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30 Years Later, Are We Still Amusing Ourselves to Death?

If All the President’s Men was the film that launched a million J-school candidates, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death was the text that launched, oh, maybe two or three hundred media studies students. The book is regularly name-dropped by (mostly) serious academics and Robert McChesney lefties alike — the latter no doubt because it regularly comes accompanied by some of the most punk rock book covers of all time.

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(No, those aren’t Dead Kennedys album covers.)

Its ominous foreword has kept it alive, too — a couple hundred words to appeal to the hearts of late-teenaged freethinkers everywhere:

“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.”

Postman goes on to argue that Aldous Huxley’s vision of a technocratic leisure society, not Orwell’s oppressive dystopia, is the more terrifying — and the more realistic. To Huxley (and Devo), “freedom of choice” doesn’t mean much when you’ve been systematically encouraged to choose the most unhealthy options:

“In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

Postman’s target, obviously, is television. (He calls it television because TV is a nickname, and nicknames are for friends, and television is no friend of his.) His first thesis draws from the work of his idol, Marshall “You know nothing of my work” McLuhan. McLuhan said “the medium is the message” — Postman says “the medium is the metaphor.”

For Postman, entertainment is baked into TV at the cellular level. You simply can’t be boring and ugly on TV — natural selection will cut you out of the picture. Over the course of the book, he tears apart politics (mostly Reagan), religion (mostly Jerry Falwell) and even takes time to cut beloved educators like Carl Sagan and Mr. Rogers down to size. He’s merciless — no matter how much you think you’re using the medium to educate and enlighten, it’s still the idiot box.

In 1959, Edward R. Murrow, that godfather of broadcast journalism, famously warned:

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”

Postman says, no. No matter what you do, it’s wires and lights all the way down.

30 years later, Postman has shuffled off this mortal coil. He left us in 2003, just around the time the internet stopped being “the internet,” the thing we went to for baseball scores and movie tickets, and started being the place we all spend most of our free time. The book still hangs around in radical bookstores — a side-effect of Postman’s rage for Reagan, no doubt, despite the fact that the man commonly referred to himself as a conservative (albeit using the term very differently than Reagan would have.)

But in this media landscape, as different from 1984 as that year was from 1915, can Amusing Ourselves to Death still teach us anything? Is Postman’s vision of endless distraction still valid in an age of 24-hour World of Warcraft marathons and endless click-reward-click smartphone games? Or it a relic of pre-digital-age criticism, left obsolete by maybe the most overwhelming paradigm shift in history?

I say it’s still valid. Also, I hate the phrase “paradigm shift.”

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What’s wrong with this picture? (It’s not what you think)

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In my travels, I’ve heard a common lament from folks of confident ideology — it’s hard to tell what’s satire anymore, they say, because the other side has gotten so extreme and “loony.”

The same group may share something outrageous their ideological foes did on Facebook or Twitter, adding, “This is not from the Onion.” When they fall for a story from the Daily Currant or the Borowitz Report, they may say, “It’s becoming harder to tell what’s satire and what’s real.”

Which brings us to the image above, taken from the Facebook page “Christians for Michelle Bachman.” (Click through — the comments really must be read to be believed.)

It’s clearly satire. This isn’t an assumption: with basic media literacy skills, it should be clear after a quick glance it isn’t real. To say “I fell for it because they’re so loony, it’s believable” is a cop-out — and comes from an ideological place where the speaker has convinced herself that anything “the other side” does will be “loony.” In other words, our old friend Othering rears his ugly head.

Here’s a problem: it’s likely a good number of readers (the vast majority, if the comments are to be any judge) NEVER realize it’s satire. It’s filed away in their minds as a Barthesian myth, a shockingly real example of the “looniness” of the anti-pot, anti-gay crowd.

It becomes a standard for any future interaction with members of that crowd — obviously they’re crazy, just think of that ad; they can’t be reasoned with. Polarization increases and the left’s view of the right becomes even more skewed. (And vice versa, I’m sure, but for whatever reason, I don’t seem to be Facebook friends with “the other side.” Maybe I’ve been too guilty of a bit of Othering in my own past.)

