Capitol riots and the mythic memory of 1776

FeaturedCapitol riots and the mythic memory of 1776

Interviewer: Ma’am, what happened to you?

Rioter from Knoxville: I got maced [wipes away tears, breathlessly]

Interviewer: You got maced. And what happened? You were trying to go inside the Capitol?

Rioter from Knoxville: [Indignantly] Yeah! I made it like a foot inside and they pushed me out and the maced me!

Interviewer: What is your name and where are you from?

Rioter from Knoxville: My name is Elizabeth; I’m from Knoxville, Tennessee!

Interviewer: And why did you want to go in?

Rioter from Knoxville: We’re storming the Capitol! It’s a revolution!

_______________

Attendees of Trump’s rally-turned-riot stormed the Capitol at the direction of the president. They attempted to stop Congressional certification of Joe Biden’s electoral win and the peaceful transition of power that has defined American government for centuries. But many rioters seemed unprepared considering the scale of their ambitions. The apparent surprise of the rioter from Knoxville at law enforcement’s response suggests many involved were animated by visions of revolution different from that of their flak-jacketed comrades. For rioters like Elizabeth, January 6th was a genteel, candy-coated revolution, closer to carnival than coup. She and others were Revolution Tourists.

To be sure, many Capitol rioters were prepared for violence. Video footage shows the Capitol steps packed with men “kitted up” in tactical gear. They came in flak jackets, clutched zip-tie hand restraints and assault fashion reminiscent of Call of Duty. White men between 18 and 50 can be seen kicking doors down, busting windows and beating a fallen Capitol police officer because they believe conspiracies of election fraud promoted by Republican political leaders and far-right media.

CBS live coverage of rioters in street clothes carrying handbags and wearing designer sunglasses.

Others storming the building, by contrast, seemed more prepared for festivities than ferocity. Live scenes at the Capitol had a jamboree atmosphere of Revolution Tourism. Amused and casually dressed middle-aged men took selfies with fellow rioters and Capitol officers. In plumes of tear gas, a well-dressed woman carefully lifts her stylish purse through a shattered window frame. A group of twenty-somethings scurried up and down climbing ropes like outdoor enthusiasts on a sporty weekend getaway. Once inside the building, many who had forcibly entered the broken doors of the building then formed orderly lines as they meandered through Statuary Hall within the velvet roped walkway.

CNN’s live coverage showed rioters strangely respectful of the velvet tourist rope after the chaos of breaking and entering the Capitol moments earlier.

These Tourist Revolutionaries were not dressed for violent insurrection. They were dressed for a Trump rally, and it is not clear that these festival-goers fully understood the gravity of their choices on that day. This does not make them less culpable. It does, however, make their actions more frightening. Elizabeth from Knoxville’s view of revolution speaks to the privilege and ignorance underlying the danger of a shallow and mythical version of the American Revolution and American politics in general.

Elizabeth became a meme after complaining to a reporter that she was maced when trying to break into the Capitol complex. The preposterousness of a “revolutionary” expressing indignation after being repulsed triggered the usual mockery online. Georgia Aspinall at Grazia has cautioned against such mockery. “The sheer delusion of this woman, so bold in her conviction that this was necessary, so confused and upset that police stopped her from attacking the US democracy . . . is terrifying.”

Aspinall is right. Beneath the easily mocked sense of entitlement is a deeply confused sense of American history and politics. Yes, the premise of election fraud that animated these crowds in the first place was a lie. The more pressing issue Aspinall sees is how Elizabeth from Knoxville was unable to recognize the difference between democratic and anti-democratic political action.

Sharpwriter, Seal Team 1776 from “Deviant Art”

What should we make of the throngs who were not participating in a sort of serious-minded coup attempt like their flak-jacketed comrades? The insurrectionists in piano scarves and colorful tailgate facepaint suggest that these tourist revolutionaries saw the trip to DC (from New Jersey, Knoxville, Arkansas) as a symbolic performance of American independence and a rejection of elites cartoonishly painted for them by reckless political rhetoric and a post-Truth media ecosystem that greedily amplifies that which inflames.

Tourist Revolutionaries, energized by the symbolism of “1776,” confuse the tyranny of the monarch King George with the compromises of democracy and shared self-governance with fellow Americans. The carnival sense of patriotic revolt allowed rioters to happily pose for photos in the act of theft without a sense of the criminality of stealing. The carnival version of 1776 paints revolution as revelry and confuses protest with sedition.

If Elizabeth from Knoxville’s shock is genuine, it suggests that many of the rioters cannot understand that they have broken laws. In their minds, they should have the privilege to trespass because the Capitol is public property, their property. Elizabeth may have wondered how patriots could be on the wrong side of the law.

Rioters like Elizabeth have a mythical and sanitized understanding of American history, one that has lost the gritty and horrifying elements of revolution. The amputated limbs. The slumped bodies after British soldiers fired into an angry Boston crowd. The newspaper editors who were jailed for insulting colonial governors. The tyranny of princely rule without representation. These dirty and gangrenous parts of the American Revolution are missing from Elizabeth’s version of American history. As a tourist, Elizabeth understood threatening lawmakers as an extension of patriotic citizenship.

Tourist Revolutionaries on display during the Trump riot were engaging in a symbolic act that reenacts a mythical history of the country. Like visitors to a Renaissance fair or audiences at Medieval Times Dinner Theater, they did not expect authorities to respond to illegal occupation of Federal buildings with force. Her indignation speaks volumes about how symbols of political rhetoric can obscure the very real danger of “doing revolution.” Being met with force is surprising to those participating in Tourism Revolution. They complain of injury as if slapped by Goofy at Disneyland.

Capitol rioter and self-described “QAnon Shaman,” Jake Angeli, costumed in symbolic paint and dress.

This was a symbolic act for a substantial number of Trump supporters who were misled by President Trump to believe they were fighting for the preservation of America rather than the subversion of electoral democracy to prop up the president’s personal ambitions.

