Tuesday, September 27, 2016

News Media Earning Our Mistrust: Good News Into Bad (on Children's Health)

Some people look at a glass and see it half full; others see it half empty. Me? I hold it up to the light, swirl around the contents, and check for contamination ....

            I don't know why so many Americans mistrust "the media" (usually used as a singular), but here's one reason why we should be at least a little suspicious of a large number of them: The journalistic habit of spinning stories toward the sad and sensational, making those stories more newsworthy on the principle that "Good news is no news."

            Example from late September 2016: The US Centers for Disease Control announced that a review of death certificates showed that between 1999 and 2014 the death rates for US childhood cancers had dropped by 20%.

            Yay! Good news! But that's not the way it got handled.

            In my local newspaper, in the far more prestigious Guardian, and elsewhere, the headline of the story was some variation on "Brain Cancer Now Deadlier To Children Than Leukemia," which is true, given the great success lately in treating, among other childhood diseases, leukemia.

            Last time around, based on the same variety of statistics the headlines were on how «Accidents, Suicides and Murder Now Major Causes of Death for Children Under 19», which is also true, again given the wonderful decline in deaths in the USA from childhood diseases.

            Now, I'm a pessimist: the headnote above is the "sig line" on one of my e-mail signatures, and much of my professional career was the study and teaching of dystopias and other works showing a lot of human nastiness (I once taught an honors course simply titled "Massacres"). But really! Bad news sells journalistic and charitable products, and the downer headline is definitely "click bait." So various members of the media spin stories toward the awful.

            And that spin has political effects, so that spin is something to look out for, allow for, and resist in dealing with our professional purveyors of bad news.

            Brain cancer is a horrible thing, especially in children; but we can support research to find treatments for it while still recognizing progress in other areas, e.g., the overall improvements in children's health because of programs in vaccination, e.g., recent success in treating leukemia.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Lives Mattering (Again)

It's a useful exercise to get overly precise and note that "All lives matter" but for most of us many don't matter much. My summer jobs in college were mostly lab work, and in microbiology labs I routinely autoclaved bacteria and killed organisms by the billions — and in the case of the TB bacilli took some grim satisfaction doing it. Working in a classic physiology lab in gastroenterology, I killed many rats, for which I feel vaguely guilty, and also dogs, one cat, and a rabbit or two — which contributed a bit to my later decision to do without eating mammal meat.

So don't tall me "All life is sacred" if you're eating a hamburger or, for that matter, a carrot. People who talk that way either don't consider cows or carrots *really* alive or are arrogantly using a "clipped form" where "life" and "lives" is limited to humans — which is another way of denying real life to organisms we significantly call "sub-human."

So obviously just about anyone but a fanatical Vegan or — and more so — a devout Jain makes distinctions about which lives matter enough to seriously influence their behavior toward them, most especially which lives can be taken casually, with, as we say, "no more concern than you would swat a fly," and which deaths can be ignored or mildly enjoyed: as in most eating and sanitizing and a lot of hunting and fishing.

What's at stake is our "circle of concern": how far out we care about living beings from self to family and friends and pets to tribe and fellow citizens ... and whether or not the circle of at least abstract, intellectual concern includes big parts of the human species.

The sentence "All Lives Matter" should be rejected out of hand because most of us just don't mean it. Certainly not for bacteria nor insects that bother us nor rats nor lambs nor steers; for many, the lives of men convicted of murder don't matter much, and many can rejoice in the deaths of enemy combatants. So we can reject the formulation "All Lives Matter" on the great principle of argument, "Cut the shit."

If you want to revise that to "All Human Lives Matter," you need to admit that some matter to you a whole lot more than others, and that that's okay. And then we get to just who(m) we see as fully human and whom we see as really important — and that is where "Black Lives Matter" becomes a very important assertion.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Hillary Clinton, Macha, Pneumonia, and Great-Grandmother Ferguson

[NOTE: Almost all of this is a slightly updated version of some paragraphs I wrote for my blog on OpenSalon, before the Salon.com book-burners closed down the site. Since it's from one of a collection of essays submitted to Wildside Press in Winter of 2014 — and which they will publish apparently when they damn well get around to it — it was definitely written without Hillary Clinton in mind.]

