Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The End of Broadcast TV?

According to this MSNBC article, networks are considering doing away with free over the air broadcasting in favor of exclusive cable deals. An excerpt:
For more than 60 years, TV stations have broadcast news, sports and entertainment for free and made their money by showing commercials. That might not work much longer.

The business model is unraveling at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox and the local stations that carry the networks' programming. Cable TV and the Web have fractured the audience for free TV and siphoned its ad dollars. The recession has squeezed advertising further, forcing broadcasters to accelerate their push for new revenue to pay for programming.
This has some implications for television that are both frightening and filled with opportunity. First, this means that the public broadcasting, either from the CPB or from local public access channels, would be more important than ever. As of 2007, forty-two percent of American households do not subscribe to a cable service (and that number is prone to rise in poor economic conditions) and the proposed change to local channels would effectively force viewers to either get service or abandon television altogether.

This has further implications because the news is still largely broadcast and consumed via television, especially in an emergency event. Should something happen, we depend on television and local news to inform the public, possibly dispersing critical information. Without that a large segment of the population is at risk, especially vulnerable populations like the poor and the elderly.

There may also be an opportunity here. If local network affiliates end up committing themselves to cable, there may be a void in the local marketplace for local independent television stations to sprout, the kinds of stations that have become all but extinct. Someone innovative and with a few dollars in their pocket could feasibly take over a local station, broadcast over the air (and since their product is free they could call their organization a nonprofit) and use it as a platform for local issues.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Our Father, Who Art in Springfield . . .

This is unexpected. According to this MSNBC article, L'Osservatore Romano, the semi-official newspaper of the Vatican, ran an editorial praising The Simpsons for its philosophical themes.
Religion, from the snore-evoking sermons of the Rev. Lovejoy to Homer's face-to-face talks with God, appears so frequently on the show that it could be possible to come up with a "Simpsonian theology," it said.

Homer's religious confusion and ignorance are "a mirror of the indifference and the need that modern man feels toward faith," the paper said.

It commented on several religion-themed episodes, including one in which Homer calls for divine intervention by crying: "I'm not normally a religious man, but if you're up there, save me, Superman!"

"Homer finds in God his last refuge, even though he sometimes gets His name sensationally wrong," L'Osservatore said. "But these are just minor mistakes, after all, the two know each other well."
I'm not sure about the paper's conclusions. This reminds me of the study that found conservative viewers of The Colbert Report did not see it as anti-conservative satire.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Is Google Making Us Dumber?

The Daily Beast features an article by Douglas Rushkoff titled "The Decade Google Made You Stupid." The piece suggests that the fragmented nature of the web has in turned fragmented our own thinking:
Like most early enthusiasts, I always thought the way the Internet encouraged multitasking made users less vulnerable to manipulation, while simultaneously exploiting even more of our brain's capacity than before.

Apparently not. Cliff Nass, director of Stanford University's Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab (known as CHIMe Lab), has been studying the best multitaskers on the face of the earth: college students. "How do they do it? Do their brains work differently?" He, too, was shocked by his own research. "It turns out, multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They're terrible at ignoring irrelevant information. They're terrible at keeping information in their heads nice and neatly organized, and they're terrible at switching from one task to the other. This shocks us."

Nass split his subjects into two groups—those who regularly do a lot of media multitasking, and those who don't. When they took simple tests comparing assortments of shapes, the multitaskers were more easily distracted by random images, and incapable of determining which data was relevant to the task at hand. And just because the multitaskers couldn't ignore irrelevant data didn't mean they were better at storing and organizing information. They scored worse on both sorting and memorizing information.

So what does it mean if we multitaskers are actually fooling ourselves into believing we're competent when we're not? "If multitasking is hurting their ability to do these fundamental tasks," Nass explained matter-of-factly, "life becomes difficult. Some of studies show they are worse at analytic reasoning. We are mostly shocked. They think they are great at it." We're not just stupid and vulnerable online—we simultaneously think we're invincible. And that attitude, new brain research shows, has massive carryover into real life.
The dumbing effects of the web have been very apparent to me because of the specific time in which I began and ended my time as a student in higher education. I began my undergraduate degree program in 1998 and at that time the web was around and functioning but it was a foreign thing, a tool that we hadn't used before. Laptops were available but were very expensive, cell phones could only call other phones, and watching video online required a lot of bandwidth. Writing research papers for my freshman composition class still required me to use actual books and look up articles in actual physical journals. I don't write this to be nostalgic. Looking up information that way could be a pain in the ass.

By the time I finished my graduate degree in 2006 everything had changed. Students expect to be able to use Google or other search engines to find anything about everything and there is an unwillingness to dig beyond the first page of search results. The act of looking up a journal in a library's periodical collection is seen as tedious and reading a book requires a level of commitment and concentration that is asynchronous with new media where everything is split into sound bites.

Again, I don't think of myself as a Luddite. But the fact is that the Internet has changed the way we think about the world and how we regard one another. Our senses, particularly aural and visual, have been digitized and expanded through technology like cellphones and social networking sites have changed our interpersonal relationships; we are "friends" with someone but may never talk to them.

When MTV premiered in the early 1980s, a lot of filmmakers and musicians bemoaned its effect on the culture as images and artifacts were consumed and discarded with greater speed. The culture eventually caught up to that speed and in the past decade Youtube and Google have taken this a step further. My hope is that we learn to organize the information we are being bombarded with but my fear is that as speed and variety increase, our attention span and our ability to think will decrease.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Worst (Literary) Sex of the Year

I thought "bad sex" was some kind of a contradiction, but in London the yearly "Bad Sex" literary awards were just given out and Olivia Cole of The Daily Beast was there to cover it.

From her article:

It’s a fine line between what’s sexy and what makes jaded literary hacks cackle. The body as territory to be mapped can be very sexy: think of all the cartography in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. And oceanic emblems are almost a trope. From Shakespeare (“Like as waves make towards the pebbled shore…”) to Robert Browning’s “Meeting at Night,” where the consummation of his marriage is all told in the lapping of the waves.

Sadly nothing can save [Amoz] Oz from not waving but drowning: “as though he has been transformed into a delicate seismograph that intercepts and instantly deciphers her body's reactions translating what he has discovered into skilful, precise navigation, anticipating and cautiously avoiding every sandbank, steering clear of each underwater reef.”

* * *

Like any circus, what’s done in jest plays on deeper fears. Pity the writers who spend their lives offering up their private thoughts. Even when there’s no sex to be found, writing requires a kind of nakedness. For novelists with their fragile egos, to be called a bad writer is perhaps almost as bad as being a called a bad lover.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bob Saget on Thanksgiving

Oratory and literary national treasure Bob Saget has written an essay for The Huffington Post about Thanksgiving.

