Find your @#%*ing Polling Place!

This site sums up my attitude about Election Day (and contains strong language, so beware!).  I’m disillusioned by the entire process, with the endless ads, the inaccuracies tolerated within the electoral college system, and the treatment of presidential politics as some kind of cable sports event.  Living in one of the most conservative states in the U.S. means nearly every one of my votes for the past six years has been a protest vote.

I continue to vote, though.  I do it with the hope that one day the antiquated electoral college system will be dismantled, and every single American vote might truly count, regardless of the votes of our neighbors.  I hope that somehow our politicians might become statesmen once more, not celebrities convening focus groups for political talking points.  Call me naive, but I’d rather vote for a keen and critical mind than someone who will say anything to gain office, a practice that defines big elections.

Somewhat begrudgingly, I voted for this guy:

Obama

Regardless who you’re voting for, you’re almost out of time!  Find your @#%*ing polling place!

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Insurmountable Odds: Cynicism or Reality?

There’s no question that W. Lance Bennett is a bright guy, borderline brilliant even.  He is able to turn a critical eye inward to question the tenets upon which his own profession is built.  His goal in the book News: The Politics of Illusion is to challenge the status quo in media today, specifically politically-related media and modern American journalism.  With such an ambitious scope, Bennett’s book inevitably contains a few contradictions and inconsistencies.

Bennett outlines several categories of “proposals” he believes would serve to alleviate problems with the current system of source-driven, top-down information distribution in political news.  These problems include the four information biases identified earlier in the book, the increasingly sensational nature of political campaigning, and the gradual breakdown of journalistic objectivity, constrained as it has become by the more powerful need to perform competitively in a rapidly evolving media market.

Bennett’s proposals aim at three targets: the citizen, the journalist, and the politician.  Many of these ideas are sound, and I agree their successful implementation would improve upon the state of citizen involvement and self-education in politics.  In fact, some of them have occurred to me before.  The ability for citizens to recognize plot formulas, spin, and the symptoms of each is vital for proper understanding of politics in today’s world.  The suggestions to seek additional sources of information and to beware of limiting news consumption to channels which only verify an existing opinion make sense in the ideal.  I like to think thoughtful citizens make a practice of accounting for political and information biases when formulating specific opinions about a topic.

While idealistic guidelines provide commendable goals for citizens, journalists and politicians, Bennett’s scholarly approach is sometimes detached from the practicality of his solutions.  For example, Bennett advocates thinking critically about news, reading between the lines, decoding the news to discover the causes and consequences of events.  Conversely, he pleads with journalists to emphasize the “so-what” of a news story, to boil events down for the busy, working-class reader who has little time for article cross-referencing or big-picture analysis.

This apparent conflict in procedure leads me to wonder which ideal Bennett finds preferable?  Should we require reporters to tell us what the story is, or should we provide the consumer with the information and let her draw her own conclusions?  He seems to support both approaches, though they seem to me to be mutually exclusive.

Bennett’s recommendations for politicians appear to be the most sensible and specific of his proposals, though the probability of their adoption is equally remote.   The objectives of transparency in campaign funding and limiting the influence of major media conglomerates on high-profile politics are simply infeasible in America’s present political atmosphere. Ideals such as political transparency and limiting candidate funding can only be subsumed by the realities of government’s treacherous spectacle and journalism’s decline into unprincipled entertainment fodder.

Bennett also appeals to citizens to avoid cynicism in favor of criticism.  But given a vast and complex system to decipher and analyze critically, cynicism is the refuge of the bewildered individual; we are buried beneath the deceit and misdirection, the avarice of the politicians and the self-serving nature of news media.  At least Bennett condones the so-called 5th Estate in government, the sharply satirical perspectives of comedians in our culture (who routinely employ cynicism as a vehicle for exposing politicians and pundits as hypocrites and liars).

While I admire W. Lance Bennett as a political media scholar, he is sometimes the prisoner of his own idealism.  The Politics of Illusion was in many ways an enlightening book, as was my Politics & Media course this semester, but the status quo is an immense obstacle in America today.  Technologies advance far more rapidly than does the standard of public opinion.  Unfortunately, the only hope of addressing the overwhelming trials facing us at the dawn of a crucial era in human history rests squarely on the shoulders of the common citizen, whose connection with reality diminishes every day.

The Danger Zone

Everyone has ideas about politics. Even those who are uninterested in politics must justify adopting an apolitical worldview. This doesn’t mean that we want to talk about it. Not with you anyway.

