Mortal Matters and Change

My husband was being a jerk all weekend, so I left to get some things at the store. When I arrived, a gentle older man sat crisscross-applesauce with a strange smile. I thought of how mean Jerry, my husband, had been that morning, and I started to smile like a smile could put a bit more happiness in the world to make up for all the jerks. I realized the older man was returning the smile I had on my face, and I said, how do you do? He said hello, and I turned to buy some candles for my mother’s birthday.

I felt like a real meanie for ignoring him. You know, just looking away from his smile. So I turned back to him. “No,” I said, “how are you. What has brought you to this place in the cold?” Yeah! So this is what I recall him saying.

Humans have done it, my dear. Humans and the love of . . . well, just humans. The sidewalk did but the sidewalk is less at fault. It was humans and not the sidewalk, if we need to make distinctions. Humans, because of the highly entertaining curse of self-awareness, can be a bit judgy. Some would say humans are arrogant.

Surely we are arrogant individually, you see. A human dressed in fine silks and polyester approached me the other day when I was begging for alms.

She said, “You should use your body to be useful and earn your money.”

I said, “Why is the money in your pocket yours and not mine?”

She responded, “For I have earned it though the sweat of my brow. You do nothing and expect reward.”

I showed her the sweat that had beaded on my forehead since our conversation had begun. “Verily, I have labored with you in this moment here in front of this well stocked Target superstore. Behold how I shiver with fear of your fine boots as I imagine them lodged in my ribs or deftly overturning my small collection plate with a swift kick.”

The woman in silk and polyester made a sour expression and turned away. As she walked away and through the automated, sliding doors, her piano scarf fluttered in the rush of heated air escaping from within. The warmth brushed against my cheek, and I was reminded of the cold in my bones as I sat cross-legged – just as I do before you now, young lady. It was clear to me that she was unmoved by my thinking. The woman felt my use of matter was of lesser quality than her use of the matter she had under her control. Was she arrogant? Perhaps. But I am not referring to individual arrogance. This is but a trickling stream by comparison to the bulging deluge of human hubris in judging collections of matter generally. In our hierarchy of beings.

How can we box existence into hierarchies? So arbitrary! So arrogant! Yet, there is a functional hierarchy of being that informs how much respect humans accord phenomena in the world.

Rocks can be stepped on and ground up without remorse.

Trees can be shredded and pulped without a lot of remorse.

Fish, chicken and cattle can be harvested and slaughtered without full remorse.

Monkeys and other non-food animals can be killed but, unless self-preservation is the purpose, dead monkeys deserve some remorse according to human standards.

Some wonderful idiots say eyes are the gateway to the soul. What they likely mean is that we can recognize an independent existence worthy of respect and privilege within the constellation of matter that has irised eyeballs. The evidence?! Ha! Animals with eye movements more like our own tend to be treated better. Humans more easily see them as peers in existence – if not equals. We can see how this standard of evaluating animal worth via the eyes manifests culturally in films and other fantasies that explain how “all dogs go to heaven.” Dead or cold eyes in robots indicate the failure of machines to reproduce humans faithfully. But eyes are only part of the picture. Eyes are the layman’s shortcut to the hierarchy of being!

Sir? Spare a dollar? No?

Anyway, this is the height of arrogance, some would argue. Pigs have said so. An octopus once did too, but he was a rare ocean-bound critic. Cephalopods have little experience with us for humanity’s foibles to be widely understood among them, but that octopus had some clever barbs! I wish I had written them down – but words are only one use of ink I’m sure that wily, many-armed bastard would remind me before jetting off into the murk.

He was right to leave me. I had no business in the worlds of deep water. Still, I wanted to defend us humans. We are just anxious about dying. We are “on edge” as they say. What edge? The edge of existence. A precipice of known and unknown. The sudden sense that we aren’t even on the edge anymore but falling. Falling but with no memory of what slippery cad threw us into this mysterious pit, the bottom of which we cannot see. “You’d be anxious too!” I wanted to yell at the retreating octopus.

My point is this: anxiety has a strange consequence for how we go about labeling the world and distinguishing the configurations of matter around us. That is why the trees call us “the Matter Prone to Worried Pondering.” Evergreens do, at least. Majestic palms call us “Something’s the Matter Matter.” Tropicals think they are funny. They are. I laugh every time I realize there is a banana in my mouth. One can’t have slaughter without a laugh!

