Monday, January 19, 2009

Where are the maps that show where the little kids live? Or, Steve's final post on race.

I believe it is time we stopped identifying individuals' accomplishments by the color of their skin.... The news media keep alive the prejudices. Let's identify [Obama] as the next President of the United States, period!

From a letter in my local paper this morning.

I do indeed plan to make this my last column on race (and I can hear the hosannahs going up wherever SHAMblog is read, which isn't that large a universe, but still...). After this post I'm giving up, giving in, however you want to phrase it. You have my word. I'm merely claiming a point of privilege in taking a few parting shots.

Scene 1. As much as anything, Big Media's run-up to tomorrow's Obama Inaugural, with its unapologetically gleeful intonation (and not the merest pretense of anything resembling journalistic detachment), symbolizes my gripe with the news business and its Givens. Clearly there is one and only one permissible story line for the occasion: We are witnessing a cultural milestone, the culmination of a great and noble social crusade; the nation now rejoices that a "black man," Barack Obama, has ascended to the highest position in American government, as well as the most powerful leadership position in the world, even despite the nation's recent travails. In short, America has grown up. We've arrived!

The media uncritically accept Obama's curious self-definition on its face: He is universally reported to be the first African-American president, not the 44th white one (which he is, of course, equally. The sheer absurdity of that whole confusing and artificial dichotomy is why we need to get rid of the concept of race. Its scientific validity is highly suspect to begin with, and it's way too arbitrary and subject to perversion for sociopolitical reasons). His inauguration ceremony, which has taken on the flavor of a coronation, is considered an unambiguously joyful moment, even though there are, surely among us, separatists (yes, from Obama's "own race," too) who'd prefer to see the man just about anywhere but in the Rose Garden. You do not hear reporters introduce their reporting on the event with phrases like "the man who describes himself as black" or "the man who still clings to racial concepts even though science increasingly repudiates the concept of race" or "the man who, by labeling himself a person of color, perpetuates the very racial stereotypes that Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to eradicate." I don't necessarily want to see such phrases used; they're a form of editorializing, too, and probably have no place in honest journalism. But neither do the congratulatory and uplifting phrases you're going to hear all day today and certainly tomorrow, during the event* itself. You'll hear commentators on every news channel remark at the inspirational majesty of it all. You will not hear editorialists wonder if Obama and many of his sympathizers are practicing a form of racism themselves, and may ultimately do more harm than good to the nation's halting progress towards true integration. (Rush Limbaugh talked around the edges of this type of commentary and was widely denounced for it.)

I say again: Journalism should never takes sides. In anything. This is why it vaguely bothers me whenever I see local media run stories in which they show maps indicating where the sexual predators live. My title for this post is meant facetiously, but it has a serious point to make: The media should not be cheerleading for causes, even seemingly unassailable ones. For the record, there was and is another side to Megan's Law and the flurry of ensuing legislation; it's not up to the media to decide that such opposition lacks merit. That is a political position, rooted in a respect for law and order and "decency" that the media should not, inherently, have. Thirty years ago in New York City, a group called the BLA expressed its outrage at centuries of oppression by ambushing and executing cops. Those acts of murder were also acts of political protest: rebellion against a legal orthodoxy that, these self-styled revolutionaries felt, did not speak for the black race and only sought to persecute blacks. At least in concept, the thinking was not that dissimilar to the logic that launched America. (One might also say it was a modern-day extension of the Civil War.) It was not the media's place to decide that those cop murders were wrong, and to cover them through that lens. By all means report it. Just don't demonize it.

Getting back to tomorrow's events, the media should not be trying to inspire and uplift us. The news should not celebrate anything—especially not the election of a president. Some folks might say, "Well, Steve, there's a time and place for everything. Let them celebrate today. They can go back to being objective journalists tomorrow." Does that really make sense? If you were the defendant in a serious criminal trial, would you want there to be certain days when, say, the jury goes over to the prosecution table and back-slaps with the D.A. and the victim's family?

Might that not create certain doubts in you about the panel's overall impartiality when they return to the jury box?

Scene 2. Sunday in my local paper there was a piece by syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts. Pitts, who is a black** man, talks about how, despite all this "post-racial" talk, Barack in his heart is "one of us" and will sometimes even give himself away. (One of us is my phrase. I am summarizing the point of the piece, though Pitts doesn't actually use those words.) Pitts says that this in fact happened once when Pitts and Barack ran into each other and Obama mentioned something about a recent Pitts column; the columnist expressed surprise that Obama was familiar with his work, to which Obama replied, smiling, "Oh yeah, brother, I read you." From which we are to deduce, now, that Barack Obama is not only black, but also a "brother," in the sense of that special bond between members of the black race. (This assumes the truth of the anecdote of which Pitts writes. And I doubt he'd write it if it hadn't happened.)

You know, whenever I need a reality check I tend to turn to my youngest son, who is very much a realist—as unromantic in his take on life as you're apt to find—and something of a student of human nature as well. Graig tells me: "Just look at the guy. He's black, dude. End of story." So I guess I'm willing to accept the superficial definitions rooted in appearance, "the way Obama carries himself" (whatever the hell that means), and his "Negroid features," even though I find such labeling brackish, divisive and anachronistic.

It's just that I did not vote for a man who sees other dark-skinned people as his ideological (or, God help us, literal) "brothers."

