing more false dichotomies to come – and they do. At one point, Boyd remarks that she’s seen more “half-naked, drink-carrying high school students on Facebook than on Myspace.” This is relayed as an oddity, yet it actually proves her point. Boyd associates Facebook with college, and college-bound high-schoolers. Well, documenting oneself half-naked and drink-carrying IS A COLLEGE THING. Or maybe I missed the release of “Girls Gone Wild, Compton.”

By setting up these vague, and mutually-exclusive categories, and attaching value-judgment-laden language we are thrown into familiarly choppy waters of false dichotomies, identity binaries and absolutes. Later, as she talks about the teens codifying her categorical distinctions, she writes:

Subaltern teens who go to more mixed-class schools see Facebook as “what the good kids do” or “what the preps do.” They have various labels for these hegemonic teens but they know the division, even if they don’t have words for it.

The shoddy distinctions and less than impressive ethnography makes the reader question whether Boyd is capable of, or accurate when, discerning the implicit distinctions she alludes to the teens making. What words do they have? Perhaps if we hear them, we can get a better understanding of how they codify their categorical distinctions.

Oversimplifications abound. There are numerous references to the “average Latino user,” as if second-generation New York Puerto Ricans, the grandchildren of Castro refugees in Miami, and first-generation Mexicans in Albequerque share a culture. There is no deeper exploration of the “Latino user” community, nor does she even glance at MiGente, which many Latinos use instead of, or in addition to, MySpace.

When discussing the flamboyant aesthetics of Myspace, she refers to it as a “bling” style, stating that the aesthetic is rooted in hip-hop culture where such “brash visual displays are accepted and valued.” There is no distinction made between commercial hip-hop culture, which does promote such imagery, and non-commercial hip-hop, which does not. There’s no attempt to understand the context of contemporary hip-hop culture.

These are, precisely, the more nuanced distinctions that an ethnographic epistemology is designed to understand, and for which we forewent a more superficial but comprehensive statistical approach.

Tangentially, if hip-hop is the most dominant global music and culture of the youth, is it really even correct to classify it (especially, the commercial version) as “subaltern” as opposed to hegemonic? After all, many prominent hip-hop figures are “hegemonics” who market themselves as “subalterns.”

The essay concludes with a discussion of Boyd’s concerns for the future of the youth, both the “hegemonic” and “subaltern” teens. The discussion is barely relevant and frames the issues in a fashion that reeks of disconnected liberalism.

The false dichotomies and absolutism doom the piece from the start, as it focuses on separating two groups, using two social network services that are more similar than different, but focusing on the differences.

Certainly, there are differences between social and economic class, but they overlap more than they diverge, especially in an increasingly consumer-driven culture. Many of these categories of students were based on appearance. If that’s the case, then access to cultural groups can be purchased with a credit card.

Styles, even in their pure forms, overlap. What does it mean to be identified as any one of these groups? Real identities are complex; many of those on opposite sides of the social and economic class gaps have both envy and disdain for their counterparts. Street thugs don’t know whether they want to rob their idols or work for them. These dynamics are evidence of the complexities, and multi-tiered constructions of class identity.

Facebook and Myspace are, essentially, consumer choices. If there is a difference in the using body, the prospective users are given the opportunity to choose who they want to identify themselves with. Similarly, they are given the opportunity of what groups to identify with when they buy a pair of sneakers, or choose which movie to see. Those choices are not necessarily inclined to match a person’s more objective class status, professional tract, or moral foundation. There is a potential chicken-and-egg issue at play here too. Do people of a certain status make a consumer decision as a result of that status, or is their projected class identity a product of the consumer decisions they make?

Consumer driven culture teaches us to judge the book, or at least value it, by its cover. At the same time, it increases the chances those judgments will be wrong. Boyd’s essay, nomenclature and problematic attachment of values emphasize these dangers.

Posted in digglahhh, language, pop culture, technology | 3 Comments »

Don’t shoot the nickel

Posted by metaphorical on 27 June 2007

Remember the National Lampoon magazine cover, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog”? It was just mentioned in the NY Times as having been selected “the seventh greatest cover of the last 40 years” by the American Society of Magazine Editors.


I thought of it when I got this letter from UNICEF today.


Can you see the text on the envelope?

As little as a nickel could save a child’s life!

And can you see the clear outline of a nickel pushing through the envelope?

In other words, if you throw the letter out unopened, you’ll have thrown out a real U.S. five-cent piece. The nickel is being held hostage!

Naturally, I opened up the envelope and then (after photographing it) threw it out, the letter unread, because if they’re daring me to be that big an asshole, well, I’m up to the challenge. Naturally as well, UNICEF or the universe got its revenge. The nickel rolled out onto the floor and I have yet to find it.

Posted in pop culture | 7 Comments »

How much public information is too much?

Posted by metaphorical on 26 June 2007

How much public information is too much? Or, to put it another way, can the Interweb make some information too public? In the past, we’ve had matters that were of public record, but not widely known and not widely accessible. That middle ground has lately been lost.

Earlier this week, many of the 53,000 state employees whose salaries are a matter of public record freaked out when the Lansing State Journal put a database of them up on the Web. It’s just the latest example of something that’s been going on for a long time.

As the Poynter Institute’s blog said on Friday (thanks, sjvn for the heads-up):

Although this information has always been a matter of public record, never before has it been so widely accessible. Thus, many state employees, LSJ readers, and other community members are in an uproar over this, citing privacy concerns.

We see this everywhere these days. Here are just three instances.

1. Sex offender databases existed in police stations and city halls for years, often as a matter of public record, but putting them on the Internet lets everyone view them with a mouse click.

So, for example, in Wayne N.J., where I used to live, there were three sex offenders registered in accord with Megan’s Law in early 2007. Not just their names but their address, gender, date of birth, eye color, hair color, height, weight, race, and crime are listed here.

2. Campaign contributions are a matter of public record, but a few years ago, they started showing up online. (C-SPAN, for example, has a search by donor name or zip code, or candidate, going back to 1994. The Federal Election Commission database is here.)

3. College students and job applicants still put their resumes on-line, not knowing their Social Security numbers, which millions of them include, can be harvested, a matter I wrote about back in March 2005.

Besides the Michigan state database, two things put me in mind of this. The first was the poorly done “study” by MSNBC that I wrote about yesterday, that relied on public databases of campaign contributions as mandated and collected by the Federal Election Commission and other agencies.

The second is from last weekend’s New York Times Book Review (yes, I still read the book review in one of the few newspapers that has one, as discussed here last month).

Tina Brown (yes, that Tina Brown) reviewed Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles, 1910-1939 by Katie Riophe.

Why these couples? Why H. G. Wells and Rebecca West; Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry; Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim and John Francis (Earl) Russell; Vanessa Bell and Clive Bell; Lady Ottoline Morrell and Philip Morrell; Radclyffe Hall and Lady Una Troubridge; Vera Brittain and George Gordon Catlin? All were literary or artistic figures, famous in their time (some still are in ours). All had the useful (to the rest of us) habit of writing everything down. They did their thinking aloud on paper – in urgent, dashed-off notes, carefully hoarded correspondence, diary entries, hand-delivered notes and unsent emotional manifestos. All of it was “eyes only,” so to speak, but time has declassified it. The result is YouTube in a time capsule.

I’m not sure about the YouTube comparison. The diaries and letters presumably had a paucity of video, and today, blogs serve many of the purposes of these literary records. In fact, maybe a comparison to MySpace or rather Facebook is more apt (the differences between them is something Digglahhh is hopefully going to write about soon).

But that’s incidental to Brown’s main point, which comes in a paragraph so lengthy that I’m going to break it up so that readers of this blog don’t bill me for new eyeglasses.

In a sense the book’s title is a misnomer. These unions were not arrangements in any static sense; they were vibrant works in progress, exercises in passionate experimentalism. The encrusted inhibitions of the Victorian era had at last fallen away, allowing the intellectual elite to regard matrimony as a lifelong seminar in ways of loving. It’s hard to imagine now the successful management of so many creative permutations in marital compromises. The ménage of Clive and Vanessa Bell encompassed the presence of a live-in lover, the bisexual painter Duncan Grant; Grant fathered Vanessa’s child Angelica, whom Clive was happy to pretend was his. It was unconventional enough for the writer Radclyffe Hall and the monocle-wearing Lady Una Troubridge to live together in Paris openly as lesbians, but Troubridge also accommodated Hall’s obsessive pursuit of a nubile Russian nurse.

