Sunday, April 23, 2006

books and other animals

I don't know whats more important- to learn to have an opinion or to learn to be fluid. Let me explain- I was at an office party [I'm working with this lobbying/PR firm in London- FYI- this isn't the American style of lobbying because then I wouldn't even tell you this out of sheer embrassment].. SO I was at this party and one guy I work with, John, said that he isn't sure if he really has an opinion on anything. He certainly talks about a lot of issues, but feels he doesn't know enough to be SURE. Hello, my life. I'm constantly thinking out loud [or on paper] because I don't have any firm conclusions, and its because of the same reason- I never feel like I have all the facts to have a concrete opinion which I can be sure is right. I think thats a good way to be, I don't presume to have all the answers, although, I do cut people off in conversations when a thought strikes me-but I promise, I try my best not to!

Why did I bring this up? I was reading The Economist, another article about how the Deomcrats can't be sure about beating the Republicans- because they don't have a clear voice eminating out of the party. Now, I'm a little out of the loop but as far as I understand the louder voice that is SURE that the Democrats have nothing to say certainly drown out anything they DO have to say. A few days ago I popped into a book store at lunch and picked up Al Frankens hilarious but smart book- Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Before I say anything else, the book is so damn well written that I finished it in two days- that included work and a friday night. So I read it on the tube, walking from the tube to work, walking to the pub, at the bar while I waited for my wine... seriously. I did. And when it was done I wished I hadn't read it so damn fast! But those are my issues.


Ok cut to a few days later. Last week I went to work, picked up three books at lunch, came home after an exhausting day only to have to go to Kings Cross to meet a friend who left his keys with me- and give them back before he headed to Nottingham- two pints, still exhausted, but finally home at half past twelve. SO.. the books- well, Freakonomics and Alice in Wonderland I did want to buy. The one that I started reading was the one I hadn't heard about. Its called 'Confessions of an Economic Hit Man'. Now this is what I mean about thinking you know.

Everyone who knows anything about the IMF [et al] and policies with LDC's knows that these banks loaned money to developing (or underdeveloped) countries with major baggage attached. They all owe debt now, and the gap between the rich and poor remains strong as ever. In the book John Perkins talks of his experience as an economic hit man, and that this was a case of being employed by a large corporation and not the government, but the aim was still of economic imperialism. The fact that he was told that he needed to fix projected figures of growth to entrap these countries is something that we all know about to an extent-- but to have a person talk about it so honestly-- is chilling. I went to amazon to read other reviews and many people think he is crazy or that this is mainly a work of fiction set in real events. Others do believe him.

But it did get me thinking about the 'truth' and opinion and sources of information. I read a survey in the Economist about New Media (mulling over what essay to do for my International Media Management class) and some of the points in the survey appealed to me because what the new media does is open up doors into rooms, albeit in cyberspace, but rooms to conversations and views we may not get so easily and openly. Its a democracy of information--- which we are losing because of media concentration in the traditional forms.

Anyway, this is a haphazard post because I have been trying to add in a few lines when I get the time. But I've really been mad busy.

Oh the books- Freakonomics is interesting. Goes into the economic explantions of everyday issues. Fun read.

I did start Alice in Wonderland. Read the intro.... about Lewis Caroll (not his real name) and how he was probably a pedeophile. Seriously, it was 9am on the tube to work. Euw. Haven't felt like picking it up since.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

whats your moral outrage?

I was watching Southpark with some friends, doubling over in laughter as the kids worried about going to Hell if they didn’t confess in front of a Priest before dying, while Satan contemplated two timing his boyfriend with his ex, Saddam Hussein. And all the while the phrase ‘what’s your moral outrage’ kept swimming in my head. Why? Well if you ever saw the fight between Jon Stewart and Tucker Carlson over how spin alley and shows such as CNN’s Crossfire are hurting America, you’d know. Stewart said that he believed that some political commentators and the like used dishonest arguments to further their case. Later, when Tucker asked him what he thought of the ongoing Bill O’Reilly phone sex scandal, Stewart replied ‘I don’t. What’s your moral outrage?’. The thing about Southpark that strikes a chord with so many of us that most of the reasons for so many complications and politics in life is the ‘moral outrage’ factor. Through the eyes of children, we can all look ridiculous.

And yet, this weekend made me wonder if we don’t do the reverse as well. At times, we have no moral outrage about things. We rationalize everything, or we accept it because we have seen it before. It becomes part of the system.

So its not surprising that I was relating all these thoughts back to this book I’m currently reading called ‘Out of Order’ by Thomas E. Patterson. I’ve been trying to find someone who has made an argument that spin alley etc are a result of the current media structure that exists right now- this incredible demand for news all the time, feeding an never ending well of consumption. Now, receiving the news within context is important. But when you create pseudo-news because of the demand, it becomes farcical. You see it everywhere, no more obvious than in entertainment news. I don’t know why they bother calling it news when its really trying to define people’s lives in the context of the show on TV right now—bad breakups to Punk’d. Anyway, to the point. The reason a politician needs a media consultant is because the media creates such a heavy demand on the lives of some, they need help to handle it. Not saying they don’t deserve the flak for what they do wrong, but the truth is moral outrages are everywhere and one has to ready for them.

