Media overload

Someone, presumably who knows who I am because of Defiance, Ohio asked me what I thought a good strategy to stay informed and conscious about what’s happening in the world without being inundated with biased or incorrect information. This question was strangely aligned with things I had been thinking about and speakers and readings in my How 21st Century Media Work class at Medill.

Here’s my answer:

I’ve been doing some reading lately that has made me think about issues
connected to your question. Jack Fuller, a long-time Chicago journalist
recently wrote a book called “What is Happening to News: The Information
th Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism.” He makes two assertions
that really helped me make sense of the current media moment. First, we
live in a world where we have a ton of information and technology to
push that information at us in a relentless stream. This, Fuller says,
creates a consistent response in the human brain – it puts us in a state
of emotional excitement that makes us respond more to emotional information.

As people who create information (news organizations, advertisers,
musicians) have to compete with more information, they try to leverage
the way our brains work by creating information that we will respond
emotionally to and thus pay attention over all the other noise. The
heated debates between pundits (or wingnuts) on cable news are a good
example of this.

Fuller’s second contention is that we live in a time where people are
less trusting of authority (whether it is information from the
mainstream media, the government, academics, experts, etc). This, he
says, is a huge shift from the generation that came of age during WWII
who saw a structured, hierarchical society as a feature that helped win
the war. This observation was really important to me because it made me
rethink the idea that progressives were necessarily exceptional in our
questioning of authority. We may just be guided within a larger dynamic
of skepticism. Certainly there is as much skepticism on the right as
there is among progressives. The main difference is who those groups
define as the authorities to be questioned.

So far, I haven’t really answered your question, but I think Fuller’s
two points are important for how I now think about news and information
in the world. Before I finally get down to an answer, I want to talk
about what motivates me to seek out information. A big part of that is
the idea of radicalism in the Ella Baker sense of the term:
understanding and addressing the social condition at its root. To get
to this understanding or action, it takes a lot of inquiry, questioning
and dialog, part of which can happen through media.

– From what you wrote, it sounds like knowing what’s happening in the
world and using that information to get a sense of injustice or paths to
justice is important to you. Obviously, consuming information and
talking to people about that information is a big part of that process.
However, many issues are complicated and nuanced and information
providers don’t always do a good job of capturing the things they report
with depth or nuance. Still, I think its important to interact with
information in a critical but not necessarily adversarial way (which is
hard given what I mentioned earlier about a lot of information being
presented in a way that has high emotional impact – in many cases that
means in an adversarial way).

As a journalism student I realized how easy it is to insert bias,
inaccuracy, narrowness, or prejudice into a story, not because the
reporter or news outlet is evil or wants to be manipulative but because
of other factors. Maybe the journalist’s experience (or lack of
experience) keeps her from asking all the questions about a story or
seeking a full range of sources? Maybe sources aren’t willing to talk
to the journalist because of their perceptions about the media or the
journalist (warranted or not). Perhaps there just isn’t time, space or
resources to fully explore the story. In any case, I think both media
producers and others interacting with media and information are best
served by trying to get a complete picture. Instead of asking “is this
right or wrong”, it might be more productive to ask, “what doesn’t make
sense?”, “what questions aren’t answered?” or “how might the
writer/publication’s experience mediate what I’m reading/seeing/hearing?”

Besides providing nformation, another thing that information providers
do is to frame issues. They define what the “sides” are to a debate (or
whether there’s a debate at all) and what the “left”, “right” and
“center” of an issue are. Given the perceived need to make information
have emotional weight, I think its really easy for information providers
to pick voices and framings that are loud and provocative but aren’t
necessarily the most productive or relevant. I think people interacting
with information shouldn’t just assume the framings we’re provided. One
of the best techniques I’ve been taught as a student reporter is to ask
sources, “what person/perspective who is on a different side of the
issue do you most respect?” rather than just picking the most outspoken
voices. If reporters aren’t doing this, then those interacting with the
media need to.