Today, when the invasiveness of media has largely put an end to such uninhibited pursuit of definitive emotion, it all seems not just interestingly adventurous but refreshingly tolerant. One can’t help feeling the sanctimony bred by publicity has made grown-up romantic life, marital and extramarital alike, at once more boring and more hazardous. Even royalty and the once inventive British aristocracy have to be as bourgeois as small-town librarians lest they fall victim to gossip columns, kiss-and-tells and tabloid newspaper exposés.

This then is the middle ground that has been lost. It’s not just that JFK got away with his affairs in and before his White House tenure, while Gary Hart and Bill Clinton did not. It’s that we have erased the DMZ that used to protect unconventional choices, made by the ordinary extraordinary citizens around us, from the battlefield of the ever-judgmental straight world.

When everything is either totally secret, or totally known, with nothing in between, we need to press to our chests matters that used to be held at arms length. Yet surely we will find it impossible to breath walking around that way all day, all our lives. And so, fearing that everything will be known, we will start to restrict our choices to the acceptable few and mundane. No more nubile Russian nurses. And as a lover of nurses (or at least one nurse), I say more’s the pity.

Posted in journalism, Orwell, politics, pop culture, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Innumeracy, MSNBC, and the “liberal” media

Posted by metaphorical on 25 June 2007

In one of the worst cases ever of throwing numbers against a wall and then writing them up as news, MSNBC published a “study” last week that purported to show a liberal bias in the media by looking at public campaign-contribution records.

Whether you sample your news feed from ABC or CBS (or, yes, even NBC and MSNBC), whether you prefer Fox News Channel or National Public Radio, The Wall Street Journal or The New Yorker, some of the journalists feeding you are also feeding cash to politicians, parties or political action committees.

MSNBC.com identified 143 journalists who made political contributions from 2004 through the start of the 2008 campaign, according to the public records of the Federal Election Commission. Most of the newsroom checkbooks leaned to the left: 125 journalists gave to Democrats and liberal causes. Only 16 gave to Republicans. Two gave to both parties.

The “data” are here, and MSNBC’s sensationalistic writeup is here.

It’s hard to know where to begin to complain about the shoddy analysis here.

The methodology was to look at the Federal Election Commission records, but not any state ones, for job titles and the names of news organizations.

Our first search of the records used job titles: “editor,” “anchor” and so on. Because often no job title is reported, we also searched using the names of news companies. Smaller companies were not checked; for example, we checked only the company names of the 200 largest newspapers, out of more than 1,400 dailies in the nation.

So that’s one possible bias introduced in the data: smaller organizations may be more likely to be outside big cities, and therefore more likely to be Republican or conservative.

Only line editors and reporters were included, not other newspaper staff. It’s well known that while reporters are more likely to vote Democratic, media management are more likely to vote Republican — and to have far more influence over the direction of coverage and editorial policies.

MSNBC also only looked at

Federal candidates, PACs and parties in the records of the Federal Election Commission, not the separate state campaign records

which might introduce another bias.

They ended up with 300 records but only used 143 for reasons I can’t even possibly begin to explain or understand.

Then, with a list of about 300 apparent journalists, we tried to contact them all. The list published here includes only those who either confirmed that they made the donation or did not respond. Many journalists who changed jobs since the donations were not contacted and are not included here.

As it turns out, that’s 300 out of at least 100,000, by MSNBC’s own estimate.

The final list represents a tiny percentage of the working journalists in the nation. Daily newspapers alone employ about 60,000 full-time journalists. Approximately 30,000 work in television news jobs and 10,000 in radio news.

How MSNBC can presume any kind of statistical significance is beyond anyone’s understanding.

(I’m also a little miffed that they don’t include magazine journalists such as myself and the New Yorker’s George Packer, about whose modest campaign contributions they certainly complain loudly enough).

Having a bunch of numbers doesn’t make for an analysis. It’s inexcusable that MSNBC didn’t kill this story and seriously question the basic journalistic competence of its authors.

Finally, there’s the hopelessly vague “Democrats and liberal causes” at the heart of the statistic. One shudders to think what happens statistically when we let MSNBC define which causes are liberal.

For example, it included VoteVets.org, and organization whose goal “is to put Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans in Congress who are critical of the execution of the war in Iraq and representative of the principles of VoteVets.org PAC in the US Congress.” It’s hard to see that as a necessarily liberal organization.

Looking at its “Board and Advisors”, there’s some people who look like Democrats, but also a number of Republicans, including one member ran for Congress in Indiana as a Republican. Another is an investment banker.

There’s a kind of Orwellian conflation of “liberal” and “Democratic” throughout the “study.” After all, a number of Democratic candidates are pretty conservative, even if “liberal” and “conservative” were useful terms in surveying the political landscape, which they’re not. (Which party is more fiscally conservative, for example? What are we to make of big business’s increasing support for universal health care, traditionally a “liberal” cause?)

There may well be more liberals than conservatives in the ranks of reporters; it’s not my goal—or task—to argue otherwise. It’s much harder to make a case for liberal bias in news reporting itself. Certainly the media rolled over for the Republicans for at least three years after 9/11.

And then there’s the question of what counts as liberal and what counts as, not to put too fine a point on it, merely rational? In a country where 55 percent of the public believes in creationism, how is one to report on attacks on evolution? Is it liberal bias to give short shrift to the for-hire opinions of a tiny minority of fourth-rate scientists who disagree with the near-unanimous consensus on human involvement in climate change?

In fact, we should only be so lucky as to see a bias toward “liberal” rationality in the news media. Certainly, rationality is in fact becoming an increasingly prized commodity in television news. There’s little at CNN as it tries to catch up to Fox, where there’s been none for quite some time. And here MSNBC has shown its lack of regard for anything that might count as the scientific method.

A thank-you to Andy Patrizio for putting me onto the topic (even though as far as I know he and I disagree more or less 100 percent on it).

Posted in journalism, Orwell, politics, pop culture | 3 Comments »

Team ethics

Posted by digglahhh on 23 June 2007

Self-proclaimed sports fan “purists” have a code of ethics.

1. Thou shalt honor thy father

Familial tradition is for many people the determinant of team allegiance; if your father (and let’s face it, it’s almost always one’s father) was a White Sox fan, you can be a White Sox fan even if he moved 1,000 miles away a decade before you were born.

2. Thou shalt support (or oppose) teams near you geographically

Teams are named for cities and regions, and those facts still dominate our allegiances. If one roots for Chicago even though one lives in New York, it’s despite the fact that one lives in New York.

3. Thou shalt be faithful.

Sticking with a team through thick and thin is the cardinal rule—no band-wagoneering or fair-weather-fandom allowed.

4. Thou shall not mix the apparel of the clean with the unclean.

Those who root for a team shall not wear apparel of their team’s rival—or for the strict fundamentalists, any other team at all.

These are just a few examples of the complex, but unwritten, codes governing the following of team sports.

There are, needless to say, problems with these rules of rabid fandom. For one thing, many are, or are at least becoming, antiquated. Others are myopic.

The primary problem is the lifetime commitment made in the embryonic phase of one’s appreciation for the game.

The choice of what team to root for was a very simple process for most of us. Who does daddy root for, which team is on TV?… The fact is that many of us made our choices about who to root for at a time in our lives when we weren’t trusted to make decisions for ourselves. Yet so-called “purists” say we have to stick with those decisions to the grave. Could you imagine if you had to pick your favorite meal at the age of six? We’d have a generation of (supposed) felons on death row requesting chicken nuggets in the shapes of dinosaurs and washing them down with glasses of Kool-Aid through Bendi-straws…

The most common way we are introduced to sports fandom is through our family. It is the same way we are introduced to politics and religion. In those spheres it is supposed (or, at least, hoped) that an individual makes a choice on what perspectives to adopt at a later point in life, presumably after some research, experience, and heavy thought. Rooting for the Steelers because your dad did isn’t much of a “choice” at all.

