Change?

“The more things change the more they stay the same” as some wag said at some point in the past. And it does appear to have a kernel of truth at the center of it.

I am reading The Personal Memories of P.H. Sheridan, one of the three central figures in the victory of the North over the South in our Civil War. We know him as General Sheridan and together with Grant and Sherman, the Yanks were finally able to prevail — after one of the bloodiest wars in history.

But after Lincoln’s death the nation went through even greater trials in an attempt to bring the tattered Union together again. After the war was officially over — and while renegade troops of Rebels continued to fight and cause havoc in the South — Sheridan was sent to head up a peace-keeping force in New Orleans and Texas. Neither of these states, together with the other Rebel starts, wanted back in the Union. In New Orleans in 1866 there was a “massacre” (to use Sheridan’s word) in which nearly 200 black citizens together with Northern sympathizers were slaughtered by a large group of angry Southerners — including the New Orleans police.

Sheridan wrote about it after the fact:

“No steps have been taken by the civil authorities to arrest citizens who were engaged in this massacre, or policemen who perpetrated such cruelties. . . As to whether the civil authorities can mete out ample justice to the guilty parties on both sides, I must say it is my opinion, unequivocally, that they cannot.”

We are now engaged in a “Black Lives Matter” movement in which we are reminded that the history of racism in this country goes back many years. Many do not like being reminded, but it is assuredly the case — as this incident shows cleary. Today we still have instances, more than we care to count, in which those hired to protect and serve shoot defenseless black people. There does seem to be something deep in the collective DNA of a great many people in this country that drives them to hatred and contempt of those with different colored skin.

We just need to remember that when we are tapped on the shoulder and asked to do whatever we can to help eradicate racism that (a) it may not be possible and (b) we need to do it anyway.

Why The Fuss?

As pretty much everyone knows by now — even our good friend Lisa in far-off Ecuador — growing numbers of NFL players are refusing stand for the national anthem before football games and this has caused a great uproar. The roar was barely heard until the President stuck his oar into the mess and decided to stir it up. Most recently he has threatened to eliminate all tax breaks for the NFL to hurt the owners where they live and force them to insist that their players behave themselves. This has brought about a quantum leap in protest, much of it directed to the President’s insensitive manner of addressing the issue.

In all this confusion the central issue has somehow been lost. The President himself fails to make the distinction, as I mentioned in a previous post, between protesting the flag and protesting racial injustice. The latter is the real issue here and it has become lost in the emotional reaction of a great many people, including refusal to attend or watch games and even the burning of team jerseys, to what they regard as “unpatriotic” behavior.

The obvious question is why the hell do we insist on saluting the flag and singing the national anthem at sporting events? But I shall ignore it to focus instead on the reason there is protest, a protest that started with Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem in a pre-season football game over a year ago. Kaepernick has apparently been ostracized from professional football as a result and, in any event, is currently unemployed. But his protest started the ball rolling and it got a huge push from the President’s mindless threats to the players and owners.

We need to bear in mind the sort of prejudice the Blacks face every day. Think of the Jim Crow laws in the South that would disenfranchise them from the body politic; the existence of the KKK and white supremacists and their loud support of our sitting President who is himself a Racist (with a capital “R”); the  looks these folks get every day and, if the have the courage to marry or even date a white woman or a white man, the thinly veiled hatred they see all around them, especially in the South. And, of course, there is the seemingly random shooting of unarmed Black men by anxious policemen that seems to have become a growing problem in our Inner-Cities.

When I was in high school in Baltimore many years ago I worked in a grocery store after school each day with two Black men who drove the delivery trucks. We had a number of interesting talks and for the first time in my life I began to see the world a bit through their eyes. They would tell me, calmly, about the glares, the derision, and the contempt they experienced every day, and I recall one of the men saying in a plaintive voice how he just wished he could take his family out to a meal in a nice restaurant, so many of which had “No Colored” signs in their windows — even in the mid-1950s.