Tourist Revolution performs a celebratory but incomplete understanding of American history, one all Americans share at Fourth of July parties and fireworks displays standing in for the red glare of actual warfare. The symbolic rhetoric that brought Elizabeth and others to the nation’s capital became literal, but it is not clear that many rioters understood the difference. This should come as no surprise in a political-media system unable to sort myth and symbol from reality for citizens. As these symbols slip from protest speech to seditious action, we can see that our fractured media is not just a quirk of social media. It is a threat to democratic governance more menacing than any pitchfork or pipebomb.

An American politics of symbols, or the triumph of “symbolitics”

FeaturedAn American politics of symbols, or the triumph of “symbolitics”
Mario Tama, Getty Images

“Climate skepticism has become a tenet of populism — a revolt against elitist scientists and liberal politicians seeking excuses for social and economic control. The denial of climate change has become a cultural signifier, the policy equivalent of a gun rack in a truck.”

-Washington Post opinion columnist

“When [Trump] makes claims . . . the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

The Atlantic, September, 2016

“I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not, ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ . . . What they hear is we’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.”

-Paypal co-founder and Trump supporter, Peter Thiel

Political polarization has shifted how Americans self-identify, and much of this recent transformation stems from symbolic forms of civic engagement. The political animosity that has a stranglehold on politics – harbingers of civil war for a worried few – suggests Americans are increasingly reliant on politics of symbols to frame our personal identities and interpret power in 21st century American life.

This is frustrating for journalists who wring their hands over “fact-free” discourse and the new media misinformation. And it’s understandable given journalism is ostensibly a fact-based profession. But the American press may have a problem of being naively literal in a symbolic political world.

Much of the journalistic marveling, some quite condescending, is in response to Trump’s voter base. To understand the disconnect between professional journalists and Trump’s base, we should recognize how a marriage of entertainment and political culture fueled his political rise. Television fandoms from the entertainment culture -The Apprentice, World Wrestling Entertainment- took the small step into the public sphere. As Trump’s familiar face from entertainment media moved into political media, the 2016 campaign drew on that television audience.

But it did more than draw voters. It also imported the logics of reality TV. Ratings took on heightened importance. Crowd size became worthy of debate. The political theater took on the carnival atmosphere of a wrestling arena in which voters could organize around the symbols of heroism and villainy. Entertainment culture colonized the political realm and imported the energy and emotion of reality TV.

Part of the entertainment-politics melding is a fuller shift of political reasoning from a messy world of policy details to a clean and easily understood world of symbolic narratives in which moral assertion displaces analytic nuance. The preference for the digestible world of symbols over factual debate precedes Trump but reached new proportions with his presidency and will likely continue beyond it.

It might be wise to more fully recognize how American politics has become a game of cultural signifiers. And yet, elite newsrooms are unable to recognize the symbolic language of American citizenry. For many, American politics is a game of bipolar brinkmanship dealing in mythic symbols that funnel debate into an either/or dynamic of the two-party system. 

We can hear it in casual conversations among the politically like-minded: “I could never date a Republican.” Or in how we regard politically mixed marriage: “I wonder what it is like at THAT dinner table!” In modern America, fathers are more likely to object to daughters bringing home the political opposition than a love interest of a different race. As Iyengar and Westwood put it, “party cues exert powerful effects on nonpolitical judgments and behaviors.” A politics-first identity has subsumed other social roles, and we can see it in reports of estranged family members and politically severed friendships.

Viewing political orientation as a deal-breaker in our romantic lives and wondering at “political miscegenation” underscore how partisan identities have taken a more central role in our broader social lives. Though the democratic ideal says we “should” vote according to tangible identities of self-interest (a small business owner or cancer survivor or blue-collar worker) we increasingly rely on artificially binary identities crafted by a symbol systems of commercial media and political elites. 

Today, we are less likely to participate in politics as ourselves. Instead, we participate as “real Republicans” or “true progressives.” We act as representatives of packaged ideologies rather than individuals directly voting for a better life through self-governance. I suspect the “symbolification” of political culture is both a symptom and a cause in this process.

Qanon: A symbolic politics

Q symbol with glitch effect illustration.

What are the consequences when American politics, already prone to partisan theater, embraces an affective world of symbolism? To what degree do polarized cultural identities in the political realm necessitate the conversion of policy battles into symbols or battles over mere symbols?

These are ponderous questions, but I can map out some potential fallout.

First, the increasing power of symbolic communication in high politics has consequences for traditional understandings of democratic politics that are built into professional news frames.  

Symbolification distances public debate from the actual machinery of government. Instead of addressing the confusing details of healthcare or the tax system, symbols stand in with broad caricatures of the issue and the political agents that represent them. Symbolic politics offers a cast of evil-doers and heroic figures fighting for politically vague but symbolically meaningful goals. 

The degree to which policy debates devolve into symbolic representation is a fair approximation of the degree to which citizens directly control their government. A shallow symbolic system can replace details of party platforms or voting records. As a result, citizen judgement is one step removed.

Second, importing the symbols of entertainment culture may exacerbate partisan divisions. As differing symbolic systems ensconce American subcultures, unifying themes of nationality weaken. Participation in politics through symbolic representations allows the public to address very different worlds with little hope of solving the very real social problems facing the nation. A common creed that has historically shored up American identity fragments.

Finally, the reliance on symbols to navigate American politics plays into the vagaries and smoky mysticism of conspiracy mongers. Why would an American raise doubts about the American moon landing? Taken literally, the claim is absurd. Taken symbolically, it captures a broad suspicion that government is deceitful and so power-hungry that it would orchestrate a grand public deception to achieve “its” goals. The specific theory that the moon landing was faked does not itself need to be true as a symbolic representation of a calloused, elite government manipulating the public. The conspiracy is “true” even if Lance and Buzz actually took that one small step.

This is why literary semiotics may be a better tool for understanding American politics than political science or a burst of polls calculated, correlated, crunched and recrunched. 

QAnon: reading conspiracies as semiotic politics

“. . . conspiracy theory [is[ an entertaining narrative form, a populist expression of a democratic culture, that circulates deep skepticism about the truth of the current political order throughout contemporary culture.” (Fenster 1999, pg. xiii).