Anti-pot hysteria is largely a thing of the past. Anti-gay hysteria is rapidly heading in the same direction, thankfully. Sure, these sentiments still exist in many ways in America — but they don’t take this hysterical, exaggerated form, even among the far right (We’d know this if we approached these cultural groups sans the lens of ideology.)

But we need a boogeyman — we need to keep believing that the “Reefer madness” media culture of the 1950s is alive and well, to fuel our indignation and spur us on.

Now, because it’s always fun, let’s look at some comments from the thread (posted on “Christians for Michelle Bachman,” another obvious satire):

“Lord save us from the gullible stupid sheeple. I can’t believe this was posted by anyone … [T]his is about the most incoherent destructive gibberish I have ever seen. Anyone with a IQ over 100 should be able to see straight through this and if that can’t their IQ just drop by at least 25% to be so stupid.”

“Bullshit. This is pure unbridled hate and gay bashing if you believe that there is a god and he created us then you have to believe the created homosexuals too. Pot doesn’t turn people gay if drugs turned you gay pretty much everyone in America would be gay. This is purely uneducated hate speech and using feat to scare people in to following your cause if your Christian and you support this then I feel sad for your kind and it makes me more proud to be atheist”

“This post and the story behind it is completely laughable. Everything about it is a lie. Even if this were remotely true, he must have been gay before smoking pot. And the $400 a day pot habit shit? Please, me and six of my best friends couldn’t smoke that much. This page, its followers, and Michelle Bachmann are complete twits.”

“WHAT?! This can not be serious. This is a joke right? NO ONE is this stupid!!”

Some people are.

Why do we keep falling for the Daily Currant?

Remember Todd Akin?

We may be glad to forget him now. The Missouri representative’s ill-fated Senate shot was downed by his well-known “legitimate rape” comment. There’s a whole wealth of literature buried in the media reactions to Akin, but here’s my favorite weirdo footnote to come out of the whole sorry affair. Did you know Akin accused lovable, family-friendly science educator Bill Nye of causing Hurricane Isaac? And did you hear Akin’s emotional, profane reply?

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It’s downright shocking — and deeply satisfying, isn’t it? For those of us who have had our fill of politicians denying global warming (or evolution, or any scientific consensus), it’s a breath of fresh air to hear this squeaky-clean scientist let loose.

Except it didn’t happen.

The Daily Currant is a satirical publication, like The Onion. That didn’t keep hundreds of commenters from registering their support of Nye, or their joy at finally hearing a member of the scientific community speak his mind.

It’s proof in action that we believe the news we want to be true. That’s an outcome of polarization. As we divide more whole-heartedly into separate camps, we lose sight of the Other, and we’re more willing to believe ridiculous news items that should be clearly satire. Of course, fans of The Onion have made a cottage industry by showcasing people falling for their satire. (See the brilliant tumblr Literally Unbelievable.)

But that’s not the most disheartening part for me — the most disheartening part is how many commenters see themselves as adept, perceptive media critics while failing to perform

Let’s look at some comments from a recent Daily Currant story, in which failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney supposedly says, “I should have offered them fried chicken.”

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Okay, so how do we explain this?

Defending David Catanese: A journalist should have the freedom to play devil’s advocate.

David Catanese has been pulled from his Missouri beat over at Politico for the sake of a Twitter experiment:

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Despite his clear disclaimer, a pack of dogs descended on him from across conventional and social media, making it vicious and making it personal. Like the guy who tweeted back, “female reporters at Politico frantically looking up number of sick days they have left to avoid awkward @davecatanese convo tomorrow.” Daily Kos called for his head: “Why does Akin apologist David Catanese still have a job at Politico?”