Finally, as much as I feel like a “fuck the news” mentality isn’t very
productive and is sort of the same as prescribing to the idea that
“ignorance is bliss”, I think it’s a mentality that’s completely
understandable. However, I think it’s important to separate concerns
about the accuracy, depth and nuance of information from feelings of
being overwhelmed by information. As I’ve mentioned a lot already, much
of the information that we interact with today is designed to illicit an
emotional response, in many cases, one that borders on stress. This can
be really, really overwhelming. There was a great episode of a Boston
Radio show called “The Theory of Everything” that I heard once that I
can no longer find but maybe you can where the producer talked about
being overwhelmed by trying to stay informed about the Iraq war. I
think it’s okay to take breaks from media and to accept that there are
limitations to how much information we can synthesize both rationally
and emotionally. Failing to do so can hurt our ability to use
information constructively as much as complete ignorance can.

The short answer, as best I can say for myself is this: consume
information in an emotionally sustainable way, ask critical but not
necessarily adversarial questions and seek out additional information
that helps answer your questions.

Photo by martinhoward via Flickr


I get to the hotel where we’re staying for the fest and start paging through the dense, brightly covered booklet that describes the bands playing and other events over the course of the weekend. Bz tells me, “just read the first sentence of the description,” and I do. It says, “Welcome one and all to the biggest punk rock, shirts off, stale beer smelling, bear hugging, cheap booze swillin’, high five greeting, coosie totin’, family reunion, holiday, circus of fools we lovingly embrace simply called THE FEST.” It’s cheesy and frankly, I have a hard time feeling myself in those words, but I’m here. Amidst the amped up party atmosphere, there are some great people, and their great bands. Playing fewer and fewer shows with Defiance, Ohio has made being together and the shows we do play seem more special, which is kind of exciting. It makes it feel like this year, the show we play will actually be special instead of the anticlimax that comes with it being just another show, albeit a hyped one.

It is really nice to see people. There is a comfort in being reminded of the things that you know deeply about people, but sort of forgot. The hotel room table is covered in stacks of books from various authors and I remember how hyper-literate my band mates are, yet we’re still able to indulge in America’s Next Top Model marathons. There’s the ability to be goofy as we take videos of our own top-model style commercials for the fest. We take turns making sultry eyes at the mobile phone camera and end with our best “I love to fest.” Whether it was the last-minute, homemade togas the last time we played in Bloomington or these videos, the ability to make weird, theatrical things for our own enjoyment has been one of the most pleasurable experiences with my friends over the years.

We heard that the Max Levine Ensemble was playing a house show, so we wandered around Gainesville for a while until we found the house. It’s easy to spend a lot of at the fest wandering around and getting lost, but the walk felt nice and I like not feeling stuck on University Avenue.

After The Max played, we saw the Hot New Mexicans who were really good. I’ve seen them play a lot, but since we haven’t played many shows this year, I feel like my attention span for shows is so much longer. It’s nice because it helps me really enjoy seeing bands, even ones I’ve seen before, and notice new things about their music.

When their set finished, Bz, Sherri, and I went over to see 7 Seconds. The last time I had seen them was at a Warped Tour when I was a teenager. Unlike Bz, they weren’t really a band that I listened to a lot when I got into punk, but the first time I heard them, I realized that they were a huge influence to so many of the local hardcore bands in my home town. As, I get older, I’m inspired by people much older than me continuing to play music. We have a narrative of people touring and playing music until they burn out and self destruct or dropping out into a more conventional life, but there are many people who have decided to have families, or maybe careers who struggle to strike a balance with still being involved in punk music and I think their stories often go unmentioned. Kevin Seconds is an engaging performer, and a good storyteller. After performing for a few decades, its obvious that telling stories or connecting an old song with current events comes more easily, but not without sincerity. It’s so important to me, and one of the things that drew me to punk initially, that the songs come from somewhere, that there is such a direct link from experience or perspective on the world to lyrics and performance. It was interesting to hear the story behind the classic song Walk Together. Apparently, it was written after a show was canceled due to fear of metalhead vs. punk violence. It’s nice that their response was to write a song celebrating unity rather than a call to kick some metal ass.

Punk can be so contradictory, at once macho and positive, crucially critical and irrelevantly divisive. Listening to the radio and reading Billboards, I realized how conservative Florida can be. There was one stretch where there was an anti-choice billboard with a giant fetus every few miles. After seeing the preserved fetuses at the You: The Experience exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, the billboard seemed even more manipulative because the fetus next to the text “My heart beats after 18 days didn’t look like the 18-day-old embryo that I saw at the museum. This is besides the point, though. For me, the debate isn’t really about what constitutes “life” at a certain stage of prenatal development, but about a consistent cultural desire to control the bodies and lives of women and a lack of support for health care for women and children as well as support for families that don’t fit the one mom, one dad, 2+ kids model. It’s just scary to think about all the energy and resources that went to put giant embryos beside the highway.

