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Hypocratic Oath

December 31, 2017 Leave a comment

It is possible to use the internet to commit a crime. For example, one could use a Silk Road-like website to acquire a controlled substance it is illegal to possess in one’s geographical jurisdiction, or simply use the web’s myriad means of communication to coordinate a financial fraud.

It also is possible to commit an internet crime. The social and commercial interactions that occur within the internet itself are subject to a sort of moral code, and, for all of the flexibility and fluidity the web as a virtual space would seem to offer, one of the highest internet crimes arises out of inconsistency. For many in this realm, there is no greater offense than to be indicted for the offense of hypocrisy. And, indeed, indictment and conviction are nearly simultaneous in this medium, with sentencing following quite swiftly thereafter.

The internet remembers all, or sufficiently all, anyway, to retain record of those off-color tweets you sent years before you took a public stand against others who said similar things, and when someone else finds those old tweets, man are you going to look silly. One of the things at which human brains excel is detecting patterns, and when the alleged hypocrite expresses something apparently inconsistent with his or her prior positions, a little nugget of pleasure releases inside those brains upon the presentation of the irrefutable evidence from the historical record. Guilty on the spot.

The web-seductiveness of exposing apparent hypocrites is so alluring that it makes it easy to forget that hypocrisy, for all its attendant failings, is a sort of derivative or second-level offense, and our obsession with rooting it out can obscure or overwhelm what often is a serious substantive problem underlying the procedural default. In that way, for example, we frequently focus on an evaluation of the authenticity of an entertainment personality’s expressed opposition to the mistreatment of women when we subsequently find that she or he previously engaged in similar (or maybe even not that similar, but, hey, close enough) mistreatment in the past, rather than the actually bad problem itself. (This also touches on why otherwise uninvolved people “coming out as” anti-rape, anti-Nazi, etc., contributes very little to the general good.) Sexual harassment in the workplace and racism in public policy are two very real and significant issues that require real, meaningful effort to address, and yet we are so easily distracted from this work by the thrill of hypocrite hunting.

In the context of last month’s Senate election in Alabama, in which Doug Jones ultimately defeated Roy Moore by a margin the narrowness of which made many uncomfortable, Jonah Goldberg wrote for the Los Angeles Times about the dangers of our national distraction:

This obsession with hypocrisy leads to a repugnant immorality. In an effort to defend members of their team, partisans end up defending the underlying behavior itself. After all, you can only be a hypocrite if you violate some principle you preach. If you ditch the principle, you can dodge the hypocrisy charge. We’re seeing this happen in real time with some of Moore’s defenders, just as we saw it with Clinton’s in the 1990s.

Jonah Goldberg, Taking harassment seriously also requires making serious distinctions, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 21, 2017.

Or, as another thoughtful observer put it in sometimes cruder terms:

Wishing everyone a safe and happy new year filled with a renewed focus and energy for addressing some of our real problems in 2018.

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In re Monster Mash

October 31, 2017 Leave a comment

In 2017’s internet-centric media world, the illusion of interactivity trumps truth, and the mind-altering pursuit of that illusory activity has little time for factual accuracy. Thus, it was with familiar disappointment that I encountered the below stitch of web content in the days preceding the instant holiday:

I do not know Lawrence Miles. There is a good chance I do not know any of the roughly sixty thousand internet people who interacted with Miles’ tweet. I do know “Monster Mash,” though.

“Monster Mash” is at least two things: 1) a song recorded and released by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and The Crypt-Kickers in 1962 and 2) a dance performed by the monsters referenced in the song.

Miles’ statement obviously is incorrect on its face. After all, Pickett’s song, which topped charts shortly after its release and remains a seasonal favorite more than sixty years later, has reached many ears.