Fenster 1999, pg. xiii

Politics is rather boring in the details. That’s why C-Span is not a ratings hit. Watching senators argue policy in front of an empty chamber is mind-numbing and, frankly, uninformative for anyone but DC insiders or beat reporters. 

By contrast, online corners of conspiratorial thought like Qanon give gripping narrative structure to the sense of powerlessness in modern America. From the electoral college to tax policy, American democracy has features that are glaringly elite. Qanon merely gives a narrative to a fundamental truth felt by many Americans: powerlessness.

What is Qanon? The group is known for its wildest assertion that a cabal of Satan-worshipping elites control key government and media operations. This secret organization is engaged in child sex crimes at a massive scale. In some versions, these elites consume children’s blood to extend life or otherwise sustain themselves.

Qanon researchers have found no coherent, single narrative that defines the movement. Under the umbrella of Qanon, there are factions who have “different ideas about who the cabal is and what their ultimate goals are . . . but they are united in the belief that everything is a lie and the order needs to be destroyed.” It is more a patchwork of unorthodox explanations of power in America.

Taken literally, Qanon fails tests of evidence required by professional journalists, classrooms and the courts. If we de-emphasize the narrative specifics and read these beliefs as metaphor (don’t take it literally but take it seriously), the basic structure of the theory is true. As metaphor, the narrative is a archetypal story of the powerful preying on the weak. 

In fact, wealth gaps and power divisions do define modern America. Two-thirds of U.S. senators’ net worth exceeds $1 million. As Pew researchers note, income growth in recent decades has tilted to upper-income households and the middle class has shrunk. Nearly three-quarters of all employees live paycheck-to-paycheck in 2020. The popular vote often fails to elect presidents, defying the public will for arcane legalistic reasons. Given these conditions, the myth created by “Q” can make sense emotionally even if it fails intellectually.

We can understand the more outrageous conspiracy theories as a consequence of America’s crippled ability to recognize class conflict. If a group of people don’t have a language of class-based oppression -e.g. “haves and have nots”- they turn to alternative explanations for the inequality they feel. Pedophilia stands in as a morally charged symbol for victimization. 

On the other side of this growing economic disparity, the investor class buys and sells holdings according to the logic of financial capital. If their children don’t earn admission to prestigious schools, the elite bribe their way into East and West coast schools. 

This is why Qanon functions a redemption narrative comparable to Christian religious movements. It involves faith in something deeper than facts show us, belief without clear evidence. However far-fetched, conspiracy paints a symbolic picture that explains the sense of powerlessness felt by many.

At once, it offers a way to resist that oppressive force. It provides comfort by painting a world of stark good and evil in which clear heroes work to save the faithful and punish the villainous. Adherents decode and scrutinize the meaning of Q’s pronouncements like ecclesiastical priests engaged in Biblical hermeneutics. Retweeting Q or interpreting Q’s “drops” becomes an act of defiance by speaking truth to nefarious but poorly understood power in America. The congregants evangelistically hope to reveal the truth to nonbelievers and instigate a “great awakening.” 

A symbolic analysis of culture might produce more useful maps for navigating this strain of American politics, and it certainly reveals more than the quantitative approach taken by poll-obsessed news networks that treat elections like horse-races. As symbolism displaces more direct citizen interactions with matters of government, the assumptions of political journalism become less reflective of actual political processes and opinion formation in American life. 

The growing wedge between mainstream news and parts of the American public stems from these divergent epistemologies. Journalists function as gatekeepers, filtering the non-factual out of public discourse. The growing part of the American public who engage with politics though symbolic narratives see this realist epistemology as censorship and oppression. News perpetuates a fiction that numbers are an accurate representation of reality. Journalists, true to their professional training, dismiss counterfactual political thoughts with a myopic literalism.

But the political class only shoots itself in the foot when it dismisses symbolic discourse. New York Times columnist, David Brooks, argues that “personal contact” is the way to “[reduce] the social chasm between the members of the epistemic regime and those who feel so alienated from it.” Journalists may not be able to personally reach out to the alientated, but newsrooms can certainly pay greater attention to the symbolic dimensions of political culture and better understand the reality reflected in the myths that shape the “paranoid style” of American politics. 

From Iraq to America, a refugee’s childhood in post-Saddam Iraq

FeaturedFrom Iraq to America, a refugee’s childhood in post-Saddam Iraq

Here is Ian’s audio interview with Ali, an Iraqi refugee attending college in Midwestern America.

Ian spoke with Ali to better understand the experience of those living in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s removal from power in 2003. The political instability and partisan media that followed had a profound impact on Iraqi society, triggering mass migrations from conflict zones. Ali’s family was one of thousands displaced by the chaos in the wake of US intervention.

Because his father assisted US authorities after the war, Ali’s family fled sectarian violence to Syria and, eventually, the American Midwest. Ali’s early life offers a more intimate view of the conflict than the occupation captured by US news. His childhood, marked by nightly gunfire, lawlessness and migration, highlights the human costs of American wars.

From Iraq to America

Iraq population flight

Zero-rating and Network Favoritism: the beginning of the end of Network Neutrality

FeaturedZero-rating and Network Favoritism: the beginning of the end of Network Neutrality

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The relationship between content providers like Disney and ISPs like Verizon will change significantly in a post-Network Neutral world. But will there be more competition?

Network Neutrality and the problem of zero-rating

Anyone note the explosion of advertising for free access to content like Spotify or Netflix? This T-Mobile ad samples TV so much it could be mistaken for a Netflix promotion. But if we look past the smiling shots of our favorite TV characters high-fiving, we see the first signs of what life on the web will be like after Network Neutrality.

It is no coincidence we see these offers in the wake of weakened Network Neutrality principles. This practice, “zero-rating,” is a clear example of what NN advocates have feared. Zero rating is the practice of creating partnerships with content providers like Netflix and making access to content from certain providers cheaper. Those who control the network get to play favorites in choosing the content flowing through their “pipes.” In short, not everyone trying to reach users/customers is treated equally.