Not only should Catanese keep his job, he should be promoted to editor. (Sadly, he got pulled off his beat instead.) He has shown the ability to fearlessly challenge popular opinion and explore the unpopular perspective – even if it is painfully, undeniably wrong. This is an important quality of a good editor, on par with sound judgment.

While I’m ideologically waaaaaaay over here, as far across the room as I can get from Todd Akin (I don’t know where Catanese is), I applaud a mind willing to process his comments in an unexpected light, under the pressure of an entire country throwing up in their mouths at the sight of the weasel from the tea-party-run St. Louis suburbs. We should all strain ourselves to avoid the evils of Groupthink. When faced with a comment like Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment, we should put it under the microscope before we denounce it — even if every fiber of us tells us to denounce it. That’s how we understand why it is wrong. Otherwise, we’re just participants in an echo chamber.

Update:

Over on my Facebook page, Sean Jones countered: “Why do we need a fine tooth comb for Akin’s comments when they come from the same bile-spewing mouth that co-authored “forcible rape” legislation? Do we also need to verify that every comment made from David Duke is/isn’t racist?”

I replied, “It’s not the same thing as ‘verifying a comment isn’t racist;’ it’s taking a racist/sexist/classist comment (or one we suspect to be so) and dispassionately deconstructing it as a thought experiment. I think it’s an effective way to understand how we translate ‘commonly held beliefs’ or observations about the world into ideology.”

I wanted to make the distinction between analyzing a comment to see if it is racist/sexist and analyzing a comment we accept as racist/sexist to understand the rationale behind it. The former isn’t that valuable to me: personally, I don’t doubt Todd Akin is what we’d call “sexist.” The second is massively valuable. How would we justify our theoretical worldview? What would the world look like to us if this were true? (A fairly dismal place, we’d conclude, but what would we pick up along the way in our thought experiment?) Isn’t this more useful than an opposing viewpoint we hate, but we don’t understand?

The Phantoms We Fight

To the best of my knowledge, Batman has never fought the Phantom, the pulpy 1940s DC superhero sometimes called “the Ghost who walks,” despite sharing a label and a generally dark, detective-y disposition. Maybe that’s because it’s widely assumed the latter originated as a rip-off of the former (in fact, the Phantom predates Batman by over three years.) Myself, I actually prefer the Phantom — that’s a story for another time.

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But in the wake of today’s shooting in Aurora, Co., during a showing of The Dark Knight Rises, we’re all coming to the aid of Batman against a Phantom we see as his biggest foe. Bigger than the Joker, bigger than Bane.

It’s the legion of people across America who will blame Batman himself — or rather, the dark, gritty Nolan Batman films — for putting the idea in the shooter’s head. It’s that same bunch (religious types mostly, as Homer Simpson might say) who “blamed it on Marilyn,” to quote Eminem referring to the 1999 Columbine shooting. They’re the church ladies who think violent movies are responsible for warping minds and causing these kinds of shooting sprees.

And they’re everywhere, just waiting to lay blame to violent Hollywood films. We all know they’re wrong: this shooting is the fault of the shooter and the shooter alone. How can so many people be so wrong?

Because they don’t exist. They’re phantoms.

Come on, that can’t be true, right? You can’t watch the news after a shooting like this without hearing miles of hot air about whether Hollywood is too violent. What about Fox News? Surely they were all over this, since those people are their core viewers? Nope, Fox News’s analysts all agree: “Batman didn’t do this.”

But there’s just no question these people are going to come out of the woodwork.

“Some will, no doubt, claim that late-night showings of movies involving masked avengers and incorporating violence are to blame.  Some will bemoan the playing out on screen of hyperbolic themes related to good and evil, claiming that these tides of meaning can sweep some people away and turn them into killers,” writes someone from Fox News whose name I didn’t care enough to look up.

The culprit? The man responsible, says whoever from Fox News wrote that. Just like everyone else says.

