“Tell us what to think”: the Florida shooting and media’s subtle shushings

I watch PBS Newshour sometimes when I’m waiting for DemocracyNow! to come on in the mornings. The reporting on PBS is well-intentioned though influenced by corporate and wealthy sponsors in order to make up harsher and harsher cuts in government support over the years. It’s a decent source of information, a more polished, slightly more toothless lens through which to look at the world.

Yesterday was the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. 17 people were killed and 15 were injured. According to many sources, there is one shooting every 60 hours in this country. The shooter was a 19 year old who had been expelled from the school and apparently had a pattern of domestic violence, stalking girls at school, and White nationalist comments online. This was definitely an individual who had been under suspicion for the potential for violent behavior, though he was not stopped in time. This is a profoundly shocking loss for the community and families in Parkland.

In discussing this, Judy Woodruff of PBS leads the story with the following:

Given this tragic pattern, one could throw up his hands and think there’s nothing to do. But we have to believe, for the sake of our children, there is a way through this. How do we think about it?

She echoes this question with the program guests:

What would you suggest we start to think about now?

What is one way we should be thinking about this right now that could move us forward?

I understand our collective need for discussion, for problem-solving, but this approach troubles me. Something about asking how we should think reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s alleged deep suspicion for newspapers, which he argued told us what to think about the world’s goings on. Though they give important information we couldn’t otherwise access, media representations do tend to urge us to move in certain directions in our thinking – and even to suspect our own abilities to think critically about our reality and our ability to influence it.

In terms of the shooting in south Florida, the way of framing this conversation typically involves making a list of shootings – Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Virginia Tech, the Pulse Nightclub, Columbine, San Bernardino, Tucson, Colorado – and then asking about how and why the gunman did what he did. Conversations about mental “illness” tends to emerge as a go-to point of focus (though I’m grateful for work like a recent article by Dr. Jonathan Metzl, who argues against demonizing people with emotional or psychological disabilities and challenges for mass shootings), and the stories tend to become individualized, discussing the personal path of the shooter or shooters to this destructive endpoint. We tend not to look at the systemic problems that give rise to easier access to guns, and more lethal ones at that, for more than a moment. Or rather, we tend to be shepherded away from such thinking. This is happening through our country’s leadership as depicted through the media as well. The President, for example, refused to comment on gun control questions at all in his address about this tragedy yesterday, and Alex Azar of the Department of Home and Health Services claimed that mental illness would be a target in this debate.

Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow! made a great point in her reporting: that most mainstream networks on the left and the right have set up the terms of debate for us, terms which do not generally include a serious discussion of the influence of NRA money on government decision-making. Metzl added to this critical position by starting from a truly ethical perspective:

Why do we need so many guns in the first place? What kind of society do we want to live in?

I want to contribute a commentary on media’s role in how we might think collaboratively about our present and future: What kind of society do we live in that we need the news to start even the basic thinking about yet another mass killing of children? It’s almost as though we have a collective mental block, a cognitive blank in the face of what seems inevitable.

This is the problem. It’s absolutely not inevitable that these shootings happen. I do not pretend to have an answer for violence writ large in this country, for why people may find themselves drawn to hurting others. However, I think we need to resist the storytelling approach to framing these painful events that depoliticize the broader context in which shooting violence takes place. Individual stories have their place, but we have to remember the structural reasons that possible-ize such violence that are obscured in “these difficult times.” Plainly put, the NRA lobby is paralyzing our lawmakers, and our democracy, through the use of money as political speech. They have spoken for us about gun use and possession, even though the majority of Americans favor new legislation for gun control that requires background checks and bans the purchase of semi-automatic weapons (see here). And behind this potent influence on our government is a White nationalist, patriarchal discourse that shushes all questions, lulls us into inertia.