An excerpt:
I do have a wish for you all. May all your holidays be filled with the blessings that life can bestow. And though, for all of us, in different ways, this has been a tough year, try to remember something my father taught me. Something I reflect upon that occasionally has helped me through a tough time... That at your moment of suffering, somewhere in the world, some unsuspecting turkey is about to have a fistful of gravy shoved deep into his ass.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Watch an American Bishop Make the Case for Theocracy

Here is a clip from Hardball, as Chris Matthews spars with Reverend Thomas Tobin, the Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island. In it, Tobin and Matthews debate over the influence religious leaders seek over secular, governmental policy.

Interestingly, the segment starts out with an excerpt of John F. Kennedy's religious speech, in which the former president explicitly affirms the separation of church and state. But at about 2:21 in the video, Tobin says that a politician's "first commitment must be to his faith," and "if your job gets in the way of your faith you need to quit your job," presenting a position diametrically opposed to the thesis of Kennedy's speech. Further, the point Tobin is really making is to say that unconditional obedience must be given to the church, placing it above constituents, laws and procedures, or any other person, group, or institution. This is, by definition, the essence of theocracy.

In this clip we get a brief but fairly complete enunciation and criticism of the power wielded and pursued by those in religious positions. Whether Tobin recognizes it or not--and his fumbling answers later in the segment suggest he has not thought about it--the implications of his position are not all that different from an Islamic fundamentalist who would institute Sharia Law. The church, as represented by Tobin, requires absolute capitulation to its decrees and the modification of existing laws to conform to religious dogma. This position would blur and ultimately erase any kind of distinction between the religious and the secular, with the former overtaking the latter.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Berkeley Protests

Students in California are protesting the decision by the University of California's Board of Regents to increase tuition by thirty-two percent. According to the Los Angeles Times, the hikes will add $2,500 to undergraduate fees by next fall, bringing basic annual fees to $10,302. Room, board and books can add $16,000.

In response, a group of students occupied a classroom on the Berkeley campus and were later arrested. According to The Times:

Campus police entered Wheeler Hall about 5 p.m., and the demonstrators were taken into custody without incident, campus officials said in a statement. The protesters were charged with trespassing and released, the statement said.

The arrests ended a day of tumult that began before dawn when the students took over classrooms on the second floor and locked four exits. They unfurled a banner that read "32 Percent Hike, 900 Layoffs."

A rally outside Wheeler grew throughout the day, said Maggie Wheeler, a freshman at the campus. By early evening, hundreds of students and union activists were shouting slogans and banging on drums, Wheeler said.

Dozens of campus police in riot helmets were watching the crowds but didn't move against the barricaded students until late in the day, she said.

Campus officials said an attempt at negotiation was made but their efforts "were refused."

Three students were arrested earlier in the day and no injuries were reported, said Emily Strange, a media relations assistant.

Puck Lo, 29, one of the students inside the locked room, disputed the university's contention that the demonstrators refused to negotiate. Students were demanding that 38 custodians who lost their jobs be reinstated and that the protesters be given amnesty, Lo said.

Here are some Youtube videos of the protest:

Students hang the banner:

Protest at the front line:

Protests at the front line part 2:

Police try to hold back protesters:

An earlier protest from September 2009 over budget issues:

Friday, November 20, 2009

Obama Lost Without Teleprompter

From The Onion:

By the way, the Onion news anchor used to be Fox News anchor. Make of that what you will.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Can Our Justice System Handle Them?


SALT LAKE CITY - The case of one of four teens who were cited after rapping their order at a McDonald's in Utah appears headed for trial.

Police in American Fork, about 30 miles south of Salt Lake City, cited the teens for disorderly conduct last month after the drive-through rap.

The teens have said they were imitating a rap from a popular YouTube video, which begins: "I need a double cheeseburger and hold the lettuce."

Monday, November 09, 2009

Is a Military Base Right for Your Neighborhood?

This article in the New York Times takes a look at the violence at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, the site of last week's shooting. The article finds:

  • Reports of domestic abuse have grown by 75 percent since 2001. At the same time, violent crime in Killeen has risen 22 percent while declining 7 percent in towns of similar size in other parts of the country.
  • Since 2003, there have been 76 suicides by personnel assigned to Fort Hood, with 10 this year.
  • A crisis center on base is averaging 60 phone calls a week from soldiers and family members seeking various help for problems from suicide to anger management, with about the same volume of walk-ins and scheduled appointments.
  • Col. Edward McCabe, a Catholic chaplain at Fort Hood, said signs of fatigue and other strains are “rampant” on the base. “The numbers of divorces I’ve had to deal with are huge, the cases of physical abuse,” Colonel McCabe said.
  • Crimes, especially domestic violence, increase when troop divisions return home.
  • Children of soldiers attending local schools suffer from not getting the parental guidance they need, leading to poor grades and behavioral problems.
We don't know the cause yet of last week's murder spree. The motive may be religious, mental illness, stress related, or some other reason. But regardless of what happened last week, these numbers give pause when we consider the help, or lack thereof, that soldiers are receiving as they transition from the battlefield to the home front. It also raises the question of what kinds of people the military culture breeds and how the presence of a military base may impact the local community.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Why We Fight

The Daily Beast has an article by Lauren Sandler on a rift developing in the atheism movement. According to the article, there is a dispute over how aggressively atheists should make their case. On one side is a combative, in-your-face attitude that actively seeks to disabuse people of their religious faith. The other side is passive-aggressive, suggesting tolerance for all attitudes and perspectives.

These two philosophies are fracturing organizations at the top of the atheist activism food chain. Consider the Center for Inquiry, atheism's top think tank and one of the groups behind New York’s “Good Without God” campaign. The Center’s founder, Paul Kurtz, one of humanism's eminences grises, preaches maximum tolerance. His life's aim, he told me, is to “make it so a person can be a nonbeliever in our society and be respected and accepted.” As such, he thinks it’s counterproductive to preach against religion. “You can't begin by calling people names,” says the 85-year-old Kurtz. “It's self-destructive to nonbelievers.” When Kurtz’s own organization supported international “Blasphemy Day” in September (a day dedicated to openly criticizing all things God), Kurtz wrote a column in Free Inquiry magazine, an atheist publication put out by the Center for Inquiry, comparing the day to “the anti-Semitic cartoons of the Nazi era.” He continued, “There are some fundamentalist atheists who have resorted to such vulgar antics to gain press attention.”

One of Blasphemy Day's supporters was, in fact, Tom Flynn, Free Inquiry’s editor-in-chief and Kurtz's colleague at the Center. Flynn sees a loud, proud, and socially unacceptable atheism as the best chance to achieve Kurtz's declared goals. He also draws constructive parallels to the raucous gay-rights movement of the 1970s and ‘80s. “If you think back to deliberately outrageous activism like ACT UP and Queer Nation, somehow after 10 years, gay was mainstream,” he says. “There were gay characters on sitcoms. How did this happen? That brashness and outrageousness, it desensitized America. It got everybody over that taboo.”

* * *

Barry Kosmin, who directs the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, suggests that neither active approach will ultimately be successful in mainstreaming atheism. “My own belief is that actual religion will be hurt more by creating a climate of indifference,” he says, imagining a time when godlessness will be met by nothing more than a shrug. Kosmin says we're not far from that now, especially if you take a historical perspective.