But extensive Googling is unlikely to turn up these characters. Page after page of Google News results, and the narrative becomes clear: “There are those who will blame these shootings on the films, but they are wrong — it’s the shooter’s fault alone.” We like this narrative — it gives us an opponent. But those same Google News pages give no sign that the opponent has actually shown up to the battle.

They are phantoms — the phantoms we use in engaging with the media every single day, the phantoms the media provides us (“no doubt they exist, they’re definitely out there”) so we can get riled up, righteously indignant and stand in brave and defiant opposition against absolutely no one.

Being Boring

The Onion’s AV Club calls the opening shot of The Turin Horse the shot of the year:

The most highly-voted comment on Youtube, from mikaelhs, says, “This is the most boring and yet probably the best flm I’ve ever seen.”

Can we really say what we’ve seen is boring? I say no.

Maybe the narrative mikaelhs is drawing from is the one that tells us films like this are boring because they don’t have the  action, sex, scenery, costumes or witty dialogue of a film like Iron Man 2. In this fairly basic narrative, boring films are better for the same reason boring food is better. A boring film is healthy, and it is your obligation as an intellectual to watch a boring film. I might say that I think The Turin Horse is far less boring than Iron Man 2 if I want to deliberately play contrarian to that narrative, and it’s true, the shot of the horse I just saw was to me much less boring than Iron Man 2. But it’s not that it is non-boring in a different way than Iron Man 2 is non-boring; to say it is is to reveal the pretense of contrarianism I mentioned before. The two films use the same techniques in excitement and drama.

I think the reason mikaelhs finds The Turin Horse boring is its positive qualities, not its negative ones. Some visual cues are on hand to tell us that the film should be thought of as boring. Despite being released in 2011, it looks like a European film from the 1950s. (This has to be intentional; even the “reel” itself shows blotches and imperfections.) Black and white, opening with recited Hungarian on a black screen, its color palette and flawed sound remind us instantly of Alain Resnais or Ingmar Bergman, our favorite “boring” filmmakers. The film is, nearly as much as The Artist was a replication of silent film, a replication of European art house. Art house’s main qualities are that it is boring, and that it is good. Boring and good: mikaelhs’s review.

But like The Artist, The Turin Horse betrays itself: in practice, rather than theory, it is not boring. By any basic cinematic standards, this is fascinating. The music is pulsing and suspenseful. The face and body movement of the horse is harrowing, and the stillness of its rider terrifying, and already my mind is creating the characters. I didn’t want the shot to end, and I’m someone with something like attention deficit disorder for watching video in the background while I work. A second camera capturing this scene in color and high-definition could have included the shot in Steven Spielberg’s non-boring horse drama War Horse, and it would have been one of the most riveting scenes in the movie.

The Turin Horse is an exciting film that appears boring on the surface because it stylistically reminds us of films we qualify as boring.

Rereading “The Grapes of Wrath”: Chapter 5

‘That’s so,’ the tenant said. ‘Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him. He’s the one to kill.’

‘You’re wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, “Clear those people out or it’s your job.”‘

‘Well, there’s a president of the bank. There’s a board of directors. I’ll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank.’

The driver said, ‘Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, ‘Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up.’

‘But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.’

‘I don’t know. Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t men at all. Maybe, like you said, the property’s doing it. Anyway I told you my orders.’

I still remember the first time I read this chapter.

I was waiting for a train at the Ludlow stop on the Metro-North line, on the line between Yonkers and the Bronx. It was a cold night, and I was in one of those dirty little enclosures, huddled to try to keep warm. I had just moved to New York City, or as close to NYC as I could get at the time. I’d never read The Grapes of Wrath before then. Maybe that’s because the book is still a little touchy, and if it’s going to be taught, it must often be taught a very specific and limiting way to avoid its true voice from coming out (and provoking some angry PTA conversations, no doubt.)

Mention the book to, say, a high school English teacher, and you’re likely to be told what a work of American realism this book is, a spin on The Iliad or the Book of Exodus, the story of a people and a document of the Great Depression. As if it were no more than a travelogue, a historical newsreel.

