December 12, 2016 § 6 Comments
Way back in 2009, failed Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin took her feud with the media to a new level. She began referring to it as the ‘lamestream’ media, bitter as she was about the justifiable questioning of her qualifications for the position, amongst other things. Her nomenclature, though, became a crystalizing moment for many on the far right, as they now had a catchy and witty term to describe the media. The far right had long had a problem with the mainstream media, which tended to dismiss them as nut jobs or worse. Indeed, far right sites like Breitbart, which had already been in existence for two years by the time Palin came up with her term, had been critiquing the allegedly liberal media. Breitbart, though, was just the most successful of these far right sites, most of which, including Breitbart, descended into conspiracy theories, hate speech, and vague threats against minorities.
And then Donald Trump happened. Trump, a life-long moderate Democrat from New York City, saw an opportunity. Clearly he was a student of Joseph Goebbels’ theories of propaganda. Goebbels, who was the Nazis’ spin doctor, noted, most famously, that a lie repeated a thousand times becomes a truth. But Goebbels also opined that propaganda works best when the manipulated group believes it is acting of its own free will. This is not to say that Trump is a Nazi, of course (though some of his followers clearly are). It is to note that Trump is a master manipulator.
All throughout the primaries and into the main presidential election, he carried out a series of feuds with the media. He refers to the New York Times as ‘failing’ in nearly every tweet about it. He even carried out a feud with Megyn Kelly of FoxNews. In that, he seemed to break with every expectation of a conservative candidate, as Fox has long been the conspiracy-driven, nearly fake-news media darling of the right (lest you think I’m biased, liberals have MSNBC, and it’s not like the far left doesn’t have its own issues with the media). It probably helped that Fox was in a crisis of its own at the time, with head honcho Roger Ailes being forced to step down due to a sexual harassment scandal.
Trump, then, coalesced an already-extant movement that developed in the wake of the rise of Barack Obama, the first African American president, and his candidacy for the presidency. Trump’s candidacy, though, took this until-now fringe movement into the mainstream, most notably through Breitbart and the appointment of its CEO, Steve Bannon, as his campaign CEO before appointing him as the Chief Strategist of the nascent Trump administration.
Trump’s media campaign and discourse has been nothing short of brilliant, even if it is nefarious and repulsive.
November 30, 2016 § Leave a comment
Donald Trump is the first man elected President of the United States with the support of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups since, well, before the Civil War (Andrew Johnson was elected Vice-President, but he did so as Lincoln’s junior partner and after taking a hard-line against Confederates, which he later walked away from). I refuse to call these people the alt-right. They’re not. They’re white supremacists.
But in the wake of Trump’s election, the media has been bending and tripping over itself to normalize white supremacy. Perhaps those in the media behind this would claim that they’re just attempting to understand. But there is nothing to understand. White supremacy is pretty bloody obvious. There is no need to explain it differently, it is deeply offensive to let members attempt to explain themselves and argue for the justness of their cause in public. There is no justness of their cause.
I came of age in the early 90s, when racist skinheads could still be found wandering around Canadian cities like Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal. There, they beat on black people, harassed and intimidated non-white people, targeted LGBTQ people. Violently. And since that era, white supremacy has faded into the background, usually affiliated with violent racist fringe groups.
Until now. President-Elect Trump has appointed Steve Bannon, an anti-Semitic, misogynist white supremacist as his Chief Counsel. And much of the so-called liberal media in the United States has attempted to normalize it, like this is just a run-of-the-mill appointment.
But it gets worse. Starting the morning after the election, on November 10, NPR was interviewing white supremacists on Morning Edition, as if that was to be expected. The New York Times has alternated between shaming the incoming administration for its ties to white supremacists and normalizing those same ties. The BBC has allowed the editor of The Weekly Standard, a deeply conservative, and apparently racist, publication, onto its set to claim that the KKK does not exist and, moreover, even if it did, to compare it with the Catholic fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus. Nearly every media platform I consume has had some commentary from David Duke crowing about how happy he is. And CNN had a man on last week asking whether or not Jews are people. I refuse to provide links to this. Search them yourselves if you want to see/read.
This is disgraceful. This is giving screen-time to white supremacists, it is making them acceptable members of the body politic. It is allowing white supremacy to gain a beach head in the mainstream. This is wrong. So very wrong. None of these clowns deserve support, or attention. There’s a reason they were almost personae non gratae in the mainstream for the past two-plus decades: they’re extremists. And watching the media feed these trolls is nauseating.
