By Al Giordano
No US president in my lifetime entered office so rudely hazed as Barack Obama. It’s been sixteen months of this: A bunch of privileged white folk with college degrees – you know, the ones who dominate the press and pundit corps – suddenly discovered a fun new board game. Let’s call it what it is: “The black guy can't possibly know how to govern so we will tell him what to do!”
This rebirth of know-it-all-ism took on distinct languages on the right and in some corners of the left, but it came from the same instinct: a profound unease that The President didn’t look or sound white, um, like previous commanders-in-chief.
The racist impulses of the tea partiers and others of the far right came unglued in full public view last week when Republican US Senate nominee Rand Paul in Kentucky – at the very moment he became the political face of the tea party “movement” by winning his party primary and by virtue of the nepotism of being “libertarian” Saint Ron Paul’s spawn - actually called for allowing private businesses to discriminate against Americans based on their skin color. Then he backpedaled and claimed not to mean it all the dozens of times he had said it over so many years.
That tendency has also manifested in some corners of the left, but it played out differently because unlike those on the right, its adherents felt a sense of entitlement to tell Obama what to do. And when Obama ignored the self-appointed counselors of left and right, some on the left took it personally. That’s when it really got vicious. “What? How dare he not follow MY advice!” At that point a gaggle of them lost their heads altogether, because hell hath no fury like a know-it-all blogger scorned, especially one who thinks everything is about him or her.
Yet for sixteen months, denied the media honeymoon that every other president always had in his first year in office,The President has been one hundred percent unflappable. He has not lost his cool or blown his temper in public, not even once. Instead, Obama set to work cueing up his legislative priorities and shepherding them, one at a time, through a difficult Congress, especially hard in the Senate where 40 Republicans plus any one or two conservative Democrats could, as a minority, block the 100-member chamber from voting on any proposed law. And on every single law he proposed or backed, he won passage. Let me repeat that: Every single one. In baseball terms, Obama has batted 1.000. He hasn’t struck out once. Not yet. In a funny way, that infuriates his naysayers even more.
Whether one agrees with Obama’s positions or not, one has to give credit that is due: He walks to his own drumbeat and step by step has gotten big things accomplished.
After all, even in frat house hazing rituals, if the guy being hazed endures it with grace, he has to be invited into the fraternity. In that sense some of the current serial hazers have shown less class than frat boys.
Suddenly – and I suppose the Rand Paul implosion pinpricked some white liberal consciences to contribute to their sudden turnaround, because it made it clear just how much of the American dysfunction is about race – some journalism and opinion column insiders have begun to consider the cumulative whole of President Obama’s first sixteen months in office and do some very simple math.
David Leonhardt’s Friday New York Times piece – “A Progressive Agenda to Remake Washington” - connected the dots:
With the Senate’s passage of financial regulation, Congress and the White House have completed 16 months of activity that rival any other since the New Deal in scope or ambition. Like the Reagan Revolution or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the new progressive period has the makings of a generational shift in how Washington operates.
First came a stimulus bill that, while aimed mainly at ending a deep recession, also set out to remake the nation’s educational system and vastly expand scientific research. Then President Obama signed a health care bill that was the biggest expansion of the safety net in 40 years. And now Congress is in the final stages of a bill that would tighten Wall Street’s rules and probably shrink its profit margins.
If there is a theme to all this, it has been to try to lift economic growth while also reducing income inequality...
This morning, columnist and economist Paul Krugman – one of the earliest “Obama must do as I say” lecturers – told the nation what New Yorker media insiders, due to their proximity to Wall Street sources, have discovered. That big business is hysterical over the President now because, contrary to the anti-Obama talking points that have blabbered on for sixteen months, the President’s administration and policies have had the effect of policing corporate America for the first time in decades. The party of the elites begun under Reagan and continued through two Bushes and a Clinton, is palpably over. Krugman writes:
So here’s how it is: They’re as mad as hell, and they’re not going to take this anymore. Am I talking about the Tea Partiers? No, I’m talking about the corporations.
Much reporting on opposition to the Obama administration portrays it as a sort of populist uprising. Yet the antics of the socialism-and-death-panels crowd are only part of the story of anti-Obamaism, and arguably the less important part. If you really want to know what’s going on, watch the corporations.
How can you do that? Follow the money — donations by corporate political action committees…
...63 percent of spending by banks’ corporate PACs has gone to Republicans, up from 53 percent last year. Securities and investment firms, traditionally Democratic-leaning, are now giving more money to Republicans. And oil and gas companies, always Republican-leaning, have gone all out, bestowing 76 percent of their largess on the G.O.P.
Corporate America, however, really, truly hates the current administration. Wall Street, for example, is in “a state of bitter, seething, hysterical fury” toward the president, writes John Heilemann of New York magazine.
Heilemann’s essay “Obama is from Mars, Wall Street is from Venus,” likewise was the result of his proximity, as a New Yorker, to the big money hornet’s nest. He basically says as much:
One night not long ago, over dinner with ten executives in the finance industry, I heard the president described as “hostile to business,” “anti-wealth,” and “anti-capitalism”; as a “redistributionist,” a “vilifier,” and a “thug.”
So, woo hoo!, right? It turns out that all along the President has been putting the screws on Wall Street even while he’s been polite in tone to it. (That’s what we Italian-Americans have long called “smiling while sticking the knife in.”)
All this, of course, has Obama’s real base breathing a big exhale of relief, like the 347 Daily Kos bloggers who recommended a diary today extolling this sudden shift in the Conventional Wisdom acknowledging that, hey, maybe the black guy is even better at governing than all those white guys who preceded him!
But if you want an idea of how angry this change in the political winds is making the dwindling “Obama must do as I say” grouposcule, and you have the stomach for tantrum overdrive, scroll some of the earliest comments on that highly recommended diary: the same hyena pack of a dozen or two poutrage addicts that have led the Obama Hazing Society for sixteen months are besides themselves now. They can’t stand the new recognition that Obama has angered Wall Street and that his presidency has already broken historic barriers for defeating special interests and getting progressive change done.
