Monday, September 30, 2013

Short Attention Span Theater

Some time ago I actually cited Talking Points Memo as a potential successor to I.F. Stone's Weekly, in a bloggospheric formula.  The reason was that JMM had just had his little mini coup crowd sourcing information that led to a better national understanding of a huge national scandal: the firing of the US Attorneys under Bush.  But since then he's proved me wrong--he has no interest in putting in the time, energy, or thought to actually reporting anything novel. The entire format of the front page and of his editor's viewpoint is clickbait.  I don't have any quarrel with that. A man's got to make a living and who am I to break his rice bowl?  If he is content to run an endless stream of one sentence clips from speeches, or to repurpose this morning's post with a new picture and a slightly sexier headline in the afternoon, who am I to criticize?  But, at the same time, there is something truly destructive about this approach.  For years we've all criticized the NYT and CNN and other major media players for failing to give their readers enough historic background and context to understand the significance of the events they are covering.  This is even more the case with TPM. The short, clippy, format they have chosen to cover, for example, the shutdown or the debt ceiling fight is trivializing and highly deceptive.

Take this:

With a government shutdown appearing imminent Monday, a Republican congressman expressed frustration with the conservative wing of his party.
"We're pretty much out of options at this point," Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) said, as quoted by the Wall Street Journal."They're all giddy about it," he said in reference to Republicans most unwilling to compromise. "You know who benefits the most here from a shutdown? The Democrats benefit and they know that."
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) also admitted that Republicans will be damaged politically in the event of a government shutdown. Meanwhile, a poll released Monday showed that Americans will be more inclined to blame congressional Republicans for a shutdown than President Barack Obama.

What are we supposed to conclude from this little tidbit? It is actually the current headline piece on the site labeled "GOP Rep Exasperated..."  Think Progress has a similar roundup of startlingly unsympathetic things various Republicans have said about the showdown leading  Jed Lewison at Kos  to moan  "If these guys want to be seen as anything less than complete hypocrites, they need to reverse course and agree to approve a clean funding bill."

We seem to be having some trouble grasping the central fact of our political system: people say one thing and do another.  What is the point of quoting people saying things for public consumption when we know for a fact that what governs their actual votes in the legislative crucible are entirely different considerations? JMM is just giving his readers what he thinks they want, or will click on at any rate, which is a constantly updated stream of information-like-quotes that are utterly context free.  Is there a cost to this style of reportage? I think there is--when you read down into the comment thread at a place like Kos, where to do them credit people at least care about politics and have their hearts in the right place, you see almost as much confusion and misinformation as at a Fox site.  Because people assume that statements stand for actual thought, or that public positions can give you a clue as to private negotiations.  They can't. All 11 of the GOP reps who are quoted over at Think Progress as thinking that the shut down is bad politics and bad theater voted to send Boehner's amended, dirty CR back to the Senate. Why? Because voting is a team sport and none of these guys has the slightest intention of standing out in a crowd and taking the heat for an individual decision.  You can't understand politics unless you grasp this central fact: none of these guys are willing to stick their head out of the crowd unless, like Ted Cruz, they've made a conscious decision that they may reap more benefit by being an outlier than by following the other lemmings off the cliff.


Cross Posted at No More Mr. Nice Blog

Monday, September 23, 2013

America Is Full of Second Acts, But I'm Not An Ingenue Anymore

I've been considering for quite some time going back to school in Social Work.  Its not because I'm a collector of degrees but rather that I'm interested in a lot of the things I could do with a Social Work degree and I don't have the time and energy to do another PH.D. in, say, Psychology.  I'm fascinated by Psychology and the new work on the brain and I'd love to spend a few years just researching and taking classes--but it seems silly to spend time doing another major research project when what I'd like to do is counseling of some kind.  I no longer think I want to teach and I sure don't need another credential--I want to work and be out in the world. Social Work has a long and honorable tradition in my ethnic community and my anthropological background gives me a way to slot race, class, ethnic identity and family structure issues into a practice which might otherwise lack those insights.

Today I finally went over to one of the schools that I am looking at and sat in on a class. Very, very, interesting experience. I haven't sat in on a class for years and last time 'round I was teaching it, probably.  This was the intro to clinical practice class: three hours and 25 students.  These clinical practice classes are designed to give students some support and structure for their internships--most MSW's include a practical internship which can last a year or two and which runs concurrent with the classwork. That means people get a real taste of the work--on the other hand it can mean that someone fresh out of their BA is given the task of facilitating a roomful of addicts, or subbing in doing hands on work with highly damaged special needs children.

One of the schools I am looking at has a fairly high proportion of people like myself returning from other careers. I knew that, but I hadn't really thought through how important that might be. This school, although quite a well respected school, feels like it is running an MSW mill. Every other person in that class was straight out of a BA program and although some of them were really smart and well educated the two girls I was paired with for various role playing exercises were...touchingly: not.

One of the girls came in late, looking harassed and slightly dazed. She was a tall, skinny, blonde woman who collapsed into the seat next to me.  We had a good chance to talk during the various role playing exercises and I discovered that she is an incredible person with so much to give to social work, but so little foundation and possibly so little support and mentoring.

Her story is that she comes from a (her words) "poor white trash" family from a southern Californian town. When she was little she and her mother lived on welfare and in a welfare hotel but her mother subsequently married rather well and moved out and up to a secure, evangelical, right wing lifestyle. Meanwhile this woman, whose name I never learned, moved out at age 14 because she was modelling, and she seems to have modeled in NY and Italy for quite a while before realizing, at 27, that her modeling career was over and she had no education. So she went and got her BA at age 27. But in college she changed majors three times because the first two (forget the first but one was engineering) were romantic fantasies driven by a dream to "do something to help people" which turned out to be terminally dull and divorced from dealing with other people. So she switched into psychology and wound up in this MSW.  Her internship is in a day school for incredibly damaged children, teens who are catatonic or psychotic.

During one of our exercises we wound up talking about race and class in the US and she said to me, eyes as wide as saucers, that although she had been "beaten up by black girls" as a young girl her mother had never said anything to her that was racist and she didn't think her family were race aware. She, however, had bigger experiences than her family did because when she moved out to model she shared an apartment with a black girl and that girl had told her all about racism in this country. Did I know that if a black person had a really high GPA, like, really really good grades, that they couldn't go to a good school? Truth!  She was sincerely outraged by this. I'm not sure she realized that the girl had been telling her about Jim Crow or whether the girl had been telling her about today's racism.  I agreed with her that this was a very serious problem and said that I thought you really couldn't understand modern American politics without going all the way back to the Civil War and before--to the way slave vs. free labor deformed democracy in the states and territories. "Yes!" she said, eagerly "I don't know anything about that. I really never learned any history. But in the Civil War it was, basically, the conservatives owned slaves and everyone else didn't want to own them, right?"

My point is not to make fun of this girl at all. I think she's an incredible person with so much love and insight and determination to be of service that it practically makes me cry. But I listened to her and I thought "Jeezus Christ is it any wonder the Republicans are fucking this country like an overripe cantaloupe?" She has a BA from some school and she basically doesn't have the slightest grasp of US history or society and she's going to be a Social Worker and try to help people navigate this brutal hinterland of poverty and dysfunction?