Thursday, August 30, 2012

Reading and Battlestar Galactica

"If only Barrack Obama's enemies had known what a scandal generator the Nobel Peace Prize would be, they'd have been hankering for him to win it last year."
Lisa Van Dusen, Calgary Sun Washington Bureau, October 14, 2009

Lately I've been reading about the recent terribly uncivil state of public discourse. Maybe the pendulum has really swung... or maybe this is permanent. Now crazy things are being believed, people prefer to indulge in hatred not research, and all this while the electronic media—or at least the taking heads—seem willing to sunder journalism from ethics. Why?

Why now? Many people are discussing this state of affairs on the essay-review website of Chicago Tribune movie critic Roger Ebert. One fellow proposed that this recent decline in common sense comes from broadcasters going digital (more channels) and going to 24 hours. (more time to fill)

I think part of the problem is fewer people are reading, in general, and fewer are reading newspapers. Hence they don't realize that journalistic ethics have always been compromised in the electronic media. I think regarding journalism the public, like any boardroom of business managers, needs to first know what is Right before they are constrained to compromise.

During a discussion on "journalism" a friend made reference to the Fox TV news. I didn't have the heart to tell him "Fox isn't real," that I didn't know of any city daily that was a Fox-style newspaper. It's too bad. If you don't read, then you don't have the same expectations for "real journalism." You won't even have the term "infotainment" in your vocabulary. This I know because the word was new when I said it to my night school class of older university students in their final semester. It's too bad: in their university education they had missed out on grasping everyday media.

... Fox News executive Michael Clemente said, "The average news consumer can certainly distinguish between the A-section of the newspaper and the editorial page, which is what our programming represents."
Only it's not called Fox Opinion, it's all called Fox News.
Lisa Van Dusen, October 15, 2009

While the public assumes that university people are smart, well, I've heard of graduates who don't read books or newspapers.

Reading has enhanced my understanding of everyday democracy partly because reading has enhanced my vocabulary. My favorite essayist, George Orwell, once wrote how the the word "tumbril" has taken on a sinister tone since Dickens wrote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." (Incidentally in one of the Star Trek movies Admiral Kirk receives as a gift A Tale of Two Cities.) I don't know whether a nonreader would know that word, but it makes a great line in the final season of Battlestar Galactica. A distinguished lady is politically imprisoned, awaiting her imminent death. They send only one drab person to lead her away. The lady says with contempt, "You should have sent a tumbril." Perfect!

Another word of the final season, which I looked up, is "harbinger." The word comes from old English and German. It means someone who goes ahead to find, and then announce, a safe harbor or fortified base, hence the related term herald. The colonists face a dilemma: Is a certain undead character a harbinger of Earth, or, as an oracle proclaims, "a harbinger of death?" The choice to use that word on the show was just so right.

Sean Crawford

~Also see my essay Readers Enjoy Battlestar Galactica of August 2011
~Regarding cyberspace, my constructive criticism is in Polite Blogs, April 2010
~I first explored uncivil discourse back in April 2010 in Decent Democracy.
~in case you go there, and read the footnote, be advised I analyzed uncivil professors in a subsequent essay during that same April month.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Blind Spot

If you are a US citizen, a self-described “American,” then, with so many fine essays on my web site, you don’t need to read this particular one. Why not skip it?
SPECIAL WARNING: If you’re a “Yankee,” then go to the bottom of the web page and hit the “older post” (or newer) button. You don’t need this essay.

…Every culture has blind spots, things that, unless you figure it out on your own or some person tells you, you will never know. For example, poet Sylvia Plath, back in the 1950’s, was a passionate young co-ed. (“Co-ed,” a US term, means co-educational student, means a female on a campus with males) Yet according to her journals she was near the end of college before she figured out that in the rock and roll songs of her day “love” or “suddenly we got romantic” meant “we got sexual.” Of course, at some level, society surely knew these things: I have just viewed, at the Scotia Theatre, the 1951 movie The African Queen, digitally remastered. A nice film. Almost the whole story is Humphrey Bogart, a plain everyman, and Katherine Hepburn, a 1914 version of the non-racist Eleanor Roosevelt, floating in their little boat down the river. They have met as distant strangers. At last, abruptly, the two characters on the boat are shown smiling and rubbing shoulders with each other, and talking about grandchildren. They have suddenly “got romantic” after a kiss.