April 3, 2015 § 6 Comments
Last week, the New York Times published another in a depressing series of articles in the print media about how colleges and universities are allegedly catering to sensitive-little flower millennials, who cannot handle big ideas that challenge their deeply-held beliefs, and how, instead, they seek to create ‘safe spaces’ all across campus, where they won’t come into contact with big, scary ideas. I can never get through one of these articles without seething. See, I am a professor. That means I work and teach on a university campus. I come into daily contact with these millennials. And I’ve come to despise generational stereotypes about them, as much as I despised the stereotypes applied to my generation twenty years ago. The stereotypes are largely similar: apathetic, self-centred, self-obssessed, etc. And, just as they were a ridiculous accusation against Gen X, the same is true of millennials.
The larger problem with these kinds of articles is that they are written by journalists looking for sensation, and supported by their editors looking for clickbait (hey, look, Ma! I used the term ‘clickbait’ in successive posts). These articles are drive-by smearings of academe (not that there aren’t a lot of problems within the system, but journalists aren’t interested in them, because they don’t generate headlines), written without bothering to understand how the academy works, how ideas are exchanged, and how we professors work to challenge and destabilize commonly-held beliefs, even if we agree with them ourselves.
Take, for example, the story of a course at Arizona State University called “US Race Theory and The Problem of Whiteness.” FoxNews host Elizabeth Hasselbeck attacked the course, after talking to a student at ASU. The problem was that the student Hasselbeck talked to wasn’t enrolled in the class, and she herself never bothered to talk to the professor. No, instead, Hasselbeck instead ranted about the problems with this kind of course, in predictable fashion. This led the professor of the course to doxxed and to receive death threats.
But back to the Times article. I was going to write a strongly-worded riposte to it here, but my wife beat me to it. So, instead, I point you, gentle reader, over to Margo’s blog, as she says what I wanted to say in a much better fashion.
February 26, 2015 § 15 Comments
Jeff Jacoby is the resident conservative columnist at the liberal Boston Globe, the main Boston newspaper. Jacoby is a very intelligent man and while I rarely agree with anything he writes, his column is usually well worth the read (as long as it’s not about climate change; he is delusional on this matter). But yesterday, Jacoby set a new low.
In yesterday’s column, Jacoby ponders President Obama’s religion. He takes to task reporters who asked Wisconsin Governor (and Republican presidential hopeful) Scott Walker about whether or not he thought the president was a Christian. I agree with Jacoby thus far. I don’t see the relevance of any of this to either Obama as President or to Walker as a prospective candidate.
Walker, of course, couldn’t resist. He said he didn’t know if the president is a Christian. This is a disingenuous response if there ever was one. Jacoby then notes that Americans as a whole seem confused on the matter:
[Walker] has plenty of company.
During the president’s reelection campaign in the summer of 2012, the Pew Research Center polled a national sample of registered voters: “Do you happen to know what Barack Obama’s religion is?” More than one-third of the respondents — 36 percent — said they didn’t know. Only 45 percent identified the president as a Christian; 16 percent said he’s a Muslim.
That was the seventh time in a little over four years that Pew had measured public awareness of Obama’s religion. The first poll, back in March 2008, had yielded almost identical results — 36 percent couldn’t name then-Senator Obama’s religion, while 47 percent said he was Christian and 12 percent answered Muslim.
Indeed. But this is where Jacoby goes right off the rails:
Over the years, the president has made numerous comments on religious topics, and his messages haven’t always been consistent. It isn’t hard to understand why a sizable minority of Americans, to the extent that they think about Obama’s religion at all, might be genuinely puzzled to put a label to it. Honest confusion isn’t scandalous.
This is NOT honest confusion. Obama’s religious beliefs aren’t that complicated, he’s a Christian who doesn’t go to mass often, like most Christians. What this is is racism. This is the same racism that drove the Birther movement. I severely doubt if John McCain had won in 2008, or if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, their religious beliefs would ever be a topic of discussion. I seriously doubt that 36% of Americans would have no clue about the president’s religious beliefs. As for the discussion that Obama is a Muslim:
public opinion polls show that despite liberal denial, at least one in five or 17% of Americans recognize that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.
This is the first sentence of an entry on Conservapedia on “Obama’s Religion” (the bold is in the original). Note the “is” after the word “Obama” and before the word “a.” Jacoby is dead wrong to go down this road, because this is exactly where he is going.