One day back in the late 20th century, back when I was teaching writing courses, a student staggered into my office, sneezed, coughed, wheezed, and dropped off a paper on my desk, only somewhat spotted by her bodily fluids. She rasped, "Here it is," and waited for my thanks and appreciation. She didn't get any; I said something like, "Okay, now go home and get some sleep; I would've given you an extension." I wasn't going to thank her. I wasn't going to be impressed. What was going through my mind was (1) that she'd exposed me to Whatever Is Going Around — although I'd probably been exposed already (students are disease vectors) — and (2) that far from being impressed that she'd trekked over with the paper, I thought her socially unskilled that she couldn't get a friend to drop it off and/or unsophisticated about modern technology that it didn't occur to her to just send me the essay as an e-mail attachment.
I discussed this matter with some women colleagues, and they told me the problem was Great Grandmother Ferguson.
They'd all been brought up on some version of Great Grandmother Ferguson, "who dropped the twins while plowing the south forty; bit through the umbilical cords; put one twin to each breast to suckle; finished the plowing; then went home to nurse a log-cabin-ful of cholera victims; and you, you little weakling, you're complaining about some minor appendicitis. Woman up! You're whining like a boy!" The rule was, "Real women don't get sick," or they don't allow a little pneumonia to get in the way of getting housework done: that's for boys and men, who "never have to go through a three-day labor like I had to for you — and then you ripped me apart!"
My colleagues explained to me, "Girls are brainwashed, Rich; it's the Macha Creed, and you just have to tell them that times have changed, and we're winning the Revolution, and now women and girls can take a day off to be sick the way men always could. Or at least rich men."
I thought that story and line were great, and I repeated them back to the class, to which several young women responded, "Right! Boys are wimps! If they get sick they go to bed!" And I repeated the point to rather militant stares and repetition of "Boys are wimps!" and finally just said, "All right — all of you! If you're sick, don't come to class. I gave you a roster with contact information; you're divided into groups; get someone to cover for you." And we moved on.

            So: There may be some convoluted Machiavellian reason(s) why Hillary Clinton in September 2016 hid the fact that she had pneumonia; or it may be just Great Grandmother Ferguson, lying moldering in the grave, but hoo boy! her spirit marches on.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Warnings and Cautions, No Triggering Required

The Atlantic piece cited Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as two classic texts that have
stirred calls for trigger warnings due to their racially motivated violence
and domestic abuse, respectively.
— Katy Waldman "The Trapdoor of Trigger Words"
Slate on Line 5 Sept. 2016

            Before "trigger warnings" became widely known (and conditioning their meaning), there were — still running and more widely seen than trigger warnings there are: MPAA ratings on films, and less formal cautions for parents and others on games and music. And these ratings and cautions and warnings make judgments about what may harm kids and disturb some adults, and most of them, like literal trigger warnings, concern violence and sex, with taboo words and drug use a close third and other potential triggers in line to join the list, if the more fastidious posters on the Internet will set the standard for sensitivity.

            In the early 1980s, putting together a "List of Works Useful for the Study of the Human/Machine Interface in SF," Thomas P. Dunn and I anticipated the current crop of the fastidious and decided that sex and violence and "dirty words" were far from the only potential dangers in works we annotated; so we began adding additional CAUTIONs and a few WARNINGs, with the desire to provide useful information and perhaps chide those overly concerned with sex, violence, and dirty words.

            Thom and I did this for the "Lists of Works Useful" accompanying the essay anthologies The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction (1982) and Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF, and also for Clockworks: A Multimedia Bibliography [sic] of Works Useful for the Study of the Human/Machine Interface in SF (1993).

            To start with an example of an innocuous, there's this one with Dan Simmon's The Fall of Hyperion: "TEXTUAL WARNING: If using the 1990 Doubleday edition, be sure there's an errata sheet giving p. 305." This alert we thought would be useful, but it might also reflect a bit my own mild annoyance that the folks at Doubleday had managed to misplace a whole goddamn page.

            Arguably less innocuous examples can be found among the whole range of CAUTIONs we used in Clockworks. For example:

                        For Tom Swift and His Giant Cannon (1913) we note failed attempts at ethnic humor, including attempts to render non-WASP dialects that might be offensive to contemporary ears, or, on esthetic grounds, the ears of those who grew up reading Mark Twain, who had some talent at reproducing on paper different varieties of English.

                        We found Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis (1926) silly in its conclusion (though we didn't mention that), but still great visually and of profound importance for an early female robot; but we thought Thea von Harbou's novel version (1926/27) should bear the "Caution: The owner of the Metropolitan exotic-drug and whore house is negatively characterized in terms of the nations contributing to his genealogy." Hint: They're not Aryan, and "The politics of the novel generally (definitely including its gender politics) differ from the film's somewhat, but may be even more simplistic."

                        Anne McCaffrey's The Rowan (1990) was more bellicose than we had expected from her The Ship Who ____ series, outside of The City Who Fought, and also strongly pronatalist, a political position of great importance but one insufficiently recognized by heterosexual readers as political, and one that should be highly controversial.

                        For the re-issues of Philip Francis Nowlan's "Armageddon — 2419" and "The Airlords of Han" (1929), we added the "CAUTION: As [Alan] Kalish et al. demonstrate, the revised versions remove the 'Yellow Peril' language of the original but are still racist (sexism in the revised stories is more complex)." These seminal Buck Rogers stories are significant in prefiguring atomic warfare, but also genocide, and to have genocide "normalized" and even celebrated for young readers is, we thought, a more serious matter than some scenes of fornication or repetitions of the word "f*ck" or even some racial slurs.

