Tag Archives: NPR

Unverifiable

28 Feb

A lot has happened since last I posted here.  I try to keep this focused on culture, and not on politics outside of cultural issues. As readers know, we’ve been kind of hit over the head the past few months. How this has affected culture is beginning to show more as cracks in the foundation.

Today I was listening to the normally great WNYC radio host, Brian Lehrer, whose local show in New York covers all sorts of issues and local politics.  He did an interview segment with writer and psychologist Andrew Solomon about how parents should or can introduce their children to political issues in these troubled times. Lehrer is also one of the hosts of National Public Radio’s new call-in program, Indivisible, which promises to get people talking outside of their bubble and in the words of WNYC President Laura Walker, “find common ground.” The way that the show is run, and indeed the ultimate direction of today’s interview to me underscored the failure of American liberalism and, in particular, that failure within the press, to address what has happened and is happening in this country and the world.

Lehrer asked about striking the balance between educating children on the significance of the current moment without telling children what to think, or letting them make up their own minds as independent thinkers.  Although I was taken aback by the explicit assumption that parents are not allowed to educate their children about ways of thinking critically, or that taking them to a demonstration might infringe on their rights to think for themselves (full disclosure here: one of the best things my grandmother ever did for me was take me around her apartment building to get signatures for her anti-Vietnam War petition to her senators), Solomon made the good point that parents can reframe the discussion away from telling kids whom to vote for, and towards the implicit moral distinctions made between love and hate, respect and bigotry, inclusion and exclusion, racism, and so on, assuming we choose to live more moral lives.  Like a good liberal, you don’t tell people, even your children what to think, you let them make up their own minds, but you try to instill in them a sense of your own morality or, as Lehrer interpreted it, the difference between good and evil (even as we’ve seen a wedge driven between different takes on “good and evil” in the new national discourse).

Some parents called in and made some good points and asked good questions, including one woman whose 11-year-old son turned to her and said, “They’re all crooks, Mom, even Bernie Sanders.”  (The whole 17-minute interview segment is worth listening to.)  And this to me is why liberalism is losing.  First, on this level, when people get disgusted with the entire political process, and turn away from all candidates as equally bad, we know that benefits autocrats and harms participatory democracy, by definition, really. So low voter turnouts are not politically neutral; they benefit right-wing candidates.  Turning people against politicians – a big part of the current rhetoric of the last political campaign – and encouraging them to sit home does not have symmetrical results for both ends of the political spectrum.  It disproportionately harms those who run on more transparent, egalitarian, inclusive platforms that emphasize sharing of resources, citizen and informed participation, and global sustainability.

But at no point during this interview segment did anyone mention that parents, like the press, have a responsibility to tell listeners, whether children or adults, how to assess fact from fiction, truth from lies. There is much in political culture that is based on “opinion” (whatever that means, which is a topic for another day). But reasonable actions, regardless of one’s morality, cannot be made on the basis of misinformation, whether deliberate or not, or lack of information. And parents, as well as the press and teachers, have the solemn responsibility to teach the young how (and why!) to be better informed or when something is an absolute falsehood.  Truth.  Truth matters.  The American press did not do this until too little, too late, for the most part.  The New York Times and Washington Post seem to have woken up to this now, and some of the Times’s recent editorials, such as this one on immigration, are model summaries of critical thinking and the application of facts to analyze and undermine lies, deliberate lies by our leaders. You can still be neutral while denouncing lies and misinformation.  There may not be one absolute truth, and facts (and their ramifications) may be debatable, but we can’t allow them to be tossed aside as if they don’t matter and just believe the fantasies that tell us what confirms our prejudices. We may not be able to determine with certainty how facts relate to causes and consequences. But the search for that connection is vital to our survival.

Unfortunately, whenever I try to listen to Indivisible (which I feel like calling Unlistenable or Insufferable), it feels as though there were a directive on high from the NPR management never, ever to correct callers’ statements, no matter how blatantly false or misinformed.  Invariably within the first couple of calls, a listener repeats some idea that is demonstrably, empirically false. And the hosts – seasoned NPR journalists – let these falsehoods not only sit there unchallenged, but even gain credibility as they are further distributed over the airwaves.  I’m not saying the callers are unintelligent, or uneducated, or that my opinion is more valid than theirs. We can disagree when we are all speaking from a position of being informed.  But there are times when they express beliefs about social conditions and historical events that are flat-out wrong.  It’s not politically correct to say that, and the shorthand way of dismissing this is to say it is “elitist.”  Yet somehow it would be hard to imagine a patient opining about how to conduct surgery and the doctor having to follow the patient’s instructions because all opinions are equally valid. For example, when people base their opinions about immigration on the belief that immigrants are “streaming” across the Mexico-U.S. border, that crime waves are higher because of immigrants from Mexico or the seven banned countries or simply that crime is at a 50-year high, and not a low, or that Obama increased the debt more than any other President – all measurably false, to remove any doubt – they are drawing conclusions and promoting remedies based on information and ideas that are completely erroneous. Aside from the moral dimension, it’s aimless to discuss whether building a wall is the best response if the so-called need for one can’t even be demonstrated in reality.  If the press isn’t there to report the truth, and to call out misinformation in an adversarial way, who is?