It's easy to see why there would be a reaction against the proselytizing and combative elements of the atheist movement; the aggressive tactics resemble the kinds of obnoxious displays of faith of Christians and Muslims that spurred atheists to action in the first place. However, there are a few very good reasons to embrace the pro-active elements of the movement.

First, as Richard Dawkins states in the article, tolerance and politeness have been used for a long time and haven't gotten anywhere. This speaks to a larger issue of relativity and political correctness within the culture. As diversity appreciation has spread--which has been a mostly positive influence--it has had a side effect of creating a relativistic fog in which no one is allowed to criticize other cultures or religious beliefs; no one is superior or inferior just different. But if the point of the atheist movement is to convince people to abandon superstition, then they have to do just that, which means passing judgement on other people's beliefs.

Second, if atheists take the non-existence of god to be a matter of scientific fact (which it is), then the application of words like "proselytizing" or "dogmatic" do not really apply. The very thing that separates science from faith is reason. We cannot be dogmatic about the non-existence of god any more than we could be dogmatic about the earth being round.

Third, the "shocking" act of desecrating idols is important to making them relative. As Tom Flynn correctly asserts, the obtuse actions of gay rights groups in the 1970s paid off later to normalize homosexuality and overcome many stigmas, although much remains to be done. By exposing the flimsiness of the symbols of faith we can begin to break society's sense of reverence toward them.

Lastly, the stakes are simply too high. From the Crusades to the War on Terror, from the Inquisition to Al Qaeda, from the Scopes Trial to Proposition 8, religion has been an embarrassing handicap on human culture. It is not merely an annoying habit of a small group of people; these superstitions have powerful reach socially, politically, and economically across the world. And with nuclear weapons now in the hands of those who actively look forward to the Day of Judgement, we had better do our best to convince them that there is no paradise waiting for them over the rainbow.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Criticizing Hate Crime Legislation

I've had some experience as a diversity advocate, first in my undergraduate college career and now as a GLBT ally and a supervisor of student workers of mixed nationalities. But I've recently found myself revising some of the ideas and positions that I've long held. My views on religious tolerance have shifted (ideas should not be above criticism, even--or especially--ideas of faith) and I've been disturbed by how popular and academic discourse is negatively affected by nice sounding but half-baked concepts of "equality" and "equal representation" (watch any talking-head-television show to witness false equivalency). I've long been uncomfortable with hate crimes legislation. The idea of a hate crime has always troubled me, as hate is a thought or an emotion and making that a crime is fundamentally a problem.

As you may have heard, last week President Obama signed the Matthew Shepherd Hate Crimes Act which expands the definition of hate crimes to include victims who are gay, lesbian, and transgendered. Feministing recently included a link to this compilation of critiques of hate crime legislation featured at blackandpink.org. I suggest you read the whole thing but here are two responses I find especially pertinent:
Hate crime laws are an easy way for the government to act like it is on our communities’ side while continuing to discriminate against us. Liberal politicians and institutions can claim “anti-oppression” legitimacy and win points with communities affected by prejudice, while simultaneously using “sentencing enhancement” to justify building more prisons to lock us up in.
Hate crimes legislation is a liberal way of being “tough on crime” while building the power of the police, prosecutors, and prison guards. Rather than address systems of violence like health care disparities, economic exploitation, housing crisis, or police brutality, these politicians use hate-crimes legislation as their stamp of approval on “social issues”.

Hate crimes don’t occur because there aren’t enough laws against them, and hate crimes won’t stop when those laws are in place. Hate crimes occur because, time and time again, our society demonstrates that certain people are worth less than others; that certain people are wrong, are perverse, are immoral in their very being.
Creating more laws will not help our communities. Organizing for the passage of these kind of laws simply takes the time and energy out of communities that could instead spend the time creating alternative systems and building communities capable of starting transformative justice processes. Hate crimes bills are a distraction from the vital work necessary for community safety.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween 2009

Halloween, or Samhain if you prefer, is upon us again. As much as I like to engage in the fun of costumes and candy, as I get longer in the tooth I also find October 31st and the days preceding it to be a time for reflection as well. This year, I’ve been thinking about stories and the ways in which the act of consuming them has become a ritual for many of us in the way we celebrate Halloween.

When I was young, network television would run animated specials each holiday. Nearly every year around Halloween It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and Garfield’s Halloween Adventure would air and nearly every year I would watch them. Now, thanks to DVD and Youtube, I’m able to rewatch these specials and I’m struck by the subtle subversive themes that are woven into them.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown tells the story of Charles Shultz’s Peanuts characters and their Halloween adventures. As other characters go off to enjoy the festivities of the night, Linus spends the evening sitting in a pumpkin patch, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to show up. The Great Pumpkin is described in the same terms as Santa Claus; an imaginary being who delivers presents to well behaved children and who will reveal himself to the most fervent believers each year.

Rewatching the program, I realized that Charles Schulz used his special not just to entertain children but to actually make a statement against faith. That may seem like a stretch but consider this: When Charlie Brown compares The Great Pumpkin to Santa Claus, he says, “We’re obviously separated by denominational differences.” When Linus encounters ridicule for his beliefs he says, “There are three things I’ve learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin,” and later admits in a letter to the Great Pumpkin that “If you really are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” This is a stunning admission that speaks truth about our social traditions.

Throughout the middle of the story, Linus and Sally wait in the pumpkin patch, with Linus proclaiming that all he has do is be sincere enough in his belief in the Great Pumpkin to achieve enlightenment and revelation. At the end of the story, when the Great Pumpkin fails to show, Sally realizes how foolish she’s been and proclaims, “Trick-or-treat comes only once a year and I missed it by sitting in a pumpkin patch with a blockhead!” In other words, she spent the whole time abstaining from the real fun to be had while waiting for an imaginary figure to show up. And in the denouement, Linus continues to proclaim his beliefs in the Great Pumpkin, telling Charlie Brown that he just needs to find the most sincere pumpkin patch. Exactly how a pumpkin patch can be sincere is never explained, which is of course the point. The application of Linus’ delusion to national and cultural traditions and especially to religious beliefs ought to be fairly obvious. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown may not be Richard Dawkins or Bertrand Russell, but it is at least close to Mark Twain as a smart and subtle satire.

The other special I used to watch was Garfield’s Halloween Adventure. In it, Garfield and Odie go trick-or-treating while dressed as pirates and encounter a haunted house where the ghosts of dead pirates are returning to claim their treasure.

In the opening, Garfield actually spells out the appeal of Halloween: “It’s not like those other stupid holidays. I don’t get pine needles in my paws, there’s no dumb bunnies, no fireworks, no relatives. Just candy.” What Garfield says is the very reason Halloween has become one of the most popular holidays on the calendar and his comments subtly take a shot at religious holidays whose pretensions of spiritual importance are a hollow buzz kill.