Agnotology is the study of deliberate ignorance. Deliberate ignorance is easy to spot in our culture. Examples include the insistence that Hitler was a communist because he led the National Socialist party. Or that because Lincoln was a Republican and he freed the slaves Republicans cannot be racist. These are both fallacies. Clearly. Yet, there are people in the United States who will argue to their death that these are truths. These kinds of beliefs are easily perpetuated in the so-called Information Age. Scrolling through my Twitter feed on any given day, I can find any number of un-truths passed off as truths (especially by “facts” accounts, that claim to only tweet fact). These un-truths get re-tweeted for all sorts of reasons, of course, but an un-truth repeated often enough eventually becomes believed as truth. Thus, the editors of Conservapedia can, with a straight face, claim that “17% of Americans recognize that Barrack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.” And how did 17% of Americans come to believe that Obama is a Muslim? Because this lie has been repeated often enough that some people have come to believe it.
Jacoby disingenuously opens this can of worms in yesterday’s column. Jacoby is smart enough to know that the “confusion” over Obama’s religious beliefs is irrelevant. He is also smart enough to know that this confusion is a fine study in agnotology. But, instead he appeals to the lowest common denominator and uses his column to perpetuate ignorance.
June 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
Here is the podcast (you want to click on the 29 May show) of my appearance on CKUT’s O Stories show last Thursday. The show is an hour long, the first half of the show is en français and is, in part, a discussion about the Québécois chanteur Fred Pellerin. The Anglo half of the show begins, well, half-way through. The second half hour is myself and my good friend, film-maker G. Scott MacLeod. For the first bit, we talk about his excellent work on Griffintown. And then I discuss Boston College’s Belfast Project with host (and friend) Elena Razlagova. Happy listening.
February 17, 2014 § 7 Comments
I read with some bemusement Nicholas Kristof’s critique of academia in yesterday’s New York Times. Kristof complains that professors have cloistered themselves up in some ivory tower and disdain the real world. He says that the academy exists on a publish or perish mentality and that it encourages conformity. Perhaps due to limited space in a newspaper column, Kristof comes off sounding petulant and occasionally stuck on stereotypes of the academy that are at least twenty years out of date.
He also uses a broad-stroke brush to critique a very large, diverse institution. But I did find his argument that academics are out of touch with reality interesting, in that it reflects an argument I saw on Facebook last week about the massive bloat on university campuses of non-academic staff, which has apparently reached a 2:1 ratio on public and 2.5:1 ratio on private campuses in the United States. In this argument, which largely pitted professors against non-academic staff, the latter repeated this shibboleth that academics are unable to engage with the real world.
However, he does provide a jumping off point.
The academy does operate in a publish or perish paradigm, and academics who spend their time engaging with the public, rather than publishing in peer-reviewed journals, do get punished. And it does encourage conformity, in terms of theory, models, and interpretation. He is correct to note that “This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.”
Back in 1998, Canada’s crusty old historian, Jack Granatstein (in)famously published Who Killed Canadian History? wherein he lambasted the left for having created microstudies, feminism, and various other things that left us with histories of something Granatstein called “housekeeper’s knee”, which he dismissed pithily with a petulant “Who cares?” Granatstein, perhaps intentionally, engaged in rhetoric and anti-intellectualism in this little gem, essentially dismissing all who disagreed with him as irrelevant, as if he was the sole judge, jury, and executioner of what was a viable topic of study in Canadian history.
In the 1960s, “history from below” developed, primarily in England, around the work of brilliant minds such as Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and the husband-and-wife team of E.P. and Dorothy Thompson. They wanted to know how the common person dealt with history and change. Taking their cue, historians in the US and Canada began to conduct similar studies of the working-classes and rural communities, but with far less interesting results than the English New Left, largely because the English historians wrote well, and did not get bogged down in statistics and turgid prose. Nonetheless, these studies in Canada and the US were essential to the development of the field.
But the real problem is that the likes of Kristof and Granatstein hearken back to a glory day in the academy that never existed. Kristof complains that academics write horribly, and seem to go out of their way to not engage. Many do. Because, quite simply, the academy has always worked that way. The great works of Canadian history that Granatstein refers to are horridly boring, I used to read them when I had insomnia to put myself to sleep. Kritof cites stats that claim that academics in the social sciences were more engaged in public debate in the 1930s and 40s than today. That may be true, but the readership of academic journals in the 1930s and 40s was just as limited as it is today. Hundreds of academic monographs get published to almost complete indifference, that is true today and was just as true in this supposed heyday. The academy has always been removed from the world, as it must indeed be to some degree to escape the noise of the world.
Nonetheless, there is some truth in Kristof’s complaint. But, he also undoes his argument by noting that historians, public policy wonks, and economists, amongst others, are very much engaged in public discussions. About economics, he says:
In contrast, economics is a rare academic field with a significant Republican presence, and that helps tether economic debates to real-world debates. That may be one reason, along with empiricism and rigor, why economists (including my colleague in columny, Paul Krugman) shape debates on issues from health care to education.
