Louis CK is Still a Jackass

January 2, 2019 § 4 Comments

Eighteen months ago, Louis CK was one of the most famous comedians in the world, almost universally loved, devastatingly funny, and, apparently, a decent human being.  And then came the scandal, which involved him being an incredible douchecanoe with women, intimidating them and performing sexual acts in front of them.  And so, he disappeared from the public eye after apologizing for his behaviour.  This was the right card to play and the appropriate response for his behaviour.

But now he’s back.  And somehow, getting booked for shows.  Last month at a comedy club on Long Island, CK attacked the survivors of the Parkland massacre.  That in and of itself makes him an asshole, but comedy has long been the purview of assholes.  That’s part of what makes comedians funny.  But this was crossing a line, and he knew it.  He had to.  He’s a smart guy.

But then he went onto whine about his own ‘bad year.’  He complained that the sex scandal cost him $35 million.  And he complained about finding out who his ‘real friends’ were, whining that:

People say that like it’s a good thing. That’s not a good thing. That’s a horrible experience. Who the fuck wants to know who your real friends are? I liked having a bunch of fake friends and not knowing who was who.

And then he went onto attack the ‘younger generation’ for essentially having no sense of humour about such things.

And so there we go.  Yet another white dude caught being a morally reprehensible character who isn’t sorry for his behaviour.  His apology means absolutely sweet fuck all now.  Because he obviously didn’t mean it and he doesn’t care that his behaviour was boorish.  He has become another Justice Brett Kavanaugh, attacking his accuser(s).  And Kavanaugh is just another Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey.  This is apparently what you do when you’re a white guy accused of being a dickhead, you mumble something about recognizing your behaviour was uncouth and then attack your accusers.

Fuck that.  We deserve better.

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Doug Ford: Ontario’s Populist

June 11, 2018 § 2 Comments

Canada is beside itself with the election of Doug Ford as the Premier of Ontario.  Ford, the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, is not really all that qualified to be premier, I must say.  The lynchpin of his campaign was a promise of $1 beer, and the rest was based on a basic message that the government of Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne was stupid.  Well, he didn’t exactly say that, but it was pretty much his message.  The centre and left in Ontario and around Canada has been wringing its hands as Donald Trump Lite™ has been elected to lead the largest province in Canada.

It is impossible to deny Ontario’s importance to Canada, it is the most populous province, home to the largest city in the country.  And Ontario’s economy is the 8th largest in North America.  And, of course, Toronto is also the most diverse city in the world.

Ford, for the most part, did not run on a racist campaign, like the American president, and he has generally not uttered racist comments.  But, while he hasn’t, his supporters have.  Like everywhere else in the Western world, racism is on the rise in Ontario, and Canada as a whole.  The reasons for this are for another post.

The commentariat in Canada has been aghast, rightly so, at Doug Ford’s election. He is a classic populist, a multi-millionaire who pretends to be for the little guy, and mocks the élites for being, well, élites.

But, ultimately, Doug Ford’s election isn’t a rupture with Ontario’s political past.  It is also not necessarily a sign of Trumpism coming to Canada.  Ontario has a long history with populist premiers, dating back to the Depression-era leadership of Mitch Hepburn.  But, also more recently, with the government of Mike Harris in the 1990s.

Mike Harris was elected premier in 1995.  In a lot of ways, I think commentators have seen his election as a correction of sorts, after the province had shocked the rest of Canada in electing the NDP government of Bob Rae in 1990.  Rae’s time as premier did not go smoothly, and so Harris’ election must be seen in that light.  Harris, like Ford, was a populist, and ran on something he called the Common Sense Revolution.  Harris sought to bring common sense to Ontario politics.  This went about as well as you’d imagine.

Harris’ government cut the social safety net of Ontario something fierce.  He also tried to introduce boot camps for juvenile offenders.  Harris rode the crest of the 1990s economic boom, and once the economy crashed with the dotcom bubble, he resigned as premier (for personal reasons, I might add) in 2002 and the PC government of Ontario stumbled along with Ernie Eves as premier before getting trounced by the Liberals of Dalton McGuinty in 2003.