In the course of the story, Garfield gets carried away with his costume and he and Odie eventually encounter the real darkness as the ghosts return for their treasure. This speaks to the tradition of a lot of horror stories—and this is a horror story, just one that has been made safe for children and families—of the gothic terrible discovery. But in that terrible discovery the characters of these stories also encounter some ugly truth. In this case it is the ugliness of greed when it becomes all-consuming, as Garfield’s obsession with candy and the ghost’s obsession with gold have become. Setting this theme of moderation and personal responsibility against the backdrop of Halloween, the holiday of carnality and gluttony, is a stab at the values of a capitalistic society.

When it comes to my intake of horror films, especially around Halloween, I can see a link between the stories that I consumed as a child and the ones I take in now. When I look at my favorite horror films like Jaws, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Cannibal Holocaust, The Hills Have Eyes, or A Nightmare on Elm Street, these films constantly undermine the order of civilization or mankind’s ability to assert dominion over the earth. Instead they remind us of our own savage past that, in the history of the world, is not all that long ago and every once in a while comes boiling to the surface.

Earlier this week I performed a lecture at Winona State University on slasher films, exploding the assumption that they are inherently misogynistic and exploring what these films mean for us as a culture. While doing the research for the lecture, I reviewed some interview footage of Wes Craven, director of Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. Although the quality of his output has been uneven over the years, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for this man and his work. Craven’s observations in the following excerpt demonstrate why his films so often stand above his contemporaries:

Craven’s comments about the ways in which horror stories adumbrate and shadow play the underlying nature of humanity illustrate how the genre may be subversive whether it takes the form of a razor fingered psychopath killing teenagers in their sleep or the animated adventures of Charlie Brown and his friends.

Stories are not unique in their connection to holidays; most holidays are rooted in the ritualistic retelling of a particular narrative and these narratives are often of renewal and reemphasize dominant ideologies and social structures, whether it is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter or the cherry tree myth of George Washington on the Fourth of July. But with commercialization and secularization many people have disconnected these stories from the way they celebrate. Halloween is unique in that it is the only holiday left where the act of consuming stories—in this case horror stories—is still integral to the act of celebrating the holiday. And further, these stories actually undermine or subvert ideologies and social structures instead of renewing them.

So as we celebrate Halloween, I think it is safe to say that it is in many ways the anti-holiday. Where most holidays are about enhancing and renewing the foundation and illusion of civilization and its ideologies and social structures, Halloween is the night of the year in which people cast off those pretensions to acknowledge the darkness within themselves and within each other and let the animal inside off the leash or at least allow that leash a little more slack.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Athenaeum Presentation on Wednesday at 1pm

On Wednesday, October 28th at 1pm I will be making a presentation as part of the Athenaeum speaker series at the Krueger Library at Winona State University. The presentation is titled "It's Only a Movie: The Politics of 1970s and 80s Horror Films" and it will cover films such as Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, addressing how this body of films was groundbreaking and represented a counter cultural statement that was later lost to commercialization. Attention will also be paid to the recent trend of remakes of these films.

Date: Wednesday, October 28th
Time: 1pm - 2pm
Location: The second floor of the Krueger Library at Winona State University.

The event is free and open to the public.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I Defend Fox News?

The Daily-Beast has an interesting essay by Nicolle Wallace, who had served as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign and was director of communications for the White House under George W. Bush. Wallace comments on the Obama White House's anti-Fox policy and I think she makes some important points both for the White House and for other politicians:

The reasoning they’ve provided goes something like this: Fox News features some opinion programming, therefore the entire network should not be classified as a news-gathering operation. It is, in the words of White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, an “arm of the Republican Party.”

Assume, for a moment that this is true, and apply the White House standard to MSNBC, a news network that also features some opinion programming. Going by the White House definition of a news-gathering operation, it stands to reason that the heavily opinionated prime-time shows hosted by Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow would put MSNBC into the same category as Fox News. No Republicans are making this argument, but Obama would have been better off if he’d singled out opinion shows on both sides of the ideological spectrum. It would have allowed him to attack Fox News from a principled and bipartisan position. By singling out Fox News, he looks thin-skinned, political, and petty. . . . Instead of ushering in a post-partisan era, the Obama White House seems intent on doubling down on all the alleged sins of the Bush years by putting politics front and center—and offering no apologies for doing so.

Far be it for me to defend Fox News, but Wallace is right. Fox News is a news organization--they're a terrible news organization--but they are nevertheless a news organization. That Fox approaches stories from an ideological angle, engages in hyperbole and distortion, and often gets the facts wrong is reason enough for consumers to ignore them but not an excuse for a politician to do so. Had the Bush administration decided to quarantine MSNBC or CNN, critics would have screamed bloody murder, and rightfully so.

The essential question is: what is the White House's goal? Make Fox change its approach by ignoring them? That's not going to happen. Impair Fox's ability to report the news? The network already makes crap up anyway. Damage Fox's credibility? The people who watch Fox already think God speaks through Glenn Beck. Hurt the network's ratings? They're already through the roof. It seems that Fox has everything to gain and the White House has everything to lose in this strategy.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Catholicism Can Give You AIDS

When I get into debates with Christians about the usefulness and value of their faith, they often fall back on the argument that religious organizations provide social services to the needy. This argument has two problems. First, charity does not require a belief in the supernatural. Secondly, the argument makes no account of the quality of the services or whether the service actually helps those in need. In fact, when social services are provided upon the basis of religous dogmatism, they may hurt more than they help.

James Carroll has written a piece for The Daily Beast about the Catholic Church's posture on contraceptives as it relates to the spread of AIDS in Africa:

Unlike Protestant and Muslim fundamentalisms, which are tied to fixed readings of holy texts, Catholic fundamentalism derives from a rigid defense of papal authority and boils down to a fixation on sexual morality. That has turned the Catholic hierarchy into a raging enemy of condom use—even when it comes to preventing the spread of AIDS. . . . A few bishops discretely promote condoms as a lesser evil, and one (Kevin Dowling of South Africa) has openly challenged the Vatican to change its teaching. But the overwhelming institutional weight of the Catholic Church continues to be thrown on the side of the virus. The result has been and will be the deaths of Africans. The virus of Catholic fundamentalism infects that beleaguered continent. At the Vatican, that, the church’s most grievous failure, is not being discussed.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Come On and Ride the Train

The city of Rochester, MN has been trying to get a proposed Chicago-Twin Cities high speed rail train to come through their city and this recent story in the Winona Post cites a new study that strengthens their case:

Rochester has got powerful lobbyists working hard to bring high speed rail to their city, and now, it’s got a new study which conflicts with some state data, purporting that a rail line through the city would be faster than one along the river and attract millions more passengers.

But that same study confirms that a high speed passenger rail line through Rochester connecting Chicago to the Twin Cities would cost at least $139 million more than one that followed the existing Amtrak lines through Winona and along the river.

