Really, it’s not funny

Posted: November 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Culture, Journalism, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Two weeks ago, I joined much of the young American Left at the “Rally to Restore Sanity.” I didn’t travel down to Washington for the occasion; I’m not that much of a Daily Show devotee. I had meetings with various sources, a very good college friend to stay with, and my sister to see in Philly on the way back. The timing and location were convenient.

The rally was, to be honest, boring, certainly not as funny or as compelling as the two television shows from which it derived. Given how little effort I put into getting there, that’s fine. But when I think about how many young folks actually traveled to be there, it’s infuriating. It’s infuriating that the ideas around which young liberals rally en masse are so unsubstantial.

I was not the only person who felt that way. Mark Ames had a screed at The Exiled on the rally, and it’s definitely got a lot of problems [basically, skip the second half], but I think there’s a kernel of truth in the piece that is worth excerpting at some length. Read the rest of this entry »

Maha Breaks the Space-Time Continuum

Posted: December 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Business, Culture, Ephemera, Politics, Video | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Today, from my bedroom in New York, I video-blog about the problems with the cultural/individualist left, postmodernism and the dire state of environmental reform:

Also today, from Islamabad, I opine on the role of the middle class in Pakistan’s political future:
Capitalism is the best insurer of political stability, Nasr posits, but not all capitalisms are equal. To promote peace, growth must do more than simply reduce absolute poverty by expanding the proverbial economic pie. It must also curb inequality by expanding the middle class, and tie their success explicitly to the stability of the state.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

The Muslim world’s middle classes are the ultimate stakeholders in the war on terrorism. While demanding liberal pro-growth policies that raise the incomes of those at the bottom, middle-class business leaders remain dependent on the state for core services such as education and healthcare which both facilitate their own entrepreneurship and benefit the poor.

Unlike upper-crust investors, they can’t pack up their assets and their families and leave when political turmoil hits. Because they have real wealth to lose if the state falls apart, middle classes remain engaged in the democratic process and protect democratic institutions from violence and corruption. By strengthening the state, and enriching their societies, they undermine the sales pitch of militant leaders who prey on inequalities and power vacuums to recruit followers. Even in economically troubled, war-torn Pakistan, a small middle class is beginning to play this very role. [Read the rest.]

Am I miraculous, or what?

Pop Quiz: How is Postmodernism like the Web?

Posted: May 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Culture, Technology | Tags: , | 2 Comments »

They’re both subjects I blog about.

No, but seriously. My previous complaints about postmodernism have centered on the impact that the ideology has over the social and civic use-value of the humanities. Basically, postmodernist scholars say they should teach young people to question the whole notion of usefulness. The idea probably has some internal coherence that is above my pay grade, but to an average eighteen year old in English 101 at an average school, it’s an education in apathy.

When making this critique, I have been accused of being eerily nostalgic for the distant past when humanities teaching was about using the great books to impart immutable moral mantras to a leadership class of white young men. But what seems to rile my critics most is the idea that education should be socially or civic-ly useful at all. In other words, what’s with my institutionalism?

In my posts about media, I frequently express skepticism about the contemporary shift away from professionalism,  factual rigor, and respect for intellectual property. I do so because I believe professional reporting (which must be financed on the basis of intellectual property) is better for the functioning of the political and social system than the citizen-driven alternatives.

The counter-argument from new media evangelists is deeply postmodernist: just like the postmodernists discourage attempts to decipher meaning because the words on the page CAN mean any number of things to any number of people, the web evangelists discourage a focus on objectivity because links CAN be made to show any connections we’d like. Just like the postmodernists discourage attempts to link authors to their work, the web evangelists discourage respect for intellectual property. When a critic of their views expresses a desire to make academia and journalism socially and civically useful, the web evangelists join the postmodernists in asking “what’s with that institutionalism?”

It gets worse. As Susan Blum shows in her new book, young web evangelists are now using postmodern arguments–authorship is socially constructed and should be ignored, the words belong to whomever is interpreting them at that moment–to justify plagiarizing from the web as “pastiche.” If I had any lingering doubts about the educational use-value of postmodernism, they are gone now.

Note to English teachers: Get Real

Posted: February 3rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Culture | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments »

I have been contemplating posting these reflections for many months, but a post over at FWFL reminded me how I got on this subject to begin with. The author of that blog, Colin Clout, is a literature graduate student with a broadly postmodernist approach to the study of culture, an approach that pervades much of the academy these days. I crassly summarize this approach as

