Saturday, January 29, 2005

Practically Jack Shafer

I read this piece in Slate by Jack Shafer, didn't like it, but didn't think any more about it until Ezra Klein had a response much different than mine. Ezra took Shafer's message to be apt, that the blogosphere is clearly dependent on / secondary to / not-about-to-replace-anytime-soon the maintream news media. Ezra's a pretty big boy in the blog jungle, but he has a healthy sense of humility and unrealized promise about the blog format. But here's what I commented on Ezra's site:

Yes, the takedowns on [Jeff] Jarvis and [Dave] Winer were probably needed, but the main thing I took away from the Slate article was Jack Shafer's dunderheaded stance that "gee, I'm practically a blogger myself."

The biggest single problem with the corporate media, which Shafer doesn't even nod to, is the agenda hidden behind the mask of objectivity. The NYT et. al. are reliant on access to official power, they're addicted to perks, they enjoy salaries and lifestyles that push them more and more into Republican territory. The follow-up question to Jill Abramson should have been, "Does that $180 million come with strings attached?"

Blogs are not THE ANSWER, but they help to counteract the phony omniscience.

NYU's Jay Rosen, the sponsor of the blog conference that Shafer was reporting on, gets pissy with Shafer's piece as well, for different reasons. Me, I look at Rosen as a paper tiger himself, a la Winer and Jarvis: guys who are earning points in the "respectable" media world by hyping those crazy, transgressive bloggers. If the bloggers ever really stormed the Bastille, Rosen would need watch his own neck. Rosen was a big proponent a few years ago of the "public journalism" movement. I was never impressed; public journalism struck me as a policy of newspapers' polling their readers, then feeding back to them what they asked for.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

My friend Phil at Here Be Monsters commented on this story about Dick Cheney's weekday-casual attire earlier in the week. I could have been the one to call it to his attention, and it did occur to me at the time that maybe I was making too big a particular deal out of this fashion faux pas, as if Emily Post was a more sacred authority than the Geneva Conventions. (Upon reflection, last week when I bitched about Dubya not dancing long enough at his inaugural balls, I may have been making a tango out of a jitterbug.)

But the Affair of Cheney's Timberlands is more than merely cosmetic, it's a symbolic foul-up. It just sends a message that Americans don't care very much about universal human rights. So does appointing the Poster Boy for Torture as the top law enforcement official in the country. As so often with the Bush Administration, the question is: evil or stupid? In the case of Cheney at Auschwitz, I say Stupid. Israel is our most important ally, Bush and Cheney should know it better than anyone, and I'd conjecture that the Israelis take Holocaust memorials pretty seriously.

Alberto Gonzales for AG is a tougher call. The Bushies do tend to be stupidly tone deaf, to overrate the world community's willingness to give us the benefit of the doubt and/or fall for laughable White House spin--for instance, to blame the Abu Ghraib disgrace entirely on SPC Charles Graner. On the other hand, I think it's a real possibility that Bush would be in deep legal jeopardy if the shit ever hit the fan. Maybe having an obsequious bag man and fixer in the Attorney General's office is the the highest consideration. So maybe Evil.

Can you feel me struggling not to sound like the shrill Blame America First stereotype? And failing? For an even, well-reasoned discussion of how alienated we are from the world community, let me give you Michael Lind writing about America, the Dispensible Nation.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

My Hands Are Numb / From Hanging On That Steering Wheel

Raleigh's epic-proportioned traffic jam last Wednesday made the national news (or at least the Washington Post, where my dad read about it). We had an unexpected snowfall (not huge, about an inch), then Wake County schools abruptly announced early closing. The snow seemed to turn to sheer ice almost immediately. And then it was automotive Armageddon. My personal tale of woe was that my drive home, 27 miles from Durham to Raleigh and normally about 35-40 minutes, took six hours. On the whole, I'd rather have driven to Philadelphia.

It was, quite literally, hard to believe. All this for about an inch of snow? Three interstate highways turned into miles-long parking lots at the same time--I never dreamed there were that many cars IN Raleigh.

A frenzy of blame-slinging ensued. Dumb Southern drivers came in for their share: we were going too fast, except for when we were going too slow. Some people blamed the TV weatherpeople (which pissed me off--don't mess with my man Greg Fishel). Some people blamed the mayor (which really pissed me off--don't even mess with my man Charles Meeker).