It was some years after 1951—and I am old enough to remember--when here in North America we suddenly found out that women could be reasonable creatures, and hold “traditionally male jobs” and even be leaders. Yes, at one level we already knew, but overall we were surprised to suddenly hear complaints from the women. “What? You’re not happy?” I guess our “blind spot,” despite what we subconsciously knew, was especially from our post-war years, from needing to get women out of the work force, and out of the way of returning veterans. They say that for 1950’s game shows, if a woman said she was a “housewife,” the applause would rise to shake the rafters. I’m glad times have changed; we are healthier now. The change to “more equal rights” was swift: I guess we were ready.

“Readiness” is a reality to be reckoned with. As a (sometimes) chairman for meetings and working groups, I know not to “do group interventions” unless the group is ready. If I have an insight as to what our problem is, a way to break the Gordian knot we are struggling with, then, as professor Herbert Thelen wrote (in Dynamics of Groups at Work) “…an insight achieved by the trainer at a particular time may occur to someone else at the same time, so perhaps the trainer should wait.” (p 175) Then the group will go, “Ah, yes!”

Thelen was at the university of Chicago. Another Chicago native, with a street level skill in group psychology, was Saul Alinsky, the famous community organizer. In very recent years, as you know, down in the US, it has often been said by some people that Alinsky was the mentor of President Barak Obama. I wonder whether these are the same people, the “birthers,” who also say President Obama was not born in the US, or those who say Obama has a secret socialist agenda. Alinsky as mentor, eh? Beats me. I would have thought helping communities lift themselves up by their bootstraps through self-organizing had disappeared about the time of non-violent resistance. Alinsky died in 1972…

Before he died he shared in a countrywide “ah!” insight. Some individual said the Black communities should generate their own leaders and managers. This was for various good reasons, including the nurturing of Black self-confidence. Although racial integration remains an ideal, this made “ah, yes” instant sense, and non-Black folks like Alinsky abruptly stopped working in Black communities.

Some characters might believe that oppressed minorities are simply mirror images of non-oppressed minorities, with the same esteem and confidence, but to me such belief defies street level common sense. Some characters, the “birthers,” might think Obama is born overseas, and a socialist too, but surely they have a blind spot. It seems to me that before one makes such a summary/conclusion as “he is trying to make America socialist,” one would need at least a sketchy list of Obama’s “socialist actions.”  From up here in Canada, while reading vigorous attacks on Obama on the Internet, I have yet to see any such list. To me, the strident attacks don’t feel the same as the whispers of small town gossips. In rural areas people whisper their gossip not because they believe it, but because they would like to believe it. In contrast, the guys who shout “socialist!” seem awfully convinced. In turn, my personal “Ah!” is that certain modern day Yankees don’t have a readiness for a Black president, while at the same time they aren’t ready to agree to be “racists” out loud. I guess, for sons and daughters of overt racists, that’s progress.

I’m no time traveler, but I can read documents. At the time of civil rights, it seems every Yankee, or at least the ones in the US south, had a blind spot. “What? Negroes not happy? Of course our Negroes are happy. Only outside agitators could ever get them to say otherwise.” It was left to Reverend Martin Luther King to say that nobody within the contiguous United States could be called an outsider any longer.

I wonder—I wish I’d asked--whether this was when a Mount Royal College professor of mine, Len Thomas, had the experience of driving in the US. He reported to me in awe. “That’s when I learned they don’t have freedom of movement in the states.” He shook his head. “If we went off the “interstate” we were constantly being stopped by police. Constantly. I wouldn’t have believed it.”