1. It’s impossible to know, 100%, what Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote Hamlet or why Napoleon invaded Russia. Even if these men kept diaries, they might have lied. Therefore it’s intellectually unconscionable to ask such questions.
2. You and I may today find many patterns in this writing that Shakespeare did not intend or could never have thought of especially since words in the English language, or any other language, have changed over time, and since language is imperfect and manmade anyway. Indeed, an old book can be about some newfangled concept if I, reading it today, am reminded of a newfangled concept. Heck, it could be about anything so long as somebody thinks so.
3. It is intellectually admirable to constantly expand the set of interpretations, even if some of them have seemingly weak ties to the historical or social context in which books were written, paintings painted or political speeches delivered, or even to the social context in which those books, paintings or speeches were read, seen or heard. It is sinful to attempt to establish which meanings matter most at any particular time. The more subversion you contribute to the debate, the better you have performed. To quote Mr. Clout directly, “What is the relevance, the importance of humanities? What is the functionality of the academy?…[It is] in questioning the need for functionality.”
In conversations with Mr. Clout, I have said that my problem with this school of thought is not only that I disagree with its main tenets but also that I find it socially pernicious. I think a good researcher of culture can often determine beyond a reasonable doubt what people intended to accomplish and what others perceived. More importantly, however, I think it’s AS windows into such motivations and societal implications that culture, or history, or really most branches of the humanities, matter to begin with.

Once upon a time, indeed until after World War II, most university education was in the humanities: young propertied men went off to prestigious Ivy-covered halls to read Chaucer and Cicero, and their professors helped them understand, specifically, how those texts might inform their future decisions as businessmen or statesmen or generals.

That very functional approach to the study of culture was undone during the Cold War, by academics who wanted to make sure that smart people did not choose to help the government or the corporation, since (these thinkers determined), those were more or less corrupted institutions from which the academy was meant to offer a retreat. They argued that they were preserving young minds from a dehumanizing bureaucracy, but I wonder if there isn’t something dehumanizing about the separation of the mind, of academic intellectual endeavor, from the person, a social being embedded in the political and economic contingencies of a specific historical moment.

The moment academics in the humanities rejected the social for the psychological is, coincidentally or not, the moment public education grants shifted from the right brain field to the left. If Mr. Clout and his peers are worried about financing their profession, they might start by reconsidering their ideology.

From the talking heads to the echo chamber?

Posted: October 27th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Journalism, Technology | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments »

I consider myself something of a Web 2.0 moderate. Though I’m bullish about the prospects for technology to expand the reach of news to those who might not otherwise join in public discourse, I don’t believe that populist outcome makes bloggers and tweeters as individuals inherently superior to their New Yorker foes. I find the moralistic tone of netroots commentators decrying the “establishment” pretty repulsive, just as I find the conspiratorial fears among print journos about the insurgent techies to be silly and exaggerated.

Yes, people are tired of a he-said-she-said model of media that often involves going back and forth between talking heads of various ideological poles and winding up with no answers at all. But bloggers are swinging in two equally dangerous directions.

Some, like Jeff Jarvis, have gone postmodern on us: forget answers, they say. Jarvis foresees a digital echo chamber where there aren’t any narratives or accounts or collections of data. Instead, there will just be the “web” in its entirety, with any one blog post having value solely in its connections to every single item out there on the web on a given topic. I’m a big believer in the importance of links, and I see those as one of the web’s main assets, but I see links as helping to deepen a reader’s understanding on any one article or blog post. Just as I have never bought the litcrit argument that it’s impossible to hold and analyze one aspect of a text when it’s the “process of making meaning that matters”, I don’t really buy Jarvis’ argument that Web 2.0 readers will be so wrapped up in the process of following the links that they will no longer want some conclusions about their world. Narrative–and thus some single unit like a story or a blog post–will still matter.

Other techevangelists, like Larry Smith, think the web is going to get more more fractured, more opinionated, with people embracing the spin of the single subset of definitive answers they choose to read, caring as much about the identity of the journalists as they do about the news. As people embrace what Larry calls the “Fifth Estate,” the old media will become irrelevant and slip away. I don’t buy this picture either: just as people still want to walk away from their daily media digest with some coherent narrative, they also still want that narrative to tell some facts. The human impulse for information is as real and enduring as the impulse for interpretation.

People have been predicting since the the 1840s that technologies which allow for the blurring of fact, fiction and opinion would somehow debase the public’s ability to differentiate between these categories. 19th century public intellectuals angsted that readers would be so committed to factual objectivity that they would no longer value worldviews and social institutions. 19th century sociologists worried that readers would be so entranced with the fictional subjectivity of serialized novels that they would cease to care about real events–elections, wars, urban crime on their own street corners. Neither prediction came through; it turned out people wanted both information and interpretation, and the same print technology had to meet these two needs in separate ways. Newspapers, novels and magazine essays each found their place.

Similarly, the narrative/story–with its interpretative value–, the blog post–with its ability to make bias transparent, and the article–with its emphasis on data and figures all have a role in the 21st century. Web journalists will add the narrative and the article to their arsenal of forms, while print writers and analog broadcasters will learn from the web how to be more transparent about bias in their opinion-driven work. Overtime, as every journalist learns the skills of each platform, this dichotomy of established vs. netroots journo communities will evaporate, but not (as Jarvis says) by eliminating the differences between the content and purpose of these various media forms.

In other words, calm down. There will be change, but the sky is not falling.