But there remains this need for liberals – and dare I say it, white liberals – to “find common ground” and be reassured.  One problem is, it’s really hard to find common ground when you understand the policies of those people who disagree with you are actually going to cause you harm, if not kill you. This is a loud and clear message coming from Black America right now, whether in the form of two essential and devastating documentaries this season, I Am Not Your Negro and 13th, in the need for discussions of reparations as voiced by Ta-Nehisi Coates, or in the critique of broadcasters like Tavis Smiley, or on a less famous or public level, the lived experience of my students. It’s an uncomfortable truth that the ideal of “common ground” can’t fully be realized while “systemic racism” is a dominant cultural order, let alone one on the rise.

So when Andrew Solomon ends his interview by telling parents that it’s important to avoid heightening their kids’ anxiety, by telling them that things may get worse for the world under the current presidential administration, but “we’re going to be ok,” that to me seems less a prescription for lessening anxiety than a recommendation to teach your children how to practice denial.  That may be not only how we got into this mess, but what will keep us from getting beyond it. It may make for nice parenting, but it is neither good journalism nor sound advice for the future of the planet. If you really believe you’re going to be ok in four years, you’re in pretty good shape, comfortable, sociologically speaking. We have to start by admitting that there’s a good chance most of us are not going to be ok – if you know anything about climate change and its consequences, which is to say, science – and that catastrophes like nuclear holocaust, genocide, widespread gun violence, and ruptured oil pipelines that can contaminate the water supply for millions and wipe out entire indigenous communities, are preventable. But that’s only the case if we come together to start naming the truth or short of that, seeking it out, and cease ignoring facts while our press looks the other way rather than confront dominant falsehoods as is their job.

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On Labor Day

1 Sep

Somehow the summer came and went, I got nothing written or revised (not on this blog, not in my professional life), and tomorrow I start a new full-time job, my first in over three years. I’ve written a little bit in informal comments on Facebook about my life as an adjunct, but I was inspired to say more after reading Robert Reich’s post this morning. I don’t know how to link to a Facebook post, but the operative quotations are these: “The official unemployment rate is 6.2 percent but if you include everyone working part-time who’d rather be in full-time jobs, and all those too discouraged even to look for work, the real rate is closer to 12.5 percent… A higher proportion of jobs are part-time, temporary, contract, or otherwise with unpredictable wages and hours than at any time on record.” I’ve been through all that personally the last three years. So I am setting this down in public as a kind of baseline post as I begin the next chapter in my career – an academic career at this point, having working in non-profits and museums for the first 16 or so years of my professional career, followed by five years of academic employment, with some consulting. Then three years of part-time research, adjunct positions, and summer school, while looking for something full-time in my field.

Here are my two operative facts and figures: In all that time, I tried to keep my employment record with no conspicuous holes or gaps, I applied for over one hundred positions, and I managed to only have 1-2 months on unemployment. The rest of the time I had some form of underemployment – not much money coming in, no health insurance (for 38 months), and no position that lasted longer than an academic year. I didn’t go on food stamps, qualified for the new Medicaid under Obamacare (though I ended up then making just too much money by the time I had to submit the application), and got to the point where if I hadn’t found something full-time in the last application cycle, I’d have had to have changed careers, or taught high school full-time. Over the last four years I applied for 131 full-time positions in universities, museums, and non-profits. I got rejected 130 times. And while I can’t say I have empirical proof that if you never give up you will eventually get something, I can say that had I given up at any point along the way, instead of coming back week in and week out, then I would have lost for sure. In the end it was not just persistence: I learned from my mistakes and shortcomings, I adjusted my search accordingly, re-worked my application materials and my interviewing skills. Though luck undoubtedly played a role, it was a combination of persistence and adaptability that set the stage. And in the end, I ended up with a wonderful position that offers all that I want, in a location where I want to be – I did not have to “settle” at all. It’s even a union position. And no, I did not know anyone on the hiring committee; it was a clean search. I am a statistic in so many groups: underemployed, overqualified academic, long-term without a position or health insurance, and this economy is not kind of any of these. There aren’t even enough positions for people in my situation, so we even can’t all be “lucky” (the worst I heard about was a job that attracted 450 applicants). I’m glad I ended up in the right column of the statistics, but I have many friends and colleagues who have not, and this Labor Day I hope they find subsistence and fulfillment in whatever field they end up in. These are bleak times. Not only are “good” jobs falling by the wayside (see Reich’s columns), but meaningful jobs that are tenable are becoming rarer still.