I’m not saying, don’t read the newspaper or watch the news. I’m saying, be ready to ask more questions before sinking into the warm bath of “maybe tomorrow will be better.” Because it won’t. Not without serious collective action against the forces of White patriarchy and violence that fetter our government and feeds whispered responses into its well-oiled message machine.

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Trunk or Treat: silly, spontaneous community in a cemetery

Yesterday I was walking in my neighborhood along a path that includes a beautiful cemetery with winding paths and lovely bent old trees. A cheerful orange-and-black clad woman greeted me from her seat at a welcome table as I walked up to the gates. “What’s happening today?” I asked, as kids in Spiderman and gorilla costumes milled around beyond the entrance. She grinned widely and replied that this was Trunk or Treat, an event for Halloween that families participate in across the country.

Why am I posting about this, when I write about education, democracy, social justice, and other topics more directly related to my PhD and my work in community? Because my previous post, “Time Enough at Last: screens and the elusive book,” brought up the way our google-eyed preoccupation with screens in public spaces can replace basic human activities, like reading, making small talk, or just gazing around and taking things in. Because I guess I’m wondering about humanity at a moment when it is being questioned by political uncertainty, social anxiety, and the widespread and pervasive influence of technology on our lives and our ways of seeing ourselves and each other.

The Trunk or Treat I visited yesterday heartened me, reminding me that we have choices, we have community, we have beautiful and silly customs that bring us together. Sure, accuse me of nostalgia, of being a Luddite, but don’t overlook the fact that my restlessness (and hopefulness) stems from an itching for human contact in spontaneous, unmonitored, unfettered ways that feels like it’s becoming rare.

 

 

“Time Enough at Last”: screens and the elusive book

I’ve been watching episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” an old black-and-white TV series that ran from 1959 to 1964 and told weird, sometimes futuristic, often Kafkaesque tales that made the viewer twist uncomfortably or stare rapt in suspended horror at the screen. Unknown, mostly White male actors, limited and mundane sets (by today’s standards), oddly-rhythmed voices and dialogue make it a target for accusations of archaism and its fans of nostalgia, though I think going back to seeing work like this can reveal how little we really need in the way of effects and artifice to tell a good story, perhaps with a good point about humanity.

The episode I watched last night was entitled “Time Enough at Last” and told the story of a bank teller, Henry Bemis, an avid reader who was never able to find the time or the freedom to read. The plot is laid with the care and intention of Rod Serling’s trademark attention to detail, from a boss who threatens to fire Bemis if he can’t behave more like a professional and stop reading on his breaks, to a bullying wife who destroys Bemis’s book of modern poetry that Bemis tried to sneak out of the house. The plot takes a turn when a global disaster ensues: an H-bomb is dropped (while Bemis is in the bank vault, secretly reading on his lunch break), and Bemis emerges to be the last living person in the world. He wanders around, searching for others. He finds food, eats and sleeps. He laments, considers suicide…and then he discovers his salvation: the public library, broken apart like an Easter egg awaiting one such as he to plumb its trove of Shelley, Byron, Shakespeare, Keats, and thousands of others to be read year after year. As is typical, the episode ends with a surprise ending, and it leaves the viewer thinking.


As I finished the episode, I reflected on the fact that so few people seem to be reading nowadays, especially literature but even just good old fashioned paper books. I scan the subway platform and the train cars on my way around the city, and at any given time, you can find anywhere from a third to over a half of the people around you staring at their phone. Are they reading? What are they reading? I have no proof of this, but from the quick snippets of flashing lights from Candy Crush and other games, TV episodes, videos, Facebook or Instagram feeds that I spy over shoulders, I am not persuaded that people are reading to learn on the train.

Does it matter? Is it my job, as a highly educated, highly privileged PhD student, to police people in how they spend their time? But I guess that’s my point: do we secretly feel that we’ll have plenty of time to learn, and find out something new, when we’re finished watching that last episode of whatever on Netflix or reading our friend’s updates (or blogs like this, for example)? Do we think we will have the time to get back to reading something inspiring, enlivening, frightening, which allows for our imagination to roam and range around, or are the screens somehow, secretly winning?