This comes after a critique of academia for having failed to predict the Arab Spring. I found this juxtaposition curious. The 2008 economic meltdown was missed by the massive majority of economists. And the ones who were sounding the alarm were just as ignored as those academics who foresaw something like the Arab Spring.
And so this brings me to my greatest critique of Nichols Kristof’s argument. Academics can yell and scream and tilt at windmills all we want. But without help, we are largely left standing by ourselves. The only way for our ideas to spread into the mainstream of society is with the help of the likes of Kristof: journalists. When I still lived in Montréal, I found myself fielding calls from the media with some frequency on a variety of topics from Griffintown to Irish history to the Montréal Canadiens. Journalists found me, at first, through Concordia University, where I did my PhD, and then because they had contacts and colleagues who knew me. Never once was I found through this blog (readership tended to spike after I made an appearance in the media) or through my publications. Kristof also takes academics to task for not using Twitter and other social media for communicating with the world. Guess how many times a journalist has asked me a question on Twitter? And this is despite the fact that several journalists follow me. In other words, without journalists seeking me out, I had no platform upon which to speak.
Kristof ends his column with what sounds like a desperate appeal:
I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!
But in so doing, he is being disingenuous and shifting the blame entirely to academics and removing the role of journalists in this discussion about the relative accessibility or non-accessibility of academics. Kristof is right to call on the academy to make greater engagement with the mainstream, but he is incorrect in assuming that without the help of journalists it will just happen spontaneously.
December 18, 2013 § 8 Comments
In her brilliant The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Sarah Schulman spends some time discussing the consequences of the lost imagination, for both the individual and society as a whole. What struck me is her discussion of what existed on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan in the 1980s in terms of culture and art. It also got me thinking about my own experiences in the punk scenes of Montréal, and Vancouver in the early 1990s, and the creativity of the artists in those scenes. Schulman also pointed out that the artists in New York City, like the ones I knew in Canada, lived in poverty, scraping to get by, sometimes begging, borrowing, and/or stealing, or even turning tricks, in order to make rent. We also threw rent parties, where our friends would all give us a few bucks to help us cover the rent for the month.
I used to sit amongst these scenes pondering individuality. What initially attracted me to the punk scenes was that: individuality. Growing up in suburbia, I felt an intense pressure to conform, and punk offered me a way out. But, from the inside of the scene, I began to grow somewhat disenchanted, in that we all looked the same, the bands all sounded the same. Sort of, anyway. In 1994, Courtney Love’s band, Hole, released their epic album, Live Through This, which ended with the dystopian punk song, “Olympia.” Yes, there was once a time when Courtney Love was a musician, and not the butt of a joke. Love sang:
When I went to school in Olympia
Everyone’s the same
And so are you in Olympia
Everyone is the same
We look the same, we talk the same, yeah
We even fuck the same
When I went to school in Olympia!
And that was kind of it, but we were also so far out of the mainstream it didn’t matter. We may have been the same, but we were different than everyone else. I have a feeling it wasn’t that different in New York City in the 1980s. Schulman’s friends, mostly gay artists, stood out from society due to their vocation and their sexuality. We stood out due to our fashion and our aesthetic.
But now, it’s 20-30 years later. What was then the fringe is now the mainstream. Hell, for that matter the various Fringe Festivals in North America and Western Europe are mainstream. Punk exploded into the suburbs around the time I was down and out on the Eastside of Vancouver. As Schulman notes, being gay has gone mainstream (though she has a blistering critique of this, and I would note that LGBT people remain essentialised and discriminated against in the mainstream of society).
Our society has become corporate and cookie cutter. This isn’t s surprise to anyone reading this blog, I’m sure. Schulman blames this on the rise of lifestyle magazines. These magazines sell a lifestyle and a design ethos. We shop at Crate & Barrel or Ikea or Anthropologie for our home furnishings. When I look at all the urban hipsters in whatever city I am in, whether it’s Montréal or Portland or Seattle or Vancouver or Denver of Indianapolis or Boston or Pittsburgh, they all look the same. They wear the same ironic glasses, the same ironic clothes, and adopt the same ironic poses. And their older counterparts are pretty much the same, the women in yoga wear and the men in North Face wear.
Schulman bemoans the younger artists she meets who are corporatised and, as a result, larger uncreative, or their creativity is sucked up by a corporate mindset. I wish I could disagree with her. But I can’t. As a culture, we’ve lost our creativity in so many ways because we can’t really escape the corporate world. So it turns out I still have a little punk in me. Who knew?