The reasons we don’t want to talk about it vary from person to person but often involve insecurities about our own position on a point of discussion. Other times, I believe we mentally calculate whether engaging in political debate is worth the effort. A quick, subconscious cost-benefit analysis may tie our tongues or energize our argument.

The context of political discussions is everything. The costs and benefits are both social values, so the social environment is the most important factor in determining peoples’ likeliness to commit to the conversation. A college course entitled “Politics and Media,” for example, fosters political thinking by ensuring a balanced discussion in a safe, controlled place. This safe zone helps to overcome some the self-doubt that keeps us silent in other settings.

A college party, on the other hand, takes one deep into what 80’s pop mega-genius Kenny Loggins called “The Danger Zone.”

Dangerous because any verbal missteps might have consequences for our reputation within the group, this situation usually requires us to choose our words carefully.

For example, several partygoers might invoke the name “Sarah Palin” during the course of a conversation, and perhaps begin to discuss how her new reality show genuinely reflects her political integrity. At this turn of the dialogue, I would do one of two things. (A) I would roll my eyes and wait for the subject to change again… maybe go grab another beer and find someone else to talk to. (B)Or I would tell them how full of it they were, thereby hijacking the casual conversation, and possibly  creating drama, resentment, and risking exclusion from future conversations (or party invitations).

Palin’s popularity among certain crowds has propelled her and her family into the national spotlight following her addition to the Republican presidential ticket in 2008. Since then, Sarah Palin has stepped eagerly into the role of celebrity, while distancing herself from traditional politics in favor of maintaining the Palin family spectacle. Any connection she has ever had with politics is cheapened by her relentless self-promotion within nonpolitical channels. Of course, America has elected celebrities to high-profile public office before, but it offends me to think that’s all that might be required to succeed politically.

Like many Americans, my own extended family has endured a profound divide with regard to politics since George W. Bush’s presidency. Some of us have descended from liberal, 60’s ideologies, and others from military lifestyles and conservative beliefs. While we are a large, loving family, these fundamental differences in perspective bubble up occasionally into hurtful conflict before returning to the standard self-censorship that is required to keep the peace. Sometimes the familial attrition is tangible, but other times we are able to truly set aside our disagreements to enjoy the synergy created by people who love one other.

It’s not exactly loyal opposition, but it works for us. It also tempers the enthusiasm with which I engage in political discussions among my peer group. If persuasion were even a goal for such discussions, it’s usually a hopeless one. I realize that those with whom I disagree have the same conviction in their ideas, even though they’re different than mine. If persuasion is impossible, then what’s the point of initiating or perpetuating a conversation that might escalate into open conflict? I’m no expert, but I think that’s a party-foul.

When the situation demands it, sometimes it is necessary to take the highway to the Danger Zone. Just don’t be surprised to be labeled the party’s Maverick.

International Coffee

There are times that the glare and the noise of mainstream American news media overpower the content presented.  CNN’s ridiculous devotion to entertainment news, for example, and Fox’s overt distortion of facts have a way of alienating anyone in search of the truth of a serious story. Media conglomerates pull the strings in America.  Of course, in other parts of the world, dictatorial governments usually control regional news.  While neither system approaches an ideal, “objective” news-reporting climate, both have the result of distributing propaganda to a mass audience.

I consider the New York Times to be a journalistic paragon in America today.  Its roots run deep into U.S. history and culture, and few news sources carry such heavy ethical burdens in crafting their products.  In fact, this divide grows wider as American journalism drifts further into the sensational.   The Times’ home page is somewhat more complex than the front page of the newspaper, although the option exists to view the exact content of a given day’s physical front page (by clicking ‘Today’s Paper’ in the toolbar at the top of the webpage).  Personally, I find nytimes.com’s ‘kitchen sink’ approach to web reporting a little overwhelming.  Fewer hyperlinks and more efficient prioritizing of news stories might help online editors reign in the glut of data this page provides.

In contrast, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s website is nicely streamlined, designed with the understanding that a news home page should serve as a portal to detailed stories.  Although the BBC’s geographical scope is much broader than the New York Times, its homepage allows viewers to select desired categories of news easily, which cuts down the time it takes to find a specific story.

