Archive for May, 2007

Is the moral majority dying?
May 20, 2007

I, for one, wouldn’t mourn the passing of radical Christian fundamentalism’s inordinate influence on American politics, but, unlike Frank Rich, I don’t see it really going anywhere for a while.

As Rich himself points out, Giuliani seems to be the only Republican presidential candidate who’s caught onto this alledged new wave of secular (or at least moderately religious) conservatism. And it’s important to remember that when 30% of Republican presidential candidates summarily reject evolution in a debate, the proportion of Americans who agree with them, scarily enough, is closer to 50%.

There’s no doubt, of course, that Christian fundamentalism has taken a beating in the last few years. They’ve been abandoned by the Bush administration, but I don’t think that was there death knell. All it did was leave a huge opening for Republican candidates trying to distance themselves from Bush to pander to that part of their base. And it made the movement leaner, meaner, and smarter. The next generation of fundamentalist high prophets isn’t going to be a group of stale old white men like the late Jerry Falwell or James Dobson.

No, the next generation is going to be headed by the cool uncle. It’s going to be soaked in a hip, fresh aesthetic that will serve only to disguise the Dark Ages attitude that fuels the movement. This is the face of the movement’s future. And they’re going to continue to be a powerful force in American politics for a very long time.


Today in the Republican Presidential Primary
May 18, 2007

Amanda Marcotte noticed an oddity about Sam Brownback during the most recent Republican debate, but I don’t think she understands the full implications. Shocking revelations below the fold.

Sam Brownback is pregnant. He all but comes out and says it. The big question now is, who’s the father? I’m betting a Democratic presidential candidate – probably Edwards, that fox. And Edwards, being the cold, heartless liberal heartbreaker he is, is probably pressuring Brownback to have an abortion, as their forbidden love can never bear fruit. This explains a lot.

Meanwhile, it seems like a rational human being has secretly infiltrated the Republican primary. Or perhaps a Republican presidential candidate masquerading as a rational human being masquerading as a Republican presidential candidate. It’s hard to tell. Either way, the party’s kind of pissed, and so they’re doing what they do when they have a disagreement with one of their own – try to disappear him.

May 16, 2007

You know, most American political figures get some sort of grace period directly after their deaths before the opposition starts pointing out everything they did wrong. Not so much for Falwell, I guess.

Okay, so no sugarcoating. His death gives me no pleasure, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was an absolutely despicable human being.

The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen.”
– Jerry Falwell (1933-2007) discussing the 9/11 attacks

Cassady and Kerouac
May 14, 2007

Maybe it’s just me, but it’s always seemed sort of odd that Jack Kerouac would base so much of his writing style off of letters written by a friend of his who’s known more for his appearance in other Beat literature than his own creative output.

And then I was reading this collection of various Beat writings and I came across a couple of Cassady’s letters to Kerouac.

And holy crap. The best way I can describe this letters is by comparing them to the spontaneous, unrehearsed output of a slam poet on fifteen cups of coffee in a sudden stroke of genius. Or a stroke of something anyway.

Now I get it. If I could write postcards like that I would be a character in several classic American novels too.

Free Spirit Article
May 14, 2007

Well, here it is, finally. First paragraph in italics, the rest of it below the fold. And yes, I have a fold now.

By the way, you’ll see some wonderful captioned photos accompanying this article. Those aren’t mine. I took some photos, but they were all pretty terrible – these photos are all courtesy of my good friend, Free Spirit roommate, and excellent photographer Javy Gwaltney (pictured left). Thanks again, Javy.

This is one of the hardest ledes I’ve ever had to write. How do you encapsulate five busy days in the seat of American government learning about journalism from media giants? How do you condense into a single sentence what it’s like to spend five days studying journalism with 101 elite student journalists from across the country? How do you write an unbiased article about a story that you participated in?

