The Wallflower at the Orgy

There is no such thing as objectivity in news, especially not in televised news.

I don't say this because I am a cynic or because I have some bone to pick with journalists but because I recognize that the very nature of news is anti-objective. By simply pointing a camera at something or committing words to paper, objectivity has been discarded and significance conferred. This is not to say that fairness in reporting should not be the greatest goal of the profession; it should be. Objectivity, like any other form of perfection, is impossible but nonetheless worthy of being pursued, no matter how asymptotic the path. Because this latent bias is often so subtle that even the journalists, themselves are not fully conscious of it, the public must be attuned to the many ways that media, through design or accident, subtly alters the perception of its subjects.

This whole tirade was inspired as I watched a rerun of Christiane Amanpour's recent documentary series God's Warriors, a trio of works that I found both inspiring and terrifying and that I highly recommend. It is also a terrific example of what I'm trying to explain.

Amanpour interviews a number of Iranians in the course of the series and she states openly at one point that she is originally Iranian. According to her Wikipedia Profile she lived in Iran until her adolescence. The reasonable assumption is that she speaks Farsi and can probably communicate clearly with the people she is interviewing. Despite this, she is never seen or heard speaking Farsi. All of her questions to interviewees are delivered in English and responses are delivered in the speaker's own language, which we presume to be Farsi. The answer is then translated in voiceover by someone other than Amanpour.

This raises some obvious questions about how the interviews are framed. Since the interviewees begin responding immediately after the question is asked in English without waiting for a translation, they have obviously been primed on the question in advance. With whom did they speak? Did Amanpour ask the questions herself? Did a translator? Was there even a translator present? If there was, why? Is Amanpour idiomatically fluent in Farsi or did her day to day use of the language end when she left Iran as a child? Did CNN or any of the interviewees request an additional translator to be double sure of correct communication?

I'm not suggesting any malfeasance on CNN or Christiane Amanpour's part. In fact I hold Ms. Amanpour in the highest of respect. This could have been a basic production decision made based on the fact that the primary audience for this program is American. It could be a time issue. CNN might simply have wanted viewers to identify with the reporter. It is also possible that Amanpour is not comfortable enough in her Farsi to conduct such interviews. In the minds of the production team, this was probably an innocuous decision. For the most part it was and likely, few other people even noticed. This does not change the fact that what we saw on the show cannot simply be taken at face value.

The television programs we see on the twenty four hour cable cycle or on our local affiliates are the result of some very complex interplay between public welfare, professional ambition, cultural relevance, pleasing sponsors, attracting viewers and trying to get a hold on that ever elusive beast, the truth. But we, the viewing public, must be careful to watch closely the subtleties of reporting and of television production and always wonder if they conceal some deception. Television is the greatest tool of public opinion and the greatest weapon of ideology ever created. We must be skeptical lest that weapon be turned on us.


Play Jesus to the Lepers in Your Head

What do we do when our own values fail to match up with one another, when one holds two sets of prescriptive ideas that collide?

São Paulo, Brazil, recently banned all outdoor advertising: billboards, placards on buses, corporate murals, neon beer signs and sponsorship-fetishist artwork, all gone. The UK, where I spent much of my childhood, has never allowed highway billboards. I approve of these measures. Advertising has crept into every crevice of our lives such that we cannot consume media of any kind or move about public space without drowning in a putrid bog of Madison Avenue barking.

There are a number of people in the US who want to criminalize the burning of the national flag. There is another group, though containing many of the same people, who want to mandate English-only signage in public places and declare English the official language of the US. While I understand the desire to preserve an established cultural identity, I disagree with such measures.

There is a cadre of information anarchists who, because of the changes that the last twenty years of digital technology have wrought on the media landscape, basically want to do away with intellectual property. On the other hand, there is another cadre of entrenched content producers who, because of that same technology, want to enact laws that will further tighten copyright controls and even introduce intellectual property law into niches where it previously did not apply. I agree with both camps on certain aspects of that debate while simultaneously disagreeing with both camps on other aspects.