Harris’ policies led indirectly to people dying in Ontario.  The most obvious example is during the horrible Walkerton e-coli crisis in 2000.  There, due to the bumbling incompetence of the Koebel brothers, who operated the Walkerton water supply without any actual training, e-coli entered the supply system.  Over 2,000 people fell ill, and 6 people died.  Harris’ government was blamed for 1) Refusing to regulate water quality around the province via some form of supervision; 2) Related to 1), not enforcing the rules and guidelines pertaining to water quality; and, 3) the privatization of water supply testing in 1996.

And then there was Kimberly Rogers.  Rogers was a single mother and was convicted of welfare fraud.  Rogers had collected both student loans and welfare whilst going to school.  This had been legal when she began her studies in 1996, but Harris’ government had put an end to that the same year.  Rogers plead guilty to the fraud in 2001 and was sentenced to house arrest.  And ordered to pay back the welfare payments she had received, over $13,000.  She was also pregnant at the time.  Her welfare benefits were also suspended; she was on welfare because she couldn’t find employment, even with her degree.  The summer of 2001 was brutally hot in Sudbury, her home town, and she was trapped in her apartment with no air conditioning as the temperature outside crested 30C, plus humidity.  She committed suicide in August 2001.

An inquest found fault with the government, noting that someone sentenced to house arrest should be provided with adequate shelter, food, medications.  Rogers had the first, but not the other two.  And while Rogers did break the law, the punishment handed out did not necessarily fit the crime, especially insofar as the house arrest went.  And this was due to Harris’ reforms.  Upon delivery of the inquest report, Eves’ government refused to implement any reforms, complaining to do so would be to tinker with an effective system.

Meanwhile, Toronto, the self-proclaimed Centre of the Universe, has embarrassed itself with its mayoral choices.  The first time was when it elected Mel Lastman mayor in 1997. Lastman had been mayor of the suburb, North York, but Harris’ government had amalgamated Toronto with its suburbs, and so Lastman was now mayor of the new city.  Lastman did a lot of good as mayor, that cannot be denied.

But. There was the time when his wife got caught shoplifting in 1999, and Lastman threatened to kill a City-TV reporter.  Yes, the mayor of the largest city in Canada threatened to kill someone.  He also cozied up to Hells Angels when they held a gathering in Toronto.  During the 2003 SARS crisis, he groused on CNN about the World Health Organization, claiming the WHO didn’t know what it was doing and that Lastman had never even heard of them (as an aside, due to the WHO’s work, SARS didn’t become an epidemic).  And then there was his trip to Mombassa, Kenya, in 2001 in support of Toronto’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics.  Lastman told a reporter:

What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa?… I’m sort of scared about going out there, but the wife is really nervous. I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.

Lastman, though, was just the precursor to Rob Ford, Doug Ford’s younger brother.  Rob Ford ran on a similar campaign of populism.  He wasn’t qualified for the job.  But it was the larger circus of his life that was concerning.  The police were called to his house several times on suspicions of domestic abuse.  He also had problems with drugs and alcohol that included an addiction to crack cocaine.  He had a habit of getting drunk at Toronto Maple Leafs games and yelling and threatening and abusing people around him.  And he, of course, appears to have smoked crack whilst mayor with some gang members.     Ford’s larger run as mayor was on the basis of populism, and attacking transportation infrastructure projects, as well as privatizing garbage pickup.

So, as we can see from the past 3 decades of life in Ontario, Doug Ford isn’t exactly the horrible rupture many wish to see him as.  He is, instead, a horrible continuity of populism and dangerous politics.

The Problems With Polling

January 22, 2018 § 6 Comments

I was reading a scholarly article on polling and the issues it creates in terms of the democratic process last week.  In the article, the authors note many of the problems with polling, and there are many.  I worked for a major national polling firm in Canada for a couple of years whilst in undergrad.  There, I learned just how dodgy supposedly ‘scientific’ polling can be.

My issues have less to do with methodology, where random computer-generated phone numbers are called.  Rather, they have to do with both the wording of questions and the manner in which they are asked.  I should also note that the rise of cell phones complicates the ability to do random sampling.  Something like 48% of American adults only have cell phones (I have not had a landline since 2002, a decade before I emigrated to the US).  It is illegal to use random computer-generated calling to cell phones in the US.

