Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The curse of the humble

It's been my experience that most reporters I've met are extremely humble, almost to a fault. Yeah, they can be difficult and prickly writerwise (read: me), but as people they're usually the first to admit when they don't know something, b/c that's the fundamental part of the job. However, sometimes that deference to others, lets others run roughshod over the truth obscuring it behind a shiny trojan horse of invited-in fuckyou.

So it was with great interest that I read this piece by Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute. In it he writes about the need to stand up to the demagogue's assertions and call his or her bluff when she hides behind the "you better quote me accurately" shield of the "make sure you get my side" flag. But he also demands that reporters avoid the easy and lazy of allowing the "newsmaker" to dictate the discourse and insist on the vocabulary. Dumbledore said that we must choose between what is right and what is easy, well deception, distortion, denial, fear-mongering and absolutism are never right. We musn't perpetuate conditions that allow them to thrive.

Poynter online
Posted, Oct. 31, 2007
Updated, Oct. 31, 2007

Covering 'Fascist' America
What's the role of journalism in the face of inflammatory claims?

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute



Is America on the road to becoming a fascist state? If so, what should journalists do about it?

Those questions come in response to an elaborate argument in Naomi Wolf''s latest book "The End of America," an argument she summarized in a recent C-SPAN interview. I caught a piece of that interview and heard her use the word "fascism" to describe her fear of where post 9/11 America is heading. Wolf's use of the term is not just name-calling, like Rush Limbaugh's "femi-nazi," or the more current "Islamo-fascism." She is dead serious, subtitling her book "a citizen's call to action."

The question for journalists and the citizens they serve is whether "fascist" is an accurate and appropriate description of the transformation of the American government since 9/11; or whether it is such an irresponsible and insensitive use of loaded language that it requires us to challenge the author — not just quote her.

Having studied the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century, from Mussolini to Stalin to Hitler to Mao to Pinochet, Wolf sees some common signposts on the road to tyranny, compiling a 10-step program for recognizing emerging fascism within a democratic society. Each of the steps becomes a chapter title, so if you want to be the new Fuhrer all you have to do is:

  • Invoke an external and internal threat
  • Establish secret prisons
  • Develop a paramilitary force
  • Subject ordinary citizens to surveillance
  • Infiltrate citizens' groups
  • Arbitrarily detain and release citizens
  • Target key individuals
  • Restrict the press
  • Cast criticism as "espionage" and dissent as "treason"
  • Subvert the rule of law.

You can imagine the examples she uses to show the congruence between these historic expressions of fascism and the actions and policies of the Bush/Cheney administration. It is not the purpose of this essay to argue for or against the points she makes in her indictment. Instead, I'd like to call attention to the dangers of loose language (as I've done in the past with Bush's use of "crusade" or MoveOn.org's "General Betray Us" ad).

A word like "fascism ," derived from an Italian word meaning a "bunch" or "bundle," carries a specific historical and political meaning, but over the course of a century now bears a heavy freight, a cargo of associations so overpowering it may have lost its ability to be tested by argument and evidence.

Let me offer a different example, the word "holocaust." I choose it because Wolf asserts, "I had to include Nazi Germany in my scrutiny of repressive governments. Many people are understandably emotionally overwhelmed when the term 'Nazism' or the name 'Hitler' is introduced into the debate. As someone who lost relatives on both sides of my family in the Holocaust, I know this feeling."

Now "holocaust" is an ancient word that denotes the act of "burning something completely," as in a ritual sacrifice. By the 1950s "Holocaust" began to be used to describe the suffering of the Jews under the genocidal machinations of the Third Reich. My guess is that Wolf has heard "right to life" adherents describe millions of abortions as "the Holocaust of our time." I bet that Wolf, as a supporter of women's rights and legal abortion, would detest that use of the word "holocaust."

While the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary supports the use of "holocaust" to describe something such as the effects of nuclear war, opinion shifts when it is used by extension to describe the effects of famine, drought, or disease. The AHD defines "fascism" as "a system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism."