The issue in question in all of these cases, is Freedom of Speech and herein lies my conundrum; I believe in Freedom of Speech. Enshrined in the Constitution, it is arguably the most precious and sacred freedom my country offers. Any attempt to curtail it, any move to abbreviate it, I find viscerally offensive from both a considered, intellectual angle and from a raw, emotional perspective. I want, very much, to believe that Freedom of Speech should be simple and absolute.

Though, like all profound freedoms, like all actions of first-principle, it is not nearly as simple as it would seem. Speech can cause real harm to individuals and to the world at large. The actions people take in response to speech can do likewise. Now, in the age of ambient computing, information, in the form of programming code, can be action. The Supreme Court has held, rightly so, that there are certain limitations on expression. Though I abhor even the suggestion that speech should be regulated, I am forced to concede that many such restrictions are just and necessary.

I'm not intending to start, or even further the centuries-old debate about the nature of the First Amendment. I am simply pointing out that one can hold to contradictory ideas and be correct about any and all of them at once. It is in realizing the contradictory nature of the principles to which we all keep, it is in finding the ways that our principles work for or against one another for the good of the world at large, it is discovering those times when principle should give way to practicality that should form the backbone of our discourse.

Virtually no concept governing human endeavor is as simple as we would like it to be.


Half Thoughts

It was there, just now. I had it. It was mine and I lost it.

The other night I began a new section of a large writing project at which I've been picking for a long time. It had been vexing me for a while. Starting as a bursting, eager, aggressive idea more than a year ago, the first forty pages fell out of my head and onto the page practically unbidden.

Since then, I've had to work at it. Not forcing it, per se, but making a conscious effort to put each new addendum and amendment down on paper. I have to coax it forward from the back of my mind rather than feeling it rush to the front as if it were running from obscurity.

This morning it flashed in my head again, like a crack of gas escaping from a burning log or a slow-fused firecracker finally meeting it's ember. I shot out of bed like I'd been bitten and ran to the bag where I keep my computer and my notebooks. Furiously, I plugged up, turned on and went digging for pens.*

Perhaps ninety seconds had gone by before I planted my ass in my desk chair, and it was gone, just gone. Had I not found myself in my chair, still in my pajamas, with pen in hand, it might never have been there at all. It evaporated like a fart in a high wind.

I'm sure it was a brilliant idea that was powerful, evocative, that flowed from behind my eyes. I'm sure it would have been a revelation. I'm sure it was the best thing I've ever thought of and I cannot even begin to remember what it was.

Couldn't have been that good, could it?

*You can never find one when you need one, a fact complicated by my habit of color-coding my writing.


Be Mine, Sister Salvation

I was eighteen. She was twenty-two and we both waited tables at the same high-volume theme restaurant in downtown Atlanta. Her name was Carla Mazer and, sweet Jesus, I was in love with that girl. I don't mean that I had a passing crush or a case of puppy love. No, I mean I was obsessed in the way only a hopelessly romantic, fresh into the grownup world, college freshman can be.

She was slender but powerfully built with flashing eyes and a raven hair that she would sculpt like plasticine. She had a unique combination of quick wit, sharp tongue, lazerbeam glare and martial artist's posture that made many people viscerally afraid of her. Though hugely articulate, she rarely made public conversation, such was her distaste for explaining herself to people she considered her intellectual lessers. Though normally carrying a Vulcan-like reserve, on the rare occasion that she did smile, the lights in the room would dim in comparison to her glow.

She was, or perhaps has become in the remembering, the gold standard against which I measure all other women.

Most importantly to me, she was the first Woman, with the capital W, who ever paid attention to me. We were never romantic and, as badly as I wanted it at the time, it would have been strange for us to have been. She was, however, the first adult woman of romanceable age to treat me as an equal, to be interested in me as a person, to acknowledge me as a fellow adult. She recognized in me a kindred spirit, worth knowing and worthy of knowing her.

She took me to my first goth/fetish club. She appeared in one of the first play-scenes I ever witnessed. I did my first whiskey shot with her. She was the one who bullied me into overcoming my reservations and hitting on a stranger for the first time.* She turned me on to much of the music that now defines my taste. I can say without reservation that I would not be who I am now had I not known her then.