The authors of the study I read commented on the manner in which questions were worded, and the ways in which this could impact results.  For example, last year during the great debate about the repeal of Obamacare, it became very obvious that a not insignificant proportion of Americans did not realize that the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, was the legislative act that created what we call Obamacare.  So you have people demanding the repeal of Obamacare, thinking they would still have their ACA.  Obamacare was originally a pejorative term created by (mostly Republican) opponents to the ACA.  They figured that by tying the legislation to a president wildly unpopular amongst their constituency (if not the population as a whole), they could whip up public opposition to the ACA.  It worked.

But now consider a polling question concerning the popularity or unpopularity of Obamacare/ACA.  Does a pollster ask people about their thoughts on Obamacare or on the ACA?  Or does that pollster construct a question that includes the slash: Obamacare/ACA?  How, exactly does the pollster tackle this issue?  Having worked on a team that attempted to create neutral-language questions for a variety of issues at the Canadian polling firm, I can attest this is a difficult thing to do, whether the poll we were trying to create was to ask consumers their thoughts on a brand of toothpaste or the policies and behaviours of the government.

But this was only one part of the problem.  I started off with the polling firm working evenings, working the phones to conduct surveys.  We were provided with scripts on our computer screens that we were to follow word-for-word.  We were also monitored actively by someone, to make sure we were following the script as we were meant to, and to make sure that we were actually interviewing someone taking the poll seriously.  More than once, I was instructed to abandon a survey by the monitor.  But the monitor didn’t listen to all the calls.  There was something like 125 work stations in the polling room.  And 125 individuals were not robots.  Each person had different inflections and even accents in their voices.  Words did not all sound the same coming out of the mouths of all 125 people.

When I had an opportunity to work with the monitor to listen in on calls, I was struck by how differently the scripts sounded.  One guy I worked with was from Serbia, and had a pretty thick Serbian accent, so he emphasized some words over others; in most cases, I don’t think his emphasis made a different.  But sometimes it could.  Another guy had a weird valley girl accent.  The result was the same as the Serbian’s.  And some people just liked to mess with the system.  It was easy to do.  They did this by the way they spoke certain words, spitting them out, using sarcasm, or making their voice brighter and happier than in other spots.

Ever since this work experience in the mid-90s, I have been deeply sceptical of polling data.  There are already reasons, most notably the space for sampling error, which means that, with the margin of error, most polls are accurate within plus or minus 3%.  That doesn’t sound like a lot, but the difference between 47% and 53% is significant when it comes to matters of public policy.  Or support for candidates.  And more to the point, the media does not report the margin of error, or if it does, does so in a throwaway sentence, and the headline reads that 47% of people support/don’t support this or that.

But, ultimately, it is the working and means of asking that makes me deeply suspicious of polling data.  And as polling data becomes even more and more obsessed over by politicians, the media, and other analysts, I can’t help but think that polling is doing more than most things to damage democracy, and not just in the United States, but in any democracy where polling is a national obsession.

Rough and Rowdy in Rural Appalachia

January 19, 2018 § Leave a comment

Rough and Rowdy is a form of amateur boxing native to West Virginia.  It appears to me to be the grandson of the 18th-19th century Southern backwoods fighting style known as Rough and Tumble, or Gouging.  It was so-called because the ultimate goal was to gouge out your opponent’s eye.  There were very few rules involved in Rough and Tumble and, while it wasn’t exactly prize fighting, winning was a source of pride in the local community.

The men who fought in Gouging were backwoods farmers, it was common in swamps and mountain communities.  In other words, the men who fought were what the élite of Southern society called (and still call) ‘white trash.’  As an aside, if you would like to know more about the plight of poor white people historically in the US, I cannot recommend Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America enough.  Nevermind the fact that the story is not untold, historians have studied and published on poor people for a long time, but that’s what publishers do to your book, they create silly subtitles to sell more copies.

I digress.  The West Virginia Rough and Rowdy is a continuation.  The Guardian produced a quick 7 minute documentary of a championship tournament in West Virginia, you can watch it here.