Geographical proximity to a team is another popular motivation for choosing a team, and it is linked to the family influence motivator in the sense that they both center on the idea of exposure. Often, a child who develops an interest in sports will gravitate toward a local team because it is the most visible; at least it worked that way through my generation’s childhood years. The internet and cable television have changed that. I have no problem following what goes on in any game, real-time. For the ultra-obsessed, and those who derive a second income off of fantasy sports, like me, we can fork over about $150 (per sport) and have television access to almost every game. It is no longer an obstacle to root for a team outside your geographical region. Exciting teams and athletes can draw young fans from all over.

I’m as big of a sports fan as you will find, but I don’t adopt all of the “purists’” rules. Many of them prioritize team allegiance over appreciation of sports history. Somehow, if the Mets are being no-hit going into the ninth and losing by 5 runs, it makes me less of a fan to root for the no-hitter. Sorry buddy, “baseball” is the genus, “Mets” is the species; I root first and foremost for the game. And, yes, that essentially would make me the “purest” of all fans, though I couldn’t care less about some contrived and arbitrary measurement of “purity.”

Changing allegiances is a complex issue. Certainly, polygamy is not lauded, but the counter-argument is that it is also its own punishment. The joy that lifelong New York Rangers fans experienced in 1994 or Boston Red Sox fans felt in 2004 is something an 80’s Los Angeles Lakers backer turned 90’s Chicago Bulls fan could never imagine.

But, even those who are very tolerant of fan behavior that contradicts the “purist” code still find themselves judging allegiance-shifting by some standard. Though I’ve never “disowned” one of my teams, I have been in a bit of a battle recently. I don’t consider a team’s futility to be a legitimate reason to abandon a team, but an overall, front office to on-field, apathy about success reframes the question. The Knicks have me very close to jumping ship, not as a result of their poor performance, but because of their apparent institutional committal to and contentment with failure. The temptation is even stronger because I adopted the Dallas Mavericks, after their 11 win season in 1992 as my empathetic charity case (which was quickly strengthened upon their drafting of Jason Kidd two seasons later, who was one of my favorite collegiate players ever). Now, my relationship with the Mavs is like the one kid who was always nice to the ugly duckling turned prom queen, but who also happens to be an abusive relationship and paralyzed by a sense of (unreciprocated) loyalty. Dirk Nowitzki is the anti-Frederic Weis, and Mark Cuban, the anti-Dolan. Still I cling to a fading, yet also hardening, image of Charles Oakley.

Why should I feel guilty if I were to decide to make Dallas my primary team, and the Knocks my secondary rooting interest? I shouldn’t; but I would!

Team sports fandom is a complicated psychological and intellectual exercise. It poses more problems then fans of individual sports have.

In a team sport, you are expected to continue to root for your team as those who you originally fell in love with retire, or are traded to another team. If you were an Andre Agassi fan, there is no pre-determined direction your support is compelled to take upon his retirement, though you may be drawn to players whose games remind you of Agassi, or to the young Turk who decisively took him out in a U.S. Open final.

Free agency has created a problem for the new generation of fans of sports teams, as it creates a tension between tennis-like support for the individual and the team-sport code of ethics. It has become all too easy to root for a player as opposed to a team, and the player can move on before you ever fall in love with the periphery. Cleveland Cavs fans root for Lebron James because he is the best thing to ever happen to their team. (Apologies to my eighth grade English teacher who will go to his grave claiming Mark Price was better than John Stockton, and a shout-out to Larry Nance who I still think, in his day, could throw it down better than Bron-Bron.) Lebron James fans root for Cleveland because that’s the team he plays for. Are all the Lebron James fans who will jump ship if he puts on a new jersey “real fans? It depends on how you define “true fan.”

Team sports fans are not only are expected to never change allegiances, there is a hierarchy of allegiance dictating who we are supposed to support once our team is ousted from contention. A team in our league, but not a direct rival, root for former members of your team, but only those who left on certain terms…

This is where I face another conflict, and where the code of ethics obscures the appreciation of the game. I’m a retro-jersey and hat junkie (and was one before commercial rap made it a fad). The powder blue, 1976 Mike Schmidt jersey with the Liberty Bell patch is a thing of beauty, and Schmidt is the greatest third-sacker in the history of the game. If I could afford it, I’d sport that jersey with pride, along with the matching burgundy fitted that registers on my five favorite hats of all time list. Yeah, I’m a die-hard Mets fan. So the fuck what! Personally, I see those who are fans of teams only, the way team-only fans see player-only fans.

A hyper-capitalist, arch-competitive society conditions citizens to think in terms of absolutes and dichotomies. In the process of picking our dog in the race, rooting for, and supporting it, we lose a sense of the race itself and fail to appreciate the history and nuanced terrain of the track. The same process exalts the individual and creates an entry into the world of team sports fandom through the individual player level.

The so-called “purists” are often anything but. Technology opens new doors and the vanguards reject nomenclature. Judging who is and isn’t a “true fan” reflects your individual preferences more than an objective reality.

Posted in digglahhh, pop culture, sports | 4 Comments »

Raising girls

Posted by metaphorical on 20 June 2007


Somehow, this Father’s Day was all about tattoos.

First there was an article in Sunday’s NY Times about untattooing. (“Erasing Tattoos, Out of Regret or for a New Canvas.”) Actually, first came the envelope that Juliane handed me on Friday night. But I didn’t know that.

Then came an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution by Roy Peter Clark, “Raising girls: Unpredictable paths certain.” Roy is usually a good writer with something thoughtful to say. In fact, he’s a good enough writer that he teaches writing and his ““Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer” has at least 25 or 30 really good tips.

This piece, though, not so much.

When I first dreamed of a daughter — back in 1972 — the dream did not include that tattoo on her ankle, or the one on her shoulder, or the two new ones on her wrist.

In my day, tattoos were for drunken sailors or escaped convicts, not for blond theater majors with eyes that look yellow when she wears green.

In your day, Roy, computers were the size of a warehouse, calculated nothing but accounting and nuclear missle trajectories, and were programmed in specially air-conditioned rooms by men wearing white lab coats. Oh, and burlesque houses were still around, so theatre itself as well as tattoos have become much more civilized and respectable. In other words, get over it, Roy.

My own Father’s Day was a lot more harmonious. As I say, it started on Friday night, when she came up from college to see her mother perform in a choir concert. At intermission, Juliane said, “Happy Father’s Day,” kissed me, gave me the small white letter-sized envelope, and told me not to open it. I thought she meant don’t open it until Sunday. I was away all day Saturday anyway and almost forgot about it until she called Sunday. “Did you open the envelope?” I told her no. “Asshole. Open it.” That’s my kid.

Inside were about 20 jigsaw pieces, mostly white, with bits of green on them. When I put it together, I saw that the green hand-painted lettering said

IOU 1 of tattoo
Happy Father’s Day

A little bit of backstory is needed here. Juliane and I have matching tattoos of the Greek letter pi that we got about a year ago. They were her idea and her first tattoo.

Ankle Pi

A few months later she added to it a peace symbol and a fraction-sign (/slash mark), the idea being “Peace of Pi.”

I liked the idea but somehow the fraction sign didn’t seem quite right. It took me a little while to figure out what it should be. Letting the Omega stand for the peace symbol, my addendum to the pi would make it look like this:


Just as in calculus, where you read f(x) as “f of x,” this would be read, “Peace of Pi.” When, a few months ago, I told Juliane of this variation of her idea, she said it was perfect. (I think she wished she’d thought of it herself. Still, there won’t be any tattoo erasure remorse.)

The jigsaw puzzle message, though, means she wants to take me for my tattoo addendum and pay for it herself. That’s my kid. Eat your heart out, Roy.

Posted in language, pop culture, technology, the arts | 12 Comments »

Lost in the U.S.A.