One would think that true liberals and progressives, especially those who were skeptical at first, would be truly happy, and truth is that most are. So what’s wrong with the Eeyores? Well, they’ve been proved wrong (again) and that always gives them road rage. And some are now personally embarrassed and are beginning to catch some overdue blowback for their tantrumism.
One of them is Open Left’s front-pager Paul Rosenberg, who for sixteen months has sprung a toxic leak that, if you could take a photo of it, would look a lot like that BP oil rig in the Gulf.
Nine days ago, Rosenberg had the trademark poor timing of making this looney tunes declaration a week before the rest of the media and blogger world came to the realization that in Obama, something truly historic is going on:
"...no one wants to face up to just how truly terrible a president Barack Obama is turning out to be--we're talking potential Herbert Hoover territory, folks."
Excuse me while I reply: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
Rosenberg really stepped in his own bullshit, again. That blog post was penned with mid-May’s poutrage-of-the-week, when some like Rosenberg were shopping their latest proposed anti-Obama crusade. Then it was against Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan (that particular arson attempt snuffed out pretty quickly, as Kagan now coasts to Senate approval and Poutrage Inc. has gone looking for new reasons to incite fear and loathing of all things Obama). But now, suddenly, Rosenberg – much like Rand Paul - is being taken to task for the written record of his bizarro world claims. What goes around comes around, and bloggers who live by spitting up their own bile in public should expect to get cookies tossed upon them now and then, too. Live by the critique, die by the critique, and no critic has the right to whine when criticized.
Jamelle Bouie at Think Progress serves up the just desserts:
I need help understanding how OpenLeft’s Paul Rosenberg can credibly argue that Barack Obama has manically embraced “discredited conservative ideas” and “helped enormously in extended the hegemonic continuity of [the] Nixon-Reagan Eara. [Emphasis his]” More specifically, I need help understanding this strange impulse among liberals of Rosenberg’s ilk to understate or dismiss most of the work Congress and President Obama have done over the past sixteen months, especially when — as David Leonhardt noted in yesterday’s New York Times — it’s been a burst of activity that “rivals any other since the New Deal in scope or ambition.”
Right now, liberals (again, of Rosenberg’s ilk) ought to spend less time lamenting Obama’s aversion to ideological orthodoxy and more time working to defend and improve progressive governance
That led to an indignant response this morning from Open Left owner Chris Bowers who claims that Bouie had attacked everyone at Open Left. My gawd. Can they be that self important? Do they always think it is about them even if it is just about one of them? To wit:
Excuse me? The Open Left community ("Rosenberg's ilk") has collectively engaged in a significant amount of direct action attempting to improve progressive governance over the past sixteen months…
Leveling such a charge against Open Left requires lumping us into some pre-set stereotype of do-nothing, left-wing whiners that belies an almost total lack of familiarity with Open Left.
But Bouie didn’t say anything about “the Open Left community.” He wrote about Rosenberg and his “ilk” which, in proper English, would describe only those who agree with him.
If Bowers shares Rosenberg’s view that “Barack Obama is turning out to be… a terrible president… in Herbert Hoover territory, folks,” well then, yes, that would define him as “ilk.” But since Bowers and some other Open Left front pagers have refrained from making such foolish expressions (Bowers, not too long ago, in March, was praised from this corner for coming to public grips with very much the opposite view when he wrote “Obama developed new messaging that was more convincing than the likes used by myself… or anyone else on the left who was making contrary arguments” – does he likewise think I was praising Rosenberg and “the Open Left community” when I said something nice about him?) no reasonable person thinks that Bouie was criticizing everybody on the blog where Rosenberg is provided his own public port-a-potty with glass walls.
But all of that is a sideshow; a car wreck that I admit I slow down and stretch my neck out the window to see the gore of it.
What has really just happened is conventional media wisdom has begun to shift, and it looks to me like President Obama is about to get that honeymoon from the media that all the white previous presidents got in their first year in office, only a year and some months late.
And that works out real well, too, since it is this year when midterm Congressional elections will be held in the United States. Sometimes it makes sense to save the honeymoon for the second anniversary.
It won’t last – no media honeymoon does – but it might well endure through November, which would be another triumph in political timing with positive, real world, consequences.
Even if I didn’t like and admire this President, I would still be impressed by his temperament, and by the way he plays the political game. It is worthy of study, and I've learned lots of new tricks just by watching him in action, and taking notes.
By Al Giordano
It occurred to me, while reading online comments about the end of a six-year TV show that a lot of people liked (something about an island, I've heard), that Narco News was around before that series existed and is still around after its finale.
The sum of the resources we’ve raised and spent to publish cutting edge honest journalism and train a new generation of authentic journalists from so many countries over the course of a decade is certainly less than it costs to produce a single hour of a network television drama: Thousands of reported stories, a landmark First Amendment court victory, so much new talent trained through our School of Authentic Journalism and put to work at Narco News and elsewhere, more recently our expansion into online video journalism and political reporting… none of it happened on a fictional island. It happened and keeps happening right here in the world where you and I live.
In fact, over these ten years, more than TV shows have come and gone, but also so many daily newspapers and other media that once were mighty no longer publish or exist. For the most part they relied on the old model of advertising-supported journalism which set limits on what they could or could not report and pushed them to direct their “product” at the upscale consumers the advertisers wanted to reach, turning journalism’s back on the majority of people who struggle to pay our monthly bills.
We’ve survived and thrived these ten years doing it differently. How did we get here? Only through your support has any of this been possible. How will we keep doing this vital work reporting the struggles for authentic freedom, justice and democracy? If there is one thing I have learned about raising funds during this decade, is that if you want somebody’s support you have to ask for it. And so I am asking you today.
I notice that it’s been some weeks since we asked you for a donation and during that time the Narco News Tenth Anniversary bar graph has nudged only a little bit closer to the $10,000 fundraising goal. We are still more than $2,700 short of what we need to comply with our job of reporting and bringing the news to you.
There is a lot going on behind the scenes here in the Narco Newsroom, too, that will soon bear more visible fruit. You may have noticed that slowly and surely we have begun producing and making available (for free, as always) videos filmed at the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism. If you haven’t already seen Journalism and Civil Resistance: Rev. Jim Lawson in Mexico or How to Write a News Story or Torture in Egypt (about the important reporting done by 2010 School of Authentic Journalism graduate Noha Atef) or Translations with Father Charlie or the lessons in how you can best use communications tools like Wikipedia or Creative Commons licensing or the story of Media from Below: Philadelphia’s Media Moblizing Project, then click those links.