I also saw a billboard advertising the Fraternal Order of Police’s gun show and I just don’t see how encouraging people to buy guns helps ensure safety or order. The kicker was to hear a commercial for a conservative “Black Tie and Blue Jeans” event that said, “Conservatives, come eat MEAT while those liberals are eating their granola and driving their hybrids.” Note to progressive punks, snark and irony won’t change anything. The reality of talk-radio-style conservatism is so ridiculous that it will be more bizarre and gross than any parody. It really feels like there is a culture war, and I don’t want to fight in it. It feels like a test of faith, that there are enough people, coming from all different experiences, who want to be connected and empathetic to other people, who want to really solve problems, who want to base their perspective on things that are external to their experience on a careful, comprehensive discourse. I don’t want to “win” over people or organizations who promote ideas that I think are really harmful. I just want there to be a critical mass that makes them irrelevant.


One of the interesting things about the technological world is that new, precise terminology develops really quickly. This can be confusing and a barrier to understanding things, but when it bleeds over into culture surrounding technology (e.g. newsgroups back in the day and social networking sites now), there’s great jargon that really captures cultural phenomenon.  Today, I learned the term “mansplain” through meta-comments about a blog post.  Urban Dictionary defines “mainsplain” as:

To explain in a patronizing manner, assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening. The mansplainer is often shocked and hurt when their mansplanation is not taken as absolute fact, criticized or even rejected altogether.

I’ve definitely been guilty of this.  The example that weighs heavily in my memory happened on a trip back home during my freshman year of college.  I had just participated in reading Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” as part of a university-wide reading program.  It was really an eye-opening book for me because it described cultural pressures and beauty standards that, as a man, I really didn’t have to think about or deal with.  I was excited by my new-found consciousness and filled with moral outrage about the injustice of gendered beauty standards.  On my trip back, I went with my family to one of my brother’s quiz bowl competitions.  In talking with one of his female teammates, the subject shifted to gender and appearance.  I began to describe “The Beauty Myth” and how culture and mass media oppressed women and suggested that she read the book.  My brother’s teammate cut me off.  “I don’t read that dykey stuff,” she replied shortly.

Until recently, this story sat in my mind as an example of how ideas that restrict someone can be internalized, but now I see it as a possible response to my mansplaining.  Surely, a young woman participating in an intellectual competition, thick with geeky connotations, where women were definitely in the minority didn’t need to have gendered double standards explained to her.  This kind of mansplaining seems particularly problematic because it’s pedantically clobbering someone about issues of gender.  This is easy for me, and likely other men, to do because part of male privilege and the expectations and behaviors that perpetuate it is that men aren’t supposed to think about how our lives are mediataed by gender.  So, it’s a lot easier to try to front with presumed expertise when we learn about how gender works in our society from books or descriptions of other people’s experience than to describe and analyze our own experiences with gender.

What is the remedy?  It seems so difficult when I feel conditioned to mansplained. The familiar elementary school report is just one example of how our culture values singular expertise on a subject and assumes that the non-expert doesn’t have anything to contribute to the teaching or learning process.  I feel like I get most of my validation from the things that I do that are perceived as having the most exclusive knowledge.  Do I get validation because I enjoy writing computer programs or do I write computer programs because it’s something that is culturally perceived as challenging and talent-requiring?  What can individuals do with skills or knowledge other than demonstrate their expertise?