Do you have a banana? No? Nevermind. We are talking about nervousness of knowing that there is an end of one’s consciousness. Right? Yes.

Our sense that something’s the matter drives us to strange, sometimes compulsive, behavior. Our obsession with hierarchy is an example.

Morally, we accord the tree more rights and privileges than the stone because it is living -as we define it. We despair at a child smashing a tree more so than that child smashing a stone. The tree has something to lose we can easily recognize: life. But what is life but matter organized into super-reactive form?

Spare a dollar? What? When you come out you will have one? Ok.

He won’t come out with the change he promised, but that is alright. That is alright.

Where was I? Where were you? Trees? Yes. Generally, we accord more privilege to the bird then we do the tree. Why? Trees are less discernibly reactive to the environment than the bird. Birds cease to move when chopped in half. The tree never moved at all, and its signs of life slowly disappear to human eyes. It reacts more slowly to the environment. Is this reason to prefer the tree’s matter be reconfigured than that of the birds?

I propose the thought experiment. Would we accord reactive plants a higher place in our ontologies if they were more often reactive? Sensitive plants or Venus Fly Traps? An easily offended fern?

But the world around us is just states of matter. Some more like us. Some less. Some are very mobile in how they use matter. Some sit in stony silence. Some as noisy as us. When you hit some with your favorite stick, they just take it and don’t respond. When you hit others, they run away or get grumpy.

And we would categorize them. “This one, a tree, just takes the axe blow until it falls down. This one is harder than the axe head and stands firm against the blade. This one coming out of Target sees the axe and runs the other way making baleful noises.” Good information for creating categories of matter in order to feel safer in a world that will ultimately kill you by re-configuring your state of matter.

The best part is that the world we fear so often, its sharp edges, the mugger, the violent spouse, it is just a continuation of us. It is almost as if it calls us to rejoin the so-called inert state of being. “Your reactivity is exhausting. Come back to us and be still.” But the ear is just a metaphor to matter. A device to hear itself. The revelation of spirit unto spirit? Hardly. Revelation of matter unto matter.

Of course, all this anxious pondering took place well before philosophers came up with words like ontology, Dasein, and other fancy phrases for ranking forms of matter. Across many independent cultures, these hierarchies all had a curious similarity: humans were at the top. Cuttlefish be damned!

Spare some change?

I admit it is a little cringy. Humans putting themselves at the top all the time? We can rationalize why. It was only natural that humans found themselves at the top of these efforts to catalog all of matter. By the time humans were creating and exchanging the relevant charts and graphs, we had appeared to conquer the big toothy cats and cephalopods alike.

More or less. We still get chewed up by bears occasionally, but we tend to blame ourselves if we meet misfortune at the hands of the “lesser” beings. A violent bear is unworthy of a declaration of war, for instance. We don’t hold one bear’s eviscerating overreaction to humans camping nearby as a premise to kill other bears that bear hung out with. We reserve that guilty-by-association reasoning for other humans. We stop their reactivity so our own reactivity will triumph! So OUR organization of matter, like deck chairs on the Titanic, will prevail.

So much matter! So many different types of matter! We must categorize. That is a tree. Very nice! Look beneath the tree. That shadow of muscle with its piercing eyes and, wait a moment. Yes, those are flesh-tearing teeth. That is a cat that will eat me. We can imagine them peering into the dark of night and declaring, “Let us distinguish these two forms of matter. Clearly doing so will be helpful.”

Thus primordial categorization surely sprang from the need to eat and not be eaten followed by questions about why we cannot stop matter from changing beneath our feet.

The earliest eyes in evolutionary terms were merely light sensing parts of sea life. It was useful to know where the sun was because that is where there was more plankton or algae or smaller sea life to eat. Darkness meant death. Light meant continued life.

So, as matter that is ever-revising itself into new compositions, we live. To continue living for whatever reason -to have children, to love each other, to eat good food, to watch every installment of the Transformers franchise-  we categorized the matter surrounding us to survive. To go on. To survive. To know Michael Bay’s cinematic moods more intimately . . .

We saw the variety of things in the world and became attentive to other forms of matter. We began the enterprise, like Adam in the garden, of cataloging all the stuff to forms of matter that were also in the business of living.

