On Terry Jones and Burn a Quran Day
September 10, 2010

I have a new Salon column up about the maybe-canceled-maybe-not Burn a Quran Day:

 

Pastor Terry Jones might not be an expert in theology, politics or basic human decency, but he more than compensates with media savvy. He can wring every last drop of press attention out of even a retreat, as he demonstrated last night when he announced the cancellation of Burn a Quran Day and then, not four hours later, issued a semi-retraction, claiming that he’d been misled (those sneaky Muslims!) and suggesting he might still burn some Qurans after all.

As I write this, the fate of Burn a Quran Day is still up in the air, but my guess is it probably won’t happen. Instead, Jones will soak up another news cycle or so of sweet, sweet infamy, before publicly declaring that he’s holding off “out of respect for the troops,” whom his actions could endanger. The career Muslim-haters who previously called him out for going just a teensy bit too far will thank him profusely, leaving open the door to future friendship, interviews and well-paying speaking engagements.

But even if my prediction turns out to be completely wrong, the leaders of the right-wing’s anti-Muslim brigade nonetheless owe this man a fruit basket. He may not have sparked the recent explosion of Islamophobia, but he’s done as much as just about anyone to drag it into the mainstream.

 

The rest is here.

Emoting Versus Insight Online
July 11, 2010

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When I wrote about Kierkegaard and despair just under a week ago, it was intended to setup a longer discussion on the related concept of “idle chatter.” Circumstances—most notably CPNC—got in the way of an immediate followthrough, but now I’m glad I waited, since it gave my thoughts some time to gestate. Plus, in the mean time, my friend Cody Brown pointed me towards an excellent lecture delivered at West Point earlier this year. The name of it: Solitude and Leadership.

Today I want to write about the “Solitude” part of that equation, and how it relates to idle chatter. Here is how Clare Carlisle characterized idle chatter in a column for the Guardian:

He suggested that one symptom of this mass evasiveness is “idle chatter” – a phenomenon that he thought was institutionalised in the press. Whether frivolous or pretentious, tabloid or broadsheet, idle chatter is fuelled by “curiosity” and a nihilistic thirst for novelty. This superficial kind of interest can be contrasted with the existential passion that Kierkegaard identified with our spiritual life. One can only wonder what he would have made of the media in the 21st century, where “news”, “opinion” and “comment” proliferate more than ever before. Should we regard this as a sign of flourishing culture, or of spiritlessness?

 Now here is William Deresiewicz in “Solitude and Leadership”:

It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like dutyhonor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?

This is idle chatter by another name. And whereas Deresiewicz frames the seeking of solitude and reflection as something necessary to be a good leader, I’m inclined to make the stronger argument: that by failing to do this, all of us can at times inflict great psychological deficits upon ourselves.

Anyone who has access to this post is capable of doing tremendous self-harm. And it’s not overt, immediately recognizable self-harm, but something more akin to abusing prescription medication. And while, as Deresiewicz himself is quick to point out, this hunger for distraction is nothing new, I do think some of the new social media tools he singles out—and any number of other ones, up to and including Tumblr—is that they have gotten remarkably good at offering the illusion of something deeper. Rather than simple diversion, they offer a form of identification that less interactive mediums were never capable of. There are staggering benefits to that, sure—but some of the philosophical implications are deeply unsettling.

Before I get into that, though, I’m going to bow to the medium’s demand for concision. So more on this later.

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Objectivity and Credibility in Journalism
July 1, 2010

In general I was pretty disappointed by the response in the comments to my recent column criticizing the concept of “objective” journalism (a lot of it came down to either ad hominem attacks or grievous misreadings of my argument). But one response from commenter watsonho got me thinking. He (she?) writes:

Journalists and commentators are supposed to be authoritative – they are supposed to know what they are talking about. If they admit they are wrong, they become undependable, untrustworthy and therefore useless. So there is a strong psychological bias against ever admitting you are wrong, no matter how strong the evidence.

However, when you take the position that you are “objective” you can easily change your position as facts change or your viewpoint evolves. In the early days of the Iraq war, for example, many media outlets presented a very positive view of the war. When it became clear that the war wasn’t going well, they started running stories that presented a more critical look. They were able to do this without coming under attack or appearing contradictory because in both cases, they were being “objective.”

[snip]

If we moved to a system where we discarded “objectivity” and let all our opinions hang out, we would quickly move into a state of journalistic trench warfare, where everyone digs in and refuses to budge out of fear of losing their credibility.

It’s an interesting defense, but it seems ethically untenable to me; it requires the journalist to assume a position of authority which I argued—and note that watsonho did not dispute this particular claim—no one has any right to. What watsonho is suggesting is that journalists must claim false credibility for the greater public good.

My argument is for a more meritocratic system: repeatedly making outlandish, indefensible claims should cost you credibility, as should digging into the proverbial trenches and defending your claims against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If that sounds utopian or overly idealistic, it’s no more so than this belief that journalists can effectively distance their own subjectivity from their reporting.

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New Salon Column
June 29, 2010

When I said I wouldn’t comment on Weigelgate, I guess that was a lie. But this is actually more about a broader point:

Weigelgate has instigated a long-overdue fight within the bowels of a major newspaper over the relative merits of traditional, self-consciously impartial reporting and opinionated coverage. It’s an old skirmish, but not one that has ever been fought with this level of intensity, before such a wide audience. And perhaps now that it’s out in the open, we can expose the misguided, antiquated ideology its supporters have dubbed “objective journalism” for what it really is.

Because what better time than right after graduation to render myself unemployable by several major news outlets?*

Anyway, take a look. And it being Tumblr Tuesday and all, maybe if you like the piece you could shoot me a recommendation.

*Hahahahahah! Just kidding, Mom and Dad! I think!

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