I can answer the last question at least.  We can do stuff.  And one thing that is incredibly helpful to me is to do things where I am most definitely and perpetually not expert.  It forces me to appreciate the abilities or knowledge of others and learn from them.  Playing music is one of those things and playing soccer is another.  When I think about gender, it’s hard not to think about soccer because playing it, for me, has always involved playing with women, but the institution has also seemed so male dominated.  It’s easy for me to fetishize women who play on otherwise all-boys high school teams, or who are the sole lady at the pick-up game, and it’s compelling to say, “I know what you’re facing, I can see how the pressures and expectations of gender are playing themselves out on this field.”  But, really, we know these things because we live them, on one side of the gender divide or the other, and we can do our best to make these spaces in our lives more gender equal.  Finally, I rely on soccer as an example of personal changes in gendered interactions because it’s so obvious that what, beyond “teaching” someone skills or pointing out their minority status in the game, what will really benefit women playing in mostly-male soccer games benefits most men too.  It doesn’t elevate the game when any player makes assumptions about the skills of their teammates.  It’s not fun for everyone when two dudes start yelling at each other over some foul.  And it doesn’t make anyone more skillful when a handful of skilled players hog the ball and are oblivious to their teammates.  It’s pretty clear in this example, but generally true, I think.  While gendered expectations benefit men in a lot of ways, they also restrict us.

radical votes

I Voted

Two days ago, I voted early in Bloomington, Indiana. It took me around forty minutes and was a pretty great experience. I want to encourage everyone who is registered to vote, to do so, but even if you aren’t registered to vote, can’t vote, or choose not to, please go to a polling place on an early voting day, or election day, just to see what it looks like. For me, the early voting location in Bloomington provided me with a great vision for what I want the things that I do to look like. For all its limitations, the electoral process, for a moment, had engaged a multiracial, multigenerational group of people who spanned classes and backgrounds, thus involving a far more complicated mixture of people than my community’s power structure and the cultural and political projects that I am a part of. I want the things I do to involve and be accountable to people in this broad and complicated way.

I voted for Barack Obama in the presidential race and for a number of other candidates in state and local races who I believed reflected my ideas and values in a way that was substantially stronger than their opponents. I ask you to do the same. If you are registered to vote, please take the time this week to vote for Barack Obama and any other candidates who might create a better context for the cultural and political work that many of us are doing. If you are registered to vote, but are not convinced that you should take the time to vote, please read on.

I am under no illusion that this election, or any election, can bring the kind of radical societal change that I ultimately want to see. Moreover, I see how the electoral process can oversimplify, distort, and silence a vibrant set of beliefs and proposals and reduce them to vague generalizations or culture war. I shudder at the way in which the candidates change their ideas to appeal, not to the needs and concerns of real people, but to amorphous demographics. Watching the presidential race, I cringe every time Senator Obama talks about hunting down and killing Osama Bin Laden or changing the focus of U.S. military intervention from Iraq to Afghanistan. Even more, I am sickened by the way that Senator McCain has changed his rhetoric and selected a running mate to appeal to a bigoted and narrow-perspectived brand of conservative that was once his adversary. And, even though I am glad that Senator Obama’s fundraising might help him win the presidency, I am disgusted when I think of what could have been done with that money other than winning an election. Despite all of this, I feel good about voting for Barack Obama for president, as one part of all the commitments I hope to make towards building a different world. I can’t pretend to believe that I can convince anyone about why *they* should vote as I have. All I can do is try to explain why I have chosen to vote in the hopes that some of these things may resonate with some of the things that those reading this are feeling.

Context Matters

Radical community organizing, making independent art and music, direct action – these strategies of change happen in a cultural context that plays a huge role in the success or failure of these pursuits. As I stated earlier, I do not believe that any president can bring about the kind of change that I want to see, but I do feel like Barack Obama would, as president, set a powerful and positive context for my work towards that change. I see this election, not as a battle of competing policies, but as a referendum on very different views of the world and how one can engage in it.

What is Experience?

I think grassroots community organizing is extremely important. I think it can bring about the kind of changes in communities that politicians can’t. My vote for Barack Obama is an affirmation of this. His work as a community organizer in Chicago has obviously informed his politics and vision. I want to express that this kind of work, and not just military service or a political career, commands power and respect. Moreover, the Obama campaign itself is an affirmation of grassroots organizing. In the past, I advised people to vote, but not to let the campaign distract them from the work they were already doing. I now question the soundness of this advice. I have heard so many stories of people, working on the ground for the Obama campaign, having the really tough, soul-wrenching conversations in their communities about race and class that are so needed everywhere. In trying to convince others of something, they have had to think, and really think, about why they are themselves so committed. This is in stark contrast to the dangerous tendency I see in myself and many of my friends to settle with being right about something rather than engaging others to actually change things. For many, it is the first political movement to which they have ever given sweat or monetary resources. If the unpaid work and small monetary donations of so many can win an election, I can’t wait to see what else it can do. I hope that those who committed themselves to this one type of political involvement will continue to apply their passion and resources throughout their lives, regardless of the outcome of the election, but I feel that an Obama victory would do much to ensure this.

