The Onion's Approach on Truth

Breaking News: Some Bullshit Happening Somewhere

Watch the above; be warned; language might be a bit offensive.

Beyond a doubt, the central criticism of this film has been done in myriad ways in a variety of different shows from Saturday Night Live to In Living Color, and other comedy skit shows.  But I still love how The Onion does it with such precision and execution. 

The overarching issue is the sense of conformity and construction of news.  News is a troubling word.  Its name indicates different; a rift in what was going on before and now.  But the form of delivery in all news media is standard and formulaic.  Newspaper articles are supposed to cover the 5W in the first paragraph or so, and news television has a certain amount of conventions as well.  The problem herein that this piece speaks to is the arbitrary manner in which the news seems to be constructed.  Who among the “common folk” do they choose to interview?  Which “professional” shall they go to and how will they qualify that person?  By job, education, association, publication or some other piece of authority that indicates that this person is “the knowledgeable one in which we can trust?” 

Our predisposition to fall into patterns makes use readily to accept the format, but The Onion and others before it, remind us how dangerous it is to be idle in our consumption of messages.  And in particular, authoritative messages, of which the news inevitably is. But more importantly, the news is simply one genre of storytelling.  We believe it to be more “truthful” (and truth of course, is quite arbritrary), but it is filled with its own decision-making process to rule out certain information (truths) and decide what is the important pieces that compose a “news story.”  We like to believe it chooses the right pieces of information to present, but in the large scale of world events or history for that matter, that’s a pretty bold belief for just system of storytelling that relies on people seeking out specific “stories.”

Is History Just Some Bullshit Happening Somewhere?

History is much the same way.  The historical record, or rather how we explain the historical record of facts and how they influence one another is also subject to an equal amount of formulation or construction.  What the Onion video strikes home to is that news (and by extension in my own mind, history) are facets of truth.  Just as memoirs (Think James Frey),  documentaries (Think Michael Moore), and bio-pic films (Take your pick), attempt to tell truths, they are consciously constructed to prove certain points; they are also constructed for consumption.  Therefore, to tell a genuine “history of the world” (a phrase which returns approximately 245,719 hits on as of this posting), implies a great and lofty goal with an abysmal follow through.  Sure, we try hard to do so and we are decent with course correction when introduced to new information, science, arguments, etc, but in the end, to tell a “story” in history or in the news entails delivering a beginning, middle, and end; of which in both cases, there rarely is; or rather choosing the beginning, middle, and end is quite dubious.  We don’t have the means of accessing such a full picture; but it doesn’t keep us from trying. 

My train of thought on this subject is deeply influenced by David Shields’ book, Reality Hunger:  A Manifesto.  The book itself is a compilation of quotes that Shields has consciously constructed to imbue certain questions about “truth,” how we construct it, how we desire it so much (think the overwhelming diluge of “reality tv shows”), and our inability at trying to get it.  What is that quest all about?  “Truth”—what is it? 

So why do we keep trying?  I’m not asking why do we keep a record of history nor have news; they both have a place in our society.  But why do we give it such privilege of knowledge?  Why do accept or act blind towards the constructive elements that make everything it produces suspect and dubious?  What purpose does it serve?  Who does it benefit?

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Fogged Visions

The idea of vagueness is something that is particularly challenging for some.  Some people have trouble thinking beyond absolutes; that the world is ruled and maintained by clearly defined categories:  black/white, good/bad, strong/weak, masculine/feminine.  At times, we all feel threatened by vagueness or the need to cast solidity upon something that doesn’t quite fit for our individual or cultural comfort.  Whether it's someone who doesn't easily fit into a category (such as has been seen in the history of gender and sexuality), a foreign country we can't seem to fully understand as friend or foe (look at the debates around "France", particular with regards to Iraq), or anywhere we can’t seem to get a clear fix on the information we’re receiving, lack of category, that is, the “fuzzy” or the “gray” is discomforting.   

Therefore, I’m intrigued by this interview from New Scientist with Kees van Deemter, author of a new book (that I have yet to read but will definitely make it onto my “To Read Shelf”), Not Exactly: In praise of vagueness.  The idea that vagueness is much more relevant to our world than we often like to give credit to, makes sense.  Science often seems to be (or rather the depiction of science—not quite the same thing) the clarifier of all things and for sure, it does give us great information. 

However, science can also “grey” up a lot of categories.  Sex used to be seen as clear absolutes of “male” and “female.”  But the work of Anne Fausto-Sterling and others have challenged these two categories as absolute.  That is, we tend to define  male or female as composed of a range of “clear facts” but many of them are held in question when closely examined or more important, we find the categories are more like a scale of differences from sex to the other.  For instance, both males and females produce estrogen, despite it previously being the indicator of the female sex.  So how much (or how little) must be produced for someone to be taken into account as one sex or another?  The fairly regular appearance of intersex children (not the vagueness of that quantification) also indicates the parameters of absolute male and female are not so clear. 

So why is vagueness interesting or relevant?  Well, there is our overwhelming quest to vanquish it, which seems like Quixote and his windmills.  But I think there’s something more pressing about it.   Vagueness also speaks to the complexity of the world.  In the interview, the discussions around what a “species” is or how we understand issues of obesity and poverty, speak to this issue of complexity and nuance, that many of us have trouble wrapping our heads around. 

What does vagueness mean for learning?