Al Jazeera, the middle-eastern news organization based in Qatar, boasts perhaps the most inviting website of the three.  Every single headline is accompanied by a colorful photograph that reflects the crux of the related story.  In fact, the photos drive the content on Al Jazeera; the eye is drawn to the image before the headline.  Of course, the content here is regionalized, dealing heavily with Muslim relations with the West and the politics and cultures of the surrounding nations.

For example, one of Al Jazeera’s top stories of the moment is coverage of the Hajj, the yearly pilgrimage taken by Muslims to Mecca, which is the largest such event in the world.  The front pages of both the BBC and The New York Times contain no mention of The Hajj, despite its draw of nearly 4 million Muslim pilgrims from around the world.

One headline that made its way to the top stories of all three networks was the recent trial of accused terrorist Ahmad Ghailani in an American civilian court.  Obviously, this case, in which the defendant was acquitted of all but one charge against him, carries international significance and was conspicuously featured on all three sites.

Interestingly, the only other story I noticed on all three front pages was the surprise election of write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski, the Republican incumbent running for one of Alaska’s seats in the U.S. Senate.  Al Jazeera and the BBC shared several other stories not included in the New York Times, including soccer coverage and President Obama’s recent trip to China.  By the time this story broke on Al Jazeera, the Times had moved on to find other stories to cram into its front page.

BBC.co.uk is among my daily online news stops over a cup of the blackest coffee known to man.  I appreciate the worldly perspectives it provides, and I love the fact that the BBC derives most of its operating costs from its consumers, rather from advertisers and corporate sponsors.  These television license fees are paid once a year by every British citizen who owns a TV and plans on watching it.  This system emphasizes the news as a service provided by an independent, and therefore potentially more objective, journalistic organization and minimizes responsibilities to outside interests that might seek to selectively tailor news reports.  But consumer-sponsored news would never work in America like it does in the U.K.  Happily, an impressive online presence by foreign-based news groups means we Americans may sample the views of distant cultures through their own lenses and discover worlds beyond our borders… and then go brew another pot.

Campaign 2.0

My perception of the technological literacy of 2008’s presidential campaign was certainly colored by my own bias about the candidates.   I can admit that.  I remember McCain’s 2008 quote, now infamous in online circles: “I’m an illiterate who has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance that I can get.”  He later added he “never felt the particular need to e-mail.” My mind tells me McCain would have been a competent president despite his disinterest in new media; he attained his rank and status in our nation’s government through commitment and hard work, despite a closed-mindedness toward advancing technologies.  My heart tells me his unwillingness to embrace an opportunity to more closely interact with regular citizens might have made him a poor choice to lead America into the new millennium.

Joe Rospars, Obama’s ‘new media’ manager for the 2008 campaign, recently spoke about the President’s expanded strategy for securing support of an online base during the campaign.  Also a big softie, Rospers believed ‘heart’ was what made Obama’s online campaign so successful.  I really think it might have been Obama’s omnipresence on the World Wide Web during the bitter primaries and endless general election.  Rospars even boasted about the billion minutes of video, which included everything from campaign supporter biographies to inspirational montages that encouraged donations.  The mantra of “CHANGE” was chiseled into our skulls by cutting edge Web 2.0 sites that dripped with professional polish.

Rospars referred to a desire by the campaign to open a “new channel” through which to speak to  supporters and credited the weblog portion of the campaign site with being the “glue” which held the online community together.  The campaign spoke of opening new channels of dialogue, which it certainly did, but the prospects for mobilizing a previously latent faction of young voters were also major goals of the campaign.  Online fund-raising was so successful that Obama became the first major party presidential nominee to deny public financing for his campaign.   Of course, John McCain’s campaign pushed back in the online arena, but it seemed obvious that the candidate’s heart wasn’t in it.

For Obama’s 2012 presidential race, he needs to stick to the online formula that was so successful enabling his 2008 victory.  As his online campaign manager, I would again use the blog structure as the mother tree for online supporters.  Not only does a blog format allow for immediate feedback and communication between subscribers, it offers ample space for whomever wants to contribute to air his (or her) opinion among other similarly-aligned people.  The resonance created by a self-selecting group of millions can be a very powerful force for national elections.  Unfortunately, political mob mentality gets people elected in America… though this effect is only amplified, not created, by campaigns in the global village.

Now that Republicans have begun to understand that future political battles will be fought with HTML, both parties will be throwing more and more resources at their own manufactured online melodramas.