A decade or two after civil rights, after every right-thinking American knew that racism was wrong, I found myself joining a military convoy going down to the US via the “military and interstate highway system.” Our company commander warned us, “Don’t think that just because you watch the same television you understand them.” He said the military police had ascertained that certain saloons on the base were for Blacks only, and we were to avoid them. Of course one of us Canadians, wearing synthetic baggy combat clothing (the Yanks wore starched cotton) and a khaki Balmoral cap complete with pom pom (the Yanks had green baseball caps) went into a “Black bar” by mistake. The Black GIs, perhaps genuinely unable to discrimate a NATO ally from a Yankee, or perhaps blinded by hate, tried to scare him. He told us all about it. Obviously, while the Americans had a level of racism unknown to us up here, their racism wasn’t a blind spot for them, not if they knew about it.

What I’ve figured out on my own is that a certain historical US blind spot—and I believe history is important, being the parent to the child—is hidden in plain sight: They never admit that, unlike in Europe, they had racially based slavery. They will say “slavery,” and “racism,” but never “racial slavery.” Maybe they think it’s an obvious term, or maybe they don’t want to admit that in Europe (I once read) there was both a government agency and a church agency that looked after rights for slaves. Perhaps both European agencies had less power than a modern SPCA, I wouldn’t know, but at least the idea of minimal rights and limited inferiority was there. Maybe too, the US Americans don’t want to admit that in Canada if a slave escaped he would not be devalued by his peers as having become racially inferior, instead, he would be positively valued by both nations, his own and his former captor’s, for he would then be able to be a translator.

I’m sure that down in the US there’s something psychological going on, because US citizens will publish stories of science fiction slavery that are way too corny to ever be published up here. In one story, a young adult novel, the teens stop off at a planet where a human colony enslaves lemur-like creatures. The humans even, like Star Trek’s southerner Doctor, Leonard McCoy, drink mint juleps! Of course the teen heroes resolve to teach folks on the planet the Error of Their Ways. In a magazine short story, from I guess about a decade ago, the human farmers wear space suits. A small native flying life form, tough and zippy, is capable of penetrating metal space suits and tractors, causing death by exposure to native atmosphere. Of course the native slave race has the swift hand-eye coordination to swat these “blue-tailed flies.” They wield stainless steel two-by-fours. Unsurprisingly, the story is about the first slave in history teaching another slave not to swat… I remember back when I was a boy I knew every word to the song “Jimmy Crack Corn, and I don’t care, my master’s gone away.” I wish now I had collected every science fiction slave story I came across down the years.

I think the earliest such story I ever read was in a 1958 magazine, back when such pulps still hosted pen pal sections. Only years later, from hindsight, did I “get it” that the story was symbolic of US racial slavery. In this one, back on earth, the enslaved race is robots. Like some less educated, less empowered women of today, the robots resort to the power of alternative knowledge. As the story opens, a robot is in trouble with his master. To get back on his master’s good side, a robot seeks advice from an older Robot psychic. This robot’s advice, based on astrology—the master’s astrology planet is metal--is to put some metal fragments into the master’s sandwich. Well, the master loses a filling. Well! Back to the advisor! This time the older robot reasons that since Mars, the red copper planet, is ascendant, perhaps a wire on the robot's back should be clipped. “Say, I feel better already!” Not surprising, since the circuit served to ward off aggression. He returns the favor to his friend. “Say, I feel better too!” They decide to help other robots by spreading the news, and the story ends: “And so began the robot wars…” It took me years to figure out what the story was symbolic of. Wow, all those corny sf stories: Surely the US Americans, down the decades, are still, to this very day, psychologically working through something.

Last year an Oprah Magazine mentioned there being white slaves in early America, but I’m sure it made no ripples in US culture. Some things just plop in, and are gone, if the culture is not ready to hear.

Today will be the “history” of our “future.” Now, as I see it, the US is sliding from super power back to major power. Fair enough, that is how things were in my father’s time. But there’s an even worse fate: becoming the least of the major powers, one with a very reduced middle class. I think the writing is on the wall: The launch window (of opportunity) has less than ten years left. Losing the middle class must then accelerate, like a curling stone speeding down an icy slope. Unhappily, if a nation has a marginal middle class, then “citizenship” is very hard. Recently, a British financial expert has gone around the US interviewing prominent leaders and informed businessmen. The consensus? As a gloomy terminator says in Judgment Day: We don’t have much time. For further reading see my June 2012 America Descending essay about the expert’s book Time to Start Thinking. With their blind spots, Lord help them, I fear the US people are distracting themselves from what needs to be done.