I don't mean to freight an offhand, jocular remark with too much meaning. But we need to be clear here: In voting for Barack Obama, I voted for a person, a collection of attributes; a spectacular person whom I adjudged extraordinarily qualified to lead the nation. And I voted for post-racialism. (Yes, I'd read his books, in which he made his natural sympathies clear. I just assumed he was beyond that now.) Had Hillary been the candidate, though I find her to be icy and fake, I would've bitten my lip and voted for her, because she would've been, in my view, the best person for the job. Not the best white person or the best person with a vagina.

I don't care how you slice or parse it or explain it away, to say "I am your brother" to a black man is saying "I am not your brother" to a white man. That's bad enough when it occurs between two men of "pure" black bloodlines, but in a man who's 50 percent white, 50 percent black—who has just been elected president, and who accepts the validity of race—that represents a pointed rejection of half of his heritage. A slap in the face to the rest of us whom he does not regard as "brothers."

Well, I sure hope the guy can govern, anyway.

* The coverage of the inauguration will flow seamlessly into coverage of the various celebratory balls, etc.
** Here as elsewhere in this post, I'm using the standard definitions of race.


Steve Salerno said...

P.S. No, I did not write the letter from which the opening quotes were lifted.

Elizabeth said...

I do indeed plan to make this my last column on race

Are you sure...? ;)

roger o'keefe said...

Steve: This is precisely why I and someone else whose name shall not be mentioned, tried to warn you about Obama. I think what you're reacting to here is just the beginning of a series of revelations we're going to witness about our new president that may leave even some of his most ardent supporters asking themselves, "Now why did I vote for this guy again"?

It goes back to that old cliche, be careful what you wish for.

Get this: My verif word is hzfrawd!

Anonymous said...

'to say "I am your brother" to a black man is saying "I am not your brother" to a white man.'

Nonsense, and what's more, this is dishonest, divisive nonsense. If I call one man my brother then that rules out any other man from being my brother also?
Black and white, either/or thinking, and I mean that in a non-racial way, helps no-one. Shame on you for fomenting such juvenile trash.

Elizabeth said...

Where are the maps that show where the little kids live?

I know, Steve, you said you are being facetious and you were making a point, but still: ugh.

roger o'keefe said...

I'm going out on a limb here but I have to agree with Steve on this one. In my years I have done a good deal of hiring and firing, and if I saw a black candidate greet another black man as "brother," and I thought he meant it more than just in a joking way there is no way I would hire him if I could get around it legally. That is racism. It speaks to a world view that is decidedly us-vs.-them and I don't want that kind of person in my company. Just as I wouldn't want a white man who belonged to Aryan nation or the Klan. I don't condone some of the other material presented here but in this country, in this context "brother" has a distinctly racial meaning that is also racIST. The kind of black guy who calls another black guy "brother" is not going to go over to the next white guy he sees and call him "brother" too. Get real! Anon, you're the one who needs to get your head out of the sand on this one.

The Baron said...

I don't wish for less bias in reporting. It's unreasonable to expect reporting to be completely free of bias. Every moment of every day we humans make judgments about what's good/bad, acceptable/not acceptable, desirable/undesirable, etc. I'm okay with reporters/news outlets having biases--as long as they are up front about it.

It is annoying and deceitful to pretend to be unbiased, er, um, "fair and balanced", and then use subtle and overt descriptions/buzzwords to slant opinion to your true cause.

Rather than wishing that reporters could suddenly suspend their own judgment and spit out truly unbiased reflections, let's aim for more honesty in reporting. Tell us that way you think it is based on the facts that you have. Then we can exercise our gray matter and form our own opinions. Yeah, it's a crazy idea, but truly we COULD think for ourselves rather than having reporters/tv TELL us what to think.

Re Obama, I, for one, am SOOOO looking forward to having a President capable of communicating well and capable of conveying complex ideas.

For the past 8 yrs the American public has been bending over and taking it sans vaseline. Seriously, is "mission accomplished" yet?? Are the fundamentals of the economy sound? You may despise or distrust Obama's facility with language but if we're gonna take, he, at least, can sweet talk ya a little and explain things a bit, so you don't feel completely pillaged by the experience.

Steve Salerno said...

1. I voted for the guy.
2. Prejudice is prejudice--either way. (P.S. Pride is prejudice, too.)
3. Yes, as a writer and a lover of language, I very much look forward to a literate president/presidency.
4. Perhaps we can never be truly "fair and balanced"--but why shouldn't we try?
5. The analysis of life entails tackling some very uncomfortable thoughts and ideas. If all we allow ourselves to work with are the thoughts we've always had, then how does anything ever change?
6. I voted for the guy.

Elizabeth said...

Gosh, I promised myself to stay out of this one. Alas, willpower is not among my strengths.

Steve, you say:
The analysis of life entails tackling some very uncomfortable thoughts and ideas. If all we allow ourselves to work with are the thoughts we've always had, then how does anything ever change?

Yes, Steve, this is a valid point. BUT (yes:) there are perfectly legitimate reasons why some ideas and thoughts are uncomfortable and should stay so. Not all ideas are created equal and not all have the same value, moral and other. And as Baron (and others before him) observed, there is no such thing -- and cannot be such a thing -- as completely objective reporting, if only because there is no such thing as a completely objective human being. By the sheer nature of our human existence, we are biased -- in favor of survival, for one, and all things that promote it. Thus our ideas and the reality they shape/promote will be skewed in that direction (or so one would hope* at least).

Which brings me back to my first sentence here and the "facetious" title of your post. Do you honestly think there is a moral equivalence between the sexual needs of pedophiles and the children's need to live their lives protected from harm? I.e. do you, Steve, really think it would be just and justifiable to post directions to little kids' houses if only because we publicize the addresses of convicted child molesters (an idea, which, BTW, I do not endorse) to satisfy the (your? our?) criterion of perfect neutrality and objectivity? It's a serious question, even though I acknowledge the "facetious" intent of your title.