Too bad Rod Serling isn’t here to make a Twilight Episode about this. I’m sure he’d have a surprise ending for all of us.

Is this the Matrix?: Reality in the era of bots

/////////////////////NPR’s Tom Ashbrook hosts a show called On Point, which covers a multitude of topics ranging from schooling to online dating to genetics to The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Available as a podcast, On Point featured a story on August 9th about bots, which I listened to in curiosity and dismay, and not as much surprise as I wish I’d had. Bots are essentially automated software programs that run tasks on the Internet, and according to one of the experts on the show, they’ve been around as long as the World Wide Web has been. The show’s focus, however, was much more specific, targeting the use of bots by certain individuals, organizations, and political entities to disseminate propaganda and fake news, or “disinformation,” in order to meddle in electoral politics. The show’s guests discussed the ways in which bots originating in Russia were used during the 2016 election to influence the U.S. population’s view of the candidates, the issues being discussed, and the general political state of affairs of our country, to which an elected president theoretically would provide a resonating response. Apparently, these bots can generate commentary and content which is, at best, biased, and at worst, patently false.


By Ian McKellar from San Francisco, CA, USA – Elektro and Sparkotaken from: http://www.maser.org/k8rt/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18986910

This is clearly a new era we’re in, because though the use of propaganda is as old as human society itself – incidentally, propaganda means simply a form of communication intended to sway or persuade its audience in favor of or against a given individual or group – the bots are used in a curious way. Employed on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, bots create “news” content whose volume and relevance to one’s own opinions can persuade a reader to follow that opinion. They function cleverly, or rather are designed in a clever way, in that they are meant to emulate a real person by patterning off of language used by current participants, and further appear to confirm the views of the reader through the temptation of accepting information that appeals to our established beliefs, thus persuading us via confirmation bias. Given the magnitude of influence of these bots, whose presence appears to range in the thousands across popular social media sites, it may not be too much to suggest that our view of the world, at least the view which we draw from our screens and hear echoed in the mouths of our colleagues and loved ones, is not simply a wake-up-and-see-what’s-true-today process.

Or is it? I’m no technophobe, but I do come from a generation that was raised without the Internet, without screens (excepting only 1/2 hour of TV a day, for which I’m still grateful), and without that addition to my consciousness that I might at any time be missing out on something on a screen awaiting my attention. I remember rotary phones and the use of folded-up maps stuffed in the glove box. This is not intended to be simple nostalgia, however. I’m actually asking what we might do about something all of us as deeply smitten phone lovers are well aware of.


By Aditya19472001 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I suppose what I’m asking is, how did we develop critical literacy and media literacy in the past? How did we think about the information presented to us, sort through it, and determine what was of value not because it made us feel warm and safe but in fact because it presented us with what was happening in the world? The American poet T.S. Eliot apparently even distrusted newspapers, believing that those who read them were easily manipulated away from a true engagement with the world. I’m not suggesting not taking in any information from news sources, which we tend to read now online, but a return to the issue will ask where we get our “news” from. And this is really the key when we think about social media. Baudrillard’s hyperreality was one in which, as in The Matrix, individuals are completely enveloped by the worldview they consume as true (that is, my belief about my reality, is what is created and given to me outside of my own influence). Under this social logic, we are simple consumers of our reality, not participants. This is not unlike the consumer posture we are encouraged to/ take as we experience the ads and clickbait that accompany us as we look at photos of our cousin’s new baby. We may not realize that our reality, our political agency, is being slowly pushed back behind a curtain, and is being replaced by blurps and blips that confirm our perspectives and comfort us that we are right, that we are looking at what’s “real.” The battle, it seems, is a philosophical and a psychological one as well as a political and technological one.