In his book "Interpretation of Fascism," scholar A. James Gregor argues that the term "fascism" has been used so promiscuously that it has lost its meaning except as a generic "term of abuse." He adds that without critical analysis, it has not been helpful to use the word "fascist" to describe a long list of complaints that include "racism, genocide, oppression, anti-feminism, and homophobia."

Wolf's book is full of analysis, some of which any neutral critic would find persuasive. But in addition to her unwise dependence upon words like "fascism," her argument suffers from an affliction that a Shakespeare professor of mine called "Fluellenism." Fluellen was a comic character in the play "Henry V" who speaks in a funny accent, and whose elaborate similes are misunderstood. Near the end of the play, he compares the young King Harry of Monmouth to Alexander the Great. When challenged, he argues that Harry was from Monmouth and Alexander from Macedonia, and that there are rivers in both places, and that salmon swim in both rivers. In other words, the associative imagination lets everyone, including fools and rogues, compare anyone to anything, with little attention to degree.

Can we find comparisons between Bush and Mussolini? Probably. But we can just as easily compare him to Lincoln or Elvis or Ronald McDonald.

My passion for this topic comes from an experience I had in graduate school in the early 1970s. Allard Lowenstein, a brilliant anti-war congressman from my home district in New York, gave a lecture at Stony Brook University on Long Island. America was still mired in Vietnam, Richard Nixon was still president, Watergate was up ahead of us, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were terrible recent memories, a group of National Guardsmen had killed four students at Kent State. In other words, things sucked.

Lowenstein, who would be murdered himself by a crazed assassin, answered an accusation by a student that America was becoming a fascist state. The congressman disagreed, arguing that, in spite of America's terrible problems, to call America fascist was to misunderstand both America and fascism. Another student stood up and threw something at Lowenstein. It turned out to be a water balloon, but in an era of political assassinations, it was a frightening moment.

The balloon hit the lectern and splattered some water on the speaker, who, with the help of a professor, straightened himself out. He then said something like this: "What do you think would happen in a fascist state to a protesting student who threw a water bomb at a government official? Do you think he would be able to sit down in his seat and quietly listen to the rest of the talk?" The audience burst into applause.

A few years later I was in St. Petersburg, and Ronald Reagan was running for president. He was greeted by admirers in a downtown rally, and there were protesters on hand with signs comparing Reagan to Hitler and Republicans to Fascists. With the political savvy that marked his presidency, Reagan called attention to the sign and said something like, "If it wasn't for my generation, young man, you might really be living under fascism."

Finally, I am struck by the narrowness of the audience Naomi Wolf's 10 theses might persuade. Who would be swayed by the argument that America is heading toward fascism -- except those who already believe that? How much more persuasive is the argument of a Francis Fukuyama, who, in his book "America at the Crossroads," argues against the abuses of the neoconservative movement he helped create.

Which leads me to these bits of advice for journalists covering politics and elections at such a troubling time:

  1. Be skeptical of all claims that the sky is falling. Ground yourself in American history so that you can compare and contrast your own times to other troubled times, such as the Civil War, the Depression, the World Wars, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Civil Rights era, and Watergate.
  1. Challenge any language and assertions that are fraught with emotional and historical weight. (One morning many years ago on NBC's "Today" show, a celebrity guest kept calling The New York Times "Pravda," and host Edwin Newman showed him the door.)
  1. Challenge any language that sounds like a slogan: right to life, right to choose, cut and run, mission accomplished, freedom on the march.
  1. Analyze political language as part of your reporting process. This is one of the strategies that make "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" so popular and persuasive. They pay close attention to the language of public figures, and, through satire and humor, reveal the "truthiness" of it.
  1. Learn the complex relationship between political corruption and language abuse by reading "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell.
  1. Give special weight to sources and analysts who do not adhere slavishly to a particular ideology. Look for the long time member of the NRA who favors some restrictions on gun ownership. Look for the feminist who is troubled by some of the consequences of legal abortion. People willing to reflect upon and question some of their own normal affinities can offer powerful testimony.
  1. Do not just quote political metaphors and analogies, but test them. Is Iraq another Vietnam? Would leaving Iraq be akin to Chamberlain's accommodations to Hitler through the Munich Pact?

