Sunday, December 18, 2016

Fake News and the Death of the Donut

Many years ago -- in another age, an age where newspapers, television, and magazines thrived, and journalism schools were filled with bright young students, one commonly taught principle of fair reporting used the humble donut as its metaphor. The center of the donut -- the hole -- represented facts and matters of general consensus: George Washington was the first president of the United States, men walked on the moon on July 20th, 1969, and vaccines were vital to winning the war over dangerous childhood diseased. No one disagreed -- then, at least -- about these matters, and there was no need to present alternative views about them.

The donut itself consisted of matters about which reasonable people might disagree: Was the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit a good idea? Was Sir Winston Churchill the greatest British Prime Minister? Should we get rid of daylight savings time? When an issue fell within the donut, responsible journalism called for balance, and the representation of opposing views. Then there was the outside of the donut. Earth was colonized by aliens in 40,000 B.C. -- the Holocaust never happened -- Abraham Lincoln was never assassinated, but lived to the age of 87 in a secret log cabin in the hills of Virginia. These ideas were the stuff of the "lunatic fringe," and the proper way for serious journalists to respond to them was not to respond to them at all. This model, of course, assumed that journalists -- because they alone had the opportunity to disseminate news to millions of people -- could and should function as gatekeepers of our shared sense of reality. In such a day, Walter Cronkite could reasonably say, "And that's the way it is," knowing that the stories on the evening news had been carefully reported, fact-checked, and vetted before they went on the air.

We shouldn't necessarily blame the journalists of today for the death of the donut. It's still there, to some extent, at the larger national and international newspapers, and some (though not all) network news shows. But the gate that the press was keeping was in a wall -- a wall representing the cost of disseminating news, printing papers, erecting transmission towers and building television studios -- that simply no longer exists. There's no need for any news to pass through this gateway; like the lovely wrought-iron gate of Cremorne Gardens in London, it stands by itself, is easily walked around, and the gardens to which it once led have long vanished. There's no chance of such a barrier being rebuilt in the future, and none of the efforts of social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter are going to have much effect, since anyone who wants to can find a workaround to whatever filters or barriers they erect.

Is there any hope at all? Well, certainly the remaining outlets of old-fashioned journalism should be taking the lead by calling a lie a lie, and continuing to robustly fact-checking their own stories. Sites such as Snopes.com can help, and the increase of traffic there is a healthy sign that some people actually do want to check up on an implausible or dodgy story they've heard. But what it really means is that everybody is going to have to do their own checking, and that in addition to teaching mere facts, the task of education, now more than ever, must be to give students the tools to sort out the wheat of information from the chaff of useless babble, and the poison of disinformation, rumor, and conspiracy theories.

There's only one problem with this hope, of course -- that those who write, share, and consume those poisons have the same robust tools to keep reality from their gates as do those who favor reality. It's going to be a bumpy night.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

They shall not pass!

There's been a lot of talk in the press these days, with the rise of he-who-must-not-be-named in American politics, about how to stop fascistic, totalitarian figures from coming into power. It appears to be something that folks in the US and UK haven't had to deal with, and so they must look to Germany, or Spain -- but in fact, that's not true at all.

Back in Britain in the 1930's, there was a divisive political leader whose rallies were beginning to cause concerns. A former political liberal, he'd taken to denouncing his previous views; at massive indoor rallies (including one at the Albert Hall), he stirred his listeners to passionate cheers by denouncing immigrants, Jews, and a shadowy cabal of forces that were driving the common man down. He love to egg on protesters at these rallies, and had special squads of "stewards" to rough them up and throw them out, but in fact they served a purpose. Indeed, he credited them with making his speeches all the more effective, even saying he looked forward to them.