Of course, that is not the sense at which Miles directed his tweet. The song may be called “Monster Mash,” but it obviously is about something called “the monster mash” as well, and that subject is Miles’ target. Miles may not be a careful listener, however, because the song clearly identifies and describes the monster mash as a dance, rather than a song:

I was working in the lab, late one night
When my eyes beheld an eerie sight
For my monster from his slab, began to rise
And suddenly to my surprise

He did the mash, he did the monster mash
The monster mash, it was a graveyard smash
He did the mash, it caught on in a flash
He did the mash, he did the monster mash

From my laboratory in the castle east
To the master bedroom where the vampires feast
The ghouls all came from their humble abodes
To get a jolt from my electrodes

They did the mash, they did the monster mash
The monster mash, it was a graveyard smash
They did the mash, it caught on in a flash
They did the mash, they did the monster mash

There is no ambiguity here. Whether it was the monster mash or the mashed potato, the narrator is describing a particular dance the monsters were doing, not a song they were playing. Miles reasonably might have contended that no one had ever seen the monster mash dance performed, but his statement, insofar as it contemplates the monster mash as a song, finds no support in the text itself.

A potential problem for the analysis presented in this post appears in the chorus following the third verse, however, which uses slightly different phrasing:

The Zombies were having fun, the party had just begun
The guests included Wolfman, Dracula, and his son

The scene was rockin’, all were digging the sounds
Igor on chains, backed by his baying hounds
The coffin-bangers were about to arrive
With their vocal group, ‘The Crypt-Kicker Five’

They played the mash, they played the monster mash
The monster mash, it was a graveyard smash
They played the mash, it caught on in a flash
They played the mash, they played the monster mash

A band appears and, for the first time, this chorus introduces the notion that the monster mash is something that could be “played” as well as done, lending apparent support to the implied premise of Miles’ assertion (i.e., that the monster mash is a song). At this juncture, the best we can do is meet Miles part way. The monster mash plainly is a dance, but it might also be a song. If so, however, the question remains: have we heard the monster mash song?

With an assist from Dracula, the monsters answer this question in the affirmative. Immediately after the foregoing chorus, the narrator tells us:

Out from the coffin, Drac’s voice did ring
Seems he was troubled by just one thing
He opened the lid and shook his fist and said
“Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?”

It’s now the mash, it’s now the monster mash
The monster mash, it was graveyard smash
It’s now the mash, it caught on in a flash
It’s now the mash, it’s now the monster mash

Importantly, Dracula has been in his closed coffin this entire time (“Out from the coffin . . . He opened the lid . . .”), so he had not seen the monster mash dance but he had heard the monster mash song. Thus, when he asked about the “Transylvania Twist,” now rebranded as “The Monster Mash,” he was referring to a song and not a dance. And, contrary to Miles’ claim, we have heard “Transylvania Twist,” a rollicking barrel-house instrumental that would sound right at home in Eastern Kentucky:

No matter which way you slice it, Miles was wrong: the monster mash is a dance, and, to the extent it also is a song, it is a song we have heard.

(While the preparation of this post brought me no pleasure, I was glad to learn in the course of my research that the late Leon Russell was a Crypt-Kicker whose keyboard mashing appeared one one of the tracks on The Original Monster Mash, “Monster Mash Party,” which was the b-side to “Monster Mash.”)

Wishing everyone an honest Halloween.

Categories: Current, Internet, Listening, Music

Is This My Favorite New York Times Article?

September 30, 2016 2 comments

Nominally, anyway, this website is supposed to be about asking questions. Here is one: did the New York Times publish my favorite New York Times article earlier this month? I have been asking myself that question since September 8, when the paper ran an article entitled, “‘What Is Aleppo?’ Gary Johnson Asks, in an Interview Stumble.”

Before September 8, Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s 2016 presidential candidate, had been having a difficult time attracting national, mainstream media attention. By third-party standards, he was polling well, though, and, in early September, he was making a big push to force the hand of the Commission on Presidential Debates to include him in the then-upcoming first presidential debate.

Part of that push included an appearance on an MSNBC morning talk show that day. During the appearance, one of the hosts asked him, “What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?” Johnson responded by attempting to clarify the question: “About?” The host: “Aleppo.” Johnson: “What is Aleppo?”

The internet exploded. A candidate the primary-party adherents previously refused to acknowledge existed rapidly was called out for widespread rebuke, deemed an unserious candidate, and declared unworthy of the presidency (one politically attentive friend wrote that this made Johnson less fit to occupy the White House than Donald Trump). The unstated assumption, of course, was that everybody knows what Aleppo is, and if Johnson is ignorant of such a basic thing (“What is Philadelphia?”), he must be a fool indeed.