But that’s all just sheen. This book is a bomb.

In this chapter, Chapter 5, the bomb’s fuse is lit. And the rest of the story will be the epic unraveling of that fuse until it blows, much later one, in another of the “B” chapters that provides the book’s title. John Steinbeck isn’t just telling a story (although he’s doing that wonderfully) – he’s diving headfirst into the most dangerous waters of addressing injustice. The ones that get you called socialist, communist, pinko, anarchist, terrorist, traitor. The ones that say if the bank is taking your home, if they’re leeching off hard-working people, exploiting and oppressing you and your family and your land and your friends, you take the bank and you take them down and you destroy them. And you change the world so they can never do it again. This is the angry voice behind Occupy Wall Street, this is a Molotov cocktail, manifest in a “Great American novel” that’s supposed to be stuffy and boring and unthreatening.

In this chapter, a farmer watches as his land, the land he raised his family on and loved and treated with such attention and care, is pulled out from under him and decimated. It was taken from him by The Bank, the ultimate evil and monster of the industrial age. When the owner men tell him The Bank is coming to claim its debt, they refuse to accept any responsibility:

‘It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man. That’s the monster … It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.’

‘Yes, but the bank is only made of men.’

‘No, you’re wrong there – quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.

In the worst insult, a local boy shows up with a tractor to tear down his house, leaving him homeless. He recognizes the boy:

‘Why, you’re Joe Davis’s boy!’

‘Sure,’ the driver said.

‘Well, what you doing this kind of work for – against your own people?’

‘Three dollars a day. I got damn sick of creeping for my dinner – and not getting it.’

The farmer, contemplating this mindless, subservient selfishness, becomes a socialist on the spot.

‘Let a man get property he doesn’t see, or can’t take the time to get his fingers in, or can’t be there to walk on it – why, then the property is the man. He can’t do what he wants, he can’t think what he wants. The property is the man, stronger than he is. And he is small, not big. Only his possessions are big – and he’s the servant of his property.’

And Joe Davis’s boy’s voice responds in the dull, robotic voice of a malicious Wal-Mart greeter. It is, to Steinbeck, the horrible voice of American capitalism. Note, also, the libertarian undertones.

‘Times are changed, don’t you know? Thinking about stuff like that don’t feed the kids. Get your three dollars a day, feed your kids. You got no call to worry about anybody’s kids but your own. You get a reputation for talking like that, and you’ll never get three dollars a day. Big shots won’t give you three dollars a day if you worry about anything but your three dollars a day.’

The Bank is banks, it’s true – when Bank of America forecloses on a house, this chapter repeats itself, over and over. But The Bank is more than that. It is the monster of corporatism – it is Tyson Foods, Monsanto, McDonalds, Wal-Mart. When you drive through the Sprawl, you are driving through land eaten up and spit out by The Bank.

Take a look at that interaction at the top. The farmer continues speaking, and so offers one of the most powerful rallying cries in literature. Here’s the fuse being lit:

‘I got to figure,’ the tenant said. ‘We all got to figure. There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.’

There are passages of writing that resonate so fiercely and deeply throughout our society – that express the truth so clearly and poetically, so perfectly – that to read them is to understand, instantly. They are the clearest images we can draw of our grand narrative. This chapter is one of those.

Nothing has improved since Steinbeck warned us. The Bank has gotten stronger, gotten out of control by all conceivable measures. Joe Davis’s dead-eyed boys, more than ever, shuffle off to work for it every day, for the 2012 equivalent of three dollars a day. What they do is called a McJob, or sometimes Rick Perry’s Texas Miracle. It is an evil system, Steinbeck tells us. But as last fall, and the Occupy movement, taught us, it is not invincible. It is oppressive but fallible. It is efficient but heartless. It is destructive but unsustainable.

And by God, that’s something we can change.