Rochester’s study claims that millions more passengers would travel a line that would cross its city because completely new lines, which would be needed to connect Rochester, could mean trains as fast as 220 miles per hour and a quicker trip time from Chicago to the Twin Cities than following the river through Winona.
As exciting as it would be to have a major line of mass transportation come through Winona, if this new study is correct it makes much more sense to begin by serving the greatest number of people; those living in Rochester are much more likely to be commuting to the cities for work and there is already an Amtrak line from Winona to Chicago.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

October Activities

I'll be involved in a number of Halloween and movie related items this month:

October 4, 2009: Sounds of Cinema - Cinema's Villains
This episode will feature music of films that feature some of the most memorable villains from a variety of film genres including science fiction, action, and horror.

October 11, 2009: Sounds of Cinema - Vampires
Vampires are as popular as ever and this episode will include music from various incarnations of Dracula as well as other vampire films like Twilight and The Hunger.

October 18, 2009: Sounds of Cinema - Lucifer Rising
Former Manson family member Bobby Beausoleil's score to Kenneth Anger's experimental and esoteric short film is an extraordinary piece of music and this show will feature the entire score as well as commentary on the film and its production.
*Listeners to 89.7 KMSU FM will hear a special pledge drive episode this week.

October 25, 2009: Sounds of Cinema - Twenty-Five Years of A Nightmare on Elm Street
It's been a quarter century since Freddy Krueger first appeared on movie screens and he hasn't left the culture since. This episode will take a look at every Nightmare film from the 1984 original to 2003's Freddy vs. Jason and consider the ongoing appeal of the series.
*Sounds of Cinema will move to a new 11AM time slot on 89.5 KQAL FM on this date.

October 28, 2009: WSU Library Athenaeum Speaker Series - It's Only a Movie: The Politics of the 1970s and 80s Horror Film
I will be giving a lecture as part of Winona State University's Athenaeum program in which I will discuss the horror films of the 1970s and 80s including movies like Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The Athenaeum series is held every Wednesday afternoon at 1pm on the second floor of the Krueger library at WSU. You can find out more about the series here.

October 31, 2009: Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special
Sounds of Cinema will air a special Halloween episode at 11 PM on 89.5 KQAL. Broadcasting of this special on 89.7 KMSU FM is still pending.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

This is Beautiful

Late last week, Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL) went on the floor of congress and explained exactly what the Republican health care plan is:

Hyperbole? Not really. With the GOP blocking every attempt to reform a broken system and unable or unwilling to offer a serious counter proposal, Grayson's explanation is the logical outcome of their position.

The House Republicans naturally demanded an apology, and this was Grayson's response:

Some have expressed outrage over Grayson's use of the word "holocaust," but I think there is room for it. The word "holocaust" is defined as "a thorough destruction involving extensive loss of life," and with 44,781 Americans dying each year because they don't have health insurance, the term applies. And the Republicans and other reform opponents, through omission of action, are allowing this to continue.

The bigger question is, do Grayson's comments help? Yes and no. For once, a Democrat is showing some spine, something that has been woefully absent in this debate. The health care issue is a gut-check for the Democrats. If they are not willing to fight tooth and claw for this, then all the promises made in the last two election cycles are proved empty and they don't deserve to stay in power. Grayson's comments invoke the ethical part of this issue, something that has been missing for the pro-reform side of the debate, but it is also the one that is the most powerful.

On the negative side, Grayson's comments turn the debate from health care and onto Grayson himself. This means that a news cycle is spent debating the man and not the message. On the other hand, if this minor spectacle on the floor ends up reigniting the reformers and ultimately refocusing the debate, then the ends will have justified the means.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Maybe They'll Fight in a Water Fountain and Rip Each Other's Shirts Off

This article by Samuel P. Jacobs on The Daily Beast tells of a war of words between MSNBC host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough and Fox News host Glenn Beck. It's a minor controversy, as Scarborough called out Beck on his hate-baiting and has called for Republican politicians to do the same. Naturally, none of the politicians are rushing to join this fight, which makes sense since they would have little to gain from it.

But the piece concludes with this quote from Texas Republican strategist Denis Calabrese:
“People are for aggressive questioning of the government and aggressive commentary about it. In general, it’s okay to defend Beck,” Calabrese said. “But it’s distracting. Debating the messenger is not to your advantage if you’re a Republican. The policies are what people are worried about. And the messengers are a distraction.” [Emphasis added]
What Calabrese says here is bigger than Scarborough vs. Beck, or Olbermann vs. O'Reilly, or Couric vs. Sawyer (there is no open conflict between them yet, but I'm waiting for the media to fabricate a verbal cat-fight). Aside from the more invisible ways in which bias on the part of the anchors shapes the news, so much of the coverage, especially on cable news, has become about the person reporting the news and his or her rivalries with other personalities. The television news circuit has become a big high school lunch room where all anyone talks about is who-is-mad-at-who while in the kitchen the administrators keep serving the same old reheated meatloaf and telling everyone that it's good for us.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"A village cannot reorganize village life to suit the village idiot." - Frank Schaeffer

This is a long story from The Rachel Maddow Show, but it's worth sitting through. The first half gives an update of Joe Wilson's status as a right wing hero for calling the president a liar. The second half of the story is an assessment of the Christian right, starting with a poll in New Jersey where one-third of conservatives claim to believe that Obama is or might be the Antichrist. Following is an interview with former evangelical Christian Frank Schaeffer, who argues that this subculture has become a cult that will never be satisfied with any compromise with the left or with rationality.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Public Option Explained

Here, in less than two minutes, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich explains exactly what the public option means:

My question is, where was this video five months ago? Although the politicians, commentators, and lobbying groups blocking health care reform deserve a lot of blame for spreading confusion and lies, the White House and those on the side of reform dropped the ball early on by ignoring a basic rule of rhetoric: the person who controls the frame and terms of the debate will win the debate. When reformers allowed terms like "public option" and "single payer" to float around without clarification or explanation, they let other terms like "death panels" become the issue. I just hope it isn't too late to reclaim the debate from the lobbyists and hysterics.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Joe Wilson is Your Pre-Existing Condition

Just hours after yelling "You lie!" at President Obama during his health care address to congress, the website joewilsonisyourpreexistingcondition.com was launched and takes mostly cheap (but damn funny) shots at Wilson. Here are some good ones:

  • Joe Wilson talked on his blackberry all through your favorite movie
  • Joe Wilson called your sister a skank
  • Joe Wilson cancelled Arrested Development
  • Joe Wilson thinks you're too stupid to actually read the bill
  • Joe Wilson hit on your mom
  • Joe Wilson left a flaming bag of poo on your doorstep
  • Joe Wilson laid off your dad just before his pension kicked in
  • Joe Wilson sued your grandma for file sharing
  • Joe Wilson said you look fat in that dress
  • Joe Wilson distracted you from one of the most important speeches by an American president in the last 20 years
  • Joe Wilson gave your nephew cigarettes
  • Joe Wilson stopped seeding the Torrent at 97% complete
  • Joe Wilson yells while adults are talking

There are some other funny digs on the site but what really amazes me is how fast this has gotten up and running. I think the twenty-four hour news cycle is now a twelve hour news cycle.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

"Humor is reason gone mad." - Groucho Marx

Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, it can also be the surest sign of influence. Here are two clips that ought to prove that The Daily Show is now the standard bearer for television news.