I heard a fascinating interview with Thomas Friedman on NPR this afternoon. I find him naive in the extreme – nowhere does he attribute any of these changes to the structure of the job market to forces like global consumer capitalism, the calculated ruthlessness of the ‘free’ market and its protectors, or the pressure of widening economic inequality. He suggests that entrepreneurship is going to be a vital skill for building a career, which suggests an extreme survival-of-the-fittest-go-getters, but also that higher education itself may go the way of the newspaper because the investment is getting larger but the preparation for the job market is even less certain. (He says this, without any examination of the question whether the purpose of higher education should be employment training, what it means to have an uninformed populace voting (or not) in a democracy, or the fact that we can’t all start global industries on our laptops and be hugely successful; someone is going to have to have the funds to purchase all the goods and have the money to invest. At least Jaron Lanier points out that if we minimize the number of professional jobs that pay a living or middle-class wage, we won’t have enough consumers with the disposable income to buy all the products that consumer capitalism has to sell to stay afloat. All of these “thinkers” and “futurists” fall into the new unquestioned belief of the age which is that the purpose of higher education is job readiness, and learning “just enough” to get a job and compete in the global marketplace, or to be an “innovator” (for the sake of innovation, or making money, or making things), which is how MOOCs will replace humanistic teaching and learning, critical literacy skills. This fails to recognize the essential link in a democracy – which Jefferson realized – which is that the people are ignorant (not informed, and not knowing how to question the concepts that are fed to them). Otherwise they vote what they think is their short-term self-interest, and this perpetuates empires and global environmental destruction. Hell, I even heard a TED talk (again on NPR) yesterday in which the lecturer – a million-dollar TED awardee! – says we really need nothing more for our education than access to the Internet and a grandmother to encourage us. These people are trying to scuttle higher education, and retool education merely to be preparation for working in someone else’s factory, and the odd Jeff Bezos will come along here or there and ‘save’ us. Friedman doesn’t acknowledge the gutting of higher education is already taking place, with the shift over the last 20 years from 70% of college courses being taught by full-time profs, to two-thirds being taught by part-timers with no benefits and 1/6 to 1/4 of the salary.

But back to Labor Day itself. The other story that has slipped up on us is that Labor Day used to mark the end of the summer and back to school. My father, a tax accountant who never got more than two weeks vacation any year in his working life, used to take the last two weeks of August off religiously every year, and go back to work the day after Labor Day. School didn’t start until then, and the school year ran from September to June. But this year, even more than before, I noticed more and more school districts and universities are now beginning in August. The Ferguson, Missouri school district had to cancel the first days of classes in the middle of August, while on the East Coast, which starts later, it feels like New Jersey may be the last state in which the school year begins after Labor Day. Most colleges and universities start the week before now, too. Labor Day weekend used to be the end of summer vacation and was a big tourist weekend, but as one friend pointed out to me in New York this weekend, really everybody is back to school or work in August these days. So even the concept of ‘summer’ itself as time off has been taken away from the American worker and the American student. One of the most pernicious ways in which Americans have perpetuated their own oppression is in allowing themselves to have so little vacation time, less than any other country. And that’s for people with paid vacation. Many American workers don’t even get that anymore. So instead of Labor Day marking the psychological end of summer, even if it ever did honor the American worker, it now is just another Monday holiday. And many districts want to move to year-round school anyway, which would strip teaching – the last of the professions to over a reasonable annual leave policy in the U.S. – of its humane vacation policy. I am lucky my new job will be at a university that, for now, begins after Labor Day (which means that, in theory, I will still be able to attend the Montreal World Film Festival even though I could not afford to do so this year). But we’ll see how long that calendar survives the attempts to shorten summer and force the school year to bear more similarity to the working world, since that is all it is seen to be good for anymore, anyway.

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