Rereading “The Grapes of Wrath”: Chapter 4

One of my favorite characters in a Steinbeck book (okay, that’s a little predictable) shows up in Chapter 4 and makes everything a little more tragicomic. It’s the preacher, Jim Casy, he of the lost faith (or is it? Probably), memorably played in the film by John Carradine.

(Carradine was one of those great acting patriarchs. You know him as the father of David Carradine, who played Quentin Tarantino’s Bill – the one who got Killed – as well as the protagonist of “Kung Fu” and, appropriately for this blog, Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory.)

A few words on the film: I haven’t seen it in about a year, around the time I started writing this blog (I took some time off to produce a radio / web series about literature in Missouri.) But I’ve always loved that movie since I first watched it as a kid. I’ve always loved Jane Darwell’s super-emotive Ma Joad. I loved the way John Ford shot all the scenes with so much contrast and shadow. And John Carradine was one of the best parts of that film.

My dad was a preacher. He’s mostly retired now, but he still has a small congregation in a tiny town in the Bootheel of Missouri called Senath. The Bootheel is a desolate, empty, barren, flat patch of what used to be something close to farmland. These days they still grow crops there, but all the people are gone – all the farm families have been replaced by Con-Agra, Tyson Chicken and Monsanto. These companies are not humans, and I have never seen any evidence that they are run by humans. They remind me of the banks – more on that in the glorious Chapter 5, coming soon.

My dad once worked for Tyson Chicken. The company is known to us animal-rights activists as one of the most horrifyingly inhumane, cruel, hellish and abusive factory farms in the world – “torture mill” is an understatement, and watch this video if you don’t believe me: 

The employees there, often illiterate migrant farm workers (again, hold that thought as we move through the book), doubtless require some kind of moral and spiritual reassurance after committing the kind of atrocities they commit on a daily basis against living beings. This, as is my understanding, was my dad’s job.

So in one sense, he was a particularly disturbing cog in this machine. But he grew up a migrant farm worker himself. He picked cotton. One of seven brothers and sisters living in a tiny shack in the middle of a flat, barren Arkansas landscape, he traveled as far as Michigan and Florida every year. This was in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when migrant farm workers rarely graduated from high school.

More on that soon. What does Preacher Casy have to say in his introductory scene, and why do I so closely tie together him with my father, my images of that bleak landscape, and a sense of oppression, exploitation, and – ultimately – guilt?

We see him (Casy, not my father) sitting under a tree when we first meet him:

whistling solemnly the tune of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” His extended foot swung slowly up and down in the tempo. It was not dance tempo. He stopping whistling and sang in an easy thin tenor: “Yes, sir, that’s my Saviour, / Je–sus is my Saviour, / Je–sus is my Saviour now. / On the level / ‘S not the devil, / Jesus is my Saviour now.”

The first thing we might notice is that Casy mixes the sacred with the profane; or rather, lets one drift into the other in a way that could be blasphemous or at least a little heretical. That’s definitely a big part of his character, but it’s right there on the surface. It’s his most obvious face to the world. Look at his first little speech, in which he reminisces about “ministering” to Joad years before:

You was always too busy pullin’ little girls’ pigtails when I give you the Holy Sperit. You was all wropped up in yankin’ that pigtail out by the roots. You maybe don’t recollect, but I do. The two of you come to Jesus at once ’cause of that pigtail yankin’. Baptized both of you in the irrigation ditch at once. Fightin’ and yellin’ like a couple a cats.

But Preacher Casy has more or less retired. Now and then he’ll still preach, “when the spirit moves him.” But it’s a different set of spirits that move him these days. While he’s undeniably a drunk, this is not the tale of a once-holy man who has fallen from grace, which we realize as he looks back wistfully on his professional days.

I use ta get the people jumpin’ an’ talkin’ in tongues, an’ glory-shoutin’ till they just fell down an’ passed out. An’ some I’d baptize to bring ’em to. An’ then — you know what I’d do? I’d take one of them girls out in the grass, an’ I’d lay with her. Done it ever’ time. Then I’d feel bad, an’ I’d pray an’ pray, but it didn’t do no good. Come the nex’ time, them an’ me was full of the sperit, I’d do it again. I figgered there just wasn’t no hope for me, an’ I was a damned ol’ hypocrite. But I didn’t mean to be.