This clip ran last Thursday as the last story on Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Olbermann ridicules Glenn Beck's recent "report" on supposed communist symbols in Rockefeller Plaza.

On Friday, Olbermann followed up with an additional segment:

This is damn funny and Olbermann recognizes that humor is the best way to deal with someone like Beck and expose him for the nut and fraud that he is, a man who isn't interested in reasonable debate and whose show is predicated on shouting loudest and last. That said, it also worries me that television news is taking its cues from Comedy Central.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

What Happens in Kabul Stays in Kabul . . .

. . . until it ends up on Gawker.

According to a report, ArmorGroup North America, the private contractor providing security to the American embassy in Afghanistan, has turned the embassy into the Delta House.

From The New York Times:
The oversight group’s report said guards worked in a “‘Lord of the Flies’ environment,” where they and their supervisors groped and urinated on one another. They cite photographs that suggest guards have drawn Afghans into activities forbidden in a conservative Muslim country.

“Multiple guards say this deviant hazing has created a climate of fear and coercion,” the report said, “with those who declined to participate often ridiculed, humiliated, demoted or even fired.”

The report accuses the State Department of being complicit in the problems, citing numerous letters in which the agency expressed concerns about security deficiencies at the American mission in Kabul and threatened to terminate ArmorGroup’s contract. Yet in sworn testimony to Congress, the report said, department officials said the problems had been fixed. And the State Department renewed the company’s contract through July 2010.
Then came the photos, originally posted on Gawker, which busted this thing wide open.

It's interesting to view this story in the broader context of the relationship between private industries and the federal government. In September 2008 I blogged about a report of government employees receiving gifts and sexual favors from the energy companies they were supposed to watchdog and there is the recent report about XE (the private security contractor formally known as Blackwater) providing child prostitutes for its employees stationed in Iraq. A similar relationship can be viewed between Fox News and the Bush Administration, as the network presented the public with lies and distortions about Iraq at the behest of the White House. Seedy relations between the federal government and private industry can be applied to the current health care debate as well, as congressional representatives (Republican and Democrat) attempt to derail reform at the behest of private corporations.

I guess the only thing left to ask is, "How do I get a job at the State Department?"

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Second Worst Thing to Ever Happen to a Goat in Minnesota

From Fox Sports:
An auto mechanic in Winona, Minn. found out just how crazy things can be now that Brett Favre is a Viking.

That's what happens when you find a live, purple-and-gold painted goat with a "4" shaved into its side in the trunk of the car you are working on.
James Prusci told the Winona Daily News a woman brought her car in to have a belt replaced on Friday and warned him the goat was in there, saying she planned to butcher the animal later.

She then waited outside with a man and a young boy while the mechanic went to work.

Prusci said he heard the goat crying and opened the trunk to give it some air, when he noticed its appearance. It had been tied at the feet as well.

This is probably a good time to mention that Favre was making his debut in Minneapolis that night, just a 2 1/2-hour drive from Winona.

Prusci alerted animal control, who confronted the woman after she claimed the car an hour later.

Winona Police Sgt. Chris Nelson confirmed the account and said the animal was in the care of a local vet. But there is no word whether the man or woman have been cited.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Right Wing Dogs Chasing Cars

Over the past few months I've been making note of a number of news stories about the rise of violence and intimidation from right wing extremists:

Now I can add a few new stories to the list. First, as part of a series of stories on XE (the company formally known as Blackwater), Keith Olbermann exposes the intent of the company's management to turn the Iraq war into a holy crusade and to convert Muslims to Christianity at gunpoint:

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

Second, this story from The Rachel Maddow Show exposes how the murderer of Dr. George Tiller has been embraced by the anti-abortion leadership in an attempt to turn him into a hero.

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

And of course there are the Teabagging 2.0 protests at town hall meetings between congressional representatives and their constituents, where right wingers swamp the meetings, shouting down the congressmen and anyone who disagrees with them. Here is Jon Stewart rightfully ridiculing the protesters:

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Just Say No

According to this article, women can become as addicted to having babies as they might to alcohol or drugs:
Procreating isn't just a psychological balm; it also feeds genuine physical cravings. According to Helen Fisher, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, humans developed a set of three related brain systems that are intended to push them toward parenthood: sex drive, hunger for the romantic love of one partner, and a desire for the calmness and security of attachment.

Mother Nature prods us by making sex and its aftermath feel amazing. Oxytocin, the so-called "cuddle" hormone that promotes bonding, floods women's bodies during intercourse, pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. "[Pregnancy] is like a love drug," Weil says. "A baby-love drug."

Sunday, August 09, 2009

WSU Atheneum Schedule

The schedule for the Fall 2009 Athenaeum speaker series at the Krueger library at Winona State University has been posted at the library's website, and there are some very interesting programs planned. I am scheduled to speak on October 28, 2009 in a presentation titled, "It’s Only a Movie: The Politics of the 1970s and 80s Horror Film."

Here is the full description of the lecture from the website:
This presentation will look at the horror genre starting with Last House on the Left in 1972 to A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, examining how these films were groundbreaking and why they represented a serious political and countercultural statement and how that political edge was later lost to commercialization. Attention will be paid to the remakes of these films and the implications of these remakes for the genre and politics of the films.
All Athenaum events are held on Wednesdays at 1pm on the second floor of the library during the fall and spring semesters. I'll be sure to mention this again (and again) as the time draws closer.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Olbermann Responds

Keith Olbermann has responded to the New York Times story about the alleged truce between Fox News and MSNBC, which I wrote about here.
Primarily, there is no "deal" between MSNBC and Fox over what we can and cannot cover. This is part of a continuing strategy of blackmail by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, that reaches back to 2004, and has as its goal the cancellation of "Countdown." This stuff has ebbed and flowed for five years, it's part of my daily job to push it back with whichever strategy I think will best work at a given moment. For the last two months I've been employing "News Jujitsu." If you watch tonight and catch the references to Fox and its rogues gallery you will know that the most recent tack has worked, but the fight is endless and there will be reversals in the future, I'm sure.

Ailes himself is tonight quoted as saying he tried to 'broker peace' by restraining his hosts. This is the same Ailes who insisted he would never interfere with what Bill O'Reilly said on the air. Even naked hypocrisy is not too much if Fox can make itself seem victimized, or can muzzle dissent.

But there is no "deal." I would never consent, and, fortunately, MSNBC and NBC News would never ask me to.
And once again, Glen Greenwald of Salon has weighed in Olberman's response:
I certainly believe that Olbermann is telling the truth when he says he was never a party to any deal and that nobody at GE or MSNBC asked him to consent. That's because GE executives didn't care in the least if Olbermann consented and didn't need his consent. They weren't requesting that Olbermann agree to anything, and nobody -- including the NYT's Stelter -- ever claimed that Olbermann had agreed to any deal. What actually happened is exactly what I wrote: GE executives issued an order that Olbermann must refrain from criticizing O'Reilly, and Olbermann complied with that edict. That is why he stopped mentioning O'Reilly as of June 1.