User-controlled media will continue to become more important to the success of national campaigns.  Sites like Youtube and Facebook are very familiar to young voters and represent a major part of their lives outside of politics.  To be able to insert an ad, speech, or other political message into websites that are routine stops for millions of people is as powerful a tool for representative democracy as has ever been imagined.  Whether our culture will use the new media to wisely make political decisions is still anybody’s guess.

Flashy banner ads and quick videos presenting political gaffes or attack ads serve only to cheapen the online experience and should be minimized.  Young voters are smarter than is generally admitted, and we can detect a flame war from miles away.  Issues should be presented simply and directly.   Long past are the days of the three-network captive audience.  Nowadays, if a media consumer detects bullsh*t, he moves on to watch a cat riding a Roomba while punching a dog.

Obama will first need to locate some laurels to rest upon for his 2012 re-election, but as long as he sticks to the issues and avoids losing the rapport he created online with his base, his campaign might once again find the momentum it needs to keep him in office for another four years.

2D Critics: Three Political Cartoons

This cartoon is interesting for its sense of almost tangible dismay.  A gloomy Barack Obama sits astride a large letter ‘O’ while the horizontal part of the letter ‘H’ clunks to the ground behind him.  What once read “HOPE” now reads “NOPE.” Obama’s chin rests crestfallen upon one hand.  His other hand clutches a newspaper with the headline, “Obama Agenda Divides Nation.”  Ominous storm clouds hover above an apocalyptic landscape, signifying a sense of approaching chaos.

The summary caption says, “The Obama Presidency: Year One.”

Any American who hasn’t spent the past few years holed up in a candlelit cabin in the mountains writing manifestoes should have an opinion here… and should get the joke.  The humor’s hardly subtle.  Obama’s first year (now nearing the end of his second!) was noticeably lackluster.  Certainly Obama’s 2008 campaign rhetoric, with all of its unflinching optimism and talk of sweeping changes, has helped intensify the public’s disappointment with his difficulties in office.

* * * * *

Next, this cartoon responds to recent reports by genealogists (who may have too much time on their hands) that President B. Hussein Obama, right-wing agitator Sarah Palin, and angry, conservative spin-doctor Rush Limbaugh are, in fact, family.  Whether 10th cousins matter to anyone that doesn’t work for Ancestry.com is another topic.

While it’s funny enough that this mundane trivia is presented as any sort of news, this cartoon adds to the silliness by perching the opposing political celebrities on separate branches of a literal family tree.  All three, armed with woodsaws, furiously saw at their opponents’ branch, seeking to cut the others down.  Palin and Limbaugh huddle together, arms hooked for leverage as Obama toils a branch above.

Obviously the tree is symbolic, but it’s an image that grabs attention.  The political commentary exists in the action taken— the saws represent public relations tools that Limbaugh, Palin and Obama use to rid themselves of ties to each other.

* * * * *

Glenn Beck’s questionable decision to hold his Rally To Restore America in the steps of the Lincoln Memorial has been the subject (or setting) of many political cartoons since that day.

This cartoon by Mike Luckovich depicts a red-eyed, bedraggled-looking Beck speaking beside the famous statue of Lincoln.  Beck holds a permanent marker up in the air as if gesturing with it.  It seems cartoon-Glenn has been using the marker to deface Lincoln, using the monument as an impromptu chalkboard, which he uses frequently on his “political” show on Fox.  The theories proposed by Beck are often absurd or simply coincidental, as this cartoon satirizes.

The ‘connections’ Glenn Beck has scrawled across Lincoln’s reclining figure include, “ACORN=NUTS=INSANE,” and “MOSQUE+COW=MOSCOW.”  The first reference is to the left-wing advocacy group A.C.O.R.N. that has become a target for countless conservative talk show hosts and Republican political strategists.  In the second example, cartoon-Glenn Beck has absurdly connected the word “mosque,” meaning a Muslim place of worship, with the word “Moscow,” the capital of Russia.  The adjacent sickle-and-hammer completes the idea: allowing a mosque to be built in New York is tantamount to inviting Cold War-style Communism into America today.

Michelle Obama is also linked to Lucifer, the Lord of Hell, and President Obama is, of course, linked to Hitler, the fuhrer of the Third Reich. Above it all, President Lincoln appears irritated and thinks to himself, “Somebody get Glenn Beck a blackboard.”

Beck’s apparent unawareness that vandalizing the Lincoln Monument is improper or offensive reflects the pundit’s approach to history and politics: reality may be distorted by those who shout the loudest.