Oh, the guilt. Preacher Casy thinks he must be the first person to ever experience a temptation-related spiritual crisis. These days, tropes for men of God tend to focus on their ability to sin (for example, look at TV Tropes’ Religion section), as if it’s still shocking in 2012 that a human being who holds a leadership role within a church or religious sect could be fallible. Seeing as most people I know within my generation either 1) can only speak of religion with contempt, or 2) are those Facebook friends I never talk to who still live in the Bible Belt and have 16 kids and belong to some weird evangelical branch of Christianity I can’t even begin to understand, I think we may have a bit of a problem. But Preacher Casy is a lot more complicated than a series of cliches and tropes, no matter how you try to fit him into them.

In the end, though, here’s what I take out of this chapter. This speech is the introduction to what I will call Casyian theology: the populist, heretical idea that all people are sinners, and all people are holy.

I figgered about the Holy Sperit and the Jesus road. I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit — the human sperit — the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.’ Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an’ all of a suddent — I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.”

The Anarchic Pasttime (Media and Brickhurling) Part 1

Who riots?

I did a Google Image Search looking for the most iconic pictures from the London riots. Every riot seems to produce a few. (I guess the assumption would be that photojournalists head into that kind of carnage with as much opportunistic glee as the looters, but the photojournalists I’ve known are mostly introspective types whose good reflexes may pay the bills but don’t seem to translate to enthusiasm for their subject matter.) What I found were a lot of fluorescent yellow jackets andhelmets. It looks like the real stars of the London riots are the police. This is a little strange. It’s not unusual for cops to turn up with frequency in riot photos (see GIS for “LA riots,” “Vancouver riots,” “Paris riots,” etc. I’m sure) but here they dominate to a disturbing degree. It’s hard to pick out an actual rioter. It almost looks like the narrative we’re being presented isn’t “exploited, discontented Tottenhamites rise up in an expression of collective anger” but “London’s bobbies on the move in 2011! Show great British can-do spirit! ‘Splendid,’ says Queen!”

We have one rather qualitative but visually convincing piece of evidence, then, that something is unusual about the way the media is framing the London riots. Let’s look at others. GlobalComment links to this MSNBC blog:

Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent?

“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

The TV reporter from Britain’s ITV had no response. So the young man pressed his advantage. “Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard,  more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere.

Rioting for the purpose of publicity? It happened. The real fighting may not be taking place on the streets of London (or Twitter, if you believe a bunch of hungry-eyed producers who think social media is an instant revenue generator) but in front of the camera – for screen time.

Now, maybe there were just a lot more cops on the street in London, than, say, in L.A. in 1992. But the theory I’ll be trying to test is this: there’s a very good reason we are supposed to see this conflict as photogenic cop vs. invisible rioter. Certain ways of framing a riot produce certain responses from the public. Counterculture-types assume the power class wants us all “dumb-eyed and complacent,” but that’s not really always true. I think it can be advantageous to showcase a riot or even spur mass groups of people into violence – depending on who’s doing the rioting. And so for the new few weeks, when I need a break from my Masters project on Missouri literature (yeah, seriously) I’ll take a look at some popular media narratives of rioting, protesting, or just stirring up trouble in the first world.

It’s okay, everyone! The Village Voice says child prostitution isn’t THAT big of a deal

(Oh, and they blatantly lied in their reporting.)

So we can all breathe easy now! See? The Village Voice just owned Ashton Kutcher (much in the same way that a pimp owns his 15-year-old prostitute!) A news organization that gets a sizeable chunk of its funding from its prostitution ads (and has been known to hawk underage prostitutes) did the math, and came to the conclusion that child prostitution just isn’t the problem it’s been made to be.