This was Baltimore, folks. Not the deep South. Maryland was neutral during the Civil War even though their sympathies were for the most part with the South — after all there was a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore prior to his assuming office which ended with him entering Washington in disguise and protected by Pinkerton men. It became a standing joke, but it was no joke. In any event, Baltimore was a Southern City and even in the 1950s there was wide-spread prejudice against folks of color. When school integration was ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954 there was considerable unrest and protest by groups of white people in the streets of Baltimore which reflected a deep prejudice that had been agitating just below the surface.

There is no way I can fully understand what it is like to be a Black person. But I can imagine, and I can sympathize. The current protest is over injustice and whether or not we agree with the methods that have been chosen to make that protest we need to keep our eye on the central issue. And we might want to recall that it is a peaceful protest and that this country was founded on protest and a concern for justice. There may have been a better way to draw attention to the problem, but at the very least the manner chosen seems to have brought about a discussion that was simply not taking place. And steps are being taken, small ones, but steps in the right direction. There is now dialogue occurring in many cities across this land to erase the tension between the police and the folks they are sworn to protect and serve, and in general to see what can be done to make things better for those who have to carry the burden of prejudice with them throughout their lives.

Eventually the dust will settle and folks will start going back to NFL games — after all they crave diversion! But one must hope that the steps this protest have initiated will get longer and stronger and the injustice that is being protested will be at least somewhat abated. It may never be totally eliminated (Lincoln thought it would not),  but we need to live together and America, we are told, stands on the principle of fairness to ALL.

Dumbed Down

During the middle of the last century when Walter Cronkite was at the height of his popularity — “the most trusted man in America” — he spoke out against the growing tendency of journalists, especially TV journalists, to confuse news with entertainment.  He noted that “television is too focused on entertaining its audience,” insisting instead that the job of the journalist is to present the news as objectively as possible — both sides of complex issues, with the broadcaster keeping his bias to himself or herself. “Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine,” he quipped. In order to make news hold the viewer’s attention, he thought it was sufficient that the journalist simply make it more “interesting,” focusing on “good writing, good reporting, and good editing.” Even though his words were widely anthologized and incorporated into the curricula of numerous schools of journalism, they pretty much fell on deaf ears. It is clear that not only television, but also print journalism, has gone the route of entertainment, big time. It’s all about competition among the dozens of print media and news programs that demand our attention and attracting the viewers to your news program in order to sell your sponsor’s products.  And entertainment sells the product.

So, what’s wrong with news as entertainment? It has to do with what entertainment is: it is essentially fluff. It is designed to grab the attention of a passive spectator, demanding nothing of him or her in the way of intelligent or imaginative response. It doesn’t seek to engage the mind. It is less concerned with informing than it is with holding the viewer’s attention long enough to deliver the sponsor’s message by way of thought bites — which is what TV news and papers such as USA Today have become, for the most part. And as attention spans shrink, the entertainment must get more and more sensational and more graphic in order to keep the viewer’s mind from wandering. The same phenomenon takes place in the movies.

Hollywood has never really understood the difference between film as art and film as entertainment. With the exception of people like Woody Allen and Orson Wells, directors and producers in Hollywood for the most part opt for the blockbuster, with the latest technical gimmick demanding nothing of the spectator whatever, except that she pay for a seat and then sit glued to it with eyes on the screen. The movies that seek only to entertain, again, do not engage the imagination of the spectator: they require no mental effort whatever. Films that seek to rise to the level of art, films made by filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini, insist that the spectator make an effort to follow the plot and connect pieces, and think about what went before and how it connects with what is happening now — and what the implications are for human experience outside the movie theater. In a word, they teach.