The more imaginative and self-deprecating cultures created an invisible topmost layer of gods, angels and demons who had helped us with our anxieties as we first began to grapple with loved ones having an expiration date. Gods at the top. Then some angels or other super-powered yet humanoid group with too many eyes or bird wings or vendettas against strong snakes. These below-god-above-humans types are often in obedience to the top of the Being Pyramids we construct in our anxious pondering of the world around us.

“Here is my mother. She is here at my feet by the fire but no longer there. Asleep forever. But I loved her interactivity! Where did they go? Can I meet them again? How can a person, so helpful and comforting -if occasionally a bit bossy- become just plain matter?”

Maybe the functional ontology of humanity is based on, first, the degrees of interactivity with the environment. And, second, the degree of interactivity with humans. Yes, all human moral judgment is based on either the appearance of life (like our own) and then the similarity of that appearance to our own experience of life. Both are based on the “degrees of interaction.”

The first degree of interaction is at the level of matter. All living things are, of course, collections of matter. Why matter seems to have worked itself up so much that it produced life is the biggest mystery and it need not detain us here.

We tend to value more highly and, hence, accord more rights to forms of matter that react to the environment. On this scale, “inanimate” and “animate” are the broadest binary categories. But we can see more fine-grained hierarchical differentiation in human assessment of the phenomenological world.

Stones and hammers, some say, have only being-in-themselves. These things do not interact with the world. Some would point out that they make no choices in the course of being. Slime molds and lichen react to the world, growing in favorable conditions and bending toward light as a food source, but these hardly constitute “choices” in the human sense. Wolves and birds do make choices as they weigh courses of action. The wolf may want to invade the chicken coop, but she also knows the farmer will kill her. Wolves and birds choose according to self-preservation. Elephants and dolphins perhaps occupy an additional strata of choice-making when interacting with the environment. More complex social capacities in these species have greater choice in how they interact. Dolphins at play. Octopuses that reach out to human divers with curiosity. These beings make increasingly complex choices that go beyond life and death decisions. They thus enter a different ethical category.

So, we can create an ontology according to the degree and quality of choices each species appears capable of making. You and I here today can do this! We can also see these choices as a mere byproduct of increased interactivity with the environment. I propose, umph . . .

Suddenly, the man flinched. He quickened his speaking pace, the words spilling out at an incredible speed, but he was unable to finish. I looked up to the storefront having forgotten where I was. A blond woman in nice boots marched out of the Target with a teenaged store employee sheepishly following her. When I turned back, the man was gone, vanished like a ghost.

The store employee nodded, and I looked that way across the parking lot and saw him. The man was running with his small plate, some coins bouncing on the pavement in his wake. He clutched at his loose-waisted pants, a bit of his butt was showing.

“Was he bothering you, too?” the woman asked, her shopping bag clutched close to her side.

“Yes,” I said.

Basic Research Summary

Basic Research Summary

Teachers use research summaries to get students acquainted with the current arguments on a topic in an academic field. So, they inform us about a topic, but they also teach students to see the methods researchers use to make arguments. It can be a lesson on evaluating evidence.

There are two kinds of summaries. One is a “deep” and one “lite.”

Deep summaries not only outline the research in a study but also contextualize the research. For example, the summary of an article on consumption in America after World War II would also include references to other historians who have studied the period for comparison. Book reviews are a kind of deep summary.

Lite summaries focus on the information and arguments in the study. These are “lite” because they are shorter and do not contextualize the research. They are useful as quick reference when assembling a literature review or annotated bibliography.

For either type of summary, there is a common procedure in assessing the research you summarize.

First, scan the research. What is the main hypothesis or argument? What evidence did the researcher use? What are the key findings? (5 min)

Next, read the piece well and take notes on important features that may be important for a summary. (20-60 mins)

Once you are familiar with the argument, methods and conclusions, write the summary. Use the following overview to guide your writing process.

Light Research Summary Elements

  • APA style citation info as title
  • Introduction – offer a brief overview of the topic and its importance; include a concise description of the research questions or hypotheses pursued by the study’s authors. Finish intro by outlining the main argument/findings.
  • Methodology –  detail experimental methods and/or the type of primary evidence used to make the argument (e.g. types of experiments, surveys, historical sources, sampling, statistical analysis, etc.).
  • Results section – describe how the data/evidence led the researchers to their conclusions.
  • Conclusion/Discussion – interpret the results, theoretical models, the study strengths and limitations. What are the implications of the arguments made? How do the findings , conclusions, etc. Arguments and findings are revisited and validated or denied, based on how convincing the evidence is.