Posted by metaphorical on 19 June 2007

The Alamo
The Aleutian Islands
Amana Colonies
the Arch (St. Louis)
Aspen, CO
the Badlands
the Berkshires
the Big Ball of Twine
the Winchester Mystery House
the Black Hills
Brooklyn Bridge
Busch Gardens (any location)
Cape Cod
Carlsbad Caverns
Central Park
Chimney Rock
Chinese Theater
Churchill Downs
College World Series
Colonial Williamsburg
Crater Lake
Death Valley
Disneyland (CA)
Disneyworld (FL)
Door County
Empire State Building
the Everglades
Fenway Park
Fisherman’s Wharf
Florida Keys
French Quarter/Bourbon Street
Golden Gate Bridge
Grand Canyon
Great Salt Lake
the Hamptons
Hoover Dam
Independence Hall
Johnson Space Center
Joshua Tree
Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral
Lake Placid
Lake Tahoe
Las Vegas – the Strip
Mackinac Island
Madison Square Garden
Mall of America
Mammoth Cave
Mojave Desert
Mt. Rushmore
Mt. St. Helens
Mt. Vernon
Napa Valley
Niagara Falls
the North Shore of Maui
the Ozarks/Branson
Petrified Forest
Pike’s Peak Redwood Nat’l Park
the Road to Hana
Rocky Mountains
Rodeo Drive/Beverly Hills
Route 66
Sea World (any location)
Sears Tower
Sequoia Nat’l Park
Sierra Nevada Mountains
Smithsonian Institute Museums
Smoky Mountain Nat’l Park
Sonoma Valley
South Padre Island
Space Needle
Statue of Liberty
Stone Mountain
Times Square
United Nations
Universal Studios
Vail, CO
World of Coca-Cola
Wrigley Field
Yankee Stadium
Yellowstone Nat’l Park/Old Faithful
Harper’s Ferry
Yosemite Nat’l Park
Zion Nat’l Park
Pike Place Market
Pearl Harbor
The Mystery Spot
Six Flags Over Texas
Four Corners National Park
The World’s Largest Garden Gnome
Glacier National Park
Washington D.C.
Knoebels Amusement Park, PA
The Mystery Hole

Thanks, Andrew.

And here’s a quick list of things that can also belong on the list.

Mt Kahtadin
Acadia Nat’l Park
Mt Washington
Fanueil Hall
Harvard Yard
Museum of Natural History
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Museum of Modern Art
Radio City Music Hall
New Jersey Turnpike
Atlantic City
Liberty Bell
the Mall
American Visionary Art Museum
Blue Ridge Parkway
French Quarter
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Wall Drug
Little House on the Prairie
Temple Square
Grand Teton
Mesa Verde
Museum of International Folk Art
Beverly Hills
Crystal Cathedral
Mt Shasta
Mt Rainier
Mt McKinley

Posted in language | 3 Comments »

Condoms, hypocrisy, and the Big Bang theory

Posted by metaphorical on 18 June 2007

“We always find it funny that you can use sex to sell jewelry and cars, but you can’t use sex to sell condoms,”
— Carol Carrozza, vice president of marketing for Ansell Healthcare, which makes LifeStyles condoms.

Fox and CBS have reached new heights or depths of hypocrisy in rejecting a commercial for Trojan condoms that the company will start running tonight on some tv networks that haven’t yet entirely lost their senses.

The NY Times reports today that the two networks refused to comment, but “in a written response to Trojan,”

Fox said that it had rejected the spot because, “Contraceptive advertising must stress health-related uses rather than the prevention of pregnancy.”

Does this image look like that of a network that thinks sex is only for procreation?


How about this “exclusive” first interview last year with the 2006 Playmate of the Year?


After first pretending this was a serious business story, the network swapped out the image of interviewer Neil Cavuto for B roll of the playmate, Kara Monaco, in a bustier, dancing as if she popped out of a wedding cake, and provocatively straddling a motorcycle. This is, after all, the network of Beverly Hills 90210 and Married… With Children.


Meanwhile CBS, the so-called Tiffany network, has always had a prudish streak, but that hasn’t kept it from running shows laden with sexual tension, from Dallas to Murphy Brown to Survivor. In fact, according to Slate, CBS’s best chance of a hit this fall is a show named “The Big Bang Theory.”

the show is sort of Beauty and the Geek meets Three’s Company, with the same jiggle-and-giggle tone of Two and a Half Men: Two nerdy geniuses with a hot babe across the hall.

As the Times reports,

In its rejection, CBS wrote, “while we understand and appreciate the humor of this creative, we do not find it appropriate for our network even with late-night-only restrictions.”

Yet it also noted that “Networks accept ads of a not-so-subtle sexual nature for erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra, often restricting them to the wee hours.”

“It’s so hypocritical for any network in this culture to go all puritanical on the subject of condom use when their programming is so salacious,” said Mark Crispin Miller, a media critic who teaches at New York University. “I mean, let’s get real here. Fox and CBS and all of them are in the business of nonstop soft porn, but God forbid we should use a condom in the pursuit of sexual pleasure.”

The Times article doesn’t describe the two networks’ motivations, except briefly:

A 2001 report about condom advertising by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that, “Some networks draw a strong line between messages about disease prevention — which may be allowed — and those about pregnancy prevention, which may be considered controversial for religious and moral reasons.”

In other words, Fox and CBS are afraid of a reaction on the part of the religious right. The problem, though, lies not just with the two networks; blame has to be shared by the rest of us. There’s a clear possibility of a penalty to showing the ad—general complaints about what Crispin called the business of nonstop soft porn might erupt into specific protests and boycotts.

There’s no penalty, except the small loss of revenue, to not showing them. By failing to penalize the networks, we make it easy for the crazies to have their way, and so they do, all too often.

Posted in journalism, Orwell, politics, pop culture | 3 Comments »

Ring my bell

Posted by digglahhh on 16 June 2007

My current next door neighbor moved in when I was still in college. Today I live there with my girlfriend and rambunctious pitbull/labrador mix, but back then, with my younger brother, two friends on a daily basis, a group of about five semi-regulars, and a group of about twenty any of whom might stay over on any given evening. Five was par for a weeknight, twice as many wasn’t uncommon on any given weekend. Those were only those who stayed over. My mother technically lived there, but essentially did so only in the eyes of the post office.

My neighbor didn’t take too kindly to the constant party scene. With his longish hair and relatively unkempt facial hair, he projected something of a hipster aesthetic. Occasionally, I would hear him playing acoustic guitar. But he also came off as cautious. When he would come over to complain about the noise coming from my apartment, he’d be apologetic about it, but not because he was seeking compromise, just because he feared confrontation. Rebellious and empowered with a sense of tenure, as a twenty-plus year resident of the building, I just ignored his complaints. Never did I give him a reason to be fearful of approaching me about the noise. I was trying to condition him to realize that his efforts were ineffectual, and lead him to stop on his own. Honestly, he did have legitimate beefs most of the time, but many times he did not. Two in the morning on a Tuesday, yes I should shut down the music. Ten in the evening on a Saturday, you must be trying to make enemies.

As time passed, the scene in the house mellowed out. A crescendo of drug use passed. I had learned what a courtroom looked like from the other side of the jury box, and I decided that I did not want to continue such a lifestyle, at least in the excess and with the regularity that I had been. By the time I was finishing school, my mother, who still nominally lived with us, was getting ready to officially move out and the crew was down to the two regulars and the occasional small gathering on the weekends – tame by comparison. Still, my neighbor badgered incessantly.

We would get wasted and talk about the things college students talk about, metalinguistics, how the hell Bert Blyleven isn’t in the Hall of Fame, which one of our old high school teachers would win a hypothetical no-holds-barred Battle Royal. The fact that our discussions always had value is something I was very adamant about, and I still am. It was this sensitivity that my neighbor offended in his first really inflammatory transgression.

One weeknight, probably around 11:30 or so, a couple of my friends and I had some music on and are engaged in a discussion, when the bell rang. I’m stating as objectively as possible that we were not engaging in an egregious feat of disturbance. My faux hipster neighbor asked me if we could keep it down. I told him that we were not being very loud. Again he displayed the paradoxical nerve to come to complain without the conviction to actually “stand up for himself.”. His tactic, tried and true, was apologetic pandering. He began talking about how often overheard our conversations. He told me how he would hear us talk about the Knicks sometimes, and that he is a basketball fan too, and he knows we can get passionate about our team. He was rambling (insincerely) about how sometimes he actually felt like he’d like to be part of the discussion, despite the fact that he never attempted to strike up conversation of any kind when I ran into him alone in the elevator or laundry room.