To close with the questions Eliot asks in his famous modernist masterpiece, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock:

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”…
Do I dare…Disturb the universe?

Do we dare to do this? Do we dare to put the phone away, close the Twitter feed, log off of Facebook, even for a moment, a moment when we might miss something…a something which might be worse than taking in nothing at all?

Speech, whistleblowing/leaking, and silence: languaging as a political force

Today’s news in many ways is not remarkable, in the sense that we’ve been submerged in a swampy mess of falsehoods and fictions that choke off our view of the world around us (see my recent post about Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, which asserts that our definition of reality is served up to us, hot and processed, by social media in a steady stream that replaces our awareness of our agentive participation in this reality). I’m considering discussions of climate change – rather, the use of the term “climate change” – and an attack on a mosque in Bloomington, MN, as well as  the crackdown on leaks/whistleblowing by the Department of Justice under the Trump administration.

The unreleased report about climate change – which incidentally used to be called “global warming” before Franz Luntz, spin doctor extraordinaire and well-funded consultant to conservative politicians who seek to change public discourse through “winning messaging,” successfully assisted the George W. Bush administration in creating the less-alarming term – shared with the New York Times can be summarized below (though I recommend reviewing the executive summary and the first few pages of the report):

The average temperature in the United States has risen rapidly and drastically since 1980, and recent decades have been the warmest of the past 1,500 years, according to a sweeping federal climate change report awaiting approval by the Trump administration.

The draft report by scientists from 13 federal agencies, which has not yet been made public, concludes that Americans are feeling the effects of climate change right now. It directly contradicts claims by President Trump and members of his cabinet who say that the human contribution to climate change is uncertain, and that the ability to predict the effects is limited.

“Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans,” a draft of the report states.

This report evidently includes thousands of studies by eminent scientists and scholarly institutions which indicate that we are headed for a disaster at a world level that most rational people agree upon. Europe, for example, is struggling with a record-breaking heat wave ominously termed “Lucifer,” and in the U.S. folks in the West and Southwest have seen deaths due to daily highs unseen in our nation’s history.

Yet what’s important is the fact that the report was leaked to the Times due to concerns that it would be modified or censored by the current administration. This concern accords with Trump’s priorities regarding the question of economics vs. environment, as he has selected former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and big oil-backed Scott Pruitt into the lead administrative role of the EPA. Further exemplifying Trump’s obvious commitment to U.S. economic status quo is his statement that the U.S. should withdraw from the Paris Agreement enacted in 2016 because it was a raw deal for America. In light of Trump’s apparent desire to silence various voices from all quarters against him and his narcissistic agenda to be the top dog business leader in the country (note that I said “business leader” and not “political leader”), this is a justifiable fear. We can’t forget the firing of James Comey or the fact that during his campaign, Trump leveraged calculated yet ardent attacks against the media in what the U.S. News and World Report called a “politics of intimidation” in his incessant tweeting.

This use of language as a political tool – the creation of variant forms of information which promote the occlusion of scientific research, the exclusion of reporters from White House briefings (and the eventual shift over to off-camera briefings to replace publicly broadcast events with the press), and many other changes which signal a consolidation of power by the White House as an attempt to control public discourse – is not a new phenomenon. Propaganda has been used over the course of U.S. history (and the history of all other countries) to persuade constituents that certain actions by politicians deserve their support, or else didn’t happen in the way that they appeared to happen. What’s terrifying about Trump is that he is exploiting the power of the White House to bully and silence journalists and to rewrite our history and current state of affairs to serve his own solipsism. It is through the use of language as a performative, highly contingent social tool that he is doing this, a means of manipulating our country’s anxious, angry social climate in acts of languaging that instantiate real-life results.