There, you will see and hear not just seven compelling videos that share our work, reporting and lessons learned at the School of Authentic Journalism. You will also be seeing – or have already seen – the first steps in the birth of a new project: Narco News TV. NNTV will be very much like Narco News, except the stories talk and move. Like all our work over ten years, we do that on a shoestring budget, too. Still, it does involve more costs: we’ve had to purchase a bunch of additional hard drives, we’ve brought on a full time video editor from the ranks of the j-school, and bringing NNTV to birth takes up a lot of my time and that of other collaborators.
That’s where so much of the Internet is moving. Five years after the launch of YouTube, the online public increasingly wants its news on video. And while we will always continue with hard-hitting written reports and journalism, we’re moving with the public, too, into the digital television age.
And so, once again, because no newspaper is an island, I ask you to toss a coin or two into the cup. It is through hundreds of small donations that big works are done. Thank you in advance for your next contribution. You can make it online, right now, at this link:
Or send a check to:
The Fund for Authentic Journalism
PO Box 1446
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Your contributions to The Fund for Authentic Journalism are tax deductible in the United States and 100 percent of them go directly to support the work of our journalists. The Fund is managed by volunteers, has no paid staff, no office and no bureaucracy. Every dollar you give goes fully to the work of reporting, publishing, training a new generation to do this work, and, now, producing online video reports.
Amazing, that a project so frugal has survived a decade already. With your continued support, we intend to be around as long as society needs authentic journalism and authentic journalists. But authenticity needs you, too. It always has, and always will.
From somewhere in a country called América,
By Al Giordano
Tuesday’s elections in the United States of Arkansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania disproved the slick media pundit conventional wisdom and its clucking Chicken Little believers wrong once again. For weeks we’ve heard it in unison from the teevee talking heads and the mynah bird beaks of mass media consumers-cum-bloggers: that 2010 is an anti-incumbent year, that Democrats are going down, will lose the US House of Representatives in November (Newt Gingrich, yesterday, predicted a November Republican gain of up to 70 seats and possibly control of the US Senate, too, including a defeat of Senator Barbara Boxer of California: Bartender, I’ll have what he’s having.)
Most of the races on the ballot yesterday were primaries and in that context political outsiders out-organized the insiders within both major parties. The only contest to test whether climate change has come to the Democrat-vs.-Republican rivalry happened in Pennsylvania’s Congressional District number 12, in a special election to replace the late US Rep. Jack Murtha, a conservative Democrat. How great was the supposed “anti-establishment” tide that the media has been crowing about? The winner was Murtha’s longtime Congressional aide named Mark Critz.
For the past twelve years Critz worked as the regional director for Murtha. He was the staffer who responded to constituents, wrote letters on their behalf, cut Federal red tape, issued flags flown over the US Capitol, attended local events and solved problems for individuals, families and small businesses in the district. In other words, he did the part of a Congressman’s work that is not ideological, the Representative's representative in the district. In Congress, he’ll likely be a “blue dog” conservative Democrat, like Murtha (and that is fairly representative of that district, which I passed through in 2008 reporting the US presidential campaign). It is a bellwether district, 95 percent white, in Pennsyltuckian Appalachia; the only CD in the country that voted both for Kerry in ’04 and McCain in ’08, a “swing district” extraordinaire.
And yesterday the Democrat got 53 percent of the vote, a comfortable margin of victory, in this supposedly “anti-incumbent” year even though Critz was the closest thing to an incumbent in the contest. His victory underscores that when it comes to US House elections – fantasies of the activists of left and right aside – “the issues” and ideology are secondary criteria for most voters. Most Americans look at their representative in Congress and think “what can he do for me?” They want to know that their US Rep. can "deliver for the locals." Critz was accurately seen as the one who could pull the strings for the district precisely because he had Congressional staff experience. The “anti-incumbent” revolution predicted from all quarters did not materialize in Western Pennsylvania. The proper reading of yesterday's result in fact brings the opposite conclusion: Incumbents who do the grunt work of constituent services will mostly survive in November.
Tuesday’s results screw with the narratives imposed by many players on the political stage, and not just Gingrich’s. White, college educated, progressive activists have invested heavily in a harmonious argument with that of the tea partiers of the right. The portrait they paint is that President Obama isn’t satisfying “the base” enough, not being “progressive” enough, and that therefore ideological voters on the left will stay home and Republicans will conquer the upcoming midterm elections. It is often said as a threat: Do what I say or you will lose because “we” will sit on our hands. It’s tiresome not merely because it is boorish and an act of aspiring bullydom, but also because those who shout it don’t really have enough of a “we” behind them to make good on those threats, and most of that “we” doesn’t knock on doors or volunteer on phone banks or organize communities. They are aspiring generals with blogosphere accounts, but without armies.
Rather, the tea-baggers and fire-baggers alike are merely trying to get out in front of a normal trend in midterm elections: the party in the White House usually loses an average of twenty seats in the House and three in the Senate. They simply want to set up the bowling pins to be able to crow credit if and when the ball knocks some of them down. For careful watchers of US politics, their gambit is superficial and transparent, one aimed only at the most gullible among us.
It is in that light we also now look at the US Senate primary results in three states yesterday. Senate races are typically more about ideology and “issues” than House contests, and that is even truer of party primaries for those 100 seats. An important one happened in Kentucky with interesting results in both parties.
On the Republican side, in which the more ideological Rand Paul defeated the GOP establishment-backed candidate Trey Grayson, who was Senate Republican Leader Bill Mitch McConnell’s – also of Kentucky - handpicked horse. Paul, of course, is the son of US Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. The conservative GOP party ideologues, true, went with an avowed ideological adherent to tea-baggery, but it is also true that they picked a Congressman’s son as their white knight. How “anti-incumbent” or “anti-Washington” is that, really?
