Do Not Make Hatred Mainstream, or, Don’t Feed the Trolls

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.

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The New York Times Re-Writes History

November 28, 2016 § 2 Comments

Fidel Castro died this weekend. He was 90.  Whatever you think of him, and I am largely ambivalent, he was a giant of the past half century.  He was the dictator of a tiny, poor Caribbean nation with a population about that of New York City, and yet, he was a giant on the world stage.  Even after the Soviet Empire collapsed and all that support for Fidel’s Castro dried up, he maintained power.  Of course, his was a totalitarian state and, yes, dissent was dealt with harshly. And, yes, millions of refugees fled in dire circumstances for the United States.

But, what I take issue with is the New York Times declaring that Castro was “the fiery apostle of revolution who brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere in 1959.”  Um. No.  He did not bring the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere.  It was already here.  One of the two major belligerents of the Cold War, the United States, is located just north of Cuba.  The CIA, meanwhile, was already running around Latin America by the time Fidel and his revolutionaries marched into Havana in January 1959, overthrowing the corrupt American puppet-dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

In 1948, the United States interfered in a civil war in Costa Rica in favour of José Figueres Ferrer, in order to rid the country of Communist rule (hint, Costa Rica wasn’t communist).  Six years later, in 1954, the democratically-elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, attempted to seize land belonging to United Fruit for a land redistribution programme.  Instead, he incurred the wrath of the CIA, which, at best co-operated with, at worst, bullied, the Guatemalan Army, forcing Guzmán to resign. I could go on.

And at any rate, the Cold War came to the Western Hemisphere in 1945, a cypher clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa (Apparently the Times needs a reminder that Canada is in the Western Hemisphere?) walked out of the embassy and wandered over to the Ottawa Journal newspaper offices to tell his story.  It took awhile, but Gouzenko became the first defector to Canada, complete with Soviet secrets.

The Times‘s headline about Castro bringing the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere is simply factually wrong.  And this is what concerns me.  History and facts DO matter, and to play fast and loose with them is dangerous. It leads to mis-information running rampant in society.  We are currently reeling from revelations of the role of fake news sites in the Presidential Election.  The New York Times, however, is usually regarded as the leading American newspaper, amongst the most well-regarded globally.  It would behoove the headline writers, writers, reporters, and editors of the august institution to learn history.

A Response to Nicholas Kristof

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.

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