That got me pissed; I don’t like to be patronized. I looked back at him and calmly replied, “Well, right now my friend is claiming that looking back at some of Oscar Wilde’s work you can actually see a lot of the ideas put forth decades later by the Frankfurt School, particularly Benjamin and Adorno. Do you have anything to contribute to that discussion?” Then I slammed the door.

Currently, I have a very active social life but rarely have visitors. My girlfriend and I work opposite schedules and therefore, there is rarely more than one other person in the house, and when there is, at least one of us is usually sleeping. My neighbor recently had a baby. I don’t know who whines more, he or the child.

This past Sunday, at two o’clock in the afternoon I was cleaning the house and bumping some old school hip-hop, mainly Boogie Down Productions and Big Daddy Kane. The Mets game was on mute. I don’t recall Kane hollering “If you ain’t down with Neo-Marxism, ring your neighbor’s bell,” but lo and behold this motherfucker did. He asked me if I could turn the music down; it was the baby’s naptime. I told him that it was 2:00 in the afternoon. I really wanted to ask him why he thinks I should forfeit my right to listen to vintage hip-hop at the decibel level it is supposed to be played just because he forgot to slip on a rubber. Mid-nineties hip-hop was down with safe sex; too bad you slept, homie… The kicker is that I was just about to eject the disc and pop in a soothing and low volume Robert Anton Wilson lecture when he rang. So, it actually looked like I respected his impressively selfish request.

Last week’s entry in this space was a rant about an institutionalized sense of entitlement amongst conservative white males. Today, I have to confess that the most uppity bitch in my building is a Cuban woman approximately sixty years old who is fond of claiming that she’s descended from aristocracy. She’s head of the Co-op board; I, the white male, am one of the building’s last renters. That’s right, take a good look at the Fidel Castro shirt, keep your mouth shut. You wouldn’t want my pit to have herself a little snack in the form of your pocketbook dog, now would you?…

But the question that fascinates me is, what makes my neighbor think he is entitled to live a life of culture and access in New York City while maintaining a completely insular home environment? The interplay of art, culture, noise, and bustle in the public and private spheres is a big part of what makes New York City what it is. This is the birthplace of hip-hop, the world’s most dominant culture, and that culture was born from kids dragging sound systems to the block and duffle bags of spray cans to the train yards on a mission to blur the lines between the private and the public. Some consider the birth of hip-hop to be reverse-colonialism.

Were I to ironically use conservative rhetoric, I’d tell him that he should have studied harder in school, and then he would have been able to afford a nice house on a plot of land big enough to not worry about what his neighbor does. But that’s not what he wants. He, like so many of the new residents of this recently castrated city, wants to have his cake and to eat it too.

Cultural metropolises don’t come out of a box. New York City is an ecosystem. It is a set of complex interactions that produce a rich and historic sense of culture, diversity and passion. Crime and noise are like bugs, nuisances maybe, but necessary components to the whole. You can’t just exterminate them and not get reverberating effects. When you kick prostitution and drug dealers out of Times Square and buff the graffiti off the trains you aren’t just curing “eyesores” or “improving the quality of life.” You are redrawing the lines of a social battleground, you are making it safe for corporate rule, stabbing at the arteries of the city’s uniqueness. More importantly, as it turns out, you have traded local, small scale immorality for large scaled institutionalized immorality, replacing street wisdom with plastic values. The unattainable images of beauty put forth by Conde Nast and Disney, now occupying Times Square, has done more damage to women’s bodies and self image than any pimp or fresh john ever could! When those who create wealth off the oppression of others feel safe around those they oppress, the city has become dysfunctional.

You come to a place like New York City to find an alternative to the cookie-cutter structure of suburban sprawl and the glass menagerie of Middle American values (if you can’t buy a blow job at 8th Avenue and 42nd Street, where in America is someone from Utah or Missouri supposed to go?). So, while I try to respect my neighbors by any reasonable standard, I will not be shutting down the music in mid-afternoon on a weekend.

Can I turn down the music? See, I’d love to, but I can’t trust you to educate your child about the musical anthology of the Wu Tang Clan, so I’m just going to have to do my New Yorker duty and do it for you. The least you could do is show a bit of gratitude.

If I believed in God, I’d thank her that my neighbor didn’t live on 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the early 1970’s, next to Clive Campbell, Clive might never have become Kool Herc if he did..

Posted in digglahhh, pop culture | 37 Comments »

Farewell Antioch

Posted by metaphorical on 14 June 2007

“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” Horace Mann, Antioch College’s first president

As graduating classes go, consider 1860 one of Antioch’s finest. That year, out of a class of 28, Antioch produced among others four ministers, four teachers, four business owners, three lawyers, two college professors, two physicians, a banker, a newspaper editor, and a railroad official. By far its most interesting member was Olympia Brown, a Universalist preacher and a key figure in the women’s suffrage movement.

Olympia Brown was born in Michigan in 1835. Her parents took an active interest in her education, and she had a powerful example in her mother, Lephia Brown, a highly independent woman with a strong belief in the equality of the sexes. At fifteen Olympia began teaching school in her hometown of Prairie Ronde. She wished to attend the University of Michigan, but that institution did not yet admit women. She then enrolled at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, but found its strict orthodoxy in conflict with her already progressive ideas. She subsequently came to Antioch in 1855 and her family moved to Yellow Springs with her.

Olympia developed strong moral, religious, and political beliefs at Antioch. She became an ardent abolitionist, took in the anti-slavery atmosphere prevalent on the campus, and coupled it to her familiarity with the Underground Railroad station her aunt operated in Michigan. Her experience at Antioch tempered an earlier evangelistic fervor she had felt at Mt. Holyoke, and influenced her to become a minister. She came to not believe in the doctrines of endless punishment and predestination that she felt kept so many congregations in thrall. She chose instead to lift up the spirits of Christians by rejoicing in their God.

After graduation she spent three years searching for a seminary that ordained women. Many rejection letters later, she entered the Theological School of St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. In 1863 she received her ordination at a meeting of the Northern Universalist Association in Malone, New York. At twenty-eight she became the Reverend Olympia Brown, the first woman in America to be ordained by a regularly constituted ecclesiastical body.

In 1885 Wisconsin passed a half-hearted suffrage law that provided in part that every woman over twenty-one had the right to vote in any election pertaining to school matters. Olympia reasoned that in a sense all elections pertain to school matters and this interpretation thrust her into the national spotlight in one of Wisconsin’s most celebrated court cases. In a spring 1887 election she and about twenty other women showed up at the polls intending to vote for officers in no way connected with educational matters. Their votes refused, Olympia and the WWSA filed suit against the election inspectors, and won. This landmark decision essentially enfranchised Wisconsin women, but the State Supreme Court overturned the ruling just two months later. Olympia refused to share her colleagues’ bitterness about the defeat, turning her energies to a monthly suffragist paper she started, The Wisconsin Citizen.

J. H. Willis died in 1893, and by that time owned part of the Times Publishing Company in Racine. Olympia bought his partners out, and for the next seven years managed the Racine Times-Call. In 1914 she moved to Baltimore to live with her daughter Gwendolyn Willis, a teacher at Bryn Mawr preparatory school. Six years later the Nineteenth Amendment finally passed, and Olympia Brown, at 85 one of the last survivors of the suffragist leadership, cast her first vote.

Antioch College is closing, the school announced on Tuesday. Inside Higher Ed reported:

Antioch University announced Tuesday that it would suspend operations of its main undergraduate college — which has played a historic role in American higher education — at the end of the next academic year. All of the approximately 40 faculty members teaching at the college will lose their jobs. Antioch’s other campuses, which focus on graduate programs and nontraditional students, will continue.

Antioch was founded in 1852, with Horace Mann serving as its first president. The college played a role in the abolitionist movement and was an early institution to admit students who were women or black. In the 20th century, Antioch was among the pioneers in “co-op education” in which students alternated positions of work all over the country with their education at the Yellow Springs, Ohio, campus. Antioch was particularly notable in that the education was focused on the liberal arts, and the college was known for turning out graduates who went on to play major roles in intellectual life and social activism, people like Clifford Geertz and Stephen Jay Gould and Coretta Scott King.