News websites rushed to capitalize on the sudden spike in critical attention to the Johnson campaign, and the New York Times, by way of the above-linked article, was no exception. It soon became clear, however, that Johnson was not the only purported policy expert asking “What is Aleppo?” By the end of the day, two corrections appeared at the bottom of the Times’ viral content piece, which they published in their Politics section as part of their Election 2016 coverage:

nytleppocrop

In this political age of internet journalism, that is the definition of perfection, and I have little more to add than to answer my question above in the affirmative.

(Regarding the coverage of the moment more generally, it almost certainly goes without saying that it ended with the “What is Aleppo?” question and ignored Johnson’s recovery and substantive answer when he realized he was being asked about Syria.)

This presidential campaign has been relatively gaffe-free, at least by conventional (e.g., Joe Biden) standards. Many regard Trump’s entire campaign as one long-running gaffe, or worse, though, and it likely has warped our understanding of what it is for a presidential candidate to “gaffe” during a campaign.

As Trump’s campaign gained steam, writers took aim, laboring to describe just how terrible and unpresidential they believed Trump was. In one sense, the task was easy. Trump provided– and is continuing to provide– plenty of examples, any one of which seemingly would have been enough to sink a candidate’s chances in previous elections. (Maybe part of the reason people have been so quick to pounce on Johnson after his Aleppo gaffe, as well as the more recent one (details; response), is because it allows them to slide back into normal campaign territory. Johnson is more of a conventional presidential candidate than Trump, and, as such, he has made some seemingly typical candidate blunders.)

In another sense, though, the task of describing and contextualizing Candidate Trump has proven increasingly difficult, because, even before Trump emerged as a viable politician, we were doing a poor job of allocating our extreme adjective resources. The danger of describing everything as “incredible” is that, when something actually incredible (unbelievable, terrible, etc.) happens, the dilution of the word’s meaning makes it difficult to contextualize just how extreme the occurrence was. Maybe Trump really is an unimaginably extreme candidate; more likely, I think, he is exactly as extreme a candidate as we used to consider our politicians (“war criminal!” “savior!”).

Johnson’s gaffes may facilitate the termination of any practical viability present in his campaign. They probably could not have come at a worse time for him. They also offer a lens through which to view the campaigns of the primary parties’ candidates, as well as the media’s coverage of the campaign as a whole.

More than anything, though, I keep coming back to that New York Times article, which, if little else, serves as a needed lesson in humility and a (perfect, humorous) reminder that we all might not be the experts we think we are.

Categories: Current, Internet, Politics

The Value of Anonymity

September 30, 2014 Leave a comment

Two of the results of the widespread availability of the virtual printing press that is the internet are an increase in published criticism and, in reaction to that increase in criticism, an increased demand for people to publish their material, and particularly their critical material, under their own names. Part of this second result is borne out of a demand for authenticity: we want to know that the things we see and read online are real. Another comes from a voiced desire of the criticized to know their critics. The foundational concept is a belief that people are unlikely to publish false, baseless, or mean-spirited commentary under their own name, because they likely would suffer adverse consequences. In essence, anonymity is harmful to public discourse because it allows people to participate in public discourse without consequences.

Anonymity is not all bad, however. As evidenced by the success of increasingly openly partisan cable news networks, people prefer to receive information and discuss issues with others they already know they agree with. It seems likely that people decide what they think about an article, or even whether they are going to read it at all, simply by referencing source identification material. Republicans disregard MSNBC and the New York Times, to which Democrats flock while disregarding Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, to which Republicans flock. The point is not that these are necessarily insightful, intelligent, or worthwhile information sources, but that context matters in deciding how– or whether– people approach offered ideas, content, information, or potential conversations.

Anonymity can make discourse more robust because it necessarily emphasizes content over source-information context. Readers and listeners must engage with the idea or ideas presented because there is nothing else. Without preconceived expectations, people are more likely to consider an opinion they otherwise would ignore or find a new way of understanding an idea with which they already generally agreed, all of which can lead to more meaningful exchanges of ideas and reassessments of one’s own views.