The answer to the last question, at least, is that you don’t. The Al Neuharth Free Spirit Foundation mandated that every so-called Free Spirit who participated in the program write an article about it, and I’m obeying the letter of that request if perhaps not the spirit. This article will not appear in Blue Prints, or any other print medium – as this is an article about my experiences and things that primarily affect only me and the only people on the trip, it seems like only a blog dedicated to whatever concerns me is an appropriate forum for discussing the program. Using my powers as editor-in-chief to put something on this into the school paper would border on the narcissistic.

And in case you couldn’t tell, this is not going to be a piece of unbiased journalism. The idea of writing an unbiased work about this event is absurd – the foundation spent five days putting me up at the Watergate Hotel and doing everything they possibly could to show me a good time, so it’s a bit difficult to view them objectively. Plus, I’m one of the people that this article is about – why even attempt traditional journalism when you’re already part of the story?

So instead of doing that, I’m going to take a stab at that alternative journalism that many of the people at the conference went out of their way to warn us away from. The Free Spirit Foundation may not be happy with that, but the way I see it, I don’t have a choice – to pretend that traditional journalism is even possible here would not only be an insult to the intelligence of you guys, the readers, but also to the journalistic tradition itself.

First, a bit about the program, from the conference’s official site:

The Al Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism Awards recognize outstanding high school seniors who have demonstrated an interest in journalism and an abundance of free sprit. Each fall, hundreds of students from across the nation compete for scholarships and the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., in the spring to meet with journalists and newsmakers during the Free Spirit Scholarship and Conference Program. One female and one male high school senior are selected from each state and the District of Columbia to receive a scholarship and the opportunity to attend the conference. Of these students, two will be selected to receive $50,000 college scholarships.

I was the male representative from Connecticut. I had mixed feelings going into this, and to be honest, those mixed feelings haven’t entirely gone away. On the one hand, this was a tremendous opportunity and honor. On the other hand, the closer we got to March 17, the day that the conference was to begin, the more suspicious I became.

Part of that was purely instinct. I’m generally wary of any person or group of people who sets out to do nice things specifically for journalists, particularly if said group then expects those journalists to go out and write equally nice things about them.

Critically acclaimed anchor, TV journalist and country music star Bob Schieffer. Also pictured: RAWK.

Another part of that was some of the people behind the conference. For example, Tim Russert was to be one of the speakers, which made me a little bit uneasy. I’ve already written a little bit about why I don’t consider Russert to be a real journalist. And now he was going to be lecturing me and 101 other aspiring young journalists on journalism.

Then there was Al Neuharth himself and his paper. I’ve never really been a huge fan of USA TODAY – before the conference I tended to side with former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who famously called it a “McPaper.” That – combined with the huge amount of material we received before the conference on Al Neuharth and the requests to help honor his birthday at the conference – made me a bit wary about the conference, and painted a picture of Neuharth for me of a man with an absolutely massive ego.

Some of my suspicions turned out to be warranted. Most of them weren’t. For example, the birthday ceremony for Neuharth was not actually his idea, and was apparently a surprise to him – rather it was organized independently by the people behind the conference. That mitigated my image of Neuhart’s ego somewhat, as did hearing him speak in person. Neuharth is an incredibly warm, charismatic man, and it was easy to see why so many other people who worked to organize the conference gushed about him as much as they did. He’s a man who has earned their love and respect, and if he had a large ego, at least he knows it and can joke about it.

Russert, on the other hand, was more or less what I expected. He seemed to dodge innocuous questions almost instinctively, as if his interview skills were still impaired from his ugly encounter with the Libby trial. And speaking of the Libby trial, I found Russert’s insistence that a real journalist could not befriend politicians and had to keep asking them the tough questions more than a little ironic considering his role in that scandal. And given his own failings on that count, his insistence that “blogging is not journalism,” also rang a bit false.