How is this anti-competitive? Imagine we want to launch a music service to compete with Spotify. We have a good tech team that worked hard developing a friendlier user interface and faster file access for the consumer. Spotify’s deal with T-Mobile means our start-up music service, regardless of our app’s superiority, will likely fail. Why? Incumbent market advantages:

  1. Access to customers. Spotify will have a guaranteed user base in T-Moblie’s subscribers. Big user bases attract revenue from venture capital and new media investors of the Silicon Valley sort.
  2. Advertiser appeal. A high number of users (high traffic) will mean increased interest from advertisers, another revenue stream.
  3. Data sales. High traffic also provides user data. User data is valuable to marketing firms and several new industries that lurk in the shadowy world of data brokers (one broker offering a “Rape Sufferers List” for targeted marketing).

All of these factors add up to tall barriers to entry for competitors. By preferring Spotify’s content over others, network owners will effectively pick and choose winners while stifling innovative startups. And what is the likelihood that T-Mobile will allow a Spotify competitor to use the T-Mobile network?

This glimpse of a post-Network Neutral internet shows how anti-competitive the legal environment can become. It is a sharp contrast with the early (network-neutral) internet that allowed a young Netflix to challenge cable providers. Even seemingly innocuous Netflix package deals could be harbingers of a significantly less competitive industry in which consumers and startups ultimately lose.

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Despite the upbeat Netflix vignettes, these growing and merging media companies are not friendly giants. Zero-rating is a first stage of dramatic changes in store for a post-NN world. Network Favoritism of this sort dampens the industry’s ability to produce innovations and removes incentives to improve customer services. Without Network Neutrality, we risk more concentration in ownership and the development of distribution-content trusts. These trusts are more likely to stifle innovation.

Internet service providers like Comcast argue they would suffer unfair market disadvantages, but Comcast’s position on NN is contorted. As T.C. Sottok noted in The Verge, Comcast’s incoherent NN policy goes something like: “We respect and abide by NN principles and that is why we want them removed.” It begs the simple question: If the company appreciates NN, why petition to change FCC rules?

Public relations speak has made Comcast’s position nonsense, but policymakers have maps for navigating these waters. Nineteenth century Americans fought the Standard Oil monopoly because trusts and monopoly violated American ideas of capitalism. Concentration led to market dysfunction and harmed the economy at large. Early in the 20th century, AT&T had bought up most of the nation’s phone networks but accepted substantial government regulation in exchange for becoming the nation’s sole telephone company. AT&T owned all the market and Americans had public interest (9-1-1, fair rates, equal access) hardwired into US telecommunications system.

Standard Oil’s J D Rockefeller was a strict, church-going man. Reporters of the era noted that he taught Bible school on Sundays, but, by Monday, he was as ruthless a business mogul as the Gilded Age could produce. Disney may have the veneer of progressive ice princesses and dancing tea sets, but the media business is, well, business.

Continue reading “Zero-rating and Network Favoritism: the beginning of the end of Network Neutrality”

Help them off the cliff: how modern Russian propaganda helps Americans hate Americans

FeaturedHelp them off the cliff: how modern Russian propaganda helps Americans hate Americans

Russian interference in the 2016 US election took many forms. Twitter bots, paid trolling, memes, and Facebook ad campaigns put politically charged messages in front of Americans, enflaming preexisting social divisions in the US. This paper seeks to place RT in a larger complex of the fragmentation of the American public, the role of “disruptive media” strategies and, finally, the geopolitics of US-Russian relations. By tracing the intellectual work of Kremlin political philosopher, Aleksandr Dugin, we get a clearer picture of Russian media campaigns that dominate the headlines.

There is mounting evidence that Russian efforts consciously sought to play on preexisting tensions in American civic life. Race, class, gender and sexuality, all subjects of political strife in a hyperpartisan American political system, became fodder for Russian meme-factories and a small army of covert online commenters. RT’s disruptive role also reflects the Anti-Liberalism of Dugin in his work on geopolitics and so-called Fourth Political Theory. This paper argues that RT is part of a larger strategy we call “disrupt media” and reflects the under-explored teachings of Russian political philosopher, Aleksandr Dugin.

RT criticizes NYT
RT “disruptive” role in American civic life involves casting doubt on key American institutions, including American news media.

Disrupt media refers to persuasive campaigns that play upon growing American distrust of US news as an institution of political and social life. But the strategy is not unique to Russian disinformation. For years, domestic news operations -Fox News and Brietbart- have played on the distrust of “mainstream” journalism to draw and retain viewership by cultivating distrust in American media. This paper explores how RT combines a disrupt strategy with the geopolitical thinking of “Duginism” which suggests “introduc[ing] geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts” (Dugin, 2015, p. 367).

RT propaganda blacktivistSharable partisan content, regardless of its support for right or left, Democrat or Republican, left vs. far left, is best understood as an outgrowth of the information bubbles and fragmentation of the American electorate. Disrupt media, in Dugin’s model, fortifies group identity. In line with the Council of Europe’s 2017 report, we reframe this strategy of “information pollution” as a question of culture and ritual rather than simple information transmission, recognizing that “communication plays a fundamental role in representing shared beliefs” (7). RT’s campaign found success by taking advantage of the commercial foundations of the US (new) media system and forms of redistribution enabled by user sharing functions of new media platforms.

The Ritual Model of Communication

James Carey’s most famous work is a criticism of Communication Studies’ over-reliance on a social science view of communication. Early social science on mass media tended to rely on a model of communication that was pretty mechanistic.

For the scientifically-minded, communication was information transmitted between a sender and a receiver. The classic formulation was who said what to whom with what effect. Social scientists, skeptical of those claiming media was fundamentally reshaping society, designed studies to get at that last part about the effects. Did propaganda win wars? Could violence in films make a population more aggressive or criminal? The quantitative research they conducted found surprisingly little evidence that media had direct, powerful influence over individuals.

Over time, these findings accumulated and became known as the “Limited Effects” school of thought. Social science methods found minimal influence of media so consistently, one researcher proclaimed the field of mass communication research had been exhausted. Everyone could hang up their clipboards and go home.

But many researchers were not satisfied mass media had been fully understood. The relationship between media and society seemed more complicated and the effects more profound than quantitative research could reveal.