I'd not seen her, nor spoken to her since the twentieth century.

Last night I went to a reunion event for the denizens of that long-defunct club to which she introduced me. She was there and she didn't recognize me at all. This is not so strange as I look nothing like I did a decade past and old acquaintances often have to look twice before realizing who I am. When I said her name and looked in her eyes, though, there wasn't even the tiniest flash of familiarity.

I was never, not even back then, under the misapprehension that our relationship was anywhere near as significant to her as it was to me. There was no presumption of reciprocity. To her, I was a casual work friend that liked industrial music and could be counted on not to be a dick in mixed company. To me, she was a earthbound demigoddess who held the keys to everything alluring about adulthood. It's no surprise I have distinct memories of her while she remembers me not at all.

It's for the best, I suppose. She's not the person she was. She weighs at least half-again what than she once did. She seems to stay quiet, not because she's bored by her company but because she has nothing to say. Her eyes have lost that flash. That sense of quiet aggression that captivated me and terrified everyone else is simply gone. She didn't just get older; that's unavoidable. No, she let herself get old and she let the woman I adore fade away in the intervening years.**

As wonderful it is to have a reminder of those times, of those days when one of my very favorite people helped me learn who I wanted to become, I think I would have preferred not to have re-encountered her as all. I suppose it's for the best that she didn't recognize me. I didn't really recognize her either.

How disappointing.

* Said stranger rejected me but that's not the point.

** Strangely, though, the stranger Carla once badgered me into approaching was also at the event last night. She has aged much more gracefully and is still patently uninterested in me.


I'm Still Talking & You're Not Listening

I hear a lot of talk about how discourse in this country is crumbling but I'm not that convinced. Sure, the sound-bite, short attention span, hyper-kinetic transmission of ideas seems to dominate popular media but, for those that are interested, a much more substantial conveyance of ideas is still available.

One thing is pretty much indisputable, though. Each successive generation of social networking lends itself to utterances that are less substantiative than those of the generation prior.

People who study such things will argue at great length about which online service constituted the first Social Networking site, at least as we have come to understand the term, but the first that I was aware of was Live Journal. Though it was clunky and offered virtually no services by today's standards, I think of LJ kind of fondly. Being almost entirely text based, having very few formatting options, offering no games and having no character limit, Live Journal was great for lengthy diatribes. In-fact, long windedness was a desirable trait in those days. Though posts could be as short as you liked them, the formatting of the page lent itself to texts of some length as if implicitly saying, "If you can't fill the space, what you think can't be that important." The idea was not so much to get responses, as to see how long one could hold readers' attention.

Live Journal was supplanted by Myspace, which was much more rapid-fire. It did still have a blog option though, allowing for longer, more detailed, posts. Myspace offered much more functionality and thus could take up much more of a user's time on things other than composing text. The most convenient means of communicating information was on a front page, where ideas were kept pretty short.

Of course Facebook is the Social Network De Jure and it promotes even greater brevity than it's progenitors. With no option whatsoever for lengthy treatise, Facebook puts a limit on the number of characters in a post and the limit isn't all that high by the standards of informed discourse. Posts are limited to a few hundred words at best.

And most recently, Twitter limits you to a text message, to a scant one hundred and forty characters, no exposition, no elucidation and no extemporization. This is near to the minimum length for a syntactically correct English language utterance.

What does this do to the expansion of discourse that the internet initially promised us? Certainly, there are plenty of doom-sayers that point to the sound-bite nature of modern media and that assert that discourse, as a mode of human activity, is on it's way out. They may be right and this constant foreshortening of utterance is the first plague in an information apocalypse.

On the other hand, I don't know that this is necessarily a bad thing. We were told from the time the internet first entered our homes that the future would involve more and more information, more and more access to that information and that more and more of our lives would be taken up with interacting with that information. We accepted these premises at the time but didn't stop to think that, with that much more information, we'd have to find new ways of consuming it.

