Thursday, January 02, 2014

Alternative Narratives

I make it a point to teach in my journalism classes something about the alternative press, its history, incentives, and the apparent need in the media ecology for alternative narratives. It so happens that in the alties you'll find essayists whose messages hardly make mainstream. Among the finest of American essayists (my view) are Marilynne Robinson and Rebecca Solnit. Here's one by Solnit. 
Excerpt: Henry David Thoreau wrote books that not many people read when they were published. He famously said of his unsold copies, "I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes over 700 of which I wrote myself.” But a South African lawyer of Indian descent named Mohandas Gandhi read Thoreau on civil disobedience and found ideas that helped him fight discrimination in Africa and then liberate his own country from British rule. Martin Luther King studied Thoreau and Gandhi and put their ideas to work in the United States, while in 1952 the African National Congress and the young Nelson Mandela were collaborating with the South African Indian Congress on civil disobedience campaigns. You wish you could write Thoreau a letter about all this. He had no way of knowing that what he planted would still be bearing fruit 151 years after his death. But the past doesn’t need us. The past guides us; the future needs us.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Completely agree with this

NYT editorial about the death penalty:

"More states are coming to recognize that the death penalty is arbitrary, racially biased and prone to catastrophic error. Even those that have not abolished capital punishment are no longer carrying it out in practice."

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Taking a Stand: An Anniversary

Nice piece in NYT about Muhammad Ali's refusal to be drafted in the military.


"Ali was one of the most identifiable human beings on the planet. Here was the Greatest, telling the world that he was not going to war. For me, words like conscience, principle and integrity were merely terms in a civics class. When Ali defended his controversial position, how he had no appetite for war, standing for one’s principle became concrete. 'My conscience won’t let me shoot my brother or some darker people,” he told reporters. 'And shoot them for what? They never called me [n-word].'"

Sunday, April 21, 2013

About "Arab Spring," the phrase and its resilience.

Here's a story of mine published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It's about the "Arab Spring" phrase and the various objections to it.  I paste it in below.


SEASONS OF A PHRASE

In February, an important two-year mark of the Arab Spring was commemorated in Cairo's Tahrir Square with demonstrations that were anything but springlike. The frustration and violence reflected none of the hope that once riveted the eyes of a global audience on Tunisia and Egypt, where masses gathered to topple two entrenched leaders, each autocrat permitted to abdicate with a pulse.

Since that original spark, there have been constitutional crises, sectarian strife, economies on the precipice, military intrigue, and sporadic lethal confrontations, all of which have dimmed the luster of the movement's early days. Yet despite the setbacks and the wariness they evoke, the cheerful phrase "Arab Spring" has managed to stay in style. And there are reasons for this.

Read more »

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Privacy, ownership, and the e-book aesthetic

Here’s a story of mine in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the shift in ownership and privacy risks associated with the e-book aesthetic. I paste it in below.

PRIVACY AND THE E-BOOK AESTHETIC

When the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger spoke at Northwestern University in Qatar last November, he made observations about Doha's urban scene: how, for example, it is unsympathetic to pedestrian traffic and a lively community vibe. But then Goldberger did something that all guest speakers should try to do, namely, offer a durable point that applies to just about anywhere.

Architecture, he said, has both form and symbolism, and it is the role of the critic to look at buildings—small or massive—as they unavoidably connect to culture, politics, social mores, and, of course, money. This symbolism approach works nicely with the skyline or housing projects of any city. But it also applies to most, if not all, popular products of human inventiveness—including devices that are becoming the standard hardware of our professional and intellectual lives: e-readers.

Read more »

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sharia-Chat

Here are a few pieces about Sharia in the American context.

Robert K. Vischer writes in First Things, a rather conservative magazine, about "The Dangers of Anti-Sharia Laws" in the US. In The New York Times, legal scholar Samuel J. Rascoff reminds us that "Uncle Sam Is No Imam," based on a more extensive argument he writes in the Standford Law Review, "Establishing Official Islam?"
 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Douthat's Two Minds

If you have an ounce of sincerity, it's difficult to write a thousand words without tipping off some of your intentions. An overrated opinion writer for the New York Times wrote yesterday a column ("Islam in Two Americas") in which he starts out surprisingly well, but then the dark spirits take over. Essentially, as Joan Walsh of Salon remarks correctly, "Not surprisingly, Douthat made his astonishingly ignorant remarks in a column defending prejudice against the so-called 'ground zero mosque,' which, again, isn't a mosque, and isn't at ground zero. The controversy, ginned up by Republican opportunists and kept alive by cowardly Democrats (thanks, Harry Reid!) is bringing out the 'Know-Nothings' in American politics again -- and I mean that in both senses of the word."