But as Alex Pareene (who cut his teeth at Wonkette and Gawker) notes at Salon, the more interesting story out of Kentucky yesterday than the Paultard freak show on the GOP side is that turnout was higher in the Democratic primary contest, where Attorney General Jack Conway is the apparent – pending a possible recount - winner:
Did you know that there's a Democrat in the race for Jim Bunning's Senate seat in Kentucky? He's state Attorney General Jack Conway, and he might actually win.
With 99% of precincts reporting, Conway has received 44% of the vote. That's 226,773 votes. His opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo received 221,269 votes. Rand Paul, the runaway winner of the Republican primary, received a total of 209,159 votes. In other words, both Democrats received more votes than either Republican. Which doesn't make it sound like the GOP base is energized for the Rand Paul rEVOLution.
If Conway remains the Democratic nominee, Kentucky’s “safe red” Senate seat is suddenly in play, and a pebble in the shoe of Newt Gingrich's attempt to party like it's 1994.
In Pennsylvania, the defeat of US Senator Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary by US Rep. Joe Sestak is welcome news, as is that out of Arkansas where challenging Lt. Governor Bill Halter forced corporate Democrat Blanche Lincoln (D-Wal-Mart) into a run-off to take place in three weeks. The “we speak for a base we did not organize” crowd is of course crowing to take credit for both advances by the more progressive candidates after weeks of whining that the Obama White House had backed, at least in name, the two incumbents. Howard Dean's Democracy for America, MoveOn, FDL PAC, etcetera will now fall all over each other trying to push out their credit-taking press releases on both contests, but the real story happened with the ground game in each state. Once again, the Chicken Littles are torn between illusions of their own grandeur and their narrative by which Obama is portrayed as an all-powerful executive who ought to be able to change the course of everybody’s pet issues in a single pen stroke, and all at once!
Rick Hertzberg of The New Yorker lays some rational analysis on it all:
Arlen Specter was not “selected by leaders in Washington.” He selected himself. As one of the last of the moderate Republicans, he was headed for defeat in his own party’s primary. He thought (no doubt correctly) that his chances for survival would be better in the other party, so he switched. The White House promised him support because his vote was an absolute sine qua non for overcoming Republican filibusters, most crucially filibusters against the health-care bill, on which the fate of Obama’s Presidency and the Democratic Congress rested. If this was a “backroom deal,” it was one that the White House and the “Democratic establishment” would have been criminally irresponsible not to cut.
With health care safely passed, however, the interests of the White House and the national Democratic Party are better served by Sestak’s winning the primary. Sestak is an actual Democrat, not a Democrat of opportunity. As such he will be a far more reliable and sincere supporter of the President and the President’s policies than Specter would have been if, at eighty years of age, the cranky ex-Republican had been vouchsafed a sixth (and last) six-year term. Moreover, Sestak is more likely to beat the Republican nominee, the fanatical anti-tax ideologue Pat Toomey. If Sestak wins in November, he'll probably be a senator for a long time. Given actuarial realities, a reëlected Specter might have ended up having to be replaced by a gubernatorial appointee, and there is no guarantee that Pennsylvania’s next governor will be a Democrat.
So I don’t see how this is some sort of defeat for the White House or miscalculation on their part. It looks more like a series of rather brilliant chess moves.
Energized Democratic electorates in the Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas Senate primaries, plus the comfortable victory of the D over the R in a swing district in Pennsyltucky, once again show that the proclamations of “the sky is falling” by self-promoting blog narrators were not grounded in any reality close to our own.
Many still don’t grasp that in 2008, everything changed in US politics, which is increasingly fought on the ground with the methods of community organizing. That’s what explains the high Democratic turnout yesterday and the bellwether district in Pennsylvania remaining blue. And that – and not ideological tantrums on the Internets – will write the history of November 2010. Seems like the grownups are still at the driver’s wheel and, once again, the Chicken Littles were wrong. And that is of course, old news and history repeating itself again. How many times have I written this story? How many more will I have to pen? Oh well, at least we get to use images of that cute little feathered guy again.
By Al Giordano
There is a mild disturbance in The Force these days – by that I mean Teh Internets – in that Facebook keeps moving the “privacy” carpet underneath its umpteen gazillion users: Information they’ve posted about themselves that was previously considered “private” (as if anything on the Internet really could be) has drifted into default public domains, which now puts the onus on those consumers to proactively change their Facebook “privacy settings” in order to keep their daily ravings, party photos and other content limited among a small circle of “friends.”
If you’re one of the four or five people out there that don’t use Facebook (probably because you knew all along it would go that way, or maybe because you, uh, have a life out there in the real world), apologies for devoting so much pixel space to this matter. But on the Internet, Facebook is what Joe Biden would call a BFD, and the reasons for that are interesting enough to me.
Now there is talk of exodus from Facebook. Maybe it will happen, or maybe not. As a 16-year Internet nomad, I don’t really care: On the Internet, something new frequently appears to replace what, last week, was “new.” But I think the “privacy” issue obscures a much larger societal shift, which is the subject of this essay: The New Exhibitionism.
Jacques Ellul wrote, prophetically in 1948, the radio age, that, “we live in an age of non-response.” The subsequent advent of new communications technologies like television and mass media only made that more true. The more “information” that has bombarded us with each passing day and year, the more isolated and alienated folks in the “developed world” have felt. TV played a big role in atomizing the nuclear family and the long tradition of conversation (which used to be the glue that held cultures and societies together). And the rest of capitalism and media did away with quaint concepts like “community.”
Increasingly, the individual – his and her ego, super ego and id – ended up floating out there no longer having a captive audience inside or outside the home or the community. The new technological distractions just proved more, well, distracting.
Along came the Internet and many of us thought, “Aha! Finally, a screen we can talk back to!” One of the buzzwords of the ‘90s and early ‘00s was the concept of “online community.” People sought out and found like-minded strangers and conversation shifted from oral to typed format. It was the simulacrum of “response” that had been missing from so many lives.
“Online communities” have risen and fallen in a relatively short period of history. In the 1990s, many Internet pioneers – especially on the West Coast – inhabited a space called The Well, where in ancient ASCII code (no photos or other images yet) we commented endlessly in short byte-sized phrases on each others’ comments: The New Illiterati! As the Internet became more popular a multitude of new “online communities” appeared, where people grouped with those that agreed with them politically, religiously, racially, sexually, or that shared other common interests, traits or obsessions. That, of course, sped up the market niching of society into homogeneous groups (for which the only antidote - community organizing - has thankfully experienced a resurgence).