Village Voice Media, who laid off a ton of their best writers a few years ago, apparently found this story important enough to warrant months of investigative research and – does anyone care to guess how much money they spent on compiling nationwide data for underage sex offender arrests? just to write a massive long-form whose nut graf is basically “Isn’t Ashton Kutcher a jerk? Oh, and we’re pretty sure there aren’t THAT many children wrangled into sex slavery in America. Probably.”

They devoted their investigative team to building a nationwide map that looks like the kind of thing you’d see for a massive New York Times expose on cute puppy abuse by CEOs of national banks. In fact, this may be the first time I’ve seen this kind of journalistic tool used to actually argue that things AREN’T as bad as they seem (isn’t that kind of against the instinct of your average investigative reporter?) Here it is, the anti-Woodward and Bernstein – a massive investigative piece revealing LESS wrong-doing than the public was aware of. But that’s not all.

Their reporting is shoddy. Their 827-per-year number (the previous statistic was 100,000 to 300,000) is only the number of arrests per year, not the number of child prostitutes in America. While it’s likely that the previous number was way off, even if 10% of all underaged prostitutes are arrested once a year (ha!) that’s nearly 10,000 hopeless, helpless kids forced into sexual slavery. Not sure a shot at Ashton Kutcher warrants marginalizing them further. And the Voice conveniently limits their study to only 37 cities in America, writing off the children suffering in the rest of the country by saying, “Juveniles can go astray in rural Kansas,” implying that those other cities probably don’t have as much of a problem because they’re not big population centers – equivalent to some farm town in the middle of nowhere.

Atlanta isn’t rural Kansas. St. Louis isn’t rural Kansas. New Orleans (seriously, they didn’t include numbers from New Orleans) is most definitely not rural Kansas. But the Voice study does find room for Hartford, CT, Kansas City, MO, Honolulu, and that hotbed of sin, Salt Lake City. A little skewed, perhaps? Wait, that doesn’t seem right… Let’s look at the numbers closely. Could there be room for suspicion?

Yes, there could, and is. Because they blatantly, painfully lied in their story. They say this: “We examined arrests for juvenile prostitution in the nation’s 37 largest cities during a 10-year period.” They repeatedly say they used the nation’s 37 largest cities. At least three times.

Hartford, Connecticut, one of the cities they sampled, is the third-largest city in Connecticut. Its population as of 2010 is about 124,o00. Its metropolitan population is 1.1 million. And its average of one arrest per year conveniently brings their average number down. A lot.

Atlanta, Georgia has a population of 420,000 as of 2010. Its metropolitan population is 5.2 million. It is factually, undeniably much larger than Hartford, Connecticut. And we don’t know what their yearly average is, because the Voice didn’t include those numbers. Anyone want to take a guess whether Atlanta has more child prostitution than Hartford?

The study also includes Pittsburgh (334,000 people and one arrest per year) and Newark, NJ (277,000 people and one arrest per year.) Not bigger than Atlanta, but low enough numbers to skew data.

So why would VVM do this? Well, the pimping site they own, backpage.com, has “an anything goes reputation,” according to Ars Technica. Underage prostitutes slip through, and as one of the links mentioned, one of them later sued them. The organization has an obvious interest in crafting a certain image of child prostitution in America as not being a problem. Ashton Kutcher (and I’m really no fan of the guy) comes along and challenges that perception. VVM devotes tons of resources to creating a misleading story in retaliation. They’ve made the piece their top story in many, if not all, of their weekly markets across the country. This is, according to one of my anonymous sources (what? it’s a blog) within Village Voice Media, unprecedented.

This is a massive hit piece dishonestly designed to downplay the issue of child prostitution. It comes from an organization whose advertising revenue is based largely on the existence of prostitution and who have a track record of problems with child prostitution.

Doesn’t allowing your revenue stream to influence your editorial stance and your content go against every single journalistic ethic conceivable? Yes. Yes, it does. And, um, it might make it slightly worse when that revenue stream is child sex slavery. Just sayin’.