Silence, too, has the potential to operate as a performative, a process of political languaging. For example, the Washington Post recently reported that Trump has advocated violence against journalists in a tweet, a point on which GOP lawmakers have apparently remained silent. This silence enacts what might be considered tacit agreement with Trump’s comments. I suggest that we don’t read this silence as a lack of speech, but rather a very strong example of silence AS speech. It has great political force not to comment on threats, on violent speech and deeds, especially when one is in a position of power. It seems that we lack a better conceptualization of what silence can do in such circumstances (a point which my own research hopefully will attend to in the future).

To bring in a third dimension of languaging as political force, we can further consider the concepts of leaking and whistleblowing. John Kiriakou, a whistleblower who was incarcerated for almost two years for exposing the torture program of the CIA under George W. Bush, spoke on Democracy Now! about the role of whistleblowers in “bringing to light any evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, illegality, or threats to the public health or public safety.” Kiriakou explains overclassification and discusses the illegality of classifying a crime like torture (which is illegal under U.S. legal code and international mandate), which he exposed and for which he was prosecuted. Leaking, in contrast, is, according to Kiriakou, is sharing with journalists information which is sensitive or private but not classified. The blurring of the definition of these two terms is taking place under the anti-media campaign being waged by the Trump administration, under the argument that public safety and national security may be compromised if certain information is exposed. Making these vague statements justifies the punishment of reporters and journalistic sources for publishing leaked information, a form of silencing employed as a performative languaging move by Attorney General Jess Sessions in a recent press conference intended, no doubt, to intimidate journalists and win more leverage over the public record by calling it a “culture of leaking” that must be stopped. (Of course we could assume that Sessions’ actions are a stab at self-preservation, but this does next to nothing to defend his actions here or elsewhere.)

A final thought about silence/silencing is a connection I’m making with all of this and Trump’s vociferous lack of tweets about a bombing attack on a Bloomington, MN mosque in the heart of a Somali community in that city on August 5th. Trump is on vacation, but apparently he’s been tweeting regularly as always. This has not escaped the notice of many media outlets and political leaders, including the mayor of Bloomington himself, providing yet another example of the power of silence as a form of political languaging. What does Trump’s silence say? It is a clear example of tacit support of conservative groups in this country that suspect immigrants of terrorism, see Muslims as invaders and sources of instability in their communities, and feel reassured by earlier strains of U.S. nativism that portrays non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestants as a threat to the American Dream.

Silence, all of this is to say, is approval for these actions. Silence, in fact, commends and recommends actions like this. Let’s hope the symbolic violence of this political speech, enacted in the seemingly neutral contribution of silence to the public discourse, can become a viable part of how we see languaging and politics in this country. We don’t have any time to lose.

Hip hop dance as rupture, aesthetic rising

I’ve been obsessed with hip hop videos since 2014, when I discovered Tricia Miranda, LA-based choreographer for stars including Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Missy Elliott. I took one hip hop dance class in Boston and can barely shake it in salsa or bachata outings (#cudjatellimwhite), but that doesn’t seem to matter when I tune in on the newest gorgeous turnout by Lia Kim, Kyle Hanagami, or newcomers like Phil Wright. Most of the videos I watch (with the exception of Kim, who I believe is based in South Korea) are filmed at Millennium Dance Complex in LA. The dancers crush it in groups to the latest hits and encompass all bodies, all types, all interpretations of power and being. To say it embraces “diversity” is frankly a total disservice. It’s not about diversity. It’s about f**k yes, here it is, sit your a** down and watch this because any story you were telling about me before I started dancing is officially beat. Women stride and pop and lock, men wreath their limbs like snakes, heavy girls destroy it, skinny players jump in and get huge. It’s about owning that stage, that camera’s eye, and doing this in my way now, probably never the same, so know me the way I’m telling you, right now.