Once the NYT exposed this deal between GE and News Corp., MSNBC executives allowed Olbermann to attack O'Reilly last night because neither Olbermann nor MSNBC could afford to have it appear that their top journalist was being muzzled by GE. For obvious reasons, such an impression would be humiliating and would harm MSNBC's "journalism" brand. But over the last two months, muzzled by GE is exactly what Olbermann was -- precisely as I (and Brian Stelter) wrote.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Shark Poetry Week

In honor of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel (which yours truely is dedicating himself to every night), Poets.org is celebrating sharks in poetry.

Here is one of my favorites,"Plague of Dead Sharks" by Alan Dugan:
Who knows whether the sea heals or corrodes?
The wading, wintered pack-beasts of the feet
slough off, in spring, the dead rind of the shoes'
leather detention, the big toe's yellow horn
shines with a natural polish, and the whole
person seems to profit. The opposite appears
when dead sharks wash up along the beach
for no known reason. What is more built
for winning than the swept-back teeth,
water-finished fins, and pure bad eyes
these old, efficient forms of appetite
are dressed in? Yet it looks as if the sea
digested what is wished of them with viral ease
and threw up what was left to stink and dry.
If this shows how the sea approaches life
in its propensity to feed as animal entire,
then sharks are comforts, feet are terrified,
but they vacation in the mystery and why not?
Who knows whether the sea heals or corrodes?:
what the sun burns up of it, the moon puts back.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Biting the Hand the Feeds You

There are a number of editorials about the recent New York Times story about a detente between Fox News and MSNBC, specifically between Keith Olbermannn and Bill O'Reilly, but here are two pieces that are really worth reading.

First, Glen Greenwald at Salon manages to wade through the insinuations and get to what is really at the heart of the matter here: corporate control of news. An excerpt:
Why is GE even speaking for MSNBC's editorial decisions at all? Needless to say, GE doesn't care in the slightest about "civility" in general. Mika Brzezinski can spout that people who dislike Sarah Palin aren't "real Americans" and Chris Matthews can say about George Bush that "everybody sort of likes the president, except for the real whack-jobs," and GE executives won't (and didn't) bat an eye. What they mean by "civility" is: "thou shalt not criticize anyone who can harm GE's business interests or who will report on our actions." Thus: GE's journalists will stop reporting critically on Fox and its top assets because Fox can expose actions of GE that we want to keep concealed.
Second, David Sirota of The Huffington Post gives a recent history of corporate control over the content of news:

For every blatant example of a newsroom or a journalist brazenly shilling for their corporate master's bottom line, there are infinite examples of those newsrooms or journalists avoiding or omitting stories that might offend those masters' in the first place. Is it, for instance, really just a coincidence that the frightening effects of corporate agriculture have rarely been the topic of all those Sunday "news" shows whose sponsor are Archer Daniels Midland? Is it really just a coincidence that Friedman shills for corporations and the wealthy, when he is member of a billionaire family? Is it really just a coincidence that a newspaper like the Washington Post, which was trying to effectively sell its news coverage to corporate interests, generates stories that tend to be particularly soft on corporations and chock full of unchallenged corporate PR?

The list of examples is endless -- and the obvious answer is that none of it is a coincidence, even if most of these conflicts are kept completely hidden from the news-consuming audience.

But, then, the deception -- and the ubiquity of the deception -- is a big part of the corruption that is destroying journalism. Indeed, the fact that the Olbermann-O'Reilly personality feud was presented as the "big" story -- and not the General Electric intervention -- is a tacit confirmation that corporate-media symbiosis has become such an assumed part of journalism, that many journalists themselves don't see it as any kind of problem, much less news.
A few months ago, Olbermann noted that television news was at times just above "carnival barking." In that, he was referring to the element of circus that is inherent to anything on television. The feud between Olbermann and O'Reilly certainly evolved into that, with funny voices and wild accusations tossed back and forth. But the trouble is, despite what these two men might think of themselves and each other, this feud has little to do with reporting the news, journalistic integrity, or protecting and advancing democracy, and everything to do with advancing their own egos. While both men's rages are entertaining they are also a distraction and eat up air time that could be spent on issues much more news worthy.

It pains me to write this because I have long been a fan of Olbermann's show and I watch the program nearly every night it's on. But in the past year and a half the stories on it have become increasingly about Olbermann, his friends, and his enemies, and less about what has happened in the world. I was very disappointed to see former DNC chairman Howard Dean guest anchoring the show last week; I'm afraid this was the death knell to Countdown and MSNBC's pretensions of journalistic objectivity.

But MSNBC is not alone nor is it the worst offender. Despite its slogans, Fox has never been fair or balanced. In fact, it's rarely even bothered to be accurate. And CNN, in its attempt to hold off on going to one side or another, has mistaken bottom-feeding (via Twitter) for integrity.

I won't stop watching MSNBC anytime soon, nor do I plan to resume watching Fox News. But as a consumer of news I sometimes feel like a convict in line for lunch at the prison cafeteria. I might not like it, it may not even be nutritious, but I don't want to go hungry, so I consume what they give me. But after the lunch hour I'll try to score whatever else I can on the side.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Take That, Hippie!

From Reuters:

LONDON (Reuters) - Organic food has no nutritional or health benefits over conventionally produced food, according to a major study published on Wednesday.

Its conclusions were challenged by organic food campaigners.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said consumers paid higher prices for organic food in part because of its perceived health benefits, creating a global organic market worth an estimated $48 billion in 2007.

A systematic review of 162 scientific papers published in the scientific literature over the last 50 years, however, found there was no significant difference.

"A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs, but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance," said Alan Dangour, one of the report's authors.

"Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority."

The results of research, which was commissioned by the British government's Food Standards Agency, were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Update: Props to Jason for this post, which takes a deeper look at the sources and science of this report.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

You lost today, kid. But that doesn't mean you have to like it.


PLAIN CITY, Utah - Police in Utah say a 7-year-old boy led officers on a car chase in an effort to avoid going to church.

Dispatchers received reports of a child driving recklessly on Sunday morning. Weber County Sheriff's Capt. Klint Anderson says one witness said the boy drove through a stop sign.

Anderson says two deputies caught up with the boy and tried unsuccessfully to stop the Dodge Intrepid in an area about 45 miles north of Salt Lake City. The car reached 40 mph before the boy stopped in a driveway and ran inside a home.

Anderson says when the boy's father later confronted him, the boy said he didn't want to go to church. The boy is too young to prosecute and no citations were issued, although police did urge the father to make his car keys more inaccessible to children.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Quit makin' stuff up, will ya?