The man in question was Sir Oswald Mosley. And Britons weren't quite sure what to make of him; though many despised his views, his party -- the British Union of Fascists -- was granted the same rights as any other, and in the early 1930's their polling numbers were on the rise, although they did not yet have any elected member of Parliament. Mosley, inspired by visits with Mussolini and Hitler, decided to give his party a paramilitary flavor, initially going with plain black futuristic uniforms, but later graduating to jackboots and a peaked cap (for Mosley himself at least). From their large indoor rallies, they graduated to outdoor ones with marches; when Mosley was clobbered with a flying brick by protesters at one, he wore his bandages as a cap of pride. It was part of his strategy to march directly into areas, such as the East End of London, where the bricks were most likely to fly; this both fed his sense of justified anger, and forced the police into serving as his own personal security.

Things came to a head in October of 1936; Mosley had planned a rally and march through the East End, and had pulled out all stops; his new uniform was ready, as were many of his followers, some of whom rode in specially fortified vans. The Metropolitan Police, under the leadership of Sir Philip Game, mustered out 6,000 officers, one of the largest forces since the days of the Chartist rallies in the 1840's, but even then it soon became clear they were stretched thin; attempts to disperse a crowd of nearly 100,000 East Enders proved impossible. Those opposed to Mosley, whose planned route would have taken him down Cable Street, erected barricades of bricks and sticks, along with a lorry and some construction equipment they'd procured from a nearby builder's yard. They hoped to block the march by their mere presence, though they were also prepared to fight; one witness described men wrapping barbed wire around chair-legs as improvised weapons. The chant of one and all was simply this: "They shall not pass!"

In the end, Sir Philip Game persuaded Mosley to call off that part of his plans, and to march instead back where he'd come from to Hyde Park. Public alarm over the events led to the passing of the Public Order Act, which although it did not outlaw Mosley's party, prohibited political uniforms such as those the "blackshirts" had favored. When Britain and Germany went to war, the BUF was banned, and Mosley and many of its other leaders were imprisoned for the duration. One, though, did escape: the scar-faced William Joyce, who as "Lord Haw-Haw" broadcast mocking ripostes to nearly every one of Churchill's radio speeches. After the war, Joyce was convicted of high treason, and hanged at Wandsworth Prison. Sir Oswald returned to political life, though in his one election -- for Kensington North in 1959 -- he polled only 8% of the vote with an anti-immigration platform that included deporting those from the West Indies. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!

Thomas Gradgrind
Consider this a sort of open letter to the American education system. It's been fourteen years since the passing of the "No Child Left Behind" law, and in my college classes, I now have students who've experienced its effects for much, if not all, of their primary and secondary educations. The neo-utilitarians have had their day, and here are the results: a generation of students who have learned the real lesson of the new regime: hunker down, follow instructions, and learn whatever is going to be on the test. Fiction is out; nonfiction is in; reading for pleasure is out; reading for content is in. After all, the only skills that matter are the ones that can be measured.

And they're not very good students. They're good people -- they have all the hopes, fears, and aspirations that my students have always had -- but as students, they're uniquely unprepared for college, at least on the side of the humanities. Their habit of scanning syllabi and readings to see what will be tested, what will be measured, makes them poor readers; when they encounter an ambiguity, or a difficult reading, they tense up in anticipation of being taken to task for some vague failure. My endeavor has always been to share my love of literature, to (I hope) instill in students an excitement, an interest, a sense of something personally significant for themselves, in everything they read -- but it's getting tougher each semester. Their curiosity has been hammered; their personal experience belittled, their idiosyncrasies ironed out. As a result, the pleasure of discovery of something new has given way to an anxiety about the unfamiliar; it's like a jungle out there, sometimes I wonder how they keep from going under.

Are they better prepared for the wonderful world of employment? Perhaps, so long as the employment they find demands repetitive goal-oriented work, with little room for innovation and frequent employee evaluations. They may, so long as they've had the prerequisites, do well in science, technology, engineering, and math -- though only at a rudimentary level. I can't see any new inventions, innovative theories, or speculative hypotheses coming from this generation, as anything they did or thought which deviated from the appointed path earned them the electric shock of a poor mark. In the humanities, they arrive with only the most superficial skills, and with what I find an astonishingly low level of motivation -- motivation here being defined as some strong desire from within one's own self to learn and grow. That desire seems to have been largely amputated, and in its place our brave new Benthamites have instilled a simple wish for nothing more than a clear set of instructions and evaluative rules. Learn, do, demonstrate. Wash, rinse repeat.