KATY PERRY – Bon Appétit ft. Migos | Kyle Hanagami Choreography

So yes, it is an indulgence. But there’s something bigger happening here, I think, and I want to suggest that we can look at this amazing work with a smarter, sharper lens. I’ve been reading about identity as a form of social performance, especially in the work of Butler, rather than as a fixed category that is applied upon birth. However, nowhere is the fluidity and transversality of Who I Am better enjoyed than in the presence and unfinished breathings of art. When we think about art as a means of rupturing a set of givens in our social realities, what Barone sees as a way of refusing a mandated status quo premised on master narratives, we can see what is possible, we can articulate it using given tools that we bend and bite on to make work for us, in the here and now. We are possible-izing what social scripts want to insist is impossible, we are making reality, bringing past presences and future openings into a unity drifting and glorious and indeterminate. Something about dance, too, adds the component of sociocultural thinking which says we can’t do this alone because there is no “we” in solitude, I am not seen nor see without the rest of us and me together, using these tools and making something new together. 

See the first performance (0:00-1:29) of Tinashe – Party Favors, choreographed by Tricia Miranda. The space this dancer, Diana, occupies, exudes ownership as she makes choices and employs a language that is fully hers. She is strong, baseball-capped, sharp-jawed, clad in black, dredded, tattooed, long-nailed, maroon-lipped, mid-driff-showing, reaching, stabbing, controlled, snaky, masculine, feminine, other-ine. She is a woman of color and urban, but even in this space there is something that luminesces beyond those terms. What and how she disrupts what is expected embodies a rising to a different level of aesthetics, where unity itself is only possible through fragmentation and reconstitution. The only way to know her is to watch, again and again, to see her meanings. I highly recommend doing so.

“GOP Gov. Snyder’s office says Detroit school kids have no right to literacy”: an opportunity to develop media literacy

The post title comes from an article a friend of mine posted on my Facebook feed, alarmed and asking what I thought of this situation.
herbert-randall
Photograph by Herbert Russell

Below is my response…

It’s a very interesting proposition. Checked out the story on the CBS website and this is what was included:

“The lawsuit says the schools are in ‘slum-like conditions’ and ‘functionally incapable of delivering access to literacy.’ The case, filed in federal court, directly accuses Gov. Rick Snyder, the state school board and others of violating the civil rights of low-income students.”

A couple of missing connections:

1) Schools in Detroit (and Philadelphia and Chicago and other struggling school districts) have suffered from a lack of funding which is connected both to housing issues as well as to the direct connection of federal funding to school performance, which has been in part due to the way that some states have interpreted the Common Core (see http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/common-core-state-standards/). Obscured with this kind of commentary is the connection between federal funds and testing/school performance, which also drives decision-making on teacher retention, and the fact that schools continue to be financed by property taxes. Those tax revenues in Detroit have fallen significantly over the last decade or more, due in part to the Great Recession as well as other economic issues germane to Detroit, all of which has contributed to the struggles of that school system.

2) The accusation that Governor Snyder — who has indeed been taken to task for mismanagement and shady dealings with the public school system in Michigan — explicitly believes that students should not have a right to literacy is not accurate. Here’s another story whose header reads, “Literacy Not A Right For Detroit School Kids According To State” (http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2016/11/21/literacy-not-a-right-for-detroit-school-kids-says-state/) but which doesn’t include any specific comment that Snyder actually made about this.

I’m concerned that this is sensationalistic reporting rather than a deeper exploration of the complex questions in play. I would say that negligence is definitely a part of this, but saying that Snyder was attacking the civil rights of poor and the illiterate children of Detroit is an exaggeration. This is attack-the-individual thinking which has characterized “reporting” of late and keeps us from working on bigger and more complicated problems.

A final point: We as Americans are stuck in the democratic paradox (see my discussion of this in a previous post), which allows liberalism — freedom to pursue your own way of doing things, freedom not to be responsible for other people, etc. — to coexist with democracy. How can we support the participation of all Americans in our civic spaces when we prioritize the education of some over others through inequitable economic policies and “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” thinking?

I don’t think my friend liked my response. It’s been three hours, which is like an eternity in FB world.