*Our survival as a species, not particular groups or factions, etc.

Rational Thinking said...

Perhaps one of the things most interesting about Obama is his apparent ability to be all things to all people. That may well prove to be a major strength.

And I did like the footage today of him painting a wall at a shelter - talk about rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty! It was a good image.

Steve Salerno said...

I continue to be astonished that so many people miss the point here. (I've gotten two scathing emails off-blog that all but accuse me of being a pedophile.

No, I'm not saying that there is a "moral equivalence between the sexual needs of pedophiles and the children's need to live their lives protected from harm." That is a totally separate issue, which is for society to decide, and for us to weigh as individuals. I am a grandfather. I adore my grandchildren. I would want to kill anyone who hurt them.

That's beside the point here. That is me reacting as an individual, which is very different from what we should want or expect from some of our institutions--especially the media, on whom we rely for the raw facts that we use in formulating our own values and judgments.

So, what I am saying is that the media have no business favoring one idea or value or ethic over another. If we can expect nothing else from the media, we should expect total moral neutrality on all issues. So to answer your question in a different way, Yes, there should be no discernible difference in the media's treatment of the pedophile or the kid he/she molests. In the eyes of the media, the murderer and the person he murders are equal. It's all just "stuff that happens."

Think: How would the media have described John Brown (of the famous raid)? Was he a "terrorist"? A murderer? An anarchist? In fact, the man was hanged for "treason." And yet how do we reflect on him now?

Steve Salerno said...

Look, I like the guy. A lot. And I respect him. I just wish he would disavow race. That's all. He was perfectly positioned to carry us above all this racial nonsense, and he copped/wimped out.

Anonymous said...

Steve: I'm a black guy, and the same black guy who commented last time you went off on race. I'm going to say the same thing I said last time, too. It's hysterical to me that you folks have had the upper hand for 300 years, and now that we finally DO get to the mountain top, as Dr. King put it, is when you want to suddenly "get beyond all this racial nonsense". Or it WOULD be funny, if it wasn't so sad and transparent. Does it really bother you that much that a black guy is getting notoriety now for doing something besides being on death row or fathering children out of wedlock?

Maybe you need to take a more honest look at your own racial issues, Steve.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 6:10: Ok, you got me. Clearly that explains why I voted for him...

Elizabeth said...

Steve, with all due respect, you too miss the point (and that is also another way of saying that I disagree with you) -- the point that not all ideas are created equal. There are some that strike directly into our existential core, so to speak, both as a species and individual sentient (and feeling) human beings, and thus will never -- and should never, indeed -- be treated with "neutrality."* In fact, such neutrality would be, IMO, a sign of dangerous moral retardation and, well, dereliction of duty, if you will, on the part of human reporters who are in the business of reporting human affairs. I, for one, would not wish for such "objectivity."

*Those are the ideas (issues) that transcend political and religious differences, for example; so while John Brown (Osama bin Laden, Bill Ayers, etc.) may be viewed as heroes or thugs depending on one's political views, etc., there appears to be a universal human consensus on the issue of child rape, consensus that transcends political, religious and cultural differences. Being neutral on such issues where there indeed exists such a consensus would strike me as, well, psychopathic (or misguided, at best). Wrong, in a word. But I know you'll disagree, so let's agree to do so (disagree).

Elizabeth said...

A picture is worth a thousand words, so -- how post-racial is that?

Elizabeth said...

He was perfectly positioned to carry us above all this racial nonsense, and he copped/wimped out.

How? By using that "brother" phrase?

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: Among other things, he should've made the speech I suggested (see my post of 3/25/08, if you care to pursue this further).

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz, I hear what you're saying. Believe me, I do. I'm not a creep, and I'm not just talking for "shock value" or trying to purposely anger or nauseate people.

But these ideas are very important to me. Look at it this way: If we lived in many Arab countries, one of the "core ethics" would be the inferiority of women. You would be required to walk around with almost all of you covered, and would face the harshest of penalties, under Sharia Law, for transgressions that we consider commonplace (and even part of basic human rights) here. That's why I say that the journalist cannot and should not treat anything as sacred. So much of this comes down to point of view--and even the most universal ideas, like the need to protect children, are too easily politicized. If I asked you, "Should all news be filtered through the White House for approval?", you'd say "Of course not!" So why should news be filtered through other forms of institutional authority or orthodoxy? And who gets the draw those lines that determine what's a "core value," anyway?

Elizabeth said...

Steve, on the neutrality of reporting, etc., I don't have time to continue right now -- we could go on for weeks (and haven't we already?) and I gotta make dinner. Maybe later, after I feed my loved ones. (And, boy, they are getting hungry and angry!)

But yes, I remember the speech you wrote for Obama and also our subsequent discussions on the subject (including the previous comment from our African-American Anon -- a comment which immediately came to my mind when I read your post today).

I'm going to be purposely facetious and hope you don't take offense at that: Steve, get a hold of yourself, man. You appear to be suffering from symptoms of Post-Right-Wing Traumatic Stress, which makes you unusually sensitized to assorted ideological shifts, whether real or implied (or imagined). It's a common problem among individuals who voted for Obama despite their right-wing leanings (past or present). So any mention of anything that smacks of right-wing ideological incorrectness (such as the "brother" phrase) will evoke in you unnecessary but certainly understandable anxiety, if not panic. Take a deep breath. One "brother" (or even many) mention does not constitute racism or white-hatred or whatever you'd call it (despite some individuals' opinions to the contrary). Really. Moreover, give the man a chance, will ya? He is not in office yet, and you already decided that he failed in the race department. I, btw, do not see it this way AT ALL, even though Obama was not "my" candidate. And obviously neither do many (most?) others.