A letter-writer to the News & Observer made the insightful comment that there sure are a lot of people who drive their kids to school every day. He's right, and that explains a lot about the bazillion cars that suddenly materialized on the roads last Wednesday. (We're part of that problem. Though with magnet schools, lots of kids have a long commute, by design, so the system invites it in a way... )

Upon reflection, I think you can boil the blame down to a single word: Sprawl. Driving 27 miles each way to work (alone in my car) causes problems. Sprawl makes us vulnerable, if just one or two little things go wrong, to a transportation nightmare. I knew that Raleigh rated high on the lists of Most Sprawling Cities, but the problem was kind of abstract. Now it's pretty concrete.

Then on Friday, I heard Joe and Terri Graedon do a radio show about obesity in children, and one factor they cited was all the children that get taxied to school every day. Very few kids walk to school nowadays. Even if a kid rides the bus, he does some walking to and from the bus stop. And then he burns a lot of calories fighting gang bangers and dodging drug pushers... sorry, parental paranoia struggling with urge to connect public policy dots...

Friday, January 14, 2005

Stupid Americans, Pt. MCCXXXIV

Terrific op-ed piece by Steven Prothero, citing a study showing that while Americans are the most religion-professing people on earth, we are also quite ignorant about what religion says, exactly. (The money quote is that 12% in the poll thought that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.)

Prothero chides 1st Amendment absolutists who, for instance, want schools not only to refrain from teaching religion but even from teaching about religion. He also makes a glancing mention of congregations who preach and teach using contemporary stories rather than Bible stories. Ed Kilgore at New Donkey takes the latter point and expands on it:

At one point in our history, religious pluralism created a way to define ourselves distinctively within the common American civic creed. Now the arrow seems pointed in the other direction, with religious identity being less and less a matter of heritage, doctrine and liturgy, and more and more a matter of consumer choice--and of secular values.

I think this is exactly right. In a mobile society, fewer of us live in the town where we grew up, where our parents and grandparents lived. Fewer of us unquestioningly follow in the civic and religious traditions we grew up in. Whether and where to worship is a consumer choice; churches compete with one another as well as with Starbucks, local golf courses, and sports on TV.

Entering the life stage of marriage and parenthood leads many young adults to give church another spin. (A book on my reading list is "Spirit and Flesh" by Jim Ault Jr., a sociologist's look at an evangelical church. Ault feels that marriage counseling / family support is a crucial factor in young adults' joining and staying in a conservative church.) But to attract customers, a church has got to be entertaining. The music is peppy, the preaching and teaching are light and in a self-help vein. Bible study is awfully dry, so isn't emphasized.

As Kilgore further points out, the doctrinal ignorance of church members plays into the hands of preachers with political/social agendas. (Conservatives take advantage of public stupidity? Shocking but true!) It's likely that those evangelicals who can't name the four Gospels, are nonetheless certain that those Gospels are clearly thumbs-down on gay marriage, abortion, estate taxes, and Dan Rather. So folks who have joined a church with secular motives (achieve success, have a happy marriage and family) hear the preaching of ministers with essentially secular motives (self-aggrandizement on some level).

[T]he rampant secularization of much of the American faith tradition in the not-so-sacred cause of cultural and political conservatism must be laid at the parsonage door of those religious leaders who have abused the prophetic function of their ministry to acquire a "seat at the table" of secular power.

In particular, Christian Right leaders in every denomination who abet and exploit the doctrinal and historical indifference of The Faithful to promote an agenda of intolerance and self-righteousness are the true Secularists of contemporary American society, and far more dangerous to the integrity of our faith communities than all the honest unbelievers in our midst or in Europe or Asia.

What a great, great post. This is a lot better and subtler about Democrats-and-religion than Amy Sullivan's writing. I guess I wish Kilgore or some other Democratic heavyweight could have articulated it before Election Day, but it's good stuff to throw into the hopper as progressives strategize and build toward '06 and '08.

Educational technology update

Have I mentioned how I feel about the homeschool movement lately?

On a spring day, Susan Lawrence was flipping through a magazine, Home School Digest, when she came across an advertisement that took her breath away. In it, ''The Rod," a $5 flexible whipping stick, was described as the ''ideal tool for child training."

"And another problem with the public schools nowadays--these namby-pamby rules against corporal punishment. The vice principal used to whip my ass three times a week, and look how great I turned out..."