Offering the “ritual” approach as an alternative, Carey sought to explore new angles on the role of media in human life. His perspective is rooted in history and asks us to consider the communal aspects of communication. Perhaps media are more than information transmission. Instead of viewing humans as information receptacles, perhaps we can focus on how media brings people together, how it can bind a nation and create communities of shared belief.

As a word, communication shares roots with other words like community and communion. Its Latin origins meant both to impart and to share. While most communication and media scholars were focused on how information was imparted or “transmitted,” Carey focused on the idea of sharing. Sharing, after all, is how culture is created. Carey wanted us to examine the idea of shared culture and media’s role in it, as did a generation of cultural theorists who followed him.

Carey was skeptical that social science was able to effectively study this role of media. The transmission view of social science ignored some of the most important functions of media. Carey was a religious man, and careful readers can sense this in his writing. He sometimes speaks of communication in nearly mystical terms. Communication’s role in forming communities, he suggests, is ritualistic in a fashion . . . not unlike church.

In mainstream Christian churches, the congregation reads a common book (the Bible). Reading the Bible is a way to confirm an ordered worldview and share that with a community of belief. Very few church-goers are there for the information about Jesus. They are there not to learn new facts about the life of Jesus as much as to hear familiar stories and share in a narrative about their lives. They share faith, not information.

Carey argues that the newspaper of his time (and the news sites today) perform a similar function. In America and other Western nations, reading the news is to “subscribe” to a democratic worldview. When we think about the news, we engage in a collective enterprise and endorse shared values. Congregants become worshipers when in church. People become citizens when reading and talking about the news. What insights about media can we gain by seeing communication through the ritual lens rather than mere transmission?

Media organize social identities and new media allow new communities to emerge.

This “communion” function of media goes beyond news. Communities taking shape around a variety of cultural identities. K-Pop stans, gardening enthusiasts, comic-book collectors . . . the internet has allowed almost any identity to find a group. Media make these identities possible. That’s what Carey find so mystical about communication. It is the basis for shared culture. It is how “the miracle of social life is pulled off.”

The cultural approach advocated by Carey, British cultural theorists and others also called attention to the role of media in distributing social power. Representation, they argued, was instrumental in structuring multicultural society by portraying cultures, race and ethnicity. Often, these portrayals positioned some groups as outsiders, threats and deviants. They are positioned as “others” in contrast to a “mainstream” constructed for the viewing audience.

Scholars in the cultural studies tradition have looked at film and television as sources of knowledge about the world for audiences. Examples of work on media representation are now near as prominent as the social science tradition. Shani Orgad (2015), for example, says the “new visibility” in global media means various identities compete for social power by managing how the group is represented in media. Studies of media portrayals fill journals, populate conference panels and appear in popular news. The Media Education Foundation alone features dozens of documentaries addressing the representation of Arabs in early cinema, Black Americans in television, and women in advertising. The study of media and identity is tied to culture and, as culture changes and forms of representation multiply, identities will be created, maintained and adjusted in too many ways for cultural studies researchers to keep up.

If Carey is right, media play a significant role in shaping the shared reality we call culture. Shaping that reality, it also influences the unequal distribution of social power along class, gender and racial lines. Analysis of how symbolic processes construct these identities and hierarchies will be of enduring (if lamentable) value if we are to better understand the relationship between media and society.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: the Mueller report, TV hearings and Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death: the Mueller report, TV hearings and Neil Postman

Image result for Mueller hearing
Former special counsel Robert Mueller reviews the report before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, July 24, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“It’s the Superbowl of things on C-SPAN at Eight-thirty in the morning.”

-Stephen Colbert

 

Robert Mueller and media critic Neil Postman have something in common. They are skeptical of television. Truth, for Postman, was fundamentally shaped by the medium of expression. In the old-timey age of print (i.e., Lincoln-Douglas debates), Americans thought in longer, more contemplative ways. How a society debates what is true and right, Postman claimed, is fundamentally shaped by the dominant medium of the time.

Under TV, our access to truth passes through a technicolored prism. Postman was concerned that we would lose the kind of thinking that made democracy work. TV’s flurry of sound bites and images threatened to shallow the American mind. Mueller’s testimony shows the special counsel’s own Postmanesque preference for the printed word as a means to determining truth.

What we call “watching television” is supposedly on the way out. TV viewing has declined by 3 to 4% per year since 2012, according to the Reuters Institute at Oxford. At once, our use of online video has increased dramatically. This begs the question: Have we stopped watching or do we simply access TV in different ways?

Of course, how we watch TV has changed considerably since Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death in the 1980s. TV beams from smaller screens. It’s more individual. We watch it in office jobs, on the train and on demand. But the basic practice of “watching TV” remains unchanged.  We still rely on sound bites, rapid images and visual narratives to understand the world. In many ways, TV just got small enough to come with us when we left the house.

TV in the 1980s shares at least one feature of its more mobile version today. TV always prefers to trade in spectacle. A medium focused on satisfying visual needs of passive audiences relies on spectacle. The problem for Postman and his bookish devotees is that spectacle only gets at certain truths: those that can be abbreviated and visually dramatized. Postman feared that the transition to a televisual society meant making everything “silly.” The loss of print culture, he reasoned, meant losing access to the forms of truth only available through the deliberation of reading and writing.

Which brings us back to Mueller.

The Special Cousel’s testimony revealed more about his faith in reading than the misdeeds of the president. Channeling the grumpy spirit of Postman, the Special Counsel refused to even read aloud from his own report as if the truth of the report could only reside in the printed word. Mueller referred committee members to the written work of the Special Council’s office at least 20 times. He welcomes the public to read the report, but he would not willingly act it out for television audiences.

Mueller’s stonewalling was frustratingly beautiful. He knew he was being displayed to an American audience. Predictably, partisans would try to coax out a visually anchored statement about Trump’s guilt or innocence.

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Mueller testifying before the House hearing on the Special Counsel’s report, July 24, 2019

He was painfully aware that his questioners, particularly Democrats, wanted to move the information in the 400+ page print report to modern American television, from inert and colorless words on a page to more vivid descriptions directly from the investigators face.