The “women’s libbers” knew that everything was connected, saying, “The personal is the political.” This week I’m misquoting them: “The personal racism is the political problem.”

In this new century that I live in I’ve seen the big US federal budget surplus totally squandered after Bush got elected. Then I saw him get re-elected. My buddy Blair despaired: One election is accident, but twice? “That destroys US credibility all around the world!” Years later I read where a father was shocked, just shocked, that his son was voting to re-elect Bush. Then the son explained: Since Bush in four short years had messed up the economy and stuff so badly, he should have to stick around to be accountable. “Oh” said the father. It was not a pretty “next four years.”

Needless to say, any new president, any “the old man” who came next to the White House would have to avoid Bush’s mistake of “punching with both hands,” avoid ever committing any more troops anywhere, regardless of any new provocation. At home, the old man would have to stoop to try to build things up with worn out tools. He would deserve our prayers. But what happened? Not prayers.

Some “economics challenged” folks thought that in less than three years, or less than two, or even (link) within the very first year, a new US president should be able to magically undo all the damage that Bush, before him, could not undo. These same folks, while acknowledging the economy was damaged, spoke not a word against Bush. Seriously, not a word. Probably they needed to be “in denial” about their own culpability for enabling our new century’s first disastrous decade. And maybe right-thinking Americans still believe in racism, as the new boss is Black. (I think technically he’s half-black, but to most people that means Black)

Perhaps the answer to the infamous ongoing problem of “American ignorance and isolationism,” a problem the rest of us have found so baffling, is subconscious: They are trying to preserve their peculiar blind spot. It’s possible. I don’t have any other explanation for how educated people in, say, Arizona, who surely know how to research at the community college, and surely know how to enquire of their new Canadian neighbors who (thanks to the Wall Street melt down) are moving in down the block, are in fact still prepared to believe falsehoods about foreign health care. For such “isolationism” their “pay off” is they don’t have to confront their blind spots. Their consequence is poor health, both medically and politically.

Despite my age—how time flies—I have become a willing member of the 21st century. I’m now accustomed to feature length documentaries being profitable, although I had once thought documentary movies had disappeared sometime around Walt Disney’s The Living Desert. I’ve gotten used to TV channels for just news, like CNN, and I can appreciate World Wide Web journals where people write comments to each other, like the delightful one by film critic Roger Ebert.

This week I’m angry. I’ve come across two Yankee questions of great sound and despair.

First Question: Chicago Tribune critic Roger Ebert, for his web journal, did an essay (A Shot In the Dark, July 26) on how the surviving victims of the latest US massacre, at a movie theatre, are being given a donation of free health care. They needed this donation so very badly because, unlike all the rest of the prosperous, civilized world, the US has no universal health care. One of Roger’s commenters (July 27 12:24 a.m.) related how he argued at length with a conservative’s friend’s mother who was bitterly opposed to health care. At last the mother admitted the truth: She didn’t want her tax dollars supporting the health of someone outside her family and friends. Roger’s respondent despaired, “Why is it that conservatives are obsessed with this tribal sense of unity in the 21st century?”

Second Question: On CNN I saw that British guy, Piers Morgan, interviewing Michael Moore, that guy who’s anti-bullying, anti-massacre, and anti-gun Bowling For Columbine documentary stirred such a tempest… and accomplished nothing. No changes, no hope… nothing! During the interview Moore noted, by the way, that most guns were in the (white) suburbs. I think the two men conversed about universal health care, as well as guns. I felt Moore’s despair when he compared the US to the rest of the world and from his very soul cried out, “Why are we so cruel to each other?”

Some days I feel very tired… I can still recall how after the LA riots—not the latest, I mean some earlier ones—a Black lady said the Whites were asking why they rioted. “If they have to ask, they aren’t ever going to understand the answer.” Yes.