I have some serious problems after watching this.  The first is the behaviour of New York City-based Barstool Sports, led by Dave Portnoy (a Massachusetts boy, I might add, from Boston’s North Shore).  Barstool bought up the rights to the tournament, and, according to the documentary, stood to make $300,000 on it.  The winner of the tournament wins $1,000.  The fighters are getting nothing out of this, other than glory or shame, depending on who wins.  Portnoy is walking away with the profits.  He wants to make this the new MMA, to take Rough and Rowdy nationwide.  But he profits,the fighters don’t.  He doesn’t have a problem with that, of course, because he figures they’d be doing it anyway.

The community where this takes place is an impoverish borough in West Virginia, in former coal-mining country.  All of the social problems of Appalachia can be found there, from deep, deep-seated poverty to drugs and everything else.  It is easy to dismiss the people who live there using whatever term you want.  Portnoy calls them rednecks.  He also argues that they would call themselves by the same term.  After living in Southern Appalachia in Tennessee, I would think he’s right. But THEY call themselves that.  I did not think it was my place to use the same term, given its pejorative meaning in our culture.

Essentially, while it is true that this tournament existed before Portnoy came in, he is exploiting a poor community, with a sly grin to his viewers on the web, about the fat rednecks fighting for their entertainment.  The fighting style of most of these men is poor, if you were to look at it from a boxing or MMA perspective.  Of course it is, they’re amateurs, they don’t have training.  They fight as if they’re brawling in a bar.  And that’s what Rough and Rowdy is: amateur fighting.  It is not professional boxing.

The comments on the YouTube site are exactly what you’d expect.  Commentators mock the fighters for their lack of boxing style.  And, then, of course, come the stereotypes.  The documentary centres around one young man, George.  George has recently lost his job and he wants to win the tournament and give the $1,000 to his mother. He’s a confident in his abilities before stepping into the ring with a man a full foot taller than him, and who must have at least 60 pounds on him.  Not surprisingly, George loses the fight.  But the comments mock him. One commenter says that George died of a meth overdose three weeks later.  And so on.

And therein lies the problem.  Too many people seem to think that mocking the poor white folk of the Appalachians is easy.  They’re dismissed as stupid, idiotic, as rednecks and white trash. And worse.  This is universal, too.  This is not a conservative/liberal thing.  The poor white people of Appalachia have been abandoned.  Completely.  They’ve been left to their own devices in hard-scrabble areas where there are no jobs.  The coal mining companies pulled out.  What industry existed there has also pulled out.  Most small Appalachian towns have little more than a Dollar General and a gas station.  People get by, in part due to family connections and grow what food they can on their land.  They scrounge for other things, like roots and scrap metal, that they can sell for next to nothing.  They use food stamps.  And sometimes they just go hungry, or worse.

JD Vance’s insipid Hillbilly Elegy has added to this, and has re-shaped the conversation nationally.  Vance argued that the plight of Appalachia is the fault of the Appalachians themselves.  He blames ‘hillbilly’ culture, argues it has engendered social rot, and has dismissed poverty as secondary.  Put simply: Vance is flat-out wrong.  He simply seeks to continue in the long American tradition of blaming the poor for their poverty.

That’s not how it works.  Appalachia has been struggling for the better part of a half-century.  Politicians, including the current president, continue to ignore it.  And then turn around and pull a Vance and blame the poverty on the poor.  That is a lazy, self-centred, immoral position to take.

 

The Moral Ambiguity of The Man in the High Castle

January 17, 2018 § Leave a comment

I’ve been binge-watching The Man in the High Castle.  It is truly a TV show for our cynical times.  There are no heroes in this show.  Everyone is deeply compromised.  Some are even horrible people.  For those who don’t know, the show is set in a dystopic 1960s in the United States.  The Allies lost World War II, and the United States is split in three.  The eastern seaboard is the American Reich.  The West Coast is occupied by the Japanese, and there is a dodgy, moral vacuum in the middle, the neutral zone, a lawless respite from both.

The main character is Juliana Crain, who is a spoiled, horrible, selfish young woman.  She betrays nearly everyone she meets, and leaves a body count behind her.  Ostensibly, she’s trying to figure out what happened to her half-sister, Trudy, a Resistance fighter killed by the Japanese security forces.  Her boyfriend, Frank, is the closest thing to a hero in this show, as he is drawn closer and closer to the Resistance in the wake of Juliana’s multiple betrayals.