I was thinking about pseudo moral outrages and what they are used for, and especially how much time they can waste. But this again requires a judgement call from me- to have a moral outrage over a moral outrage and this thought really hurt my head more than I’d like. I guess it hovers back to the point I made in a earlier post that as academics we somehow think pointing out the flaws in the system separates us from those faults to a degree. For the moment I have no answer.

So. What’s your moral outrage?

Monday, April 10, 2006


I was celebrating my Saturday night in by idly reading editorials and op-ed pieces from the Washington Times. [In my defense, I’m trying to fix my sleeping schedule to waking up early since I start working on Monday!] Anyway, amid articles about Hugh Hefner, Barbie, Tom DeLay and Immigration, I came across this gem…. And had a Homer Simpson ‘d’oh’ moment!

So how many times have you heard the whole ‘learn from past mistakes’ bit. But it never occurred to me to look up the ill-fated history of pre-emptive wars. A quick run through? Hitler was defeated in both; 1941 against the Soviet Union and 1939 against Poland. In 1941 Japan was defeated by the US. Israel won the attacks against it in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. In 1982, Israel found herself withdrawing from Lebanon. So safe to say that all the major pre-emptive wars (that I have brought up) didn’t end so well. Also, props to Harlan Ullman of the Washington Times. [I feel the need to point out that I’m looking at post WWI events. It gets iffy before that: Bismark was my favorite historical character in high school!]

The tricky part is making these facts as the basis for an argument saying that pre-emption doesn’t work strategically because of its history. Every single war has had different reasons why it went forward, a different set of threats and ideals behind it; and most certainly a different set of reasons why it was the best option. I thought about this for a while. Is it possible to draw parallels convincingly? And why did they lose?

Straight off the bat my answer would be that it’s because you invade the sovereignty of nation; nay, of a people, and that is enough to bring a tide of patriotism so strong that in the end those who need the victory the most will win. Why? I suppose desperation to keep what is yours. At the same time those sitting in the invader’s box might appreciate that this is more trouble than they realized and gains won’t outdo the losses. Unless they think it’s worth it; and then it’s a bitter struggle to the end.

But an argument on your theory on why invaded countries fight so damn hard is difficult to prove. Maggie Lawson, currently writing a book about the Hapsburg Empire wrote about the frightening parallels between the atmosphere around the Bush Doctrine and German exceptionalism. She certainly has done a better job of arguing why history is repeating itself and it resonated because I remembered reading George Kennan’s book on U.S. Foreign Policy stating that when your goal is defined as an ideal, it is incredibly difficult to stop. Can one actually claim an absolute moral victory? The pen is mightier than the sword et al?

The Bush Doctrine made it alright to launch a pre-emptive strike in order to avoid a nuclear threat. I wonder, did you know that when the Manhattan Project was in full swing- developing the bomb that later was dropped over Japan by the America- Albert Einstein was in the United States but was not invited to join the project as the government did not trust him? Probably a good thing for his legacy because he got to remain the sweet old physicist who’s work was later used as a base for nuclear weapons, and not the evil architect behind the bomb. Anyway, back on topic, this brings up the question what can be construed as legitimate action. Because it would be a horrible feeling to know that something devastating could have been avoided.

So let me ask you this: Can we learn anything from Minority Report? After all, wasn’t it a movie about pre-crime? And why it’s so damn difficult to convince someone they deserve to be punished for something they would (or may not) do in the future? It’s not about innocence or guilt is it? It’s about what costs less: letting the crimes happen and then dealing or dealing with the whiff of possible crime. The system just doesn’t give me any warm fuzzies.

Trying saying it all does make sense. Now once more, with feeling.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

tabula rasa

At about 4am I had an unsettling thought. My room was dark; music playing softly- only a sliver of light visible under the locked door. What if I saw footsteps under my door- and I knew it wasn’t a flat mate- but someone else? How would I react? Would I be creeped our or freaked? Or would it cause momentary alarm replaced with the oh-so-rational thought that there’s an explanation for this? Perhaps the story on eclipses on BBC made my mind wander. The Chinese thought solar eclipses were caused by a dragon trying to swallow the Sun.

I’ve never been one to be scared of the dark. It is just the absence of light. As much as I love watching fantasy on television, I could never think that fantastical (good or bad) things would ever, actually, really, happen to me. I have a distinct memory of walking to my dorm in boarding school one night, in the middle of what can be best described as a storm. The wind was hard, but what made the scene ever more ominous was the fact that the campus was empty. And I remember thinking I was glad I was there to ‘enjoy’ the moment alone. Sometimes the darkness wraps itself around you so tight, it’s safe. You can’t see anything, and nothing can see you. You can almost not exist for a second.