Yesterday Sarah Palin gave her farewell speech as governor of Alaska. Here it is in two parts:

Part 1:

Part 2:

In a way, the speech encapsulates Palin's public persona. On the one hand she presents her chief appeal: the working mom who wants to bring kitchen-table pragmatism and so-called "small town" values to state and federal politics. On the other hand, Palin also displays many of her worst traits: passing ignorance, inexperience, and an unwillingness to learn as authenticity, an abhorrence for government unless she and her Republican cohorts are the ones running it, talking up public ownership of local resources while admonishing socialism, confusing blind and mindless praise of America with patriotism, and hiding behind the troops and her family in the face of criticism.

Here is Rachel Maddow arguing that while Palin is still popular with a certain segment of American society, it is unlikely that she will ever be elected to a major position again:

Finally, here is William Shatner on The Tonight Show giving a poetic interpretation of the speech:

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Just When You Thought It Was Safe

The Bush administration left a wake of scandals, illegal acts, and all around fuck-ups over the course of its eight years. After suffering through misguided stem cell research policies, abstinence-only sex education, the 9/11 attack, torture, misleading the congress on the use of torture, the invasion of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, an assassination squad, million dollar no-bid contracts, failed economic policies, the bailout, the response to Hurricane Katrina, the PATRIOT Act, outing a CIA agent, and other cluster fucks, it is hard to imagine that there is anything more to be discovered.

But of course there is always room for one more: According to the New York Times, Dick Cheney wanted to use US military forces on American soil in 2002. This would have been done, according to the Times, to "test" the Constitution, and invalidate the Fourth Amendment. Fortunately, Bush decided against it.

Glen Greenwald of Salon.com has published a piece extrapolating the implications of this and similar policies:

Though it received very little press attention, it is not hyperbole to observe that this October 23 Memo was one of the most significant events in American politics in the last several decades, because it explicitly declared the U.S. Constitution -- the Bill of Rights -- inoperative inside the U.S., as applied to U.S. citizens. Just read what it said in arguing that neither the Fourth Amendment -- nor even the First Amendment -- can constrain what the President can do when overseeing "domestic military operations"
Before we get too relieved and treat this as a bullet dodged, consider this: President Obama has endorsed using indefinite detention on terror suspects. What kind of change is that?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

And That's the Way It Is

Glenn Greenwald has written an opinion piece on Salon.com about the death of Walter Cronkite, pointing out that the establishment news media is attempting to strike an odd balance of revering the man while ignoring what he did that made him so important to the news profession and so unpopular with people in places of power, namely the Department of Defense.

Greenwald identifies a pattern for this kind of behavior, comparing the eulogies for Cronkite with those prepared for David Halberstam, who proudly stood up to intimidation from military brass when he reported on the Vietnam war:

All of that was ignored when he died, with establishment media figures exploiting his death to suggest that his greatness reflected well on what they do, as though what he did was the same thing as what they do (much the same way that Martin Luther King's vehement criticisms of the United States generally and its imperialism and aggression specifically have been entirely whitewashed from his hagiography).

So, too, with the death of Walter Cronkite. Tellingly, his most celebrated and significant moment -- Greg Mitchell says "this broadcast would help save many thousands of lives, U.S. and Vietnamese, perhaps even a million" -- was when he stood up and announced that Americans shouldn't trust the statements being made about the war by the U.S. Government and military, and that the specific claims they were making were almost certainly false. In other words, Cronkite's best moment was when he did exactly that which the modern journalist today insists they must not ever do -- directly contradict claims from government and military officials and suggest that such claims should not be believed. These days, our leading media outlets won't even use words that are disapproved of by the Government.
Greenwald, in an update to the piece, negatively compares the legacy of Walter Cronkite to Tim Russert, referencing a piece by Lewis Lapham written shortly after Russert's death:
Speaking truth to power doesn’t make successful Sunday-morning television, leads to “jealousy, upsets, persecution,” doesn’t draw a salary of $5 million a year. The notion that journalists were once in the habit of doing so we borrow from the medium of print, from writers in the tradition of Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, H. L. Mencken, I. F. Stone, Hunter Thompson, and Walter Karp, who assumed that what was once known as “the press” received its accreditation as a fourth estate on the theory that it represented the interests of the citizenry as opposed to those of the government . . . On television the voices of dissent can’t be counted upon to match the studio drapes or serve as tasteful lead-ins to the advertisements for Pantene Pro-V and the U.S. Marine Corps. What we now know as the “news media” serve at the pleasure of the corporate sponsor, their purpose not to tell truth to the powerful but to transmit lies to the powerless.
For viewers of my generation and younger, those of us who came of age after Cronkite's tenure at CBS had passed, we have experienced news in a very different way. We grew up watching heads in boxes on our televisions scream incoherently at one another, attempting to prove their point by shouting their opponent down. We learn about the world from blogs and wikipedia, where opinion, rumor, and facts all run together with no oversight or critical restraint. Entertainment news and gossip are now reported with the same, if not greater, depth of coverage given to wars and economic collapses. Things have reached a point where a satirical news program provides more insight into the events of the day than most of the major news networks.

On the other hand, Lee Siegel of The Daily Beast has put the idealized view of Cronkite to question. He writes that all television news, by its nature is entertainment and the anchors on it are performers.

America and Cronkite both shared the illusion that public life did not consist of a series of masks that had to be ripped away. If Cronkite said that’s the way it was, then his audience happily believed that’s the way it was. We accepted his performance of sincere authority because we wanted to.

Now the Olbermanns, O’Reillys, Stewarts et al sign off after assuring us that nothing is as it seems. Their job is to puncture anyone who in the previous 24 hours told us, with any kind of authority, that this is the way it was. And we happily accept their performance of ironic, sarcastic anti-sincerity because we want to.

Yet all we’ve done is exchange Cronkite’s illusion of knowledge acquired (all that’s worth knowing is what he told us) for the current illusion of knowingness achieved (all that’s worth knowing is that every claim to knowledge is a sham).

The question is, which is more dangerous? A situation in which we feel that news authority is to be taken at its word—thus making us vulnerable to deception? Or a situation in which we feel that the function of the news is to keep stripping away the illusion of its own authority—thus making us vulnerable to the deception that, well, we are now invulnerable to deception? Is it better to have the wool pulled over our eyes, or to be blinded with the illusion of transparency? Better to be deceived as gullible fools, or as knowing fools? Either way, we still keep getting deceived.

I think what Siegel says here is important, especially his question about the "illusion of transparency." Although I am not a fan of binaries, we could think of news as swinging between two poles, with the stoicism of Cronkite at one pole and the emotion of Olbermann, O'Reilly, and Stewart on the other. Each style has its own advantages and disadvantages but I also can't help but think that this new era of commentary impairs our consumption of news by deliberately focusing the facts through an ideological lens. (In this case, John Stewart might be exempted since he is, after all, working in the realm of satire and his show often skewers the news networks and their performers.)

As I watch the televised tributes and eulogies to Walter Cronkite, I cannot help but think that some part of American culture and journalism has died with him. I hope I'm wrong, and I hope that we can correct course and find a way of deciphering and organizing the noise of information that we are inundated with. But it will take a demand from consumers for a better quality of news and a willingness from the producers of news to provide it.