[What do you think when you hear someone like Naomi Wolf comparing America to a fascist state? If you were reporting about her arguments and claims, how would you proceed?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Cosmic justice

Saw Gemma Hayes at the Hotel Cafe tonight. FUCKING AMAZING WOW. She was fantastic, even with a simple eight-song set. For most songs it was her and a guitar, when she went nuts it was her with a guitar, a backup on electric and a second vocalist. But she was able to carry so much emotional depth in her songs that she could have been singing a capella. "Easy on the Eye," "Happy Sad" and the new song "Chasing Dragons" (en)raptured the 30 of us in the audience.

Growing up I thought people who said "less is more" were full of fucking shit, but now I understand better. When one has Talent (with a capital T) then less really is more, because "more" just obscures what you already had. And like Gemma Hayes is the more/less non-contradiction—a beautiful, yet totally natural-relateable voice and keen musical sense with cuts-to-the-bone lyrics ("The blacker my heart/ the deeper I feel"), what more could a person ask for in a musician.

Driving home talking with April, we discussed how, sadly, success is a matter of breaks and circumstance. Some people, like Fergie and Maroon 5 have them. Others, like Rachael Yamagata and Gemma Hayes not so much. They're toiling away for a dozens of fans, but fans who love them and would follow them to the end of the world (even if that's tonight). Then there are fans like me who don't even make it to the end of the bus stop (I've been without my car for more than a week and without any wheels for going on five days).

Dave, April and I were lucky enough to sit about three feet from the stage, so close that while Gemma was setting up (Hotel Cafe is cool like that, so artists set up their own shit) she locked eyes with Dave and he got tweaked. And I know that this will sound over-the-top-proseish, but I was like literally nervous to gaze too long at her while she was singing, even though there was nothing else to look at, because I didn't want to be creepy or weird guy even though I was nothing but stardust.

Gushgushgush ... yeah, you might say tis the Scotch. But you'd be wrong. Seeing someone that talented who is so criminally underappreciated just makes me not believe in cosmic justice. Don't get me wrong, "Gimme More" (Brit's new one) is H-O-T. But Gemma Hayes whole new disc is gonna be sublime. Why in the world can't we make room for that?

This post was rambly and the best example yet, why I don't write about music more often, because sadly I can bring it no justice. I'd rather be a SCOTUS law clerk.

Friday, October 26, 2007

TV _is_ art

The Wire Season 1. Everyone should watch this NOW NOW. For people who say art cannot come from the mass media, I defy you to say that this isn't art. It'll challenge every pre-conceived idea you have about art, race, crime, the war on drugs and ethics. I cannot imagine a purer definition of art than that.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I hate Dodge Calibers and should I move?

For the third time in about six months I have been the victim of bad car-ma.

Quick update: May 2007 someone bashes in my rear windshield on a Friday night. $500 deductible later (which thankfully my parents covered) I was made whole again. Nevertheless, not a fun way to spend my weekend—with a windshieldless car. July 2007 I wake up on a Saturday morning (on my way into work) to discover that my driver's side door has been hit and no note was left. Yay, hit and run and another $500 deductible. I also got to learn firsthand of the "wonders" of Los Angeles public transportation.

After this one I resolve not to park on my street anymore; it's got a bar at one corner, is narrow and functions as a north-south cut-through for our neighborhood. In the subsequent months I park a few blocks away most nights, which is worth it for the piece of mind.

October 2007 ... another ^&%$^&^&*^ hit and run. This time the damage is much more severe.