Quit Facebook: Some Academic Research

Lovers of America quit Facebook

Here is some information on why quitting Facebook might be the right move. Take a look.

Facebook in the news (video)

Facebook in the news (print)

Facebook and monopoly

Facebook and misinformation

Facebook and addictive behavior

Facebook and self-esteem

Facebook Critic Organizations

San Francisco, a Policy Sodom in the Conservative Mind

San Francisco’s iconic progressive image in the American mind has made the city a prime target for critical conservative commentary. In conservative media, California and the Bay often function as a symbol of liberal or Democratic policies. For example, a Fox News investigation (2019) of the unhoused in the city illustrates the San Francisco-as-dystopia symbolism in right-leaning mediaspheres. The investigation’s partisan lens is explicit: “to chronicle the toll progressive policies have had on the homeless crisis.”

The Fox journalist details the problem of those forced into the streets by inflated housing costs and inadequate social programs. How the story is framed makes all the difference. The investigation underlines the problem with anecdotes from the perspective of frustrated business owners and visitors appalled or frightened by street encounters with the poor, drug-addled and mentally ill. To Fox’s credit, the wealth gap exacerbating the issue becomes clear in interviews with Bay Area residents. All fair points about housing policy failures aside, the Fox piece frames the issue in two significant ways:

  1. The unhoused is a problem for visitors and the middle class who wish to use the city without the inconvenience of poverty-battered bodies in the street;
  2. A failure of “Democrats” and the progressive ideology SF has come to symbolize in the American imagination.

The report only lightly touches on inflated housing costs resulting from capitalist housing market dynamics and the wealth gap in the state. Instead, the story focuses the reader’s attention on arguments that a soft-on-crime agenda was central in creating the crisis. The report appears to be a piece on public policy. However, it becomes clear that the emphasis is on “failures of liberal programs” rather than an earnest journalistic exploration of proposed solutions to housing crises.

In public discourse, filtered through the business model of cable news, San Francisco is a means to a partisan end. In stories like this, the city is used as a symbol of progressive policy failures. The city is a character in a narrative that confirms the correctness of conservative politics. Comments on stories like these seem to confirm how the framing pits city progressives vs. non-city conservatives:

Strange how Liberals claim to be “progressive” and Conservatives “backward thinking”, yet their cities resemble something out of the Middle Ages, when the streets of large cities like London were open running sewers of human and animal waste. Now we can sit back and wait for all the old time epidemics like cholera and dysentery to make a return. Everything we have learned about the importance of public sanitation tossed aside by these “progressives”.


The historical context for the emergence of these partisan news frames is important. The origins of conservative media city-bashing are rooted in transformation from a more unified, low-choice world of media of the 20th century to our current high-choice and politically fragmented environment.

Until around the 1980s, American media was a low-choice world. The media system was “low-choice” when TV news, for example, was produced by three or four mainstream networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) with roughly similar ideological perspectives. By the 1990s, Americans found themselves in a “high-choice” media environment.

The low-choice media environment had its flaws but it likewise had the benefit of putting Americans on the same page about the major problems we faced as a nation. Scholars and journalists of the 1970s could identify something like a mainstream public debate. The high-choice media world (after cable then satellite then digital and social media) made more perspectives available, but it also fragmented the public. Over time, the public’s use of media took shape around preferred news sites, guided by confirmation biases, selective attention and information “bubbles.” The diversity of available perspectives was supposed to be more democratic and empower citizens with access to information, but the high-choice media environment paradoxically allowed us to insulate ourselves from opposing views and the people who expressed them.

These gradual changes to the media system enabled new business models to specialize in partisan content. The introduction of Fox News in 1994 is a popular illustration of this late 20th century business model, but digital platforms also followed suit with the right-leaning Drudge Report (1995) and the liberal Daily Kos (2002). Today, Breitbart news, One American News and a number of other media start-ups are targeting these partisan audiences and competing for audience market share, often by expressing ever more partisan frames on American politics. Facebook’s leaked internal research has confirmed this trend. The leak shows how digital media companies profit when “core parts of its platform appear hardwired for spreading misinformation and divisive content.” For these companies, the civic decay stemming from this ideological war is a gold mine.