 

Clearly the former FBI head is trained to avoid partisan warfare and would not “perform” the report for a 24-Hour news channel industry. But, Mueller’s preference for the written version of his report ran counter to the hope members of the House had for his appearance.

These attempts to spread the Mueller Report from print-based audience to television-based audience indicate how much influence the political class believes TV to possess. The plan seemed to be to televise the report targeted a non-reading public with the hope that reproducing the same information in a visual format would reanimate public discourse and foster public discussions that undermine Trump’s support among swing voters.

Camera ready Republicans and Democrats were trying to enlist television’s storytelling power. They wanted something concisely stated before a camera. They want punch.  They want the six-second sound bite. Mueller knows this, and you can hear it in every reluctant stutter of his testimony. The printed word should speak for itself.

Democrats needed to sway non-reading, politically active swing voters that have a reasonable likelihood of either voting Democrat or staying at home on election day. But the strategy also relied on a camera-friendly hearing that animated the sins of the presidency. For better or worse, Mueller’s print bias did not allow politicians to use the abbreviating power of TV.

It remains to be seen if print can still capture the American imagination or if Postman was right and the American public, atrophied by decades of spectacle politics, believes only what it sees.

An Iraqi Refugee’s Path to America

I interviewed Ali to get a sense for the kind of life Iraqis experienced after US armed forces forcibly removed Saddam Hussein from power and installed the Coalition Provisional Government. The big moments of Ali’s early life offer a glimpse into the violence and uncertainty that defined Iraq during this period.

Ali’s story paints a picture behind the headlines on American news and the history of recent US involvement in the Middle East.

The US intervened in Iraq in 2003. The Bush administration had warned Americans that Saddam Hussein possessed and planned to use weapons of mass destruction. The invasion was called Operation Iraqi Freedom. After the invasion, US forces and independent inspectors failed to find WMD, and the rationale for invading Iraq shifted. Hussein, pro-war US officials now reasoned, was a ruthless dictator who endangered his people and deprived Iraqis of basic human rights. But in the wake of Hussein’s death and the end of his Baathist regime, Iraq seemed to spiral into even greater peril. Sectarian violence erupted as suppressed tribal and religious division in the country competed for power.

Many questions still linger in discussions of US adventurism in the Middle East. The war in Afghanistan, by and large, had broad support. Al Qaeda had operated in Afghanistan to launch the attacks of September 11th. But the invasion of Iraq met greater public skepticism. WMDs were unconfirmed. Our goals for Iraq, vague. Controlling the country’s vast oil reserves seemed to be the only plausible rationale, though no American official would admit this.

Did the US intervention help the Iraqi people? What kind of country did the US help to create by removing Saddam Hussein?

Iraq population flight

In 2007, the year Ali and his family escaped Iraq, 26,078 civilians would die. Between 112,017 – 122,438 civilian died from violence by March 2013. Other estimates put the number at 174,000 deaths. Researchers at Johns Hopkins put the total number of war-related deaths at 650,000.[1] Regardless, it is clear that the removal of Saddam Hussein increased sectarianism and, according to Ali, produced a political extremism fanned by a media system no longer under Iraqi government control.

Ali’s memories of nightly bombs and gunfire, the threats to his father’s life for having worked with the Americans, Ali’s time under a false name as a refugee in Syria and Jordan and his eventual move to America in 2008 are stories worthy of a biopic. America ultimately became a place of refuge for Ali and his family, despite occasional slurs, like the time someone asked Ali felt about his Uncle Bin Laden dying. Still, America provided Ali with a safer environment and educational options. But, as an American, I can’t help wondering what role “America” had in forcing the Muksed family to flee in the first place.

At times Ali’s story is harrowing; at others it is a powerful illustration of what it means to be displaced by violence and political conflict. Above all, Ali’s is an immigrant story. And one that ends happily, by and large. Though American foreign policy may have made Ali a refugee, America also gave Ali a place to grow and improve himself through higher education. But the details of Ali’s story also raise questions about the changes in Iraqi life brought about by the $2 Trillion dollar Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Interview link

[1] https://www.npr.org/news/specials/tollofwar/tollofwarmain.html

The algorithms made me do it.

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Photo credit: Martin Anderson @The Stack

Since 2016, mainstream news has fixated on technological explanations of political extremism. Article after article foregrounds technology to explain political change and, specifically, the rise of the American right. However, when we focus on technology as a cause for social change, it becomes easy to lose sight of the social world we wanted to explain in the first place. This is especially true of current debates about rightwing extremist in the US.

As violent and hateful politics in the US become more visible, the internet has also taken root as an instrument of popular communication. Given the seismic change introduced by information technologies, it makes sense to ask what role new media play in the spread of the alt-right or neo-Nazi thought. The editorial board of The New York Times recently took up this tech-as-catalyst narrative, pointing to social  media as an agent of negative social and political change. The board argued that . . .

the fundamental design of social media sometimes exacerbates the problem. It rewards loyalty to one’s own group, providing a dopamine rush of engagement that fuels platforms like Facebook and YouTube, as well as more obscure sites like Gab or Voat. The algorithms that underpin these networks also promote engaging content, in a feedback loop that, link by link, guides new audiences to toxic ideas.

There is certainly some truth that media have a role in creating group identity around ideologies, but blaming the technology for the appeal these ideas shifts attention away from more obvious spurs for social change.

Let’s break down the argument. According to the Times, impersonal agents of the network (algorithms) lead a child-like citizenry (audiences) to ideas that are not good for them or the society in which they exist (toxic). By this reasoning, removing the communication tools that link the radically-minded would undermine the spread of rightist ideologies if not rightist movements themselves. The problem is that this tech focus does not adequately account for the social anxiety that these radical beliefs seem to answer.

An analogy to online advertising helps make this point. Innumerable cookies and web trackers follow us online and collect behavioral data to create predictive consumer profiles. Thus, a woman between 16 and 34 who searches lotions for stretchmarks has a higher probability of buying, for example, prenatal vitamins. The algorithm serves the woman the “Superbaby” vitamin ad. Though she did not intend to buy the vitamins, the targeted marketing works and she puts the item in her cart. Here we see algorithms at work. But did the algorithm prompt the woman to buy the vitamins or did the technology facilitate a preexisting need? Like pregnancy, the social problems that allow extremism to make sense to online audiences similarly preexist the technology that serves it up.