As it turns out, there’s lots of Antiochs to Antioch University. The school’s About page lists them:

Antioch College, founded in 1852, is part of Antioch University, which includes the Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, New Hampshire; Antioch University Seattle in Washington; Antioch University Southern California in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara; and Antioch University McGregor in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

U.S. News puts the school’s size at 464 but Inside Higher Ed says,

Low enrollment and a small endowment were blamed for the decision. For the coming fall semester, 125 new students had been expected, which would have brought total enrollment to just over 300.

More recently, however, Antioch’s history has been more troubled and sometimes controversial. The campus — designed for 2,700 students — has seen fewer and fewer students. The college’s long association of liberal politics attracted more students in the ’60s than the ’90s, when a policy requiring explicit verbal consent before any sexual act made the college a favorite target of pundits seeking to mock political correctness.

While the university has created campuses from California to New England — boosting total Antioch enrollment to around 5,000 — that development has worried many supporters of the undergraduate liberal arts college. These supporters felt that the attention of the board shifted too far away from the undergraduate institution that once was Antioch.

Essentially, the school invested in all those other campuses instead of increasing its endowment, which is a miniscule $30 million. U.S. News puts the school in its third tier and says tuition is $27,212.

Eli Nettles, assistant professor of mathematics and associate dean of of the faculty, was among the 15 or so faculty members who were on campus Tuesday (during a between term period) and who were told in person that the college was being shut down and that they would lose their jobs.

Even as she faces unemployment, Nettles said that she does not blame the current leadership of the college or university. “We didn’t use our money well 30 or 40 years ago,” she said, and so the college never saw its endowment or fund raising base grow as it needed, leaving the current leaders without any good options. “You cannot be a small liberal arts school that is this tuition-driven,” she said.

Chad Johnston graduated in 2001 and is among the alumni who have been worrying about the college closing and monitoring the situation through a group called Save Antioch.

During his time at the college, Johnston said, he saw the student role in governance diminished, and more authority shifted from the college to the university — changes he said paved the way for Tuesday’s news. “It’s been a downward spiral of college autonomy,” as the university focused more on its far flung campuses, which he acknowledged brought in money. He said it angered him to see the university focus on these regional campuses for financial reasons, while still using the Horace Mann legacy, prominently using a Mann quote — “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity” — on those campuses’ Web sites, while letting Mann’s legacy in Yellow Springs disappear.

Antioch is about social justice, he said, not making money, so the college should have stayed the institution’s top priority. “Of course it’s a struggle” for the college to manage financially, he said. “But it’s always a struggle to be a liberal arts college and to do some radical things for education.”

Perhaps we no longer need Antioch itself. There are plenty of other small colleges in beautiful, wooded rural areas in America. There are schools that do co-op programs, and ones that let students define their own major. We have, perhaps, enough other places for the next Stephen Jay Gould or Coretta Scott King or Olympia Brown. But if schools like Antioch lose their way, where will all our Chad Johnstons come from?

Posted in education, politics | 10 Comments »

Crossing out words to better see them

Posted by digglahhh on 9 June 2007

What a bunch of melodramatic, self-entitled, historically ignorant whiners white males the conservative punditry are. For example, Often you’ll hear them ask why there is no “White History Month.” The assumption of neutrality causes people to falsely conclude that now Black History Months outnumber White History Months 1 to 0, when in reality, White History Months dominate 11 to 1.

They refuse to recognize themselves as the all-time greatest beneficiaries of policies that have been and still are, essentially, affirmative action. Yet, they have no problem lambasting those who refuse to recognize white people as a “minority.” Yes, there are arenas in which white people happen to make up less than half of some specifically limited segment of the American population. That doesn’t make them members of an oppressed minority.

The specific acts of whining and semantic manipulation I have in mind are their uses of words like “indoctrination” and “objectivity.” Even as they descry the limiting of terms like “oppression” or “victimization” to non-white minority groups, the conservative right is only willing to apply terms like “indoctrination” or “brainwashing” to the teaching or discussion of values that contradict their hegemonic counterparts.

Consider, for example, the way you frequently hear the right accusing professors of indoctrinating students into Marxism or other radical ideologies. Yet when you look at the circumstances of the accusation, almost always, anything beyond the barest of introductions to the subject is considered an indoctrination. We’re left to assume that teachers are obliged to uphold whatever norms happen to exist, as if a student’s social and educational experiences up until that point have been characterized by a non-indoctrinating objectivity. Such a notion is patently false, and either naïve, inane, or disingenuous, depending on the motives of the accuser. Conservative instructors are quick to remind their students that their assignments should give an objective summary based on the facts. The simple fact is, a college professor simply doesn’t have the contact time with a student to indoctrinate to anything but the smallest degree, in comparison to the synergistic messaging of a conumer based, mass media driven culture. I guess teaching people who that bereted silhouette that adorns hipsters’ T-shirts is, and explaining to how he might feel about his image being printed on sweatshop products and worn as an (unintentionally ironic) fashion trend classifies as indoctrination.

It is not the accusation of bias that is bothersome, as it is sometimes true. It is the false dichotomy implied between the subjectivity of university classes, specialized and clearly labeled, by comparison, and the objectivity of a high school class in American History –or Saturday morning cartoons for that matter– that is manipulative. Any perspective that doesn’t contradict, or even one that reinforces the dominant value structure or accepted histories of events are assumed to be objective. But, being subversive is not an essential criterion to the process of indoctrination and objectivity is not something that is relative to an interpretable status quo.

Not every disagreement marks an absence of objectivity. Many disagreements are defined by clashes of subjective interpretations that both hold historical merit.

The ultimate goal of a marketer is for his/her individual model or brand to becoming synonymous to the general product itself. All adhesive bandages are referred to as Band-Aids. Similarly, we have Kleenex, Gatorade, Rollerblade, and White-Out (list as many as you can on a long car trip, it’s fun). To most of our population, “history as written and interpreted by white Christian capitalist men” has simply become, “history.” .

Contrawise, a Marxist interpretation of history it is not any more subjective than the version consumed by the masses; it is just more explicitly labeled. It is always the “other” that is labeled. The non-otherness of the unlabeled is implied. Hence, the Negro Leagues, the colored fountain, working women, diet soda, etc.

Classification experts from Aristotle to Linnaeus to Orwell would tell you these are social and political choices, not scientific ones. A cup that contains nothing but coffee isn’t a cup of coffee, it’s “black coffee,” while one that has been adulterated with milk and sugar is a “regular coffee.” A cousin of mine has coined the term “retronym” for terms like caffinated coffee, unflavored ginger ale, triple-tax-free bonds, etc.

What we should be arguing for in terms of dissemination of ideologies and information through the media and educational system is simple and clear labeling and general transparency. As a member of a free society, I have no objections to the marketplace of ideas or to giving people several different interpretations of world events. But, disallowing false advertising is a precondition of a fair marketplace. When you turn on the nightly news you are getting, predominantly, a white, Christian, capitalist, and male interpretation of world events. That’s fine. What is not fine is that none of those biases are advertised.

Basically, the manipulative use of words like “indoctrination” and “objectivity” run the gamut of Orwellian sin. In his “Politics and the English Language,” he specifically cites “objective” as an example of pretentious diction, which , is “used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.”

When discussing meaningless words, he said,

“Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”

And about the modern political writing of his day, he wrote,

“The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism… The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms…”

Jean Michel Basquiat, who I referenced in last week’s post, famously stated, “I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” Perhaps he was on to something, as most of those who make the type of complaints I’ve been deconstructing read February as “Black History Month,” when in reality it is a lot closer to White History Month.

Posted in digglahhh, education, language, Orwell, politics | 3 Comments »

Clueless, the sequel

Posted by metaphorical on 8 June 2007

KTK over at the blog Lean Left rightly takes me to task for not noting the more fundamental (fundamentalist?) issue at hand in the Julie Amero case, which I wrote about earlier today. Amero was on the verge of going to jail for 10 years for not stopping a school computer infected with spyware—a computer that the school didn’t protect with a firewall or anti-virus software—from spewing a few pornographic web pages during a 7th grade class.