                        Dealing with an insightful but definitely post-structuralist reading of Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky (2001), I felt a need to add, "CAUTION: Some proofreading problems aside, this is an excellent essay in the late-20th-c. style of cyberpunk critique, quite useful for studying fictional characters and real people as social-cultural creatures living in postmodern, late-capitalist, sophisticated urban areas of the planet Earth. For such postmodern people, nature is safely inside of human culture and identity is problematic; however," I thought I should remind our readers, "there is a good deal of natural world beyond our small planet, and even in advanced-capitalist countries it is arguable that most people are barely modern, let alone pomo. And it is possible that human beings are spiritual as well as social-cultural animals, and as certain as anything can be that we are animal animals, with an evolved genome and a range of basic behaviors that preceded specifically human culture." Like, a lot of theorists of postmodernism really do need to get out of The City more and deal with a nature that has existence, validity, and power outside of and without humans and which can deconstruct humans quite quickly. And readers into postmodern theory should, on occasion, be cautioned about that. (Such readers — and more so authors — need stronger and more specific cautions before, say ocean sailing or backpacking on glaciers.)

                        Most useful, I think, was our suggesting the need to note the cop stories, movies, and TV shows — even in science fiction — for which people should exercise, "Caution: Contains material offensive to the 4th Amendment and other parts of the American Bill of Rights." If Americans and others have been too acquiescent in the chipping away of our rights in the interest of safety and police power, part of the reason is watching all those television cop shows and shoot-'em-up movies in which police respect for the Bill of Rights, due process, and simple courtesy — is for wussies. Consider the case of a sympathetic White cop with racial prejudices but who follows rules and has the courage to take a bullet rather than shoot an unarmed suspect; and consider a sympathetic cop of impeccable attitudes and sentiments on race and is militantly equal-opportunity in "Taking out the trash" by manfully shooting first and asking questions … pretty much never. Other scholars and teacher issues warnings about racial attitudes; I thought we should say something about the Bill of Rights and US  Civil War Amendments.

                        And we should note racism, sexism, xenophobia, jingoism, religious hatred, natalism, teen-bashing, homophobia, authoritarianism, macho assholery, and other nastiness with assiduous militancy equal to those who spot sex and violence. And we should note them where they appear, e.g., I'll remind people that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), mentioned in the headnote, can do probably without a trigger warning for racial violence necessary for the story, but should have a mild caution that it is certainly open to a charge of casual acceptance of traditional sexism.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Der Arnold und The Donald: Macho and Consciousness and The Terminator

            I recently read a column in The Nation magazine on line on Donald J. Trump bringing in, very briefly, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Okay, this much about that.

            When teaching James Cameron's and Gale Anne Hurd's THE TERMINATOR and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY — nuanced but hardly subtle films — I noted that my students had trouble understanding them because they lacked background in the imagery of German extermination programs in World War II — ordered by an Austrian — and because they lacked the phrase, concept, and category, "Macho Asshole." For my students, "macho" was usually an unambiguously positive term, so some missed the point of TERMINATOR that the ultimate macho man isn't a man at all but a killer robot, and more missed the point in JUDGMENT DAY that if a woman totally Terminator-izes herself to where she has the toughness to murder a wounded man in front of his wife and child — her acquired toughness would be that of a Nazi who could kill infants, women, children, and men for a Higher Cause.

            "Der Arnold" has acted the macho asshole since his introduction to a general audience in PUMPING IRON (1977) where on camera he hides the lucky T-shirt of Lou Ferrigno: der Arnold's main competition, colleague, roommate, and, Ferrigno might imagine, friend. In his relationship with a number of women, part of what's going on is that Schwarzenegger is a macho asshole and acts it. On other occasions, he seems to have sufficient self-consciousness to be acting a role, and it is in part the audience's fault if we miss the touch of irony and if we don't recognize that "macho asshole" is a variety of figurative asshole — with apologies to the anus, an innocent orifice and evolutionary breakthrough — and a Bad Thing to Be.

            Far more than der Arnold, The Donald seems radically deficient in self-consciousness and hasn't been acting a role at all in his presidential campaign and really is a macho asshole with little sense of irony or of the significant existence of other people outside of their relationship to him (preferably awe).

            Der Arnold shouldn't be left unchaperoned with women or girls (or boys or men if his tastes change with age); California, however, is doing okay after his terms as governor. The Donald is more dangerous on any scale and should never ever be allowed the power of the presidency or anywhere near it.

            The people supporting Trump need the category Macho Asshole and need to know enough to recognize a fascistic appeal when they receive one — and be ethical enough to reject both.