This is why I argue we need to correct the technology bias in addressing the relationship between extremism and online communities. We can do so by inverting the implied causality in arguments that blame new media. Did technology lead to the rise of rightwing extremism or did rightwing extremism seek communication tools to link the like-minded into communities? The NY Times editorial board seems to believe Gab and Voat fell from technology heaven fully formed. In reality, Gab’s creator was all-too-human. Social conditions created the technology to meet a political need that preexisted the technology. If we want solutions to American radicalism, we need to pay more attention to social conditions that make extremism a legitimate option rather than the secondary question of how it gets around the internet.

The focus on tech is not without merit, but the questions social researchers take up should ask why such toxic ideologies have appeal. “The algorithm did it” is insufficient and, in fact, undermines finding clear answers. Furthermore, technological explanations for why people hold political beliefs may function as a sort of optimistic fairy-tale about the inherent goodness of the United States. Taken to a logical conclusion, technology arguments about extremism assert that if not for Facebook, Americans would be more tolerant, less anxious about change and more trusting of government. The focus on technology allows us to believe that Americans are only temporarily “off course.” American neo-Nazism is a mistake that better algorithms and artificial intelligence can correct.

This is a predictable mistake when technology dominates our search for answers to social problems. Excessive focus on a technological explanation suggests that Americans are not fundamentally xenophobic, anti-Semitic or tribal. But this may not be true. In reality, the mélange of conspiracy theories (Soros is a hidden political puppetmaster; an Islamic center is an effort to institute Sharia law in the US, etc.) stems from a sense of social powerlessness and a loss of local American communities. Technology only offers the idea. The social context makes far-fetched or conspiratorial explanations of that powerlessness attractive.

Blaming the algorithm can also function as a sort of ignorant optimism. It can become a story about an American population misled by technology run amok. But this explanation of American radicalism too quickly pushes aside obvious explanations for the growing rejection of the status quo. Middle class incomes have stagnated for decades even as US gross domestic production has grown. American wealth, in general, has become concentrated in the hands of not just the 1% but the top 0.1% of citizens. Healthcare in the US is the most costly in the developed world while for-profit insurance companies avoid taking on sick customers and pay out as little as is legally required. Racial, religious and political tensions undercut the unifying story of American society, what David Brooks called the “American Creed.” Globalization has restructured the national economy, prompting the collapse of entire communities and ways of life, leading to misdirected anger at immigrants and ethnic minorities. The focus on technology can obscure these traditional triggers for extremism and tribalism.

In short, revolutionary dissatisfaction with life in America does not need an algorithm. At best, the technological explanations illustrate how ideologies circulate according to the network logics of the commercial companies that profit from their circulation. At worst, they distract us from actual reasons such ideologies are growing. To understand why these ideas take root in the minds of people, we must focus on the lived experiences of Americans that give such “toxic” ideas traction.

Globovisión Owner Indicted for Bribery

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Nasty news regarding Venezuela today.

Alejandro Andrade, a longtime associate of Chávez who rose from bodyguard to Treasurer of the Republic (2007 – 2010), admitted to accepting $1 billion dollars in bribes during his term in the latter position. At least some of that money, it seems, was laundered by the Venezuelan owner of Dominican Republic-based Banco Peravia.

Also heavily involved was Raul Gorrin, one of the owners of television station Globovisión since May 2013, who allegedly paid bribes to Andrade in order to obtain profitable currency exchange contracts. According to a newly unsealed indictment, Gorrin paid over $150 million in bribes between 2008, when he bought insurance firm Seguros La Vitalicia, and 2017.

Globovisión sign on building with satellite dish

Globovisión was a fiercely anti-Bolivarian television network prior to 2013, having played a leading role on the failed 2002 coup attempt against Chávez and later facing a long series of lawsuits and sanctions from…

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Quinnland

South of town, by roads weaving woodlands and fields of tall corn or low-lying soybeans, we would drive at unchecked speeds away from the light. Charleston, an illumination on the horizon behind us as we fled, glowed an unhealthy orange. The further we drove from that dull glow, the more the stars became flaring white. Points of radiance, unseen within city limits, appeared in the sky. The top was down on Homen’s car and we could sit on the trunk with our feet in the back seat, the wind too loud for talking.

Hardly a part of the black above wasn’t speckled with too many stars to make sense of. By the time we passed Fletcher’s Farm, we could barely see the constellations. It seemed they would light the night, so many were the number of points filling the heavens. The moon, too, shone and reflected brightly on the smooth, tarry parts of the road. But the trees beyond the ditch on either side of the country road were black masses of shadow. A few branches caught some moonlight as they reached out over the paved way, cutting into rural Illinois.

It wasn’t his fault, really.

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[Having conspicuously noted that I was missing from the scene, these descriptions of the fall, this seal broken under the severing strain of two worlds, should appear as a form of morbid penitence. Visualizing the event is the narrator’s attempt to come closer to the gathering counterculture that began to wane that night. He knew it was over. The safety of Peacocks and the canapé that hid our righteous shame was lost. He pines for proximity and damns himself for not suffering the scars borne by those he loved.]

In Jessica’s thin and cradling arms, Clayton’s upper body grew less responsive like a child going to sleep. Nothing of the toothy smile Clayton always flashed remained. He had an expression that wore hints of shock from the fall, a face that feared the ground and anticipated the impact but had forgotten what had happened. Just a countenanced paranoia of the impending that faded imperceptibly. Off in the distance, Leif’s screams for his father were dampened by thick leaves. Trying to reach through the uneven terrain rising and falling between him and his father, I could hear “come and see.”

Critical Media Analysis and non-obvious interpretations

Critical Media Analysis and non-obvious interpretations

I’ve taught Critical Media Analysis (CMA) as a methods course for a few years now. Fun class. What we do, in short, is examine media “artifacts” as a way to better understand American culture and the relationship between media and society.