But otherwise, the show gets intimate and personal with Obergruppenfürher Joe Smith, a former American soldier, and his family, creepy as they are.  Smith, not surprisingly, is a murderous, horrible human being.  And he’s a Nazi.  We do get a sense of honour from Japanese Trade Minister Nobosuke Tagami, whose loyalties are never entirely clear.  But he is an honourable man who works for a violent, brutal dictatorship.  Then there’s Kampeitei (Military Police) Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido.  He’s about a milimetre short of being a psychotic killer, so determined is he to make sure law and order is maintained in the Pacific States, and in San Francisco in particular.

The remaining characters are all deeply flawed, morally vacuous, and horrible.

I find it interesting to be watching a TV show that humanizes Nazis, and attempts to play on my sympathies with them.  For example, Smith’s son, Thomas, is a teenaged boy who, it turns out, has muscular dystrophy, which comes from his father’s side.  The Obergruppenführer’s brother had it as well.  As per Nazi ideology, he was liquidated.  And that is what Thomas must be too.  When the diagnosis is delivered to Smith, he is at a loss as to what to do.  He is the most powerful man in the American Reich, though he lives a pretty typical suburban life at home on Long Island (New York City is the capital of the American Reich, as DC was nuked during the war).  He must, he knows, kill his son.  And yet, surprise, surprise, he cannot.  In order to protect his family, he instead kills  the family doctor, who delivered the diagnosis.  I know, a shock. A Nazi being a nasty piece of work.

Smith’s protegé is Joe Blake, who Juliana kind of falls for.  He’s a Nazi undercover, sent to find Juliana, who has knowledge of the secret films of the titular Man in the High Castle (played brilliantly by Stephen Root), and, more than that, has the actual film(s), which Trudy had given her right before she was killed.  He finds her first in the Neutral Zone and then follows her back to San Francisco.  Meanwhile, Juliana has cozied up to the Resistance herself, and appears to be a member of it as she tries to find out what happened to her sister.  She is supposed to lead Joe Blake into the hands of the Resistance.  But she doesn’t.  Instead she betrays the Resistance and Blake makes it back to New York City.

The summary of Episode 5 of Season 2 notes that Juliana will have to betray someone close to her.  By this point in the show, I am left wondering who is left for her to betray.  She has already betrayed Frank.  And the Resistance, leading to at least three of her erstwhile colleagues being killed.  And she seems to have no moral qualms about this.

And this is the thing about the characters of this show.  There is no moral compass.  Each is an actor entirely interested in her/his own fate.  Occasionally there is co-operation, but mostly there is a collection of atomistic individuals who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

And, of course, this is completely compelling TV.  I can’t turn away from it.  And yet, I can’t help but think there is something deeply wrong with being engrossed in a TV show that humanizes Nazis (whilst still showing what horrible people they are).  It would seem to me that perhaps Nazis are beyond the pale.  And yet, they’re not.  I’m not sure this is a good sign for our culture and society.

The Power of the Media

January 3, 2018 § 6 Comments

Last week I posted this to Facebook, thinking it made a good point about corporate behaviour as opposed to individual behaviour.  I immediately got lambasted by several friends who argued that it is we as individuals who make change and that corporations and the media respond to us.  As far as I’m concerned this is hogwash and the height of American liberalism.  No.  We don’t control corporations.  We don’t control the  media.  We are conditioned not to. We are conditioned to purchase new things, to listen to our media.  And, sure, we can boycott. One friend lives in rural Tennessee and is doing her best to live a life of simplicity with minimal consumption.  I salute that.  I personally do not shop at Walmart due to its odious corporate behaviour vis-à-vis downtown cores around this country.  But Lydia’s actions and mine are small, a drop in the ocean.  And, yes, certainly, if we are joined in our attempts to make the world better in this sense, it would make a difference.  But, until we are numerous enough to make Walmart stop gutting the downtowns of small-town America, for example, I think we need to both carry on keeping on keeping on, but also holding the nose of corporations to the stink they create.