The advent of online photos and images brought with it the concept of having a personal “avatar,” a graphic representation of one’s self in these “communities.” I opine that was a key turning point leading to the situation I am about to describe. The Internet evolved beyond being a cheaper long distance communications service to the place where we talk not just with strangers, but with our actual friends, neighbors, family members, even next-door neighbors and often those who live under the same roof. Why go all the way down the hall or knock on a door when we can type, “Honey, coffee’s ready” from the kitchen?
The personal avatar calcified quickly into our business and holiday card, storefront, and stage: Everybody suddenly had an actor to play our selves online (in the sense that Quentin Crisp said of John Hurt, “he is my representative on Earth”). The avatar – much like in the blockbuster movie by the same name – became a signifier for one’s presence in a new, often more immediately gratifying, “reality,” where it didn’t take too much cleverness or artistic skill to finally have a personal audience, that sensation of “response” that Ellul flagged as the next great yearning of the species.
Facebook turned that audience – of individuals known and unknown to us in off-screen life – into “friends,” a deceptive and somewhat pathetic concept, as this South Park excerpt so deliciously excoriates:
Facebook and other “online communities” became the places to vent, complain, float ideas, and look for the conversation that the media age had largely silenced. Sometimes you just want to say aloud what you cooked for yourself today because no one was around to eat it. But as the “online community” became more crowded and more “friends” were competing for the attention of mutual “friends,” mere venting, or posting photos of your cat, weren’t getting so much response as before. And so people’s avatars had to become more interesting, witty, appear as more complex, and develop, additionally, as stunt actors, pulling off daredevil trapeze acts of varied kinds.
In sum, to maintain that simulacrum of “response,” one had to show vulnerability and risk, as my favorite performance artist - and a huge influence over the authentic journalism renaissance - Penny Arcade described in a 2008 interview for her anthology: Bad Reputation: Performances, Essays, Interviews (2009, Semiotext(e)/MIT Press). The secret to her assemblage of a real live audience and community, mostly under the radar of the media gatekeepers and critics, was, she said, that in her performances she put herself at emotional and sometimes physical risk:
“A lot of younger people who’d work with me would see me talk directly to the audience, and they’d go, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ But they didn’t understand the level of integrity you have to bring to talking directly to the audience. Because …it doesn’t work unless you’re really at risk.”
This dynamic led more and more users of Facebook and other “online communities” to type things aloud that they probably wouldn’t say on the street or in the workplace, even though those reading them were slaving away in the next-door office cubicle and reading them from that illusory distance. They would type things that others, upon reading, would think, sure, but I would never say that in public! One married couple I know online, for example, posts all the time on Facebook about the hardships of parenthood. And since the kids are too young yet to read what they type, some of it comes off as deliciously harsh about the “little darlings.” That makes for compelling reading and generates comment and response from others with similar experiences. But when one day the wife began complaining online about her husband’s snoring, sending him links in full Facebook view to anti-snore products, and an army of women with similar complaints weighed in mercilessly on the theme, I really felt sorry for the guy. It was great Internet, but also, it seemed, too much information, not something that really belonged outside the comfort and privacy of the hearth.
I’m guilty of that TMI factor as well. I think most participants in “online communities” are. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and see something I typed there the night before and think, “oh, my, did I really say that aloud?” Like many others, I’ve used Facebook to flirt, to cajole, to reward, to punish, and to show vulnerability and risk which is sometimes sincere but other times completely fabricated stage acting because I know my audience and what it wants. Truth is, I don’t feel that vulnerable on Facebook because I’ve never labored under the illusion that my avatar or online representation is the real me. It’s just those pieces and strands of my life that are outside of my deepest core. I see it more as a place to develop material and improvise "on stage" with participatory feedback from the audience. And it is also, obviously, an organizing tool for off-screen events, concerts, sales, business and such, and a kind of phone book listing for long lost friends to find each other.
The danger for everyone comes if we begin to consider that online representation to be “the real me.” But I’m not really “Al Giordano.” I just play him on the Internet. And a very few people have ever gotten in close enough, in daily life outside the screen, to know the real Al, because that guy does have borders and visas to be stamped before somebody can enter.
But I sense that many of my Facebook audience, er, “friends,” suffer under an illusion that they are their avatars, and this is why Facebook’s moving the privacy chains has them so upset. They’ve shown actual risk and emotional vulnerability, exposed what they consider to be their true selves. And the thought of that suddenly becoming public domain is understandably terrifying: when the avatar has no clothes.
All that said, I don’t think this “privacy” flap is going to kill Facebook quite yet. As vulnerable as many people feel after airing their dirty laundry there, that experience has also been immensely satisfying to them; a guilty or or negative pleasure, which is what defines "sublime." It used to be that the place one would say things and do things to themselves and others they would never do in public was the family. But that’s all gone in the developed world now, extinct. Now it is Facebook and other online sites like it. If I had a nickel for every time I’d read somebody typing the words “my Facebook family” I wouldn’t have to regularly ask readers to support Narco News or The Field with donations.
Truth is – as every artist and creator knows – exhibitionism is fun! And extremely satisfying: It is, in fact, a basic human need that is experiencing a renaissance, which has democratized the artist’s impulse beyond the smaller circle of those of us who obsessively develop our arts as a craft.
And exhibitionism is totally addictive. And people need addictions, which are the fourth human instinct after the searches for oxygen, food/water and sex have been quenched: Intoxication, in a word, which comes from many directions beyond the traditional intoxicants that are ingested, injected or smoked. Show me someone in recovery from drugs or alcohol and I’ll show you someone who found a more compelling or healthier addiction. But they still need a regular “fix” of one kind or another. That’s what being human is.
The democratization of public or semi-public exhibitionism has thrown traditional concerns about “personal privacy” out the window. Who needs the CIA anymore when everybody is out there blurting the kinds of secrets it used to take surveillance to discover? Privacy didn’t disappear because Big Brother took it away. We gave it away! Freely! It fell aside to a greater impulse: the need to expose ourselves in public, to have an audience, and to keep it.