As for the two men quoted above, my heart goes out to them. If US citizens have to ask why they are so separate from the civilized world, then they aren’t ever going to understand they have a blind spot.

Sean Crawford
Still praying,
Still pleased to a member of North America
July, 2012

Update, February 2014
~Here a US American documents what I, as a Canadian, only knew intuitively. I found his  piece through a site by a North American commentator living in Japan. (His site address ends in

~This essay is posted during the August silly season, when I am getting more readers from non-English nations than from the US.

~To use a concept from Senator Robert (Bobby) Kennedy: I’m sure the other contiguous North Americans, the Canadians and Mexicans, have racism too, but that does not console me, and should not console anyone.

~Lest we forget, Martin Luther King, in writing his open Letter From Birmingham Jail, wrote to eight Alabama fellow clergymen:
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.”
As quoted on page 125 of Allah, Liberty and Love by Irshad Manji who immediately adds “It’s one of King’s most famous statements, but its significance for the twenty-first century has yet to sink in.”

~If you are a U.S. citizen reading this, you might prefer to hear bad news not from me, but from a fellow American. I  suggest you not view the inclosed video until after reading the essay, in this link.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

All I Know About Sex

When you're hot, you're hot; when you're not, you're not.

(You're welcome)

Sean Crawford
During the yearly silly season of low readership

Footnote: I threatened to post this "All I know" during my criticism of Essays and Blogs in June 2010... and now I have.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Boomer Too Timid
Hello. News reporters call this the silly season: very little news. As for me, according to my stats app, August is my month of fewest readers. So here's my filler:

Unpublished footnotes from the essay Sex and Surprise of May 2012:

Back on campus, wearing my new white “Officer Bob” button, I wondered: Should I, as a baby boomer, switch to my father’s long bathing trunks—I mean, um, youthful board shorts as the Gen Xers were doing? The shorts were super-horribly uncomfortable, by comparison to boomer swim suits, like walking with cold seaweed around your legs, but then again I was a timid soul, with a timid body.

At the same time, while not all the campus women of Generation X were feminists, ladies my own boomer age were revolutionaries. They had found that as part of their liberation, they had permission to be visual, like males are, and so they would, uh, have an extra liking for a guy in his regular swim briefs. Oops, that could be embarrassing. Oh well, at least my boomer peers wouldn’t have any extra liking for little old me. No, not as if I was trying to be sexy by wearing “a hat on top of a hat,” (The reason, I was told, for the pretty lady in the film Tron acting plain) since my dear body, thank God, was of only average attraction. Yes only average, and so I would be safe wearing briefs: Although, queerly enough, there don’t seem to be briefs by companies like Jansen, with thicker fabric, they all seem to be Speedos now.

And yet, on the other hand, if I did dress as a younger Gen Y, with youthful trunks—I mean shorts, then I might seem to be “mutton dressed as lamb...” a derisive phrase we used when seeing a lady with super-gorgeous legs who was wearing a mini-skirt, when she was already an ancient 25 years old, as in “already too old for the Miss Ireland pageant.” In her case, as Officer Bob would say, “beauty is wrong.”

Which bathing suit should I wear?

One day, after relaxing in the safe-to-flamboyant Drama Student lounge, and then enduring the culture shock of going over to the hearing-constant-put-downs big Recreation Student lounge, I wandered over to the swimming pool. More accurately, I stood in the hallway where the cinderblock wall was interrupted by a window. I was at the diving board end of the pool; I don’t suppose diving was a very big sport on our prairie campus.

I looked over the shoulders of a trio of the fairer sex who were looking in at four male divers: two in normal-style jockey shorts, possibly made by Speedo, and two in the new timid super-long boxer-short style. The latter two males were by far the most unskilled and timid divers of the four. The fair young ladies must have been enrolled in physical education, as they kept being so critical and laughing so much at the two timid young men. Well. I don’t mind being around losers, no, I don’t think being a loser is contagious… but I wasn’t about to join those two in wearing big board shorts, either.