The way technology and business models have exacerbated partisanship in American politics challenges classic tenets of journalism. It has also disrupts the traditional function of news. Where 20th century journalists could think of news as a sort of schoolhouse, offering information to foster educated voting and self-governance, the 21st century has cultivated new functions of news in public life. The schoolhouse metaphor has given way to another functional metaphor: the church. Americans increasingly use news as a way to endorse a common ideological faith. Conservatives look to Tucker Carlson to confirm the evils of Nancy Pelosi and commiserate about the dangers of “creeping socialism.” MSNBC viewers tune in to see if Trump will be indicted for his role in the Capitol riots following Biden’s election. In many ways, our choice of news is a choice of a dramatically illustrated world view. The faithful, after all, don’t go to church to learn something new about what happened to Jesus. They go to participate in a community of shared values and fellowship.

Partisan news and the reorganization of the public into news communities of faith helps explain the fragmentation of the public and the use of San Francisco as a symbol for conservative news audiences. Liberals can wonder why the farmers of Kansas vote against their own economic interests. In each case, the cultural chasm widens as news media marshal cities and places as symbols of difference and antagonism rather than one people working as a larger collective.

Russia’s RT as metanews

The year 2008 was important to understand RT’s evolving purpose in world affairs. After relative obscurity following its 2005 launch, RT began countering American and NATO news regarding Russian intervention in South Ossetia, Georgia. RT offered a counternarrative: Russian intervention was defensive and humanitarian, and Russia as a benevolent actor in world affairs. Most importantly, RT framed itself as an underdog in a battle for truth in the murky world of global politics and war.

A profile of RT in The New Statesmen in 2013 noted how “Russian journalists fought back” by aggressively portraying Russia’s humanitarian intentions and citing examples of American news stifling or suppressing Russian perspectives:  

Some western channels, particularly Fox News, were hardly less biased in covering the war. RT repeatedly aired a Fox interview in which two South Ossetians from California tried to thank the Russian government but were cut off by the anchor. Fox’s many detractors could watch the take-downs on YouTube, which started carrying RT in 2007. Simonyan’s channel began to win a whole new audience.

This period in RT’s development illustrates how a war over framing international conflict led RT its unique style of international journalism: flashy, daring, brash, anti-establishment, populist, etc. But RT also made the battle over news narratives a part of their coverage. The channel’s turn to media criticism appealed to the growing suspicions of media bias and offered RT’s coverage as a way to escape corporate media.  

Was the Georgian war a turning point for the coverage and tone of RT? Perhaps. By challenging the coverage of Western news media giants, RT tapped into the growing suspicion of American news media. There was a market for those suspicious of mainstream journalism. Much like Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes filled a market for conservative opinion with Fox News a decade earlier, RT saw an audience they could develop by portraying the channel as the uncorrupted truth-teller in a world of insider politics and patriotic stooges . . . all while thumbing their nose at authorities. Russia has continued to play media critic, self-righteously dressing down UK regulators for violating RT’s right to broadcast after complaints.

By portraying itself as the “anti-Fox,” RT made the meta-turn to commentary on news as an extension of the critique of America and American leadership. By the 2010s, RT had embraced the anti-establishment tone reminiscent of a sarcastic teenager rebelling against the overbearing father. The host of RT’s The Resident roams the streets of New York, interviewing passers by about their suspicions of media. “Special reports” have a cynical edge as the reporter reviews the considerable number of U.S. military and intelligence officials on MSNBC’s payroll for news commentary.

For a bulk of the 20th century, professional broadcast journalism organized public opinion guided by “professional” standards of newsworthiness and neutral reporting (Hallin 1994; Schudson 2001). Professional, neutral reporting was well suited to the needs of journalism of the network and early cable era. U.S. networks wanted to speak to mass audiences and maximize advertising revenues. As a business model, it was best not to offend any region of the country. Informative, factual news about matters of broad interest was a safe bet for these networks. Walter Cronkite intended to speak to and for a nation.