Facebook, sooner or later, will surely whither and give way to newer online outlets, just as others fell before it. But my hunch is that it won’t happen because people are really all that concerned about their “privacy.” They are concerned about their “identity” as individuals – at least that which they project in public – and part of many people’s identity is that they want to be seen as caring about their personal privacy. After all, it makes us more interesting, more sought after, if others feel we have something worthwhile to hide.
Outside of illegal acts (most people engage in one or another, at least now and then) what is left that individuals really need to hide in order to preserve themselves and thrive? And even the illegal acts – say, smoking pot – are no longer legally problematic for those of the income level that brings them a computer and Internet access. The house may no longer be a home, but it is still a bunker that the cops don’t typically enter merely because someone posts a Facebook status update or a photo that shows that he just took a bong hit. No, that treatment is reserved for the poor and for those who have to leave the house - or don't have one - to seek their fix.
And so a lot of the public angst right now about Facebook’s encroaching upon what was previously on default “private” setting is not, in my opinion, authentic concern about privacy. It is, rather, just another song and dance by our avatars, trying to show others that we care deeply about privacy and therefore we must lead very interesting lives off screen. It is an especially difficult challenge now posed to those confused that their avatars are honest representations of themselves.
There are still, in this day and age, people who are truly clandestine, who really do dangerous and exciting or felonious things out there in the real world. Most of them are either very poor or very rich and therefore are "off the grid" by circumstance or by fortress. But typically, they are not on Facebook. Or, if they are, they kept that stuff carefully cloaked all along, much in the way that a fugitive from justice will never run a red light or break the speed limit.
The rest of us might yearn for days gone by when privacy existed, but the impulse to expose ourselves has simply proved a stronger human instinct. To every man and woman, a stage, and an audience: Welcome to the New Exhibitionism!
By Al Giordano
On May 12, 2009, when the first US Supreme Court vacancy of the Obama era opened up, I wrote that I thought Solicitor General Elena Kagan, then 49, had “the inside track” for the post due to a variety of attributes that are just as true today. I was pleasantly surprised when my former Bronx neighbor Sonia Sotomayor got the robe instead, but that was as easy as rooting for the football New York Giants. (And how fortuitous it proved that Sotomayor was being a studious bookworm in high school instead of hanging out with your correspondent at night in the schoolyard of P.S. 8, or her confirmation hearings might not have been so smooth.)
Now Obama gets his second pick and he chooses Justice Thurgood Marshall’s former clerk, Kagan, a barrister that understands the Supreme Court and the Constitution better than any of her critics, right or left. And I’m heartened by authentic progressive Lawrence Lessig’s first hand testimony as to Kagan’s character and principles. “The Kagan I know is a progressive,” Larry writes, offering many examples as to why he makes that conclusion.
As a court reporter and civil libertarian journalist during many of my years in the United States – prior to ducking under the border thirteen years ago – I probably followed US Supreme Court and Court of Appeals decisions more closely than any reporter I knew for whom the Court itself wasn’t his or her beat (Cynthia Cotts, who later covered the Court for Bloomberg, being an important exception). And the dynamics of the Court in 2010 and in the years to come ain’t rocket science. There are nine justices: four arch reactionaries, four reliable liberals (including the retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, whom Kagan will replace), and one swing vote in Justice Anthony Kennedy. And if I were in President Obama’s shoes, I would look for a justice who could wow Judge Kennedy on the merits of law toward the left and civil libertarian side of the dial. I’d seek one who has the people skills and persuasive abilities to do just that.
According to Lessig, that is Kagan’s strong card: “it is this quality that distinguishes Kagan most strongly. For the core of Kagan's experience over the past two decades has been all about moving people of different beliefs to the position she believes is correct. Not by compromise, or caving, but by insight and strength. I've seen her flip the other side.”
That skill set is what we call community organizing. And the Supreme Court is a very small community of nine residents – four on the right, four on the left, and one that needs to be organized to win any vote there – that needs an organizer, like any other.
Now, it has been entirely predictable that the board members of Poutrage, Inc. – those self-proclaimed “progressive” pundits who have never been community organizers and resent Obama and all the rest of us that have actually done that work and won political battles because they keep failing at it – are caught up in their cyclical careerist protagonism over the Kagan nomination. I won’t mention any names, but of course Glenn Greenwald and Jane Hamsher are up to their Johnny-one-note tricks of getting their faces on the cable talk shows and in the media by proclaiming themselves “progressives against an Obama proposal” on any particular policy. They are as predictable as they are unconvincing, and although they always lose, they never change their bumbling tactics, I conclude that they are not interested in winning the issues they claim to care about. They are only interested in their own careers and egos and in fooling the gullible to send donations to their projects of self-enrichment. The issues are merely the means to try to make themselves relevant to the national discourse.
But back to the merits of the case: Secondarily, but also very important, if I were the President, I would look for a high court nominee that could get a few Republican votes in the Senate thus keeping rogue Democratic caucus members like Senators Joe Lieberman (CT) and Ben Nelson (NE) in line, because when the President has had to rely only on Senate Democrats, that’s when those guys start jumping ship and demanding deals for themselves in exchange for their votes (see: Health Care Reform). Kagan – like Sotomayor, a New York City native but her work as former Harvard Law dean makes her also a New England favorite daughter – puts Republican Senators Scott Brown (MA), Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins (ME) and Judd Gregg (NH) in easy position to support her nomination, and I think the regularly reasonable Richard Lugar (IN) comes along for the ride, too. And that provides the five-vote cushion to keep Senate Democrats in line and her nomination battle from having to expend political capital that needs to be used on immigration reform and other huge matters before the year is out.
Some other “progressives” (I put the word in quotes not to question their ideologies, but, rather because their use of the word excludes most non-white and non-college educated progressives, including me, from the term), however, seem not to care about immigration reform and all the other hard stuff that the Senate needs to do (or at least begin) this year and seem willing to throw all that out the window out of their desire for more symbolic gestures out of an Obama presidency.