Today, I looked briefly on Twitter and got depressed.  Trump, Trump, and more Trump.  Some of it was useful, like reporting on the actual news.  But most of it was the usual outrage to his rants, raves, and rages on Twitter.  Apparently today he thinks Huma Abedin and James Comey belong in jail.  I don’t care.  None of that matters.  None of it.  It’s just so much hot air.  What matters is the policies and actions of the US government whilst he is president.  That matters.  But that’s not what the so-called resistance seems to be focusing on.  It’s focused on the the newest outrage from the President’s Twitter account.

And so I got to thinking about how we arrived here.  Donald Trump was an outsider when he threw his hat into the GOP race for the presidential nomination in 2016.  He wasn’t an unknown, of course, he was a famous showman.  He had no policies, just a slogan to Make America Great Again.  He ranted and raved at his rallies, he made fun of his opponents, amongst others.  In other words, he ran a circus. He tried to provoke.  And the media responded exactly how he wanted, and therefore, so did we.  The media is addicted to Donald Trump and his off-the-cuff remarks and outrageous statements.

Trump’s candidacy was pushed not by Trump, but by the media.  His campaign for president was also driven by the media.  He got wall-to-wall coverage.  That most of it was negative, 77% according to a Harvard study, doesn’t matter.  Trump was proof of Oscar Wilde’s observation that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  He was all over the place. And, yes, we lapped it up.  It become almost masochistic for a lot of my friends, having to see his latest outrageous comment or tweet.  Trump as president has been driven by the media.

Right now, the home pages of CNN, New York TimesHuffington Post, and the Washington Post are dominated by the President.  But not his policies, or his ideas to improve the economy or anything like that.  No, it’s mostly noise caused by his tweets and off-the-cuff remarks, as well as that outrageous interview he did with The Times last week.  None of this matters.  But we just lap this up.

Certainly we, the people, have some power.  We could stop paying attention to his tweets, but they get amplified by everyone on Twitter.  His two tweets attacking the New York Times yesterday morning have both been re-tweeted close to 52,000 times and liked another 13,000 times each.  He has 45.6 million followers.  And, sure, not all of them are American, but they’re also not just conservatives.  I can see that 272 of my Twitter followers follow him, and just looking quickly at the first 30 0r so, I can confirm that most of them are progressives.  So, we’re clearly not doing that.  But if we collectively stopped following, re-tweeting, or liking his tweets, he would fall silent pretty quickly.

But. There is the larger issue.  The news media is all over him like a cheap suit.  Because Trump is first and foremost a showman.  I personally don’t believe he believes even 10% of what he says publicly, he says it to provoke people, to fire up his base, and anger his ‘haters,’ as he calls them.  And thus, the media salivates.

And sure, the media is composed of individuals.  And those individuals work for large corporations.  And it is in the interests of those individuals to ensure large ratings/readership/viewership in order to further their own careers.  And those corporations have an interest in those readers and viewers, as this is how profits are made.

Another example: Hockey in Canada.  Canadians, we take our hockey seriously.  And we have two English-language and two French-language media conglomerates exclusively devoted to sports.  And hockey dominates at TSN, Sportsnet, TVA and RDS.  And then there’s all the other media in Canada.  Each has one or 100 ‘insiders’ who claim to know about the inner-workings of the NHL and our favourite hockey teams.  And there is not just the TV stations (multiple streams), but also the social media presence of not just the networks, but their studio hosts, as well as these so-called insiders.  And so viewership/readership and profits must be driven up at all times.  And what drives all of this?  Coverage of the NHL, in particular the seven Canadian NHL teams, but even then, especially the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, who not only play in the two largest cities in Canada, but both of those cities have large diasporas out west (where the rest of the Canadian NHL teams are in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg (and, yes, I am ignoring the Ottawa Senator), but also down east.

But coverage of practices, games, press conferences by coaches and general managers just aren’t enough.  So there are trade rumours, as all of these ‘insiders’ go a-twitter discussing who is going to be traded and to whom.  We are told that our favourite team’s general manager is ‘working the phones’ to improve the team or find that elusive piece that will deliver the Stanley Cup.  My guess is about 99% of these rumours lead to absolutely nothing.  The other 1%, well, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.  But we lap it up.  Because TSN, RDS, Sportsnet, and TVA have conditioned us to.  It’s irrational human behaviour at its best because we have been trained by this media industrial complex to respond.

So, back to Trump: What if, for just one week, the news media ignored his Twitter?   And what if we, the people, also ignored his Twitter for one week?  What would happen?