And I promise you, he will disappoint you (and me, and most of us) more than once in the coming years. But if you get dispirited by that prospect (and reality, as it becomes), just imagine the alternative.

Elizabeth said...

If I asked you, "Should all news be filtered through the White
House for approval?", you'd say "Of course not!"

Oh, you so don't know me! ;) Of course I firmly believe all news should be filtered through the White House! I was brought up under communism, remember? You can take a girl out of communism, but ya can't take communism out of a girl.

I'm kidding, of course. It was socialism, not communism.

Dimension Skipper said...

On snap judgments, biases, and the randomness of the human brain/mind...

I found a book review in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer of interest. I'm still not planning on rushing to buy the book, but it apparently raises some points that are maybe a little relevant to some of recurring themes around here. Please note that I don't necessarily agree with all of the book's author's conclusions, at least as set forth in the review anyway.

The book in question is...

Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind
By Gary Marcus

And here's the review...

The human brain: Not perfect, but good enough *
By Steve Mirsky

I hope it's OK, Steve, but I want to quote two significant passages from the review (bold emphasis added by me to highlight the relevant summary points as I see'em even though they're probably not earth-shattering revelations to folks around here)...

Furniture, self-confident, corner, adventuresome, chair, table, independent, television. Early in Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, author Gary Marcus asks the reader to memorize that short list of words. He then notes, "What follows is more fun if you really do try to memorize the list." So go ahead; it'll take only a few seconds.

Marcus then tells a short story, the gist of which is: "Donald often sought excitement. He had climbed Mount McKinley, kayaked rapids, driven in a demolition derby, piloted a jet-powered boat. He had risked death numerous times, and was now seeking new thrills."

Now your assignment: Sum up Donald in a single word.

Chances are your word is adventuresome. But had the list substituted for adventuresome the word reckless, your word choice would probably be more pejorative. The snap judgment of Donald is swayed by information—the word list—that should be irrelevant. Unfortunately, your brain turns out to be alarmingly bad at evaluating individual situations truly objectively.

. . . .

Marcus, a psychologist and director of the New York University Infant Language Learning Center, provides numerous examples of how easily the brain can be duped. For instance, researchers asked college students two questions: "How happy are you with your life in general?" and "How many dates did you have last month?" Students who were asked the questions in that order evaluated their happiness independently of their romantic involvements. But when subjects were asked about dating first, their evaluation of their happiness depended completely on their dating frequency. Victims of the phenomenon known as "focusing illusion," the students suddenly saw their entire lives through a particular, powerful prism.

Advertisers and pollsters can be experts at taking advantage of our brains' weaknesses—which is why conservative strategist Frank Luntz pushed for what was previously known as "global warming" to be referred to as the more benign-sounding "climate change," and now calls "energy exploration" what most people still think of as "oil drilling." (How might your opinion of Luntz change if that previous sentence had called him a "right-wing operative" instead of a "conservative strategist"?)

Humans are suckers, Marcus explains, because the brain wasn't designed in advance for optimal functioning. It's the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution, which winds up putting together Rube Goldberg devices dependent on what already existed.

. . . .

(* Note that Philly Inquirer articles are only available free online for one week from the date of publication.)

Elizabeth said...

Okay, now that the children are fed (or is it fed up?) and tucked in (ha ha ha... those were the days!), back to our exchange:

Eliz, I hear what you're saying. Believe me, I do. I'm not a creep, and I'm not just talking for "shock value" or trying to purposely anger or nauseate people.

Glad to hear this. No, really. And yes, I know this is important to you -- it's one of SHAMblog recurring themes -- and yes, I also agree that this is an objectively important topic. So I do not entirely disagree.

Specifically, I agree with your call for neutrality to a point -- i.e. when it comes to assorted political, religious and cultural (surface) issues -- but I also think that there are certain events/problems/etc. on which retaining such neutrality is just wrong (e.g. genocide, child abuse, subjection of certain groups of people, etc.) And yes, I understand how murky it may be at times to decide what issues those are and equally problematic to figure out who should decide what they are. But is it really that difficult?

And, personally, I'd rather have an impassioned journalist readily showing his passion or biases, as it may be, and letting me decide whether I agree with his/her POV, than one who remains cold and "objective" when faced with (what I/most of us would consider) horrific and inhumane situations and events.

Dimension Skipper said...

I just wanted to add that back in the days, weeks, months following 9/11 (2001, obviously) I made the effort to occasionally pop in on Al (English version).

It was fascinating to see the differences in how the exact same events were reported there vs. in our news media here. It was something of an eye-opener at the time.

However, at some point I seem to recall the site being down for some significant time and when it came back it seemed to be toned down and much more even-handed by comparison.

Unfortunately I can't cite any specific remembered examples now, but it definitely pointed out the vast difference in reporting perspectives.

I haven't looked at Al Jazeera in a long time now, but at a very quick glance it still appears to be the more neutral version that I remember coming into existence. Whether there's any or much difference between the English version and the actual Arabic version, of course, I simply cannot say.

It might be interesting to take a peek at their coverage of the Obama inauguration as well as the Gaza situation just to try to gauge for oneself if there seems to be any significant difference of current-day perspective compared to what we typically see in our own American media (meaning reasonably well respected news services). Although admittedly I haven't really followed the American media coverage of either so I wouldn't be able to venture an opinion myself.