Walsh takes down Douthat in good and convincing manner. You may read it here.

Seriously, just when you think the political tenor of America can't get worse ... 

Friday, July 30, 2010

What did Orwell really do?

What did George Orwell's prognostications ultimately do? Like many people, I like to cite him and even leave Orwellian quotes at the end of an email and stuff. But what did his "big brother" warnings and tales of the seductive relationship between power and corruption (among talking animals) really achieve? It seems that Orwell's warnings of big brother were pretty much ignored. Somehow, society and culture decided that technology was too useful to notice its encroachment on privacy and other "rights."

Brother's cameras, listening devices, search engines, tweets, legal cover, and public complacency are all over the place. The penetration is more than what we think. In a given work day, for example, the image of a law abiding person is recorded dozens of times and possibly kept in some digital archive in perpetuity. Carry a cell phone then our whereabouts can be traced rather easily. Does privacy have much meaning?

We are familiar with Animal Farm and 1984, insightful stories of human vulnerabilities and manias. The question though comes down to this (ok, maybe): do good ideas really matter as active forces that direct and reset courses of life and that expose unexamined presumptions? What recent narrative can we recall that really changed things beyond integument? Civil Rights perhaps? Not sure really.

Orwell did not waste his time. I'm not saying that. His non-fiction work (his essays and personal experience narratives) remain quite moving ... but only for a few people, elitist as this may sound. Beck and Limbaugh have broadcast pulses because they are supported by millions of viewers and listeners. If Orwell had a radio show today, he would be unplugged in a week. He couldn't compete with these guys. In the same vein, I don't really think the Tea Party movement will really last long (if it does, well the Mayans maybe on to something after all), but look at how the movement is changing the political game. Listen to their "ideas" and notice their racist bearing (Civil Rights really change the essence of things?), the dribble of their inspiration sources (Sarah Palin, for example), their unfocused and highly generalized aims (details disable things in a heartbeat), and the political fear they provoke.

What good idea out there today really matters as a challenge to our disabling paradigms?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

More Amish

Apparently the population of Amish communities and, in fact, the number of Amish settlements have increased in recent years. I read this in a year-old National Geographic magazine as I was waiting at a doctor's office with ailments that are probably stress-induced and happily supported by the modern requirements of earning.

Later that week, I visited a friend in far western Wisconsin, where Amish folks have been thriving for generations. To be honest, when I see the Amish, I almost envy their way of life. I know that they toil hard, working the land and taking care of routine amenities of life with an investment of time and energy that most of us could not bear; but that kind of work, it seems, does not grate the soul or offend it, nor does it stress the mind and heart. That's what I think. And from what I hear from my friend, it's sounds true.

At first glance, it seems counter intuitive to see the number of Amish settlements increase (and all that this may mean), but when you think about it, it's really something to expect. Something has to give. Our over mechanical and pixel world would naturally drive people to seek out simplicity. Not the casual kind of simplicity, but simplicity as a way of life. No one lives without complexity or trial, but you have to suspect that some of the nonsense and subjugation we have to deal with is derived from an outlook that's alien to our Adamic natures.

I see good folks on their horse-drawn carriages, and, as I zoom by in my motor car, I try to imagine that kind of life. That's my imagination speaking. Not sure how I would really react if I were suddenly in suspenders holding on to reins. Something to think about.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

"The Lottery" and Its Author

I don't remember exactly when I first read the short story "The Lottery," but I know that I was young enough to think it was interesting and a bit confusing. I had to ask questions about the ending because in my mind I could not understand why people would willingly accept this game of choosing who would be killed. Really, why didn't anyone do anything about the practice; you know, social opprobrium? (The question is still urgent for a bunch of things in our world.) So then in school I learned about metaphor, even those that the author did not intend.

Here's an interesting short essay in TNR about "The Lottery" and Shirley Jackson, who wrote it in a single sitting. Now that is more mind-boggling than the short story itself. The essay begins like this:
The idea for “The Lottery,” first published in 1948 and now one of the most widely anthologized works of American fiction, came to Shirley Jackson while she was pushing her baby daughter in her stroller. When they got home, she writes in an essay included in the new Library of America collection of her writings, she put away her groceries, put the baby in a playpen, and in a single sitting wrote the story ...