The “blogging is not journalism” trope is something that got repeated a lot during the conference by a lot of different people, and it made me a bit uneasy about the breed of journalism that the Freedom Forum was trying to sell to us scholars. It seemed riddled with contradictions – advocacy journalism if it’s online, but not bad if it’s in a magazine (or else they wouldn’t have had the editor of Parade magazine be a speaker). In general, journalists can’t be advocates unless they’re advocating for the First Amendment because without that they’re out of a job. The Internet is great because it’s a brand new, revolutionary way to distribute the same old newspaper and television content from the twentieth century. Journalists can’t befriend politicians, but it’s fine for media moguls to befriend politicians and for people to bounce between careers in journalism and politics.

All the internal contradictions within “the rules” as they were laid out for us managed to drive home one important point, although I don’t believe this was the point that the conference was supposed to make – there are no monolithic rules of journalism, besides of course an adherence to the principles of truth and integrity. Beyond that, there are countless schools of thought on how to serve those principles – each school has its own advantages and disad
vantages. There’s nothing wrong with believing that Hunter S. Thompson was, in his own way, as much of a journalist as Carl Bernstein.

Free Spirit people entering the USA TODAY headquarters.

One would hope that Neuharth would understand that, and make an effort to avoid the internal self-contradiction of the modern insider’s elitist view of journalism. After all, he had to fight it fiercely to defend USA TODAY from charges of not being a “serious” newspaper. Today, those charges still exist – I bought into them before the conference, disdaining it for its lack of focus on hard news relative to, say, The New York Times.

I had completely abandoned that opinion by the end of the conference. To accept that USA TODAY wasn’t a real paper because it had less of an emphasis on pure hard news would be to admit that Sports coverage and human interest stories are a kind of less serious journalism. My personal prejudices towards hard news aside, saying that would be to dismiss the hard work and integrity of the non-political writers I met on the conference, and who I have worked with on Blue Prints. USA TODAY is a paper for a different kind of audience, but that is not a reflection on the journalism contained within.

I’ve abandoned my self-righteous journalistic elitism as a result of the conference. Unfortunately, many of the speakers have a similar lesson to learn about alternative journalism.

Despite all that, most of the conference speakers were wonderful. Judy Woodruff, Al Hunt, Bob Schieffer, Bob Seigenthaler – I may not have agreed with their vision of journalism in the twenty-first century, but each of them had decades of experience in political journalism to draw on that made then a pleasure to listen to. Some of the non-journalism speakers and activities were also learning experiences in their own way – one evening, Ken Paulson, the editor in chief of USA TODAY, rolled up his sleeves and led us on a journey through subversive or controversial music of the twentieth century that was simply incredible to listen to. And I defy anyone to listen to Playing for Peace founder Sean Tuohey talk for more than five minutes and not walk away feeling inspired and deeply touched.

Michael, Washington state’s male delegate, in a reflective moment. Not pictured: his tiny, chronically untuned guitar.

But the best thing about the conference, hands down, were the other kids I met there: one hundred and two teenagers from across America and from all walks of life haphazardly cobbled together into the sharpest, most amazing group of people I’ve ever met. I met people with brains like battleships – hard steel, ready for war, carrying some of the most advanced weaponry known to man. I met people who are going to ask the questions that are going to bring down US Senators. I met the next anchor of SportsCenter, several candidates for the next Frank Rich, and a few people who are going to be running papers of their own in a few years. If they weren’t all so damn nice and funny and humble about it, I would have been pretty intimidated.

It was scary how close I felt to some of them after only five days, but I guess it isn’t surprising – we all have the shared experiences of student journalism, and all the trials and tribulations that come with that. We all care about journalism, about truth and freedom of speech and the world around us. We all want our voices to be heard, and we’re all willing to put a lot on the line to make that happen. Our passion and the five days we shared together connect us all in a rare and wonderful way. Thank God that we can all stay in touch on the Internet, thank God that there will be reunions, thank God that I’ll be sharing a suite on the NYU campus next year with a fellow Free Spirit alumnus, and thank God that in fifteen, twenty years we’ll all be hanging out at the National Press Club swapping anecdotes about press briefings we attended, stories we ran that pissed off the right people.