And just for good measure, here's an Al Jazeera piece on 9/11 suspects face new hearing. One little difference I see there is in the last paragraph (bold emphasis mine obviously):

Mohammed, Binalshibh and three others, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, Walid bin Attash and Mohammed's nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, face 2,973 counts of murder, one for each person killed when fighters crashed hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field in 2001.

I think that our news media almost universally would have used the word "terrorists."

Of course, I doubt we can really draw much in the way of conclusions from looking at the one major Arabic news source as opposed to the varied American news services we have access to every day. Still, it's sometimes interesting (I think) to seek a potentially different perspective just for the heck of it out of curiosity.

Very minor footnote re my prior comment (if Steve approved it): I just noticed that Inquirer book review I linked to is not actually under the usual Inquirer url, but is instead under the more general umbrella. As such, it may actually end up being available on line beyond the usual week I cited, but I have no idea really.

Dimension Skipper said...

P.S. And for your Arabic readers, Steve... Al Jazeera in Arabic.

I can't tell if it's any different in content or slant from the English version. The layout looks different (aside from the obvious right-to-left format) with different featured images if that means anything.

Elizabeth said...

Frank Rich has a nice piece in the NYT on the Obama's inauguration titled White Like Me.

Yekaterina said...

If Obama would have said, Yeah man, I read you, I doubt anyone would accuse him of being sexist. Yeah brother, I read you, sounds just as benign to me (in spite of the word's racist history) It is cool, hip jargon nowadays, nothing more.

P.S. I used to agree with all of your sportsthink ideas (still do)...until I saw the Steelers game Sunday night. Don't tell me that Polamalu's attitude wasn't just as necesary as his talent! Yes, they could have lost the game in spite of the attitude, but did that guy "want it" or what?

Go Steelers!

Steve Salerno said...

DS: FOX News, of course, does not use the phrase "suicide bombers"; the FOX-proper term is "homicide bombers." From what I hear, it's an apparent edict handed down from Murdoch hisself.

Yekat: You're a football fan?? (See the dangers of making casual assumptions about those we don't really know? I never wouldla thunk it.) But since you make the point about the playoffs and the role of emotions--did you happen to watch the Eagles game, too? The Cardinals had 'em down by 18 points at the end of the half. Aikman was already delivering a eulogy on behalf of the Eagles (and even McNabb's QBing career in Philly). Then Philly comes out and scores three straight times. Aikman declares that the momentum has shifted, and the Cards are suddenly "back on their heels." This impression is only heightened by the Cards' next offensive series, in which the Eagles seem to be climbing all over poor Kurt Warner almost as soon as the ball is snapped. McNabb is now laughing and back-slapping his receivers. Dawkins is fired up, throwing imaginary punches at the Arizona fans. Everything is going the Eagles' way; their destiny is clear.

Except...nobody told the Cardinals, who wound up winning.

Eliz: I still like my title better, from an old SHAMblog post: "Barack Like Me."

RevRon's Rants said...

I've got to agree with Elizabeth & Yekaterina on this one, Steve. It appears to me that, in your zeal to realize the goal of absolute objectivity, you discount the very subjectivity inherent in all humans, including yourself.

Sure, there are some who voted for Obama because of his perceived racial identity, but that isn't what got him elected. I believe the majority based their decisions upon the same criteria that you described for yourself, and voted for a *man* whose intellect, personality, and values seemed most clearly attuned to the priorities held by most of us. The media will always look for a catchy "hook" to a story, so long as "news" is viewed by media outlets as a profit center. Obama *looks* black, and his election represents a very real achievement to a race that has long felt disenfranchised, yet his ascendancy to the office is a pretty clear sign that his "blackness" is a non-issue to the vast majority of voters. So what if the talking heads make a big deal out of something that isn't really significant to most people, but that resonates with some?

By the same token, any attempt on Obama's part to establish the appearance of a bond with a black person will no doubt provide his detractors with further justification for reviling the man. Frankly, these folks are no less a fringe element - and therefore pretty irrelevant - than the people who think they'll have a leg up on everyone because the new president is a "brother." People like this will find reasons - justifiable or not - to whine, just as some opportunists will find reasons - again, justifiable or not - to rejoice.

As to the "brother" issue, I see it as nothing more than a culture-based equivalent of the term "friend," with every bit the (in)significance the more generic term carries.

I have addressed the men with whom I served as "brother" - both white and black - but that greeting carries much more weight than does the generic address so often heard on the street; a point made very clear when one considers the proliferation of black-on-black violence. My "brothers" would have died before they would harm me, and I would have laid down my own life before allowing harm to come to them. There is no such bond among the stereotypical "brothers." Just an offhand use of a word with little meaning. And to be honest, I think that attempts to endow the greeting with greater significance is in itself a racist act, whether it is manifest by firing the "offending" person, or merely ascribing exaggerated value to their dialog.

As to the public identification of sexual predators, I can't help but wonder at the seeming paradox in your attitude, Steve. If I've read it correctly, you claim that it is only just that if we identify sexual predators, we should also identify sexual prey, yet you simultaneously acknowledge a willingness to kill anyone who harms your own grandchildren. If your motivation is to protect your loved ones, would it not seem only logical to give those loved ones the advantage of knowing when a threat is present? And would it not follow that you wouldn't want to give the predators the advantage of knowing where to find their prey - including your own grandchildren? It just sounds like a willingness to sacrifice your own loved ones on the altar of some theoretical notion of objectivity. Or did I miss something (quite possible... haven't finished my coffee yet!)?