As I am walking toward my car Tuesday morning I notice a rod on the underside of my car from about 150 feet away, a rod I'd never noticed before. Given my recent history, I am unsettled by this. As I get closer I notice a lot of crap on the street next to my car. I quickly conclude that my car has been the victim of "something." From about 20 feet away I can see scrapes from the rear bumper to the rear-view mirror, pieces of which lay scattered on the pavement. There's a hole in the rear door on the driver's side (all damage to driver's side). Not a big hole, maybe hand-sized, but it's there as is the chunk of blue plastic on the asphalt.

Two people are out front of the apartment I was parked in front of. They start filling me in ...

"It happened about 15 minutes ago. It was a white Honda that was driving away. We heard it. So sorry."

I'm numb, angry, mad, sad, frustrated, numb, Zen. I call my insurance company. They're great. They're easy to deal with and they conference in the body shop, which I asked to be the same one as handled my July repairs--great job and great customer service. The body shop says that they've contacted their usual tow truck company and that they'll be over soon to bring me in. I tell them to wait on the rental car (I know that it costs $30.)

Further inspection of the car reveals that the rear drive's side wheel is bent at an angle. The upper half is pushed inward. And the entire wheel has been pushed to the forward edge of the wheel well. Not good. I call work to say I'll be late and then notice that my cell battery is LOW. So I head home to recharge it, figuring that if the tow truck company gets there they'll call me. But I don't want them to try to call and not have battery on my phone.

Well, I am at home about 25 minutes then I head out with a magazine to wait for the tow truck around 10:10 a.m. At 11 a.m. nada. I call the tow truck company and they say it'll be around an hour (at the absolute soonest) before they can get someone there. They recommend AAA if I have it--thankfully I do. AAA shows up 12 minutes after I call and tows me to the body shop.

They recognize me from a few months ago. They're very nice and call the rental car company, which picks me up (it's Enterprise). So far, at least everything is moving smoothly, if slowly. At Enterprise I ask for the smallest car, but then remembering my experience driving a no-power-steering Geo Metro, I change that to Compact car. Matt notes that they smallest car they have is "the red one next to the Chrysler 300." I was kinda shocked, b/c it looked like a small SUV to me. Instead it was a Dodge Caliber. It's a crossover SUV/station wagon mutant.

Nevertheless, I have no options otherwise so I agree to rent it for $26.99 a day (no insurance coverage for rentals, but I do get a 10 percent discount). I hate it BIGTIME. Sorry, if any of you own one. I find the rental model (I'm sure a base model) to be extremely underpowered and FAT. I have driven Saturns for more than 10 years. I am NOT into a WIDEASS car with a small rear-window (read limited field of view) and BIGASS blind spots. This wouldn't be as big a deal if we didn't have a very narrow parking ramp at work. Whatever, I have no choice.

I end up getting to work at 12:30 p.m., only about 3:15 after I would have otherwise. One thing I realize, had I been truly on time, I would have been getting in my car at 8:30 a.m., which is early enough that I would have avoided the accident. :(

I do have to say that I have great co-workers who bought me a gourmet cupcake, chocolate cookies and extended lots of sympathy and offered to drive me home Saturday from work. I plan to ditch the Dodge Crapiber that morning.

Of course, I'm not moving. I LOVE my apartment way too much, but still ... I'd be lying if I said the thought didn't cross my mind during blinding flashes of rage.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A few small housekeeping items

Resum├ęs should ALWAYS be one page, especially if you're not out of fucking high school.

Getting business cards is a sign of growing up, but also to a former student oddly very funny. I do love and miss the easy-laugh of youth. (And I say that as someone who laughs very easily).

Abra Moore and Stars are the things I'm loving musicwise right now, and the more and more I lislten to Wincing the Night Away the more I like it. 2007 has been amazing: Radiohead, Lily Allen, Kate Nash, The Shins, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes, Wilco, Missy Higgins, Lucinda Williams, New Pornographers and even Rilo Kiley (I'm coming around somewhat) all released new. And maybe Gemma Hayes and Rachael Yamagata throw down this year?