The problem is stupid, backwards, and clueless authorities who are beside themselves at the thought that some kids saw a pop-up ad on a computer, and think that’s worth 10 years of someone’s life. (I’m glad they didn’t find the father of my friend from 5th grade, whose stack of Playboys we found in his garage one day. Christ, the guy would still be in jail.) Technology problems will always be with us. Confusing systems and obnoxious malware are a pain, and will likely be so for some time, but they are nothing but an annoyance. Letting panicky prudes throw people in jail because some kids saw the words “Triple XXX Action!” on a computer monitor – forget that it was by accident, that’s the least part of the issue – is a vastly greater danger. We don’t need computers that are better at protecting us from sex. We need people in charge who aren’t so completely unhinged about sex.

I’m going to take KTK and myself to task for not connecting this up with this week’s surprisingly favorable decision by the Federal 2nd Circuit Court in favor of the broadcast networks and against the FCC over the issue of “indecent” language.

The FCC has recently been holding broadcasters to an increasingly strict standard where every instance of words like “fuck” and “shit” leave them subject to fines that start at $325,000, not exactly chump change even for FOX, NBC, CBS, ABC, or PBS, which was fined when, as Variety put it, “a bluesman use a colorful colloquialism” Martin Scorsese’s documentary “The Blues.”

During the 2003 Golden Globes, Bono uttered the word “fucking,” Cher and Nicole Richie uttered an expletive during a Billboard Music Awards show, and then, of course, there was the mother of all indecencies, Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl.

The FCC commissioners purported to fine these diverse events under the aegis of their indecency standard. But that standard concerns material that “dwells on or repeats at length descriptions of sexual or excretory organs or activities” or “appears to pander or is used to titillate.” The Commission was therefore left arguing before the court that every instance of an expletive, even these “fleeting expletives,” as they are being called, are instances those things.

As the NY Times noted in its coverage,

the judges said vulgar words are just as often used out of frustration or excitement, and not to convey any broader obscene meaning.

That frustration or excitement was on full dress parade over at the commission. Variety quoted FCC Chairman Kevin Martin as issuing a statement that said,

“I find it hard to believe that the New York court would tell American families that ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ are fine to say on broadcast television during the hours when children are most likely to be in the audience.”

Let’s leave aside the surly reference to a “New York court” (as Toby on the West Wing would point out, “he means liberal”) and note that in a terrific piece of irony, the Bush-appointed commissioners were hoist on their puritanical presidential petards. The court said, presumably with Cheney’s use of “fuck” on the floor of the U.S. Senate in mind,

“In recent times even the top leaders of our government have used variants of these expletives in a manner that no reasonable person would believe referenced sexual or excretory organs or activities.”

Now if we can only get Connecticut parents, schools, cops, prosecutors, and lower-court jurists to understand the ephemeral nature of what we might call “fleeting pornography,” we can start to breathe a lot easier and worry less about 10-year jail sentences for innocent mistakes.

Posted in language | 7 Comments »


Posted by metaphorical on 8 June 2007

When a clueless Internet user meets a computer hopelessly infected with porn-oriented spyware the result won’t be pretty, but it will be a private few hours of pop-up ridden frustration, annoyance, and disgust. Unless the setting is a middle school classroom. Then it will be a hour of public embarrassment. Unless it’s brought to court by an equally clueless, but aggressive prosecutor. With an equally clueless judge, who disallows the defense expert to present all his evidence. Then, anything can happen, including jailtime. Many hours and days of jailtime. Up to 10 years of it, in fact.

Such was the fate of Julie Amero, a Connecticut substitute teacher, who was convicted in January on four counts of “risk of injury to a minor.” This week the wheels of injustice may have started to grind to a halt. Amero was granted a new trial by an appeals court because the lower court case relied on expert testimony that “may” have included “erroneous” facts.

Back in October 2004, Amero was teaching a seventh-grade class. According to a January 2007 article by Brian Krebs in the Washington Post,

After stepping out into the hall for a moment, Amero returned to find two students hovering over the computer at the teacher’s desk. As supported by an analysis of her computer during the court proceedings, the site the children were looking at was a seemingly innocuous hairstyling site called “new-hair-styles.com.” Amero said that shortly thereafter, she noticed a series of new Web browser windows opening up displaying pornographic images, and that no matter how quickly she closed each one out, another would pop up in its place.

Anyone who has visited a porn site, accidentally or on purpose, using Internet Explorer has had the same experience. Even on a Mac, once the pop-ups start, they can keep going. Kill one, and at least one, often more than one, appears in its place. If you’re adept at closing windows, you can quiet the storm, eventually.

“I went back to computer and found a bunch of pop-ups,” Amero said. “They wouldn’t go away. I mean, some of the sites stayed on there no matter how many times I clicked the red X, and others would just pop back up.”

Amero was anything but an adept computer user. Krebs wrote,

Amero described herself as the kind of person who can hardly find the power button on a computer, saying she often relies on written instructions from her husband explaining how to access e-mail, sign into instant messaging accounts and other relatively simple tasks.

Substitute teachers don’t have many rights, and so it’s not surprising, and merely unfair, that after some students told their parents about the incident, “school administrators told Amero she was not welcome back.” A few days later, however, she was arrested. Writing in late January 2007, Krebs reported:

The case came to trial this month, and computer expert W. Herbert Horner testified for the defense that the images were the result of incessant pop-up ads served by spyware on the classroom computer. The prosecution’s expert, a local police officer, said time-stamped logs on the machine showing adult-themed images and Web pages accessed by the Web browser at the time she was in the classroom proved that someone had intentionally visited the sites by clicking on a link or typing the address into the browser address bar.

the judge in the case barred Horner from presenting technical evidence to back up his claims. Horner on Monday published a summary of the facts he would have presented were he allowed to at trial.

The link has all the sordid details. Krebs also reported that the school’s firewall was out of date and so was the computer’s anti-virus software. “In short, the Windows 98 computer was completely exposed to the Internet without any kind of protection.” The defense had found “two adware programs and at least one Trojan horse program,” which logs showed took up residence on the computer weeks before the classroom pop-up incident.

Amero was apparently to be sentenced this week. Instead, Superior Court Judge Hillary B. Strackbein overturned Amero’s January conviction. As the Norwich (Ct.) Bulletin reported this week,

Strackbein acknowledged further forensic investigation into Amero’s computer at the state police crime laboratory and by the defense team had turned up the possibility of “erroneous” facts presented to jurors by the prosecution’s expert computer witness.

“The jury may have relied, at least in part, on that false information,” Strackbein said. “(Amero) is entitled to a new trial in the interest of justice.”

Assistant State’s Attorney David Smith, who prosecuted the case, did not oppose the motion for a new trial, acknowledging “erroneous evidence,” presented to jurors. He gave no indication if the state planned to move forward with another trial.

That’s great news, of course, but it’s much too close a call. It’s time for software vendors to protect clueless computer users, it’s time for prosecutors and the police to understand how computers work, and it’s time for a wiser court system than we have to slap them silly when they don’t.

It’s also time for teachers and other adults to learn how computers work. If we’re going to put computers in the classroom, a teaching strategy of mixed utility and, so far, mixed—at best—results, then we need for schools to stop just tossing them onto teachers’ desks, expecting them to operate themselves and teach our students. Not even Macs do that.

Posted in education, technology | 2 Comments »


Posted by metaphorical on 3 June 2007

I entered the auditorium at LaGuardia Community College only about 5 minutes before the ceremonies were to begin. Standing in my way as I walked over to the aisle was a stocky guy about my age and height. Even from the back, even in a sea of identical dress blues, I recognized my brother-in-law right away. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Hey buddy, you’re blocking the aisle here.” Without turning around he smiled. “Well then you’ll just have to go around like everyone else, won’t you?”

The uniforms aren’t perfectly identical of course. One silver stripe on the cuff is a Lieutenant; two gold stripes is a captain. Even though New York City merged the Emergency Medical Service into the Fire Department, the patches on their shirts are different. And even within EMS, there’s one patch for an EMT and another for a paramedic.