Students with backgrounds in literature and film studies tend to excel in the course because the method is interpretive. But CMA is more than mere interpretation. It is a critical interpretation supported by a strict methodology and preponderance of evidence. The method isn’t asking “how students feel” about a text as many low-level English courses might emphasize. CMA requires a deep familiarity with the culture that both produced the media and received it as audiences. So, CMA is critical cultural analysis using media artifacts as a means to identify collective meaning-making, the dominant ideologies that inform that process and broadly held cultural assumptions that give the “texts” power in society.

As with many undergrad courses in media, there is peril in teaching this method, particularly when setting students out to find “hidden meanings” or embedded ideologies in music, news, film and television.

A standard textbook for Critical Media Analysis from Stocchetti and Kukkonen mentions CMA’s aim of unearthing the “hidden agendas” embedded in media artifacts. But students can easily misunderstand the term hidden agendas in the age of fake news. Critical media analysis, as a method, is not simply about seeing the “bias” of news organizations or, say, the pro-Trump leanings of a Roseanne reboot. Critical media analysis aims to look beyond the surface meanings offered by media producers, directors and writers. At its best, CMA unearths the underlying assumptions and cultural beliefs that allow media to make sense to large swaths of a public. It takes time, good judgment and careful effort.

How hidden are these messages? How are they hidden? By whom are they hidden? The short answer is that these messages are not hidden by anyone. Media are unavoidably shaped by the dominant ideologies of the culture that produces and consumes media artifacts. Often, media producers will not even be aware they are buying into a given ideology as they shape narratives for the greatest possible public circulation. It is, after all, about ratings.

There are all sorts of media analyses floating in Internet backwaters that fail to meet methodological rigor. But critical media analysis is not a tool to lambaste a program for having a point of view. For example, politically conservative criticism of how the new Star Wars is actually feminist “porn” propaganda. Too much “critical” media analysis is simply pointing out obvious messages in major productions and being mad that media don’t reflect the critic’s own worldview.

Good analysis, by contrast, uses media as a way to reveal non-obvious themes or less visible ideologies that inform how we use media to make sense of the world. CMA projects seek non-obvious or latent meanings contained in media or how media rely on nearly invisible cultural assumptions on the part of audiences.

I’ll try to illustrate the difference between surface observations and deeper interpretations ideally provided by CMA by using the Batman universe. Note: I say “universe” because the Batman mythology extends across many media platforms: 1970s TV, 1980s films, 2000s films, videogames and, of course, comics. This list shows that Batman clearly has cultural resonance with American audiences and speaks to how worthwhile it is as a subject for analysis.

Batman: Obvious and Non-obvious Interpretations

An obvious interpretation of Batman is that the dark knight universe helps us see the American appreciation for justice, law and order. Gotham is a corrupt city. The mob has bribed the police and judges, so citizens can’t turn to “the law” for recourse. Injustice is rampant. The powerful prey on the weak. Gotham, as a metaphor for American cities, represents the fear that these evils (greed, muggings, mafia bosses extorting shop owners, violence against citizens, corruption) will go unpunished. Batman is the comicbook answer to these fears: overwhelming criminality and urban decay.

Looking at Batman as a media artifact, we can make the cultural observation that Batman is a symbol of righteous law and order. He is the answer to these fears.

But would any fan of Batman find this revealing? No. This is a justified but rather uninformative analysis of Batman as an expression of American culture.

A Non-obvious Batman

On the other hand, we might use a theoretical lens to highlight less obvious and even counterintuitive interpretations. For example, some have questioned the bond between Batman and Robin, highlighting the “queerness” of their relationship.

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There is compelling evidence that, as a media artifacts, their relationship is ambiguous and potentially (latently) sexual in nature. With a sexuality theoretical lens, we see something non-obvious. While non-obvious to the casual media consumer, many have poked fun at the idea of latent feelings between the crime-fighting duo.

But I don’t like that interpretation, frankly. I don’t, in part, because of the way it positions gay relationships as a punchline. Doing a bit of critical analysis of these gay readings, we might find the tendency to see homosexuality in Batman’s relationship with Robin as a restrictive cultural ideology: if a man loves a man, it can’t be anything but sexual. The tendency to deny men the ability to have strong bonds without sexuality the root. As Glen Weldon points out in Slate, this reading can conflate homosocial with homosexual.

So let me offer you my own reading. Batman (as Bruce Wayne) is a hyperrich man with near infinite resources for training and advanced equipment. He comes from a wealthy, respected family with a charitable “foundation” that tries to help Gotham. He is connected to political elites and can tap into his corporation when it suits his needs. Now, who does Batman often fight? You might immediately think of Joker or Bane, but these are actually rare “boss fights.” Most of the fight sequences in comics, films and the video game are of common “criminals” or goons that surround these bosses. They are sometimes tattooed. They are muscle bound and frequently have “tough guy” accents indicative of inner city education if any at all. At times, they are clearly mentally unstable. They are either seriously unstable or desperate enough to join a gang headed by a sociopath who paints his face. Regardless of the desperation or mental illness of these anonymous goons, Batman beats them severely.

What does this reading say about Batman as a popular symbol in American culture? One underlying message: the rich can and should, without relying on a legal system, physically beat those they personally determine are threats to society. How is “the criminal” constructed in Batman? Do we ever wonder if that bloodied underling took a job guarding a warehouse so he could afford Christmas presents for his kids? Or how that underling would pay for the broken clavicle the morning after some rich guy decided he deserved punishment?

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Suddenly, Batman does not seem so heroic. He is more like a puritanical autocrat who decides to take the law into his own hands and mercilessly harm (but not kill because he is a good guy) anyone in his way. Why don’t viewers have any sympathy for the poor or insane that are roped into the Joker’s plans? What does this say about the American view of “criminals” that we so readily assume Batman’s foes are inherently evil?

This new reading is non-obvious and even subverts the dominant interpretation by exposing the underlying assumption we bring to the text to make it work.

In critical media analysis, we question the media artifact to expose the “hidden” messages about the wealthy, the criminal, law and order. If I asked a casual viewer of the films whether or not Batman was actually a villain, they’d say no. The best analyses are not impositions of one’s own ideology but the exploration of the ideologies that make media popular and, thus, tell us about the culture that gives media life.