Syndicated columnist and media critic Norman Solomon – who unlike the aforementioned ambulance-chasing “Progressives Against Obama” actually did have a youthful fling with grassroots community organizing and even went to jail for ten days for it – has decided that his own personal frustrations with Obama’s lack of left-wing symbolism should be played out over the Kagan nomination. For him, according to his own words, this court nomination battle is more about defining “progressives” in the US than it is about the merits of the case. Solomon writes: “some progressives have favored denial -- even though, if the name ‘Bush’ or ‘McCain’ had been attached to the same presidential policies, the same progressives would have been screaming bloody murder… But enabling bad policies, with silent acquiescence or anemic dissent, encourages more of them. At this point, progressive groups and individuals who pretend that Obama's policies merely need a few tweaks, or just suffer from a few anomalous deficiencies, are whistling past a political graveyard.”
With all due respect, Solomon at least is a kind of authority on the “political graveyard” because that’s where he and others of the liberal intelligentsia put us for various decades of the Apartheid Left in the United States: they were so obsessed with looking above and waging critiques of those in power that they ignored the necessary multi-racial grassroots organizing from below that is the only thing that ever wins any meaningful political battle. They became “leftish personalities” in the media world and constructed a mostly white and college-educated ghetto that largely defined what “progressive” or “liberal” meant, particularly during the 1990s and the Bush II era. In doing so, they alienated the working class and poor that are necessary to any progressive majority.
Like others of that tendency, Solomon preaches that “Progressives have a huge stake in averting a GOP takeover on Capitol Hill,” (that part we agree on), but doesn’t seem to grasp that derailing or delaying the Kagan nomination would aid that scenario, not hinder it. That’s because Solomon doesn’t really understand the electoral political dynamics in the United States, and why would he? He hasn’t done the grassroots organizing spadework, at least since the Reagan era, to have a clue as to how and why elections are won and lost.
When Solomon writes that, “if the president's nomination of Elena Kagan is successful, the result will move the Supreme Court to the right,” he also displays gross ignorance in the current dynamics of the Court, since the only thing right now that will move the court right or left will be Justice Kennedy’s vote and whether the left side can pull him or not.
When Solomon and some others like him argue that, “Progressives should fight the Kagan nomination,” he surely isn’t thinking or talking about African-American or Hispanic-American progressives, because if he did, he’d know the reasons why that simply is not going to happen. The two most important sectors – today and for the mid and long term future – in American progressivism have other priorities (ones that I share) that don’t include making the Kagan nomination a fight over how white progressives define ourselves.
I’m sorry to say it, because I think it is almost unconscious on Solomon’s part, but he displays more of a nostalgia for when progressives lost every single battle but at least he and some college educated colleagues got to call themselves the faces of American progressivism – a mantle that in the age of Obama they can no longer claim. And from that font gushes all the resentment and frustration. The rest is just window dressing and pretexts for another column.
The other “Progressives Against Obama” member I’ll take to the woodshed today is radio and TV host Cenk Uygur, for whom the Kagan nomination likewise is not really about Kagan but about Obama himself. He writes:
“My problem with her is my problem with Obama. Cheney and Bush moved the ball 80 yards down-field (sic, as anyone who knows the NFL spells it downfield, without hyphen), whether that was on executive power, warrantless wiretapping, pre-emptive wars or just about any other issue you can think of. And Obama's bold and brilliant response is to move the ball 10 yards in the opposite direction. Not good enough. Not remotely good enough…
“He is never going to throw the ball down the field. If you like two yard pick-ups by a running-back going straight up the middle, you'll love Obama. It's the Eddie George presidency. What he doesn't seem to get is that the other side is eventually going to get the ball back and then it won't seem like a major accomplishment that we went from our own two-yard line to our own twelve-yard line. It'll be viewed as a tremendous disappointment.”
Actually, Mr. Uygur, you ought to get to know the games of football and of politics before nominating yourself as head coach or quarterback. You should at least know the rules of the game. In football, moving the ball ten yards downfield is precisely good enough. It is called gaining a first down, that which allows your team to remain in possession of the ball and keep battling downfield toward touchdowns and field goals, while denying the opposing team time on the clock to do so.
The name-dropping of running back Eddie George is also revealing as to just how greatly Uygur’s comparison fails epicly: Eddie George, at Ohio State University, won the Heisman Trophy in 1995, and he rushed for more than 10,000 yards in only eight years in the NFL (presidents, by law, can’t last more than eight) and George helped bring his middling team to the Super Bowl in just four years, one first down at a time. In his first season with the Houston Oilers-cum-Tennessee Titans franchise (when George earned the NFL’s Rookie of the Year title), the team won just eight games to eight losses. By 1999, the Titans had 13 wins to three losses and went to the Super Bowl.
What got them there? First downs and ball possession, largely thanks to Eddie George: That team won by running the ball up the field three or four yards per play.
Guys like Solomon and probably Uygur (the jury is still out on the latter) are a bit distinct from pond scum like Greenwald and Hamsher, who are only in it for their own protagonist careers. The former are more akin to those fans in the bleachers always screaming at the quarterback to throw the long ball even against teams skilled at interceptions.
Meanwhile, the new star quarterback keeps controlling the ball, marching the team downfield, winning first downs every ten yards, and the Kagan confirmation is another touchdown that soon will happen. And then Obama’s second draft pick for the US Supreme Court can begin tag-teaming Justice Kennedy along with Justice Sotomayor and concretely move the Court to the left.
Thus, those who claim that the Kagan nomination “moves the court to the right” reveal only their gross ignorance about the dynamics of the US Supreme Court in the present day. And the unflappable head-coach-in-chief is absolutely correct to ignore the cat-calls from the armchair quarterbacks in the bleachers who have never won a game, and thus have no idea how it is really done.
Welcome to the NFL, boys. Wear a cup.
Update: Lessig weighs in anew, with an argument very similar to the one you've just read:
Barack Obama is appointing the 4th justice to the non-right-wing wing of the Supreme Court, not the 5th. If the appointment is successful, it will produce decisions with at least 5 votes that are closer to Obama's view of the Constitution than to Bush's.
So what kind of 4th Justice is likely to produce that 5th vote?