Though producers have moved online, the demand for neutral reporting remains, somewhat like a vestigial tail. The cultural expectation of neutrality and objectivity that underlie common public criticism of newsrooms works well for RT. The expectation has outlasted the conditions that made it possible during the “gatekeeper” era of professional news. I’m reminded of Max Boot’s concern over conspiracy theory in the digital age:

“The online world is a post-truth space where there are no undisputed facts, only competing narratives, and even the most deranged claims (e.g., QAnon) can aggregate an audience.”

This is when RT’s motto makes the most sense as effective branding: Question More. The network doubles down on this outsider credibility in both branding and self-referential reporting. When regulators or critics accuse the channel of bias in coverage, RT’s apologists can reasonably retort that all media are biased. That all news is framed in narrative. But this sidesteps the real question . . . Is RT offering criticism of journalistic failures or a merchant of doubt availing itself of the ultimate unmooring of truth in public discourse? How might Russian interests be served by a post-truth American public?

Academic Advice: Requesting a letter of recommendation

Academic Advice: Requesting a letter of recommendation
Image credit: Thought Co.

Letters of recommendation can be a crucial part of applications to jobs and graduate schools. A detailed letter from a former instructor is particularly helpful in applying to graduate programs. Requesting letters involves a few steps that let the potential writer know who you are, where you are going and why you deserve a recommendation.

Each potential recommender may have specific needs to write for you, but here is a general guide to requesting letters.

  1. Prepare documents that will support the recommendation (statement of purpose, cover letter, Resume/CV, research interests, career plans, a paper composed for the instructor). These help the potential writer identify your strengths and academic/career direction.
  2. In your initial request, briefly detail the programs to which you are applying and remind the potential writer of relevant experiences in their class (e.g. a piece of work you’ve done for/with them).
  3. Ask potential recommenders if they need additional material to write for you. Some recommendation writers request descriptions of the programs to which you are applying, for example. Offer links to the programs to which you are applying.
  4. In large classes, reach out to your GSI (Graduate Student Instructor) or TA (Teaching Assistant) for the recommendation. Strong recommendations reflect deep familiarity with the student, and the lead professor may not have enough experience with your work to write the kind of letter you will need. A GSI or TA with whom you have a good relationship can offer such details.
  5. Ask about and use the letter-delivery system preferred by the potential recommender and/or admissions committee (Interfolio; direct emails from the institution, etc.).
  6. Many professors advise that you waive the right to see the recommendation. Doing so gives the letter more credibility in the eyes of admissions committees.
  7. Give your writer 6 weeks notice before the recommendation due date.

The first email to your potential recommender should be fairly brief (1-2 paragraphs) and offer enough information for the instructor to recall your work as a student. A link to major papers or projects you did for the course is often useful for both purposes. The reminder of who you are could also be a brief reference to a particularly memorable conversation during office hours or other unique experience with the instructor.

The point of the recommendation letter is to make you stand out from other applicants. Your recommendation request should do the same. Additional guidance from Cal’s career center can be found here.

Good luck with your applications!

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. Nor were they happy patriots there to admire institutions of democracy, as Republican apologists have suggested. 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.

The misunderstanding of American history that animated rioters is at the root of the conflict. 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.
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 or new media misinformation. And it’s understandable given journalism is ostensibly a fact-based profession. But the mainstream press may have a problem of being naively literal in an increasingly 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.

Reporting 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 and separate 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 along the fault lines of confirmation biases. The symbolic center cannot hold.

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. The role of symbols in movements inspired by QAnon illustrates how current tools of of professional journalism produce blindspots in political analysis.

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).

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, the conspiracy movement fails tests of evidence required by professional journalists as well as 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 and belief without clear evidence. However far-fetched, conspiracy paints a symbolic picture that explains the sense of powerlessness felt by many.

At once, “Q” 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 engagement 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. Traditional journalism functions as a gatekeeper, 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 alienated, but newsrooms can certainly pay greater attention to the symbolic dimensions of political culture and better understand the reality buried in the myths that shape the “paranoid style” of American politics. 

Symbols have and will always play a role in political movements. Just look at the flags arrayed during the Capitol riots. It is uncertain, however, if 21st century journalism can develop analysis that both maintains fact-based discourse and productively accounts for the emerging centrality of symbols in political life. But a wholesale shift to symbolic public discourse threatens to unmoor democratic participation from meaningful self-governance.

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.