On Friday, 71 young men and women entered the EMS as certified EMTs. Another 28 members of EMS were promoted to Lieutenant—to wear the silver stripe that my brother-in-law has worn for more than three years now, that my sister has worn for almost five.

And 38 EMTs were recognized for completing a grueling 9-month course—full-time, and then some—in paramedic training. It’s the highest non-hospital medical training there is. After the ceremony, a captain told me that his brother, a surgeon, thinks the paramedic training is brutal. My sister was one of them. She will be 50 next month. She’s not the academic I am. (I learned Spanish out of a book, for example; she learned it by living in Hispanic neighborhoods.) She dropped out of college. She had to learn how to take tests, how to study, really, for the first time in her life this year.

Brendan, my brother-in-law, has been a paramedic for well over a decade now. My little sister, Elizabeth—“Bet” to me since grade school, “Betsy” to everyone else—finished her training and passed all her tests last week. She and 37 other EMTs were handed their certificates, shook hands with Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, and got to sew a Paramedic shirt-patch onto their right sleeve, where the EMT patch had first gone, in my sister’s case, almost fifteen years ago. It wasn’t her first time meeting Scoppetta. He shook her hand and posed when she was promoted to Lieutenant. Shortly before that, in the aftermath of 9/11, she ran into him at the World Trade Center site. She wasn’t there on September 11th, but she worked the site afterward, first looking for survivors, then, for weeks, she and dozens of other EMTs combed the wreckage and catalogued body parts.

EMS-FDNY is a somewhat loveable ugly duckling sibling within the Fire Department, itself an odd family to have been adopted into. Its businesslike uniforms and nonchalant salutes mark it as an organization with the same ideals and dedication, and a similar chain of command, as the military, but with few of its hard edges. Instead of dramatic courts-martial, for example, disputes tend to be settled in humdrum union arbitrations. And you can see the difference pinned to their jackets. Look at the red-and-white lapel pins, for example. Instead of rewarding the storming of a machine gun nest, they represent saved lives. (You can only wear two, but some EMTs have dozens more tucked away in jewelry boxes at home.) There are pink and blue ones that aren’t worn nowadays, for babies delivered. (I asked my sister how many she had done. “Four,” she said. “I hate it. Some guys love doing them though.”) Brendan has five different kinds of pins on his jacket, but my sister has only one. She just doesn’t go in for them.

The only similarity to the military is the important one; the willingness to throw down one’s life. At dinner a few weeks ago, my sister described a training exercise she had to help out with at the academy. The exercise was running into a smoke-filled building and finding your way around. At the academy that day they didn’t bother with the smoke, she said, but the room was pitch-black. “I’m the Lieutenant,” she said. “These four kids are waiting for me, following me. You know what was weird in that exercise? We were the first wave. But we know that in a big disaster, the first couple of waves, we’re just fodder. In maybe the third wave, you have a chance of coming out.” I looked at her. She just shrugged.

After the ceremony, our mother had her pose with Brendan for a photo. I looked again at their lapels, at the one pin they have in common, the only one my sister wears. Just about every uniform in that auditorium at LaGuardia, except for the new recruits, wore that pin. It’s a long, narrow rectangle. The left side is purple and the right side is black. It’s worn by everyone who was a FDNY firefighter or EMT on 9/11. On the left side is just a number, “343,” the number of firefighters who died that day. I couldn’t be more proud of my little sister.

[Some copy edits were made to this article on 24 January 2008.]

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

We just don’t give a buck

Posted by digglahhh on 2 June 2007

“Working class people are so intimidated by the museum experience anyway, they don’t feel they can just give a quarter. It’s really unfair.”

That is a quote from a July 2006 NYT article, given by artist and teacher, Jane Kaplowitz regarding to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision to (stealthily) raise the suggested admission fee for adults from fifteen to twenty dollars.

Last week my girlfriend and I went to the Guggenheim. While we waited on the subway platform, I asked her what the admission was. After saying what it was—an absurd $18—she admitted to purposely avoiding telling me prior to our being on our way there.

Poor and working class people are being priced out of culturally and intellectually valuable experiences, while the chic art world is becoming increasingly intimidating to them. The Met is nominally an exception—its admission fee is a voluntary “suggested” contribution. If you can overcome the intimidation factor of its vaulted ceilings, hushed tones, and moneyed patrons, the only thing between you and fifty centuries of art is the momentary scorn of a ticket clerk as you fork over a buck or two and stand tall, waiting for an entry button that, once inside, looks the same as everyone else’s. Revealingly, the plaques that list the museum’s admission fees used to say “Pay What You Wish but You Must Pay Something,” but they no longer do.

The Museum of Natural History is $10.50 for a student, not including the Planetarium (or the substances needed to get the most out of the experience). The Guggenheim is $18 for adults, but a more reasonable $5 for students, and free for children under 12 (actually it is less than that right now because parts of it are closed for renovation and so the price is discounted.) MOMA is $20 for an adult and $12 for “full-time” students. It is free to children, with a nicely high cut-off age of 16 – but the free rate doesn’t apply to “children in groups.”

This is an utter travesty. The cost of living in New York City is an astonishing 212% of the national average already. The rest of the country clucks its tongue and says, “Well, at least there’s Broadway, restaurants, and all those museums.” For years, the first two have been priced out of the reach of the median New Yorker, but at least museums were easy to get into.

If you claim to value the intellectual and social development of a population, especially children, culture must be made accessible. Defenders of museum admission prices often note they are in line with the cost of a movie or baseball game—which, by the way, they no longer are, especially for children—but wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if a teenager chose to go to MOMA instead of a movie because it was cheaper? In a world of global competition we can’t afford to continually sour our youth on entire fields of human endeavor. The single most important step towards not alienating urban kids from art is to make it an economically sensible alternative to “low culture.” We can’t continue to blame poor people for making unhealthy decisions if they aren’t offered economically viable, culturally healthy alternatives.

Parents have to take initiative too. I often hear parents talk about how their children would rather play video games or watch television than go to a museum or go to the park to learn how to play basketball. Frankly, that is a bunch of bullshit.

Children are not born with these preferences. They are, however, inundated with advertisements from companies seeking their business (directly or vicariously through their parents). Little Johnny is not born preferring a Playstation controller to finger-paints, but he will soon develop that preference if you don’t attempt to influence him otherwise. Those who tell you to let the child dictate his/her own interests do so because they know what those interests will be if the parent takes a hands off approach.

Going back to the original quote, I think it is true that working class people are made to feel out of place in an art gallery. I’ve had friends tell me such. I try to tell them that many of the artists themselves have more similarities to you and me than with the gallery curators. Shit, Jean-Michel Basquiat isn’t mysterious and offbeat to me; his creative expressions were pretty much what would be expected of an artistically inclined, intelligent person who came of age in the 1970s. Alright, maybe he was a little offbeat.

Much of the greatest art produced comes from struggle; the stereotype of the starving artist is based on a reality. Art is a poor man’s medium that has been co-opted by the wealthy in an attempt to own the culture. Look at what is happening with the graffiti art movement. Over the course of 40 years, by its own admission Time magazine has gone from cursing it as “public defacement” to commissioning it for its own promotional purposes.

Many artists feel just as uncomfortable in the chic culture of the art world as prospective working class visitors would.

Elsewhere, museums are often free. Our national museums, most of them in Washington D.C., are free (though increasingly charging for “special exhibitions”). Around the world, museums are mostly free. There’s nothing more liberating than sauntering into the Tate Museum in London for 15 minutes of a lunch hour just to look at a single painting. Even in this country, more and more museums are offering that experience, as the NY Times reported last year. New York is, unfortunately, completely out of step even though, at 212%, it needs more than any other U.S. city.

Infusing the lives of our children with art is a two-way street. The art world must embrace working class visitors and accommodate them socially and financially. The working class must take the initiative to reclaim their relevance within the art world. Creativity is not the exclusive province of the moneyed and suggested donations are not mandatory. Art has been taken away from the common man because he is too shy and self-conscious to ask for it back.

Posted in digglahhh, education, the arts | 5 Comments »