And that brings us to the final point I want to make: thanks to TV shows like “Sesame Street,” teaching has also become an entertainment medium. The teacher is now supposed to engage the pupil’s shrunken attention span long enough to get bits and pieces of information into a mind that is frequently engaged elsewhere. The content is less important than the way it is delivered. Students are often asked to evaluate teachers and much of the evaluation has to do with “performance.” The popular teachers are the ones who put on the best show. The worst thing that can happen in the classroom is that it be deemed “boring” by a group of disinterested students who have been brought up by media that inundate them with noise and rapid-fire visual and aural sensations that overwhelm the mind and leave it spent and confused. This is what people are used to and what they expect on a daily basis. What could be worse for such a mind than to be asked to sit and listen to a lecture that consists of nothing more than a man or a woman standing there reading from a text — or even speaking extemporaneously, without visual aids? Can we imagine an audience of thousands standing for hours in the hot Illinois sun to listen to a debate between two politicians on the pros and cons of slavery, as the folks did to listen to Lincoln debate Douglas? On the contrary, we demand thought bites, snatches and slogans. The quick 30 second news bite or political ad that tosses out a couple of bromides that are designed to fix themselves in the memory and guide the finger that pulls the lever in the voting booth. The point is not to inform, it is to entertain. And it’s not just Fox News, which is simply the reductio ad absurdam of the whole process.

That’s what bothered Cronkite years ago: news that lowers itself to the level of mere entertainment demeans the audience, and renders it a passive vehicle for any message that can be delivered quickly and effectively in order to somehow alter behavior — buy the product, pass the test, vote for this candidate. It lowers us all to the level of idiots who are waiting to be told what to do. It certainly doesn’t strengthen the mind by expanding its powers of imagination, thought, and memory. It is all about the dumbing down of America and it may go a long way toward explaining why Americans could care less about their government’s ongoing violation of the fourth amendment.

Nostalgia, Satire, and Bigotry

The satirical Onion (“America’s Finest News Service”) has a provocative article that begins as follows:

WASHINGTON—With just days left before the election, the nation’s 150 million registered voters have started to remember the simple, reassuring comforts of entrusting control of their country to an extremely out-of-touch white man, sources confirmed Monday.

In the wake of the presidential debates, multiple polls have shown that citizens nationwide are beginning to recall, with great clarity, the soothing, familiar sense of security that comes with handing total domestic and foreign policy authority over to a sixtysomething white male who is completely cut off from any way of life other than his own. And with the country having gone four years without such a familiar, calming, clueless Caucasian presence in the Oval Office, experts reported the populace is now overcome with nostalgia.

I have blogged before about how this country is easily taken in by images — especially the ones recently seen on Debate TV. Though clearly tongue-in-cheek, this article makes an important point. It cites “studies” that have shown we want the comforting image of a sixty-something white man with grey on his temples to take us by the hand and lead us into the next four years. True or not, it would seem plausible given the level of fear and uncertainty in the country.

I recall a bit by stand-up comic Shelley Berman back in the 60s when the comedian mimicked a calm and soothing voice coming over the speaker on an airplane just prior to takeoff: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Captain Holbrook speaking…” and Berman, who professed to be scared to death to fly, cut in and said “It’s Daddy! Daddy’s taking us flying!” The same sort of thing might very well be going on in this election. How else to account for the fact that millions of people in this country plan to vote for a man with as many faces as Eve who lies through his teeth while showing himself unwilling to retract his falsehoods in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary? Daddy’s going to make things right. Daddy’s taking care of us. Obama doesn’t fit that image: he’s the wrong color.

A recent study reveals that more than half of the white people in this nation are prejudiced against black people. I dare say many Hispanics also have their prejudices, as do the Blacks themselves. Prejudice seems to be a common human attribute and plays no color favorites. But we did manage to elect a black President the last time around, although the more reliable pundits tell us he will lose the popular vote this time. They also say, thank heavens, he will win the electoral college vote and be reelected. When this happens it will result in immediate calls by the Romneyites and their minions to trash the electoral college which is an eighteenth century invention designed to safeguard the country from idiots in high political office. It hasn’t worked since politics is overrun with idiots, but the electoral college may be short-lived after this election if the corporations that pull the political strings have to deal with the fact that it interfered with the election of their man.

In any event, it will be interesting to see how many fools in this country buy into the comforting image of a duplicitous businessman who was handed success on a platter and is out of touch with practically everyone around him who doesn’t happen to belong to his country club. If Mitt Romney wins the popular vote, as predicted, it will tell us something about ourselves we may not want to know. To paraphrase Lincoln let’s hope you can’t fool enough people this time around, that the voters in this country aren’t that easily duped and just maybe are a bit less bigoted than we have been led to believe. Time will tell.