Experience with Race

During the election season, NPR has had a great series of stories where they talked to voters in York, Pennsylvania (not too far from where I grew up!) about race and the election. What NPR got very, very right is that they framed the conversation, not in terms of the race of the candidates, but in how the voters’ *experiences* with race affected their perspective on the election. To me, what is most paradigm shifting about Barack Obama’s candidacy is not the fact that he is multiracial, but that he has been able to reflect on and articulate how his complicated experience with race has shaped his life and informs his worldview and political ideas. In the NPR stories, a white woman said that she didn’t have much experience with race. As a multiracial person, I find this sentiment to be one of the most offensive and harmful examples of white privilege. It is, I believe, the reason I have heard, over and over, the misconception that people of color cannot be themselves racist, or that some white people fear reprisal if a black man is elected president. The United States is a multiracial country with an often shameful multiracial history. The assumption that only people who are not white have experiences with race is simply not true.

John McCain has experience with race. He is the adoptive father of a child who is not white. In fact, this was the subject of an ugly rumor, designed to hurt his chances in a Republican primary, that his daughter was actually his child from an affair with a non-white woman. The way that John McCain is perceived and the expectations, prejudices, and way of moving through the world that he has experienced will be profoundly different from his daughter. This is a challenge that many cross-cultural adoptive parents must struggle with, but McCain’s experience with this has not been part of the campaign. John McCain fought in a war that pitted him against people of a different race. He was captured, and tortured by some of them. In the not-so-distant past, McCain continued to refer to some groups of Asian people with the derogatory term “gook.” Again, coming to terms with the racism, xenophobia, and dehumanization that comes with war is a part of many peoples’, in particular soldiers’ experiences. Yet, the loudest commentary on race that has come from the McCain campaign has been from a small number of his most bigoted supporters.

If we, as a society, are going to get real about ending racism, if we are going to get real about coming to terms with the reality of a multi-racial United States – past, present, and future, then we need to be able to reflect on, and talk about our experiences with race. This needs to happen in our neighborhoods, and among the most visible representatives of our culture.

Culture Wars

I grew up in a part of Pennsylvania that is getting a lot of news coverage as the election comes to a close. John McCain believes it to be a stronghold of the kind of conservative base that will allow him to win the state, and the election. Right now, I live in Bloomington, Indiana where, just outside of the city limits, many would believe the same unyielding conservatism is represented. If there is one thing that has been disappointing about Obama supporters, it is that so many are willing to accept the line in the sand between cosmopolitan liberals and “ignorant rednecks.” I think this perspective is offensive and narrow. Many studies suggest that the rural vote is every bit as divided as most other places. As I drove, this past weekend, from Bloomington through the countryside to another town, I saw as many Obama signs as McCain ones. Growing up in a staunchly conservative area, I know that these beliefs are powerful. I know that bigotry is real. I know that these things come with the weight of history, traditions, and culture. But I also know that there are some, who come from those same places, from the same culture, through the same history, who come to very different conclusions in their life. Belief that we are born into red states or blue states, enlightenment or ignorance sells us all short. It absolves us from the responsibility of examining who we are and where we come from. I think that Barack Obama’s candidacy has consistently challenged this. John McCain, and especially his running mate Sarah Palin, are, quite cynically, suggesting that people should vote their race, class, and geography rather than their ideas, beliefs, hopes, and vision.

There are many other reasons why I felt good voting for Barack Obama, but the ones I’ve mentioned: that context matters and that we need to fundamentally challenge our ideas about where power comes from, how we think about race, and whether we view our world as a set of clashing monolithic blocks or a confluence of people with complicated interests and experiences, are the ones that mean the most. For the first time in my political life, they have made voting feel radical, in the original sense of the word, in the Ella Baker sense of the word, because I feel like, through this election, we could be that much closer to getting at the root causes of all the things in this world that we will change.