Staging the Civil War

October 26, 2017 § Leave a comment

‘Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photographs,’ Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others.  She has a point, sort of.  We expect photographs to represent reality back to us.  But they don’t, of course, or they don’t necessarily.  For example, she discusses an exhibit of photographs of September 11, 2001, that opened in Manhattan in late September of that year, Here is New York.  The exhibit was a wall of photographs showing the atrocity of that day.  The organizers received thousands of submissions, and at least one photo from each was included.  Visitors could chose and purchase a laser printed version of a photo, but only then did they learn whether it was a photo from a professional or an amateur hanging out their window as the atrocity occurred.  Sontag talks about the fact that none of these photos required captions, the visitors will have known exactly what they depicted.  But she also notes that one day, the photos will require captions.  Because the cultural knowledge of that morning will disappear.  9/11 is already a historical event for today’s young adults.

So we return to the veracity of photos, our expectation of a documentary image of the past.  For me, the first time I was seriously arrested by a photograph was in my Grade 12 history textbook, in the section on the Second World War.  There was a photograph of an American soldier lying dead on a beach somewhere in the Pacific.  I don’t remember where or which battle.  I don’t remember the image all that well, actually, I don’t think the viewer could see the soldier’s face.  I remember just a crumpled body, in black and white.  And for the first time, I understood the devastating power of war and the fragility of the human body.

Later, in grad school, I read Ian McKay’s The Quest of the Folk, about how Nova Scotia’s Scottish history was carefully constructed and curated by folklorists at the turn of the 20th century. At the start of the book is a photograph of a family next to their cottage on a hard scrabble stretch of land on the Cape Breton coast.  McKay plays around with captions of the photo, both the official one in the Nova Scotia archives in Halifax, and alternative ones.  I realized that photographs are not really necessarily a true and authentic vision of the past.

And so, in reading Sontag’s words I opened this essay with, I thought of the fact that we do like to think of ourselves as literalists when it comes to photography, we expect a ‘picture to say a thousand words,’ and so on.  Just prior to this comment, Sontag discussed Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War, a series of plates that weren’t published until several decades after Goya’s death.  The disasters were the Napoléonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808.  These plates are vicious.  And Goya narrates each, claiming each one is worse than the other, and so on.  He also claims that this is the truth, he saw it.  Of course, they aren’t the documentary truth, they instead represent the kinds of events that happened.  That does not, however, lessen their power and brutality. But they are also not photographs.

This led me to Alexander Gardner, the pre-eminint photographer of the US Civil War.  In fact, war photography in general owes a huge debt to Gardner.  Gardner worked for the more famous Mathew B. Brady, but it was Gardner who took the majority of the more famous photographer’s photos.  Gardner shot some of the most iconic images of the Civil War, including the dead at Gettysburg.  His most famous is this one:

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Photo taken from the Library of Congress’s website

This photograph is staged.  Gardner and his assistants dragged the body of this dead Confederate soldier from where he fell to this more photogenic locale.  They also staged his body.  And yet, given our insistence on literalism in photography, the viewing public took this photo for what it’s worth and accepted it as a literal representation of the Battle of Gettysburg.

It was over 100 years later, in 1975, when a historian, Willian Frassantino, realized that all was not as it seems.  Of course, what Gardner, et al. did in staging the photos of the Civil War seems abhorrent to us, unethical, even.  But it was not so in the mid-19th century at the literal birth of this new medium of representation.

Nonetheless, what is the lesson from Gardner’s photograph?  Do we dismiss it for its staginess?  Do we thus conclude that the photos of the Civil War are fake?  Of course not. Gardner’s photos, like Goya’s Disasters of War, are representations of what happened.  They are signifiers that things like this happened (I am paraphrasing Sontag here).  It does not make these representations any less valuable.  Young men did die by the thousands in the Civil War.  They died at places like Gettysburg, and they died like the staged body of this unfortunate soul.  The horrors of war remain intact in our minds.  We have a representation of what happened, and this one in particular (like Goya’s Disasters) has been replicated countless times since 1863, we have seen countless other images like this, including for me, the one in my Grade 12 history textbook when I was all of 17 years of age.  The image is still real.

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