Steve Salerno said...

Objective journalist Charlie Gibson, on the atmosphere in D.C. today: "I think everything looks a little bit brighter... Abe Lincoln sits up a little bit straighter...."

Dimension Skipper said...

Hmmm, I went back to the English Al Jazeera page this morning and found a link to a page where they ask...

Your views: What should be Obama's first priority?

The folks responding, being English speakers, appear NOT to be based in the Middle East as far as I can glean from perusing their submitted ID info. I can't necessarily tell if they're Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or other (including atheist/neutral). But nevertheless it's mildly interesting to glance at, I think.

Since I can't read Arabic, it's probably about the best I'm gonna be able to do for a true non-American non-media perspective with even a possible leaning towards the Arabic perspective (despite that the page is in English).

It's mainly just a curiosity thing on my part. Thought maybe one or two others might be interested as well. As always, though, it's virtually impossible to draw any conclusions from a bunch of random folks who just happen to have internet access and converge on a particular site.

Jen said...

Like most everybody else, I've got tons to say today ...

But just this one thing for now. Steve, you wrote: The analysis of life entails tackling some very uncomfortable thoughts and ideas.

Thinking about the phrase still reverberating in my mind from the inauguration, "because we've tasted the bitter pill of segregation." Obviously, this is referring to a specific kind of segregation, but on a broader scale, anybody who has experienced exclusion knows the "taste" of this "pill." These words we use to describe the sting of exclusion are apt, too. The feeling is real, and it hurts. I felt it several times during the ceremonies and yet overall the message was incredibly hopeful. I was brought to tears more than once, during Aretha's song and (especially) during Rev. Lowery's prayer.

Let's just hope President Obama turns out to be as large-minded as he seems to be. He appears to understand how serious our problems really are; may the force of the energy of all of us who support him propel him to the action necessary to bring about the changes we need most.

Elizabeth said...

Abe Lincoln sits up a little bit straighter....

And Charlie's neurons are misfiring faster...

Ah, well, let's forgive him. It is easy to get carried away by the momentousness of this occasion. And momentous it is, not only for America, but for the whole world. Even you (LOL), Steve, must feel it by now, no? And if you don't, then it's time to bring Steve The Insouciant out, pronto!

OTOH, the whole pomp and courtly circumstance of the inauguration itself is an overkill, bordering on ridiculous and nauseating. My curmudgeonly side can't take it any more. I'd say more bread and less circuses, but that will come soon enough too (or so one hopes).

Steve Salerno said...

Jen: I think that's very nicely put. I too was left--dare I say it?--hopeful by our new president's speech.

If there is one word that I think would serve us well in life, that word would be empathy. (This also goes back to one of my gripes against the self-help movement, for overselling the concept of codependency, which I think--in popular usage--has come to be regarded as a convenient excuse for selfishness and detachment.) I sit there listening to speeches like the one Obama gave today and I just shake my head. I cannot really relate to it because I cannot imagine that slavery or prejudice ever existed. I cannot imagine that anyone would ever consider not voting for someone because of skin color. I hear the stories of the baseball teams (and jazz groups) in the old South who were not allowed to eat in most of the restaurants or even use the bathroom facilities, and I want to say, "Come on! You're making that up! Who would do that? And who would condone it?" And yet we all know it happened, just as the Holocaust happened.

It boggles the mind. Where was the empathy? We are all just human beings. There is no race.

Elizabeth said...

If there is one word that I think would serve us well in life, that word would be empathy.

Yes, Steve. Empathy also provides answers to those questions you/we have asked here earlier, on this thread and others, about who decides what values are universal and worth defending, and, to some extent, on the nature of objectivity (or lack of it) in our assessment of the world as we know it.

Empathy makes it possible for each of us individually to understand right and wrong, and to act accordingly (as it may or may not be, but that's a different matter). And because we share our experiences and empathize with each other, we can reach a common agreement on their meaning and value, creating a universal (even if unspoken) hierarchy of values that transcends superficial differences between us. The subjective experience of empathy becomes a basis for an objective (even if not explicit) value system that we all share. Transgressing against those universal values (which are understood best through empathy), even if just by ignoring them, in the name of some artificially established and mandated neutrality is not only not desirable, but often plain wrong and inhumane, IMO. In all areas of our human enterprise, including, in some degree at least, journalism.

P.S. I apologize for the soapboxy quality of this comment.

Steve Salerno said...

Empathy guides how we act as people. It should not guide the media's actions. I grieve, deeply, over slavery and the Holocaust. The media shouldn't. The media should have no empathy, because it's just a very small step from empathy to agenda. I am allowed an agenda. The media aren't. I want to be supplied with information that is as "lean" as possible, as stripped of feelings and politicization, so that I can make up my mind about things, free of extraneous influence. If the media are selling an idea or a belief or a value, no matter how "universal" that value may seem to you, then I am not truly free to make up my mind, because I haven't been given facts. I've been given a sales job. I've been seduced and "hypnotized," as it were.

Rational Thinking said...

I'm with Steve on this one. Less propaganda - which is what we get, whether we like it or not - and more hard news. Please.

Steve Salerno said...

RT: I'm glad somebody's with me. From the looks of some of the mail I've been getting off-blog, you'd think I should just commit myself* and be done with it.

* meaning, to a place where they can offer more supervised care for "dangerous people who think like you do," as one emailer put it.

Elizabeth said...

Steve and RT, you have no argument from me on that. I agree.