Stuff White People Like blog and thinking about whiteness in general

A blog parodying the “park slope parent” (public radio listeners, and myself too), Stuff White People Like is really interesting because I think it frames the activities that me and a lot of my friends enjoy, not just as our choices but as part of cultural forces of which race is a component.  As one caller on the NPR call-in show where I found out about this blog noted, this blog helps expose white privilege because it examines the activities of a subset of white culture from a more removed perspective and a critical one, even if that criticism is tempered by humor.  The blog creator pointed out that, whites often criticize or satirize the culture of whites who live in rural areas, have less money, or education, but that middle-class whites, and especially hip middle-class white culture is not framed as grounds for satire.

I think it’s pretty jolting to look at this blog, because even though I’m not entirely white, and feel like that identity doesn’t adequately encompass some of my experiences, so much of the things listed as likes on the blog are incredibly familiar.

What was pretty interesting was the connection this blog makes to electoral politics and that the blog’s brand of White People like to support Barack Obama.

Link to Stuff White People Like blog
Link to NPR’s Talk of the Nation interview with the blog’s creator

punk as social force?

I feel like I’ve gained and reiterated a more critical perspective of perspective on punk in reading and responding to Daniel Traber’s L.A.’s “White Minority”: Punk and The Contradictions of Self-Marginalization.  Michael Eric Dyson spoke at IU this week and talked a lot about hip-hop as an amplification of culture at large (i.e. critics of misogynist rap lyrics failing to acknowledge the connection between those attitudes and cross-cultural ideas of power and masculinity).  Similarly, though not to say that these roles are mutually-exclusive, I think that punk is more often a reflection of culture-at-large than a provocative agent.  Right now, I’m slowly reading through Jackson Katz’s The Macho Paradox and he refers often to the history of the formation of the battered women’s and rape crisis movements.  He quotes Debby Tucker, cofounder of the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence and volunteer in the first rape crisis center in Texas on the beginnings of those movements:

It all started with women learning to listen to each other.  The battered women’s and rape crisis movements drew strength from our understanding that what happened to individual women was not isolated.  At first we just wanted to help … later we began to hear about women’s experiences, and see commonalities and patterns not only in the abuses they suffered but in the responses to them by the police, the courts, the clergy.  We then began to use what we’d learned to confront men both at a personal and an institutional level.

So, the riot-grrl movement in the 90s, strongly connected to punk subculture, can be seen as a manifestation of a larger consciousness of women listening to women and organizing politically around the injustices articulated through those stories.

In the present, I can’t help but see the rising popularity of punk music that talks about connections to family  (e.g. The Devil in My Family by Ghost Mice, or Grandma Song by Defiance, Ohio) as a reflection of a generation whose parents are more involved in the lives of their children (e.g. “Helicopter Parents“) and whose children are more at ease with the connectedness of their parents.  Similarly, I see more subtle departures in ideology and identity between contemporary punks identifying with D.I.Y. practices and values and their parents, especially when compared with the extreme symbolic choices in lifestyle and fashion that punks in the 70s and 80s used to signify a separation from white, middle-class values.

In the case of riot-grrl and feminist organizing, one can see the positive integration of youth-culture and an important social movement.  In the case of changing perceptions of family in punk subculture you can see how different relationships with the idea of family each offer their own limitations, whether through overly symbolic identifications or what borders on conservatism.  In either case though, I come to the conclusion that punk wasn’t the movement or social force driving the connected dynamics.

Writing this is strange for me, because even though I increasingly recognize that punk media and subculture might not be a driving social force, I continue to contextualize other social dynamics through my own punk identity and my history through that identity.

media check for week of 2007-09-10

I was listening to Morning Edition today and heard a really interesting story about a man in Iraq meeting a friend from Texas via the Internet.  The Texan loves the Bush administration and thinks the war in Iraq was justified and a good thing.  The Iraqi man agrees that extremists in Iraq are responsible for the violence and other problems in the country, but feels the US isn’t helping by being in Iraq.  This is a crazy example of a cross-cultural dialog.  What I find difficult to understand is the Texan’s unwillingness to accept the Iraqi’s criticism of the US occupation, even though the Iraqi seems to have a better perspective.  It makes me want to be more careful at watching out for my own ridiculous belief at times.