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

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

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

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.