The old media school of journalism that we encountered at the conference may not have been exactly what I was looking for, but based on my interactions with the other teenagers at the conference, the future of journalism is looking pretty bright.

Jayvee asked me to point towards the Washington Monument with a stupid expression on my face, and that’s how we got this picture. I’m not sure what the value of that was, but he seemed pleased. Also, if you look closely you can still see some tents from the big protest the day before.

May 13, 2007

Teaching history backwards sounds great on paper, but I’m not sure how it would actually work. The problem is that while going in chronological order is messy, trying to work backwards by examining history sequentially is even messier. Things don’t progress in a clean sequence – for example, 9/11 has something to do with American foreign policy in the ’80s, but it also has to do with the Crusades from 1,000 years ago, and you probably won’t get there until a few months after the other thing. So that involves a lot of jumping back and forth.

I think a better idea would be to teach history forwards, but always examine history in the context of its significance to what’s going on now. Kind of a combination current events/history class, with debates, primary source readings and comparisons of historical figures to modern political figures.

If they had offered a class like that at my high school, I would’ve taken it.

The Audacity of Hope
May 12, 2007

Well of course Obama isn’t serious about global warming. What he’s really serious about is propping up the coal industry. And it’s not a real mystery why.

Illinois has a 250-year supply of coal. Illinois has the largest reported bituminous coal resource of any state in the United States.

Coal has socioeconomic importance to Illinois. The Illinois coal industry is a nearly $1 billion industry.

Senator Obama, you’re an inspiration to coal lobbyists everywhere.

May 10, 2007

Every once in a while I’ll find something nice to say about a presidential candidate. Regarding last post and Romney’s bad case of buzzword Tourette’s, I thought I would show what a pretty decent campaign ad looks like.

I like the ads, and I’m starting to warm up to Richardson. These ads remind me a little bit of what some of Ned Lamont’s ads were like – clever, funny, and with some actual content to them. I wish there was something in Richardson’s ads about politics, but it’s good that he’s highlighting his foreign policy credentials. At least that’s more relevant than the incoherent fuzzy-wuzzy bullshit that seems to make up every other campaign’s ads.

I’m Mitt Romney and I approve these buzzwords
May 9, 2007

Could anyone possibly try to form a coherent policy position or statement out of this?

It’s like a parody of the meaningless campaign psychobabble we’ve come to expect from campaigns, and it’s why I’m worried that 2008 will go much further into non-issue territory.

Seriously, there are platitudes and then there’s just scary. The vague fuzzy allusions in this ad are barely connected by sentences, let alone logical thought. If all elections are about now is seeing who can throw around the words “strong military” the most times in 30 seconds, then what the hell is the point of democracy?

More Musical Curmudgeonry
May 9, 2007

I know I’m not the first person to comment about how far punk has fallen, but this got me thinking about it again.

Seriously, how did punk go from The Clash all the way down to this? Stuff like Avril Lavigne, Green Day, etc. always has and always will be watered-down corporate manufactured pop music with some superficial punk touches. It’s embarrassing.

Not like punk is the only genre this has happened to. Every single counter-establishment music movement in American history has ended up getting co-opted by the same machine it was a reaction to. Punk gets Avril Lavigne. Look at what they did to Woody Guthrie – taking “This Land is Your Land” and sucking out any of the social relevance. Hip-hop’s got it pretty bad too when even a member of the once-proud Public Enemy has his own awful VH1 reality show.

But, and maybe this is just me, it doesn’t seem like any genre has been so aggressively watered-down and marginalized as punk. Sure there’s still some good punk out there, but not enough. As a fan, that kills me.

For those of you who watched all the way through the above embedded video, I apologize. Here’s a palate cleanser from one of my favorite punk bands:

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