To hear the liberals talk about it, it sounds like they think we need a Thomas or Scalia of the Left. A bold, if sometimes bullying, extremist that marks off clearly the difference between the Left and the Right. Someone we could rally around. A new hero for an ideology too often too afraid to assert itself.
But nobody who understands the actual dynamics of the Supreme Court could actually believe that such a strategy would produce 5 votes. No doubt it would produce brilliant dissents. No doubt it would give the Keith Olbermann's of the world great copy. But it would fail to achieve the single thing we ought to be focusing on: How to build "coalitions," as Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret Marshall put it to NPR yesterday, of five. Not compromises, not triangulations, but opinions that work hard to cobble from this diverse court a rule of principle that our side could be proud of...
Clearly, he has also studied the playbook and the rules of the game, which is the bare minimum we should all demand from any aspiring commentator.
By Al Giordano
George Sanchez, graduate and professor of the School of Authentic Journalism, opens the 2010 j-school class on How to Write a News Story. Photo DR 2010 by Omar Vera.
Anyone who has talked with me for more than five minutes about the state of journalism today knows that my critique quickly spreads from the commercial media – which everyone now accepts is obsolete and dying, it is almost redundant now to point that out – to the so-called “alternative” or “activist” media, which too often ends up mimicking the worst vices of the corporate media.
We receive many story submissions to Narco News each week, plus requests to link to other independent media stories. And it mostly pains me to have to pass up on the sincere and honestly written pieces that unfortunately end up incoherent because they either use a ki nd of “activistspeak” that is pitched at an insular audience of those that already agree with the writer, or because they read like academic essays by people who, in their writing pens, never escaped from the poor writing formulas they were taught at universities.
And that’s one of the reasons that since 2003 we’ve offered the School of Authentic Journalism, which convened again this past February on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. And the main reason we’ve never charged tuition for students is that, unlike the big university j-schools, we don’t want to select participants for their ability to pay, but, rather, on the merits of their talents and social consciences. To reconstruct a journalism of the people, the participants have to come from all economic strata of society.
At the 2004 School of Authentic Journalism in Bolivia, two graduates of the ’03 school – George Sanchez and Reed Lindsay – together with Bolivian journalist Claudia Espinoza, offered a plenary workshop titled “How to Write a News Story” which I lamented not videotaping, it was such a clear and coherent expression of our approach. But YouTube didn’t even exist back then and it was only that year’s j-school experience that convinced us to branch into the production of online video, through a then-launched sister site, SalonChingon.com.
So this year I asked George – now a veteran of various daily newspaper staffs – along with French correspondent in Mexico Anne Vigna and up-and-coming independent reporter Erin Rosa (whose job at the time was to train US college students to do better journalism at their school newspapers) to captain the 2010 version of this workshop.
As you can see from the video, above, they took what most journalism schools have turned into a drudgery-filled spectacle of boredom – the basic steps of how to write a news story – and yet held the intense interest of an audience, half of whom were “professors” at the school. This almost-seven-minute video, of course, only captures a fraction of the 90 minute session – which included audience participation – but you can see in the “b-roll” shots of those of us receiving the course an attentive and interested public.
A week after this year’s j-school, I wrote up that workshop for Narco News, intentionally adhering to the steps recommended by Sanchez at the opening of this video in constructing that news story.
And today we offer the seventh in the ongoing series of viral videos from the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism, this one about that very plenary session. Here it is:
Greg Berger – ’04 graduate and, now, department chairman at the School of Authentic Journalism - captained the production of the How to Write a News Story video. (Don’t miss his latest masterpiece, Love In Times of Swine Flu, which he writes up this week for Narco News, too.)
Here, Berger shares some tips about how the video was made, and the philosophy behind producing it:
If there is one thing I took away from the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism this year, it was a rule that I have since applied in all of my classes. Don’t be boring, or else! This video, therefore, is not boring. The NO BORING clause is a cardinal rule of my friend, colleague, and School of Authentic Journalism founder Al Giordano. Of course, I have long followed this rule, but I liked the way Al said it this year.
I believe that it is this sacred commandment which separates the School of Authentic Journalism from traditional journalism schools. No one has ever been bored at our school.
Part of the reason this is so is that teachers like George Sanchez, Erin Rosa, and Anne Vigna are able to say in just a few minutes what many students don`t learn in four years of graduate journalism school.
So when I sat down to make a synopsis of the session "How To Write A News Story" for our ongoing viral video series, I wanted to do two things. Above all, I wanted to make a video which would provide visual illustration for the concepts that the professors were talking about. But I also wanted to make a video that would be fun to watch.
After Al and I edited the text of the session down to its essence, we downloaded lots of videos in the public domain that make reference to journalism. Cutting up old campy stock footage is always an easy way to punctuate people`s thoughts in a video.
However, one problem we ran into while making this video is that it is difficult to make pop-culture references that play coherently across cultures. So we decided to use clips whose visual meaning was clear (such as the cowboy angrily ripping down a posted newspaper page) or with characters universally recognized (such as Bart Simpson or the Road Runner and Coyote.)
But the heart of this video is the clear and succinct instruction that Sanchez, Rosa, and Vigna offer their students.
Enjoy the video, follow the tips offered for writing a news story, and if anyone gets bored you can track me down and beat me to death with an old copy of Newsweek magazine. That`s the only thing that magazine is good for anyway.
Many thanks to the viral video team for filing the event and to 2010 School of Authentic Journalism graduate Karina González for finding stock footage online.
Today, it is also my pleasure to announce that we are embarking on a new branch of the tree of authentic journalism. Coming soon to a screen near you: Narco News TV.
These videos from the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism – and those that are still under production – will serve as the foundation stones of that online video journalism project, and we’ll bring six years of the SalonChingon.com videos onto the new platform as well. Eventually, resources permitting, it is our goal to regularly produce online news videos from the stories we cover throughout the hemisphere and make them available (like everything else here, free of charge) to the worldwide public.
Meanwhile, if you have sent us story submissions over the past ten years that we haven’t bit on, this video, and the accompanying news story about the workshop upon which it is based, serve as an excellent first step to know what we look for in the stories we publish, and also offers a good example of how the teaching and learning at the School of Authentic Journalism is done.