This led me to whatever little philosophy I have tucked under my belt. ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’- I think, therefore I am. [Descartes] That I understand. Even a thought that you may not really exist can only be thought if there was someone to do the thinking--- in other words, you exist and the consciousness of that fact proves it. I never quite understood some of the other theories- especially one [George Berekley’s?] that claimed that someone is always watching you- because you can only exist if there is perception? That everything is but an idea but you need a mind to make it real.. to make it exist. But does that mean ‘God’ is a necessity to exist? Let me explain- does an object disappear when you leave the room? No? Well how do we know its there? Is it because there is an unseen observer, like, say, God who ensures its existence? And is that a highly manipulative technique to accept God to accept the reality of this life? In fact, philosophy on the whole befuddled me; it was a conversation in mid-air, too intangible for my taste. I felt like you really had to take a lot on faith to believe any of the arguments.

It’s like this conversation I had with this drunk guy who was attempting to be ‘deep’. Also, I think he really didn’t like me much, but that’s a different story. So he asked me about what I ‘believe’ in, in terms of God etc. So I gave him my usual speech about having some vague belief in something. He asked me what I thought happened after death, and I think he was genuinely surprised when I told him I didn’t. I said that I didn’t think about what happened after death and I really didn’t feel the need to subscribe to any theory because I didn’t think anything happened. That’s it. The moment you are no longer conscious you end. [Hmm, as I write this I realize I subscribe to this particular theory, but you know what I mean!] I said what I did believe in was this life- and you should live it the best that you can, but to worry about what happens next is not something I care about. I don’t really know if I believe in ghosts or any of that mumbo-jumbo although sometimes I think I’d like to—and if one were to believe in it, I suppose then the question of where these apparitions come from crops up. But that’s far beyond my understanding. The whole concept of another ‘life’ outside of the one we know suggests to me that our understanding of reality is pre-determined because there are great powers at work which are going to shape our lives, thus exuding some control over it. I hope we do have a free hand in all of it. What I do find really interesting is psychic connections between people. I don’t know if ‘psychic’ is even the right word; maybe one is capable of so much empathy that you start to understand things from another’s perspective. I don’t know really. I know stranger things have happened.

But me? I don’t want to make up my mind too quickly. I’d like to keep guessing. Plus, there is enough in the real world I’m still figuring out. And I enjoy that. No one makes me think that I do.

Monday, April 03, 2006

the right to opine

I've had the Lou Dobbs conversation with a lot of people. Back then, when I had a television and I watched American news religiously, there were two people on CNN that really managed to piss me off. One was Tucker Carlson. The other was Lou Dobbs.

So who is Lou Dobbs? He hosts this show called 'Lou Dobbs Tonight' and as far as I can remember he basically talks about immigration laws in the US. He's got a very hard stance. Let me put it this way. He's written a book called 'Exporting America: Why Corporate Greed is Shipping American Jobs Overseas'. He's very America centric but almost blind to the fact that we live in a global economy and that changes have to be made. On occasion he's bitched about calls centers in India which obviously made me fume a little. But what really annoyed me was the fact that every time he had a guest on his show who did not agree with him and (God forbid) called for schemes such as amnesty or the European guest-worker status for Mexican immigrants in the US and the like, he would get very angry and basically bully them into conceeding his point. He's nothing like Bill O'Reilly-- at the same time, watching the show can get a little uncomfortable because of the intimidation involved.

So imagine my surprise and delight when Jon Stewart was making fun of a recent Lou Dobbs interview where he pompously told his guest that he did not believe that any other flags should be waved in the US, in fact, he would rather do away with St. Patricks Day et al. I mean, seriously? Thats a bit harsh.

Newsweek has an interview with the man himself asking him if he thinks its appropiate for him to basically give his view about a certain issue night after night. After all, he has a national platform as a journalist and he has made it into a crusade about a issue-- and more importantly, he doesn't really debate it, he just wants to force his opinion as the correct opinion. Lou Dobbs didn't think it was inappropriate. But what if Larry King (or anyone) used their air time every day to extole the virtues of the Iraq war? Or Pro-life issues? Would it not cross over from journalism to opinion?

Now, what Lou Dobbs said- and it made me think- is this. He said that he has been covering the issue for years and so knows all the facts. I suppose if you do report on a certain issue for so many years, you do become an expert on it. So as an 'expert' he has made up his mind - but his tactics of intimidation with those who do not agree with him is what is appalling. However, I digress.

The objectivity of the media is the bone of contention. I have to agree with Lou Dobbs, if you report about an issue as much as he has, one certainly becomes so familiar with it, it would be impossible not to have an opinion about how it is going, and how it should be. For instance, labels of politcal satire/fake news aside, everyone who watches the Daily Show is familiar with Jon Stewart's political leaning. The good part is that he doesn't go out of his way to force feed his opinions on anyone.

Part of the marketing strategy of news channels is to create these master journalists- those the country can trust. So be it Barkha Dutt or Peter Jennings, these people have a lot of clout. And to incorporate an editorial slant can be dangerous to democracy.

So the question I have is this: a reporter can become so familiar with an issue that he/she feels they have the authority to tell the public what should be done. But where can one draw the line? Case and point: Fox News, where reporters are encouraged to offer personal opinion and that is often misrepresented as fact by the public. The deal is this-- on a debate show or an opinion show, it works. But on a news show- packaging your analysis or opinion as seemingly the CORRECT one is not right; not in the short run, not in the long run.

Thats my 2 cents. See how I don't insist it's the right opinion?!