But I'm talking about something a bit different here -- about Anderson Cooper tearing up and getting angry during Katrina (and being criticized for that), about Ann Curry getting her feathers ruffled when interviewing Rick Warren (and being criticized for that), etc. I'm not sure if you get my drift, but if not, then it's OK too.

Jen said...

Steve, I have faith in you. There is no need for a padded room. At least not yet. ;)

Steve Salerno said...

Jen: But you'll let me know when it's time, right? Because I'm lousy at introspection.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Empathy guides how we act as people. It should not guide the media's actions."

I might agree with you, save for the fact that "the media" is (are?) "people," too, and are therefore no more capable of discarding their empathy / subjectivity than any of the rest of us. The only truly objective human I've ever met was in a NY State mental institution, and the only thing that kept him out of one of those padded rooms was a bilateral frontal lobotomy.

Anonymous said...

'I am allowed an agenda. The media aren't.'

You talk as if 'the media' was a controlled single organism. 'The media' doesn't exist except as a collective noun for an enormous number of individuals, each with their own agenda, working for many different news organisations, each with their own agenda.
A little introspection before sounding off might prevent Steve Salerno sounding like a three year old demanding that the world adjust itself according to his immediate infantile needs.

Steve Salerno said...

Oh, come on, people. The thing that kills me is that a lot of you who debate me on this know exactly what I'm talking about and yet you want to be contentious merely for the sake of being contentious. I want "media" that treat the assassination of JFK the same way they treat the killings of Uday and Qusay, and that show no rooting interest in, say, the current battle between Israel and Hamas. I want media that don't feel compelled to wring their hands and hang their faces whenever a company announces a layoff (often just for show, since ten seconds later they suddenly find a smile and burst forth with some absurdly chirpy segue like, "...and meanwhile, in tonight's sports action...!")

This is not about a three-year-old and his immediate needs. This is about a craft that I love, and to which I've devoted 25 years of my life (in one form or another), and that I'd like to see improved. Can it be Utopian? No. Can it be much better than it is? I defy anyone to say "no."

RevRon's Rants said...

"a lot of you who debate me on this know exactly what I'm talking about and yet you want to be contentious merely for the sake of being contentious."

If you're including me in that assessment Steve, you're mistaken. Then again, it *is* fun playing devil's advocate with you from time to time. Only fair, yanno!

I agree that our news organizations need improvement, but I don't really think I can expect them to wholly abandon their subjectivity. I believe that if the news divisions reverted to their previous status as a "public service," we'd see the most egregious slant eliminated. We want to be able to trust our journalists, but even that "trust" is a subjective response.

Anonymous said...

'a lot of you who debate me on this know exactly what I'm talking...'

Steve, I'm the Anon 8.06, and I don't know what you're talking about unless you make yourself absolutely clear.
I am of a similar age to you and have long since learned not to jump to conclusions about what someone might be attempting to express when they attempt to put across their ideas.
Communication, even by professional communicators, is never an exact science, but it behoves us all to attempt to be as clear and unambiguous as possible if we are interested in an honest and empathetic interaction.

Pushing the responsibilty onto the reader to somehow divine your exact meaning is a lazy cop-out and often a way to avoid the necessary feeling your way toward any kind of provisional 'truth.'
(and provisional truths are all any of us are ever going to have)
'Alice in Wonderland' said it succinctly: "say what you mean and mean what you say."

'If there is one word that I think would serve us well in life, that word would be empathy.'

You are right, 'empathy' is a word, a signifier, a sign, a symbol and that is all it is, an empty label until the user of the word does some heavy thinking and then begins to display the behaviour.
The word 'empathy' is hollow and serves no-one, the behaviour is immediately apparent and unmissable, unmistakeable-- even by those whose have never heard the word and would not understand a dictionary definition of it.

What would serve us all would be more empathy in action, and that can only begin with oneself. No one person can demand empathy of another for it is a feeling and feelongs cannot be commanded. It can be sought in oneself, however.

Empathy is a human attribute, one well worth cultivating. It is not the exclusive province of women as you have previously tried to suggest and empathetic men are not 'feminized'--also previously suggested by you--they are more fully human.

my verifier: 'oughtchi', I kid you not--that's a mean algorithm someones written for blogger.

RevRon's Rants said...

"a lot of you who debate me on this know exactly what I'm talking about and yet you want to be contentious merely for the sake of being contentious."

My thanks to anon 8:06 / 7:48 for so perfectly characterizing the above point, and for directing readers in effective debate methodology.

I'll hold onto this new-found bit of wisdom, and the next time someone says something careless like "bananas are very nutritious," I'll be prepared to admonish them on their sloppy rhetoric by advising them that bananas are only nutritious when eaten. Then, to take my opponent really off-guard, I'll attribute to them some judgment that they've never expressed. To wit: "Math skill is a human attribute, one well worth cultivating. It is not the exclusive province of men, as you have previously tried to suggest." The din of my opponents confusion will be deafening.

I've no doubt that other would-be debate opponents will cringe at the prospect of participating, much less going up against me. Victory shall be mine forever more!

This is so much more fulfilling than video games, and just as safe! :-)

Elizabeth said...

This is about a craft that I love, and to which I've devoted 25 years of my life (in one form or another), and that I'd like to see improved.

Of course, Steve, and I think this is clear and indisputable. I am not writing in here "just to be contentious" and hope you don't think so.

I agreed with you on the need to keep propaganda out of the news, but the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that empathy does not have anything to do with propaganda, and most certainly propaganda has nothing to do with empathy.

In fact, one could argue that empathy would prevent propaganda from seeping into the news and likely would make it possible to treat, for example, Saddam's sons' deaths with the same attitude we exhibit when discussing JFK assassination.