These days, although no longer a student journalist, I still like to come across as being a timid writer nerd who is watching from the sidelines. But I can’t always pull it off. Recently a lady who works in aquatic therapy with me shared her happy thoughts: “I’ll be gone on holidays for three weeks. And then I’ll come back and see you in your Speedo!” Nope, not timid.

Sean Crawford
In the mid-west, amidst the bible belt,
August 2012
Footnote: I have a related essay, Symbolism and Men's Underwear archived March 2013

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Stupid On-line University
Hello. Reporters find it hard to fill summer newspapers. For me, August is my month of fewest readers. So here is a summer piece:

Stupid On-line University

To me, university is students sharing a passion for ideas, whether it's about the meaning of life or about whether, during the war on drugs, a ten minute cut to a commute time is worth destroying or blasting in two an urban neighbourhood... for a freeway that could otherwise go around.
Steve Jobs: "There's a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and ichat," he said. "That's crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'Wow,' and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas."
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, p 431

~ I forget whether it was in Movement class or in Drama class that Joyce pointed out to us how we would now understand so much more about the people of show business and Hollywood. True. And so sometimes, when reading slick magazines, I just can’t play along with all the fawning hype about actors. Do others really believe the hype?

Furthermore, while of course TV repair and tech courses can be done on-line, do others really believe the hype that on-line degree programs are good? "New and exciting," sure, but—"good?" To me they're "stupid." True, my worst college math class was a glorified correspondence course, and yes, we all knew students in the fuzzy “document and footnote” classes who passed by cramming— and then forgot everything, but we also knew keen students who managed to have collateral learning while maximizing the value of every day of their classes.

My best university math teacher would start to solve a question with “Step one: don’t panic.” She’d finish with, “Now I can be happy!” It was uplifting: you had to be there. If you attended her optional Saturday morning math laboratory —and I would walk through deep snow to attend one— she would help you only with the proviso that you go forth and teach two classmates. Discerning the collateral benefit of her class is an exercise I will leave for students of higher learning.

Good classes include learning from in-class discussions and student questions. My favourite classes—movement, social work communication and drama— absolutely needed to be longer than the standard one-and-a-half hours, needing in-class time for us to warm up, warming to each other more than to the demands of the material. These classes could never be taught on-line. In fact, even if taught in-class, results are not guaranteed. A colleague once explained to me how housewives majoring in social work still hadn’t, by their fourth semester, internalized the ethics of their chosen profession. The examples he related were horrible.

I’m sure dusty memory work and documenting, perhaps suitable for on-line, have their place, but still, there are good reasons why the schools of the ancient Greeks had such a diverse curriculum, a curriculum including so many hands-on classes.

If the "on-line classes" hype is merely a shared pretence, like Hallowe'en, then I don’t mind the pretend excitement. My concern is when people really do believe the hype. I'm afraid society is drifting towards believing in on-line academics, and then I imagine politicians taking advantage, jumping in to push on-line classes as a cost cutting measure. Not good.

You can’t blindly trust the universities on this one, not when they are mesmerized by dollar signs, not the same universities that refused to stock in their bookstores a literary work by a fellow named Salman Rushdie… In fact, I trust politicians more than I trust universities.

Sean Crawford
In a city with one and a half universities
(one has no tenure)

(All but the opening was originally posted as footnotes to my Creative Movement (April 2012) essay)
~ As a civilian and writer, I could have simply ended this Creative Movement essay nice and clean, no footnotes.
As a citizen, I had to speak up.

New Footnotes:
~I guess Jobs would like Joss. Here's a link to a University Attendance Policy for a Joss Whedon conference explaining why using a computer or video for on-line presentations while not showing up is discouraged. (See remote attendance policy)

~and here's a metaphor: an in-class university is like having your office door open:
"Another trait, it took me a while to notice. I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, ``The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.'' I don't know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing - not much, but enough that they miss fame."

The speaker is Richard Hamming, speaking on You and Your Research, linked through my favourite web essayist, Paul Graham, in his piece on Good and Bad Procrastination.

Like Hamming, I have faith in you and your research to find a link to him. If I don't link for you in the above paragraph it's because I believe what I said in No Links is Good Links. (archived July 2012)