Then in 2008 ... Tift Merritt, R.E.M., Jem(?)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Promises are for suckers

Well, in my case I'm referring to promises of more sleep and shutting my computer off by 11 p.m. Fuck that. I saw an absolutely amazing concert tonight. Missy Higgins + Hotel Cafe + (chicken quesadilla) = magic. She's bloody hella talented. Her voice is so good that it sounds almost like the CD, like no bent pitches or anything, just crystal-bell notes, but with just a dash of live club dirtiness.

OK, I'm abridging tonight to get some sleep. Bright Eyes and two RK reviews and more of this one coming tomorrow (maybe, unless I pull another 13-hour day).

Monday, October 15, 2007

How much stamina do I really have anymore?

The mission I've chosen to accept and already paid for ... seven concerts in a month's time (or thereabouts). It started Friday night in San Diego with Rilo Kiley, which was awesome, a full review coming Monday night after I've seen the Santa Monica show (I'll compare. That's a writerly reviewing challenge I've not yet done).

Then Wednesday night is Missy Higgins (and amazing chicken quesadilla) at the Hotel Cafe, the following Tuesday is Gemma Hayes (and more quesadilla action), then The Pipettes Thursday of that week, then in November it's Joanna Newsom and Stars (yay! first time and I am really digging In Our Bedroom After the War).

Possible additions: a second Joanna Newsom show, Blair and Neko Case.

Honestly, though, I can't imagine having the constitution to add any shows. The past two weeks felt me literally at the most tired I've ever been. The quantity of hours wasn't anything new. I used to work minimum 50+ hours every week while working at the Times Union, often about 60 per week. And the last few weeks at L.A. Youth were similar, but I had a literal injection of like some calcifying lead in my blood that just wore me down. Age, eh?

A friend asked today how work was going. My only reply was that it was going. He thought I was implying it sucked. Not at all. The quality of the work is as good as it's ever been, if not better (we have amazing students with amazing taste in music), but the quantity of work has been kicking my ass, so yeah, you can have too much of a good thing.

Wow, after reading this post on the blog, I realized that it more or less parrots something I posted last week, save for the stuff about "too much of a good thing," the new writing challenge and the specifics of the shows. I suck it. A definite sign that tomorrow should be a massage Monday. But I looked at my monthly credit card statement and realized that it can't be a massage Monday. :(

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Prayers for Rain

A great song by The Cure and rain itself is the best sound at night. I love rain right now.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

So lucky, so unlucky

For the first time in my life yesterday, I walked away from an ATM before completing the entire transaction process. I hadn't even intended to use an ATM, because I wanted to get cash for a check, but the Columbus Day observance scuttled those plans.

So I go to the ATM to withdraw cash instead. I get my money, no problem and then for some inexplicable reason I just leave. As I'm walking away I hear "excuse me" and for some weird reason I suspect it's intended for me. I turn around.

"You left your card in the ATM."

I didn't respond in dialogue. I respond by beelining back to the ATM. As I'm saying thank you emphaticallly, a guy to my right jokes "Remember to leave your PIN next time." Ironically, no PIN was required because I never even "exited" the transaction. All good samaritan had to do was hit "Another transaction" and drain me dry. So thank you good samaritan.

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Now the unlucky, the Supreme Court of the United States decided not even to hear the case of a man who was kidnapped by the CIA and sent to an overseas CIA-run prison for interrogation, where he claims he was tortured. What the fuck? Will we never learn to stop giving ammunition to the like of Ahmadinejad in his cause against the United States? Will we never remember that one of the founders of this country said that a man who would give up any liberty for an ounce of security deserves neither? Will this country's leaders realize that they are not Jack Bauer and don't work for CTU?

And then there was this ...

The Democratic-led Cowardgress is set to approve more domestic wiretapping, though they claim with more of a role for the rubber-stamp FISA court. Forgive me if I don't get weepy at the intergrity shown by the DonkeyDicks.

Monday, October 08, 2007

WTF is a "blue" tooth?