Most probably the only agenda, if one can call it that, which would arise from cultivating empathy, in journalism as well, would be possibly the (outrageous, I know) notion that we respect (or even, gasp!, care about) each other. I think I could live with that.

Elizabeth said...

Off-topic: in last week's New Yorker there is a very brief excerpt of an interview with Michelle and Barack Obama from 12 years ago, before children and before anyone knew who they were. They were part of a photography project on couples in America.

It's worth reading, IMO (I like the way they talk about each other).

Elizabeth said...

As much as I appreciate snarky wit, Ron, I have to speak up in defense of the Anon, who, I think, makes several very good points.

The main one among them is the fact that indeed we can prattle on about empathy till the cows come home, and feel very noble for doing so, but it don't mean squat if we don't practice what we preach. We can write about how important empathy is and in the next sentence or paragraph show a stunning lack of sensitivity to others, if not downright dismissal or contempt. But it is one of those things that "we know it when we see it," or more accurately, when we feel it. Anon says it quite eloquently here:

The word 'empathy' is hollow and serves no-one, the behaviour is immediately apparent and unmissable, unmistakeable-- even by those whose have never heard the word and would not understand a dictionary definition of it.

... and continues below it in her/his post as well.

In my experience, it is often those who preach the loudest and write the most highfalutin' praises of empathy that show an amazing lack of it in their lives. Their sermons serve their own (narcissistic) needs -- they make them feel good and noble -- even as they trip over others in their rush to the nearest pulpit. I know it well, btw.

Jen said...

Re: lock-down in the padded room, Steve queries: "But you'll let me know when it's time, right?"

Sorry, you're on your own here, pal. I've got enough introspection "issues" for you and all your readers combined. ;)

Although a bright flash of insight hit me, just a few minutes ago. Here is a rich opportunity for the aspiring writer of satire!

Let's say Steve gets his way and all the media suddenly becomes devoid of emotion, empathy, sidedness, ... everything that could possibly sway the unsuspecting viewer. It's a new day, for sure. And guess who gets to give that very first news broadcast?

None other than Steve Salerno.

What would he say? What "news" would he dispassionately report?

Inquiring minds would certainly love to know!

Jen said...

Steve, you wrote: I did not vote for a man who sees other dark-skinned people as his ideological (or, God help us, literal) "brothers."

I like to think I can actually hear you here, but maybe what I'm hearing is merely an echo of my own interpretation. Would it be accurate to say that the 3:05 PM Anon saw something close to being just the opposite of what you actually meant? In other words, what looked to be black/white thinking was in reality filled with not only grey areas but a full spectrum of color as well.

I voted for that same man, viewed through the lens of my own perspective, which is quite different from yours in many ways (I love Hillary, for one) but similar enough that (I think) we both saw the very best of him and believe this part, his highest, is going to ultimately bring the most good to the country. More good, that is, than the other candidate would have brought.

This morning, I was peeling an apple and the thought occurred me that a piece of fruit is going to always be just what it is, to whoever eats it. This might seem to be a mundane or even silly thought, but in the context of the idea of people being who they (we) are, maybe it's somewhat extraordinary. Any particular apple looks the same and tastes the same, always, even if the person who eats it experiences it in a unique way. The skin of the apple is a color, maybe red or maybe green. The inside of the apple is going to be sweet and maybe tart, depending on the type of apple it is. But no matter how you look at that apple, it remains the same; it won't change at all. Experience, in this sense, is key to describing it; and that will always be subjective, even if the words used to describe it are identical.

Likewise, people. We are who we are, regardless of how other people "experience" us.

I don't see you as dishonest or divisive; to the contrary, you seem bring out people's honesty and have a sincere desire to unite (not divide) people. If this were not true, I don't think you'd even bother writing here.

Thanks, Steve, for letting me go off into the deep end a little here.

Steve Salerno said...

Jen: I want to say "thank you" for giving me the benefit of the doubt. Not many do. Your apple analogy reminds me a little bit (though not entirely) of the Shrodinger's Cat paradox in QM (which I believe has come up here before...DS?) There is the thing--what it is to the universe--there is the thing self-consciously--what it is to itself--and there is the thing through our lens--how we experience it. That is very relevant to all of these discussions of the media, race, etc.

But my basic point is that I don't like things that separate us--never did--and race is a major one of those. (That's also why I rebelled against my father's attempts to imbue me with ethnic pride; I've written of it several times.) I don't like the separatism when it comes from "whites," and I don't like the separatism when it comes from "blacks." I don't think there's much philosophical difference between affirmative action and hanging blacks from a tree. The results are vastly different of course, and one approach is "nice," while the other is ghastly. But the thinking behind both is the same.

RevRon's Rants said...

Elizabeth said, "In my experience, it is often those who preach the loudest and write the most highfalutin' praises of empathy that show an amazing lack of it in their lives."

I agree wholeheartedly. Witness the "compassionate conservative" movement. By the same token, I don't think that discussions about empathy and the *practice* of empathy are necessarily mutually exclusive. Furthermore, the refusal to discuss what empathy represents to ourselves and others is often a big step toward the failure to act empathetically. I found the word quite helpful in teaching my kids to try and understand, relate to, and act compassionately toward others (and themselves).

I do believe that there are some contributors - mostly anonymous ones - who obviously appear with a predetermined and poorly disguised agenda of taking issue with even the most mundane aspects of some posts / commenters, which was the issue my admittedly snarky comment attempted to address, which I generally save to use on Steve himself. :-)