The Dumbing Down of America

During the middle of the last century when Walter Cronkite was at the height of his popularity — “the most trusted man in America” — he spoke out against the growing tendency of journalists, especially TV journalists, to confuse news with entertainment.  He noted that “television is too focused on entertaining its audience,” insisting instead that the job of the journalist is to present the news as objectively as possible — both sides of complex issues, with the broadcaster keeping his bias to himself or herself. “Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine,” he quipped. In order to make news hold the viewer’s attention, he thought it was sufficient that the journalist simply make it more “interesting,” focusing on “good writing, good reporting, and good editing.” Even though his words were widely anthologized and incorporated into the curricula of numerous schools of journalism, they pretty much fell on deaf ears. It is clear that not only television, but also print journalism, has gone the route of entertainment, big time. It’s all about competition among the dozens of news programs that demand our attention and attracting the viewers to your news program in order to sell your sponsor’s products.  And entertainment sells the product.

So, what’s wrong with news as entertainment? It has to do with what entertainment is: it is essentially fluff. It is designed to grab the attention of a passive spectator, demanding nothing of him or her in the way of intelligent or imaginative response. It doesn’t seek to engage the mind. It is less concerned with informing than it is with holding the viewer’s attention long enough to deliver the sponsor’s message by way of thought bites — which is what TV news has become, for the most part. And as attention spans shrink, the entertainment must get more and more sensational and more graphic in order to keep the viewer’s mind from wandering. The same phenomenon takes place in the movies.

Hollywood has never really understood the difference between film as art and film as entertainment. With the exception of people like Woody Allen and Orson Wells, directors and producers in Hollywood for the most part opt for the blockbuster, with the latest technical gimmick demanding nothing of the spectator whatever, except that she pay for a seat and then sit glued to it with eyes on the screen. The movies that seek only to entertain, again, do not engage the imagination of the spectator: they require no mental effort whatever. Films that seek to rise to the level of art, films made by filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini, insist that the spectator make an effort to follow the plot and connect pieces, and think about what went before and how it connects with what is happening now — and what the implications are for human experience outside the movie theater. In a word, they teach.

And that brings us to the final point I want to make: thanks to TV shows like “Sesame Street,” teaching has also become an entertainment medium. The teacher is now supposed to engage the pupil’s shrunken attention span long enough to get bits and pieces of information into a mind that is frequently engaged elsewhere. The content is less important than the way it is delivered. Students are often asked to evaluate teachers and much of the evaluation has to do with “performance.” The popular teachers are the ones who put on the best show. The worst thing that can happen in the classroom is that it be deemed “boring” by a group of disinterested students who are surrounded by media that inundate them with noise and rapid-fire visual and aural sensations that overwhelm the mind and leave it spent and confused. This is what people are used to and what they expect on a daily basis. What could be worse for such a mind than to be asked to sit and listen to a lecture that consists of nothing more than a man or a woman standing there reading from a text — or even speaking extemporaneously, without visual aids? Can we imagine an audience of thousands standing for hours in the hot Illinois sun to listen to a debate between two politicians on the pros and cons of slavery, as the folks did to listen to Lincoln debate Douglas? On the contrary, we demand thought bites, snatches and slogans. The quick 30 second news bite or political ad that tosses out a couple of bromides that are designed to fix themselves in the memory and guide the finger that pulls the lever in the voting booth. The point is not to inform, it is to entertain. And it’s not just Fox News, which is simply the reductio ad absurdam of the whole process.

That’s what bothered Cronkite years ago: news that lowers itself to the level of mere entertainment demeans the audience, and renders it a passive vehicle for any message that can be delivered quickly and effectively in order to somehow alter behavior — buy the product, pass the test, vote for this candidate. It lowers us all to the level of idiots who are waiting to be told what to do. It certainly doesn’t strengthen the mind by expanding its powers of imagination, thought, and memory. It is all about the dumbing down of America.