Bluetooth headsets. They allow cell phone user to talk without wires and makes users look like memhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifbers of the Borg collective. My roommates each have one and dig them, even though they'll enter the apartment and appear to be talking to themselves. However, that's a good trade-off compared to me, who enters talking on the phone while cradling it between my neck/shoulder and carrying groceries (which ultimately hurts).

So check this out from Laura Moser at slate.com:

Little did I know that the year before, an international consortium of tech companies had gotten together to give birth to Bluetooth—a short-range, low-power communications standard that connects electronics devices via radio chips instead of cables. The name Bluetooth is a tribute to 10th-century Danish Viking King Harald Blatand (Bluetooth in English), renowned for unifying the battling tribes of Denmark and Norway. Bluetooth similarly unites different electronics devices, transferring small files of sound and data over short distances (up to about 30 feet) without the mess of cords and cables. For example, it can wirelessly connect your laptop to your printer, your speaker to your stereo, and your cell phone headset to your cell phone.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Blog absense, blogger age

Dear readers,

I have blogged less often the past week b/c I literally have been more exhausted than at any point in my life. Work has been pretty crazy (11- and 12-hour days) but still, I did this routinely when working as a reporter at the Times Union and could bounce back fine. But now, not so much. Exacerbating things ... this computer, which will often keep me up as long as 90 minutes after I've decided to go to bed. So I will be shutting it down at 11 p.m. on work nights until after our November issue is published. Hopefully this doesn't prevent blogging, but it's possible.

And it's sooooo important that I maintain some kind of energy edge with concerts coming up Thursday the 11th, Friday the 12th (in San Diego and I work the next morning), Monday the 15th, Wednesday the 17th, Tuesday the 23rd, Thursday the 25th, Tuesday the 30th (?).

:( (I type that only because I don't know the "tired' emoticon)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

NHL predictions

Eastern Conference ...

1. Ottawa Senators -- this will be their last year as a big big gun for a while. But I put them here in small part b/c I want their annual playoff failure to hurt even more.
2. New York Rangers -- I'm drinking the Kool-Aid. Lundqvist plus Drury plus Gomez will be enough to compensate for shakey D in that division.
3. Carolina Hurricanes -- I think they're bouncing back
4. Buffalo Sabres -- We're gonna have the second-best record in the conference, I think, but the playoff seeding will screw them
5. New Jersey Devils -- Brodeur
6. Pittsburgh Penguins -- I think they won't make quite the standings leap some predict, no sneaking up on anyone this year, but they'll be very dangerous in the playoffs and better for this lower seed in the longterm, as the team learns how hard this hockey stuff is night in/night out for a whole year
7. New York Islanders -- Ted Nolan
8. Montreal Canadiens -- Goaltending with Huet and gut feeling

Philly -- don't trust Biron or that D
Toronto -- it's a shame they'll be out two years in a row, but they're clueless.
Anyone else from the Southeast? PUH-LEAZE

I know it's homer, but I think the Sabres will beat the Rangers in seven games in the conference finals (they re-seed right?).

Western Conference

1. Detroit Red Wings -- With that division say hello to a return to the Pres trophy
2. San Jose Sharks -- Anaheim will miss Niedermayer and Selanne too much and Bertuzzi is still damaged goods
3. Calgary Flames -- Kippy and the D will be enough in a tough division
4. Anaheim Ducks -- Still have lots of talent
5. Vancouver Canucks -- Luongo will be that good
6. Colorado Avalanche -- questions about goaltending, but I like the young talent at F
7. Minnesota Wild -- They'll sneak in late
8. Los Angeles Kings -- the talented youth -- Kopitar and Cammalleri and O'Sullivan will put them over the top this year

Nashville is done, sadly, though that market never deserved its team.
St. Louis will be in the race all year, but come up just short (esp. with McKee hurt again)
Dallas Stars very close but I think a lack of scoring depth sinks them

I think the Wings come out of the conference and play the Sabres in the Cup with Buffalo finally winning in a year when no one expects it. Hasek's groin will explode on the ice in Game 6.