It's a sad day for me, and for college educators generally. We can't turn back the hands of time -- we'll have to do what we can to help these students regain their own self-confidence, to revive and replenish their ossified curiosity and shrivelled sense of self. It will be hard work, and until that work is done, the work that professors such as myself used to do -- of teaching our field of study -- will have to be postponed. It'll be like a pre-college program, only it will take up college time. We ourselves have been sent the memo; our departments, programs, and fields of study already have to produce the "documentation" of what skills and knowledge we add, and our "metrics" for assessing the "outcomes" of our labors. The madness of measurement has overtaken us all, and if anything resembling real education is going to take place, it's going to have to do so by flying under the radar of this new regime.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Phil Ochs Time

As I read the latest news from the state of Mississippi, which once again has taken the lead in raw, unbridled, smug, self-satisfied hatred, I felt increasingly angry. And then, as I sometimes do, I went beyond my anger, beyond my frustration: I decided it was Phil Ochs time.

And it almost always is. It's no coincidence that Billy Bragg found evoked him with "I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night"-- for indeed, he's still "as 'live as you or me" -- in fact, he's more alive now than he ever has been. Phil always claimed to just grab his songs from the headlines -- as witness, the wry title of his first LP,  All the News that's Fit to Sing -- but there was a whole lot more to them than that. Phil was a sort of tuning fork for his times, but in being that, he was tuned right in to many of the timeless foibles every era shares.

Many hailed (or dismissed) Phil as a mere "protest" singer -- a label I'm sure he wouldn't have minded -- but there was so much more to him than that. He could write the greatest anti-war ballad ever penned ("I Ain't Marching Anymore"), and at the same moment depict the common sailor in a way any Navy veteran couldn't help but admire ("The Men Behind the Guns"). At a moment when many hardcore lefties were dismissing JFK as a sellout, Phil wrote an elegy for the slain president that stands with Whitman's among the finest ever written -- and yet, his acerbic tirades against American interventionism never lost their edge, as in "The Marines Have Landed on the Shores of Santo Domingo" or "Cops of the World." And he always had a crazy sense of ironic humor (on both sides), which bubbled up in songs such "Draft Dodger Rag" and "Love Me, I'm A Liberal."

Another side of Phil was that he dug deep in the annals of American poetry, and had an uncanny knack for setting poems to music. His version of Alfred Noyes's "The Highwayman" rescues that poem from what, in mere printed words, might seem maudlin, crafting it into a ballad that can bring a tear to the eye of the most hardened anti-romantic. But still better is his setting of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells," which transmogrifies a tuneful poem into a poetic tune, complete with guitar harmonics for the bells themselves -- it's a masterpiece.

It's often said that Phil felt despair, and lost his way, later in his career. Fear he surely felt, but his way was always sure; in his late musings such as "The Flower Lady" and "Pleasures of the Harbor," he reached a lyric height far beyond the common songwriter's scope, and with "Crucifixion" he revisited the Kennedy assassination with an apocalyptic overlay of epic proportions. Many of these songs are the equal -- some might say, the better -- of Dylan's anthems of the time. Phil and Bob were, indeed, always linked together; it was Phil that brought Bob out of motorcycle-accident retirement to Madison Square Garden's Evening with Salvador Allende. And, back in the day, it was to Phil's apartment that Bob went to share "Mr. Tambourine Man" for the first time.

Phils Ochs took his own life forty years ago in Far Rockaway, New York. Och's biographer, Marc Eliot, wrote about how personally that loss was felt, He predicted that, when Dylan dies, his death -- though greater in some wider sense -- would never be felt as personally as was Phil's.

And I agree.