The Internet’s Thin Veil

June 29, 2014 Leave a comment

Setting aside the net neutrality policy debate, the internet’s level publishing platform does not seem to have allowed for a multitude of dislocated voices so much as a partial reorganization of collective publishing entities in a way that is not so different from the newspapers and magazines that controlled periodical publication during the wholly print era. For those writers coming of age today, the internet’s vastness actually may make it even more difficult to catch the eye of those in control of the most well-attended publishing outlets.

What may be different today, though, is the relative ease with which readers may examine an individual’s writings, musings, exercises, and even drafts posted online before the individual accepted an invitation to join a popular publishing platform. Sometimes, as in the case of Clay Travis, who posted multiple unfavorable comments of Fox Sports not long before accepting an offer to join the network, it is quite easy to find this content. Other times, a small mistake can unlock a trove of old material.    Read more…

The Future of Journalism is Alive in Grand Rapids

May 21, 2013 Leave a comment

The decline of traditional journalistic media is well documented. In recent years, newspapers like the Ann Arbor News and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News have shuttered their doors. In order to survive, some papers, such as Detroit’s Free Press and News, have merged to varying degrees. Other regional papers, like the Tennessean, are shells of journalistic operations, mere AP repeaters after laying off batches of reporters. Some national papers– including the Wall Street Journal and New York Times– have gone to paid online platforms.

We have been told that the internet would be able to replace traditional print media, but experience suggests we have yet to realize that future. Web-based writers largely are concerned with reactions and opinions, and actual reportage appears have to decreased across the board, with foreign and local beats particularly suffering.

One outlet, Grand Rapids’ The Rapidian, is advancing the news media banner in the twenty-first century, though, and it is doing so through a hyperlocal, citizen-driven approach. The idea is to have a community’s members conduct actual reporting and create original content tied to the issues affecting that community and the happenings within it. The online-only newspaper seeks to capture the diversity of happenings and perspectives across the community’s varying neighborhoods– indeed, The Rapidian organizes content both by subject area and place-rooted bureaus— in a rigorous manner by providing training from experienced journalists and writers. This journalistic training, in turn, deepens residents’ connections to their community by providing them with tools to become more engaged community members.

It is easy to see why Grand Rapidians would want to support The Rapidian, a deeply engaged news source that is growing and developing along with a revitalized city that is doing the same thing, particularly when the city’s familiar news source, The Grand Rapids Press, is doing the opposite. (To its credit, MLive, the media group that now operates what remains of The Press and a number of other, formerly independent Michigan newspapers, has been a public, financial supporter of The Rapidian.)

It also should be easy to see why those who do not live in Grand Rapids nevertheless should want to support The Rapidian. Few communities currently have a dynamic, locally focused outlet like The Rapidian, but many, I suspect, would like and benefit from one of their own. The long-term solution, of course, is for members of these communities to create their own hyperlocal news source. (Anyone involved* with The Rapidian certainly would emphasize the “long-term” nature of that solution, I suspect.) The short-term solution is for members of these communities to support The Rapidian. The Rapidian is a national leader in this concept and a possible model for hyperlocal news media in other communities, and as such, its continued success makes it more likely that communities outside Grand Rapids will be able to follow its lead and develop their own versions. Thus, no matter where you live, if you have an interest in participatory locally focused news and media that works in the twenty-first century, you have an interest in supporting The Rapidian. You can do so here today.

* Disclosure: I am a former member of the board of directors of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, the umbrella media organization that serves the city through numerous channels, and of which The Rapidian is a part.

Blogging about Blogging (at ALDLAND)

August 1, 2011 Leave a comment

I launched ALDLAND, a new blog about sports and culture, this morning. My hope is that it will develop into a multi-author site that’s both more frequently current and less frequently serious than the material that usually appears here. I fully intend to continue writing here as usual, and, as this site surges past 8,000 overall page views today, I am grateful for your continued readership.

An introduction to the new site, and the first day’s posts are available at http://aldland.wordpress.com.