Obviously, I'm a fan of the elucidated statement and I presume you are as well, since you've read most of a seven-hundred word blog post on the subject. I'm simply saying that the method I've used here is not and should not be the only valid means of information conveyance. Perhaps this push towards brevity is an opportunity. Perhaps this is a chance to distill our ideas and prune our statements. Perhaps these communication tools will force our expressions to be denser and more impactful even as they force them to be shorter.

We can hope, can't we?

...And Women, And Song

This bottle. Oh, this bottle; how you've haunted me.

I've had this bottle for at least five years. I don't remember the date that I got it but I do remember the event. As the head server at a long-defunct semi-fine dining establishment, I was dragooned into working the Executive Chef's wedding reception rather than being invited to it, such is how French chefs view their floor staff.

My payment for the evening was fifty dollars, a box of gourmet leftovers and two bottles of the wine the chef had ordered from his home town. When I got home that night, I cracked one bottle and drank it in small sips with my then-roomate as she listened to me complain about how much I hated working for French chefs.

The other bottle I tucked aside. I was saving it for a special occasion, something important, some life milestone. I'm not sure I knew what I had in mind, my engagement, a graduation of some kind perhaps? I've glanced at it a number of times, snug in it's corner of the cabinet where I'm not likely to see or think on it. On nights I've made dinner for lovers, I've wondered what it would taste like and whether tonight was the night to find out. I've done plenty of celebrating and looked at it furtively in mornings and said, 'If only I thought of you last night."

Well, I'm at that age when life milestones rarely announce themselves in advance and tonight is a night for goodbyes and remembrance. So, tonight, I will open this bottle that I've been sitting on for a third of my adult life and I will take a sip of what I've been anticipating the-anticipation-of for all this time. I will do this because we spend too much time and effort on plans and regret. I will drink this bottle because it's Sunday in Georgia and I want another glass of wine. I will drink this long-awaited bottle, not because I'm commemorating some occasion, but because, any time you go to something that is so long-awaited, it is an occasion unto itself.

We don't get or acknowledge nearly enough such days I won't dare feel bad about it.

Here's to the next however many years, to the next however many milestones and to the next however many tokens of things done and undone.

As I've written this, it's had just enough time to breathe. A votre Sante!


I Know, I've Been Slacking

I'll get back to it soon. In the meantime, I'm reposting one of my favorites; enjoy.

Why Do You Want To Do This?

She keeps asking me, my Aunt. She is a deeply loving but deeply disappointed person. She spent as long in art school as I did in film school and, poised to retire, she has never gotten to be the artist she wanted to be. Because she loves me, she keeps asking, “Why do you want to make movies?”

The answer is simple, “I don’t.”

What I want is to be a spy. I want to save the world through guile and guts. I want to be a gangster, a Mafioso, a keeper of a criminal code and underworld ideology as seductive as sin, itself. I want to be a vigilante and dispense justice on my own terms. I want to die and talk to the living. I want to travel in space, to see things that others have scarcely imagined. I want to overcome a disability so debilitating that others had always assumed I could never be anything but a burden to society. I want to lead a revolution. I want to be a Kung Fu master. I want to be arrested for a crime I didn’t commit and lead a jailbreak so daring it will never be forgotten. I want to be a cop that was sold out by his own people and go outside the system to avenge the death of my partner. I want to be the most inspiring English teacher in the world. I want to be a war hero, a sports hero and an antihero. I want to hunt zombies. I want to rescue the princess. I want to die slowly of a degenerative illness and change everyone else’s outlook on the world in the doing of it. I want to dodge bullets with grace and ease. I want to get the girl. I want to win the game or diffuse the bomb with one second to spare. I want to have subtitles.

At one time or another I have said to myself that I want to do each of these things, and many others and I want to do them because I saw each in a movie. When I was a lonely little boy in suburban Milwaukee I would waste my Saturdays hopping theatres in the Marcus Cinemas at the end of my block. It was there that my dreams were born, on a yellowing screen, at the rate of twenty-four frames per second, in the twilight of Plato’s cave reborn. I will never get to be a spy and I will never get to be a Kung Fu master. I will never go into space and I will never get to hunt zombies but I can help make dreams for some other lonely little boy.