I’ve talked about this in my courses too.  When there is a clear sense of understanding, it’s easier to place ourselves in that context.  A good example is the Holocaust.  Inevitably, when we think about the Holocaust and its perpetrators, the word “Nazi” is clearly shouted at us.  They fall into a category of “barely human” or “evil,” but most importantly, “not us” or “not normal.”    Unarguably, yes, they are center stage in the Holocaust, but that’s a simplified look.  That’s not the entire picture.  Several books, including Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning tell us that regular people; “ordinary Germans”—people like us, committed heinous acts in conjunction with the Holocaust.  This throws our sense of humans or the category of “us” into a questionable light.  If normal people did it, then does that mean I can too?  The gut reaction is “no” but the evidence says otherwise.  The combination is vague, uncertain, and unclear. 

Of course, vagueness can draw us in too.  After all, in forms of entertainment, we don’t have a clear view of what’s going to happen in a story; it’s purposely vague, only filling you in with snippets along the way as rewards for continuing along.  Even when the endgame is given away, we still can’t fully connect the first introduction what we know will happen. 

So how else is vagueness relevant to the different disciplines and our ways of life?  Where else does vagueness show up that we either embrace or revoke?  For instance, we certain don’t want vagueness when it comes to our bank account, but we’re ok if we’re vague about exactly how much we make a year (often, surveys/forms/etc ask for a range and we’re often reluctant to say (or actually can specifically say) exactly how much we make.  Where else do we see similar phenomenon? 

In the study of history, there is a desire for specificity but is there also an interest in depicting “vague” pieces of history?  Why is that?   What are the benefits?  Beyond sources, what also regulates how much vagueness is tolerated within constructing/reconstructing history?

How has vagueness used or invoked to imbue certain people and groups with negative (or positive) attributes?  How does vagueness work with these examples? 

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Carding the Race Count

 This article starts with an initially interesting premise about the potential choices Tiger Woods has with regards to what to select when it comes to choosing his “race” on the 2010 census form.  Of course, the fact that "The Census Bureau explicitly defines “race’’ as “a self-identification data item in which respondents choose the race or races with which they most closely identify.’" means it is in effect meaningless in many ways or maybe more importantly a clear sign of the changes in identity over the last 200 years.  Here, citizens have the right to choose how they are represented/depicted rather than the long standing tradition where that choice is made for them. 

The discussion around "racial criteria" being "irrelevant" and no real need for it, especially in 2010 when we know there is no proven differences genetically speaking between the "races."  But to remove the question is to ignore history and I think that's something the article overall misses.  The primary reason of that race was put on the census form as near as I can tell is because of the 3/5's Compromise that was put into the U.S. Constitution.  Though changed by the 14th Amendment, the original wording of Article 1, Section 2 was "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned  among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons."  However, even after the 14th Amendment, I'm not sure it would make entire sense to do away with asking for race or rather, I don't think there would be large enough political drive to remove the race question from the census--no more than one can find the political capital do do away with so many the archaic "blue laws" that still linger in many states.  However, those numbers probably (for detrimental reasons, most likely) came into use again towards the end of the 1800s and into the 1900s as the country entered into the legally-precedented period of segregation with Plessy. vs. Ferguson in 1896.  Decisions about allocation of resources were in many places based upon the racial make up of the communities and states.

That's all in the past, they say.  So there's no need to keep track of it.  But it's not.  We're still impacted in many different levels by the more insipid institutions and it's worth seeing the long term impact and (hopeful) recovery from such dubious and morally abysmal actions.

Further in the article, Jacoby calls for an end to including race on the census because of the "racial spoils system it fuels."  Well, that little phrase says a whole lot.  Particularly, when Jacoby condemns the NAACP for being a willful participant in it.  On its face value, Jacoby is saying that it's wrong to cling to race and racial identity because it creates a favoring system.  Any many would feel uncomfortable with that.  But again, when you remove it, and supposedly turn the census into a color-blind counter of human lives.  But if decisions are being made based upon the statistics generated by the census, and we have a long history of unequal treatment among races; it seems dubious and premature to disregard race.  We are after all, a country still filled with race issues

Other Questions on the Consensus

The other question here is why does Jacoby take an angle on race when there are clearly other questions on the census that are without any constitutional precedent.  Question #4 asks for the telephone number.  Question #6 asks for each person's sex.  This is an equally antiquated question as Race given that women can now vote too and unlike the precedence built into the Constitution that would stipulate race, there is no stipulation to clearly identify sex.  Question #7 asks for the ages/birthdays of each person.  and here they stipulation that "Asked since 1800, Federal, state, and local governments need date about age to interpret most social and economic characteristics, such as forecasting the number of people eligible for Social Security and Medicare benefits (which doesn't make since by the logic of the statement, since those were things that came into creation in the 1900s, not 1800s).  Furthermore, "The data are widely used in planning and evaluating government programs and policies that provide funds or services for children, working-age adults, women of childbearing age, or the older population."  Again, Jacoby doesn't take aim at the equally perplexing implications of Question #9:  "Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish Origin?"

In Jacoby's final assessment, he desire to say, forget race, we're all Americans on face value seems valid and promising.  But again, let's think about what that means.  The term "American" is perplexing.  The US has co-opted the term to refer to U.S. citizens.  However, if we took the lead from what we call other people by continental-derived names, (Europeans, Africans, Asians), it should just mean someone from the continent of America, not just the United States.  Referring to U.S. Citizens as "Americans" is linguistically ethnocentric.  We are laying claim to the entire continent (North and South) when we use the term.  In fact, many are taken aback when they hear non-U.S. citizens claim to be "American."  Undoubtedly, people will have problems with this condemnation of the term, but I think it speaks (literally) loudly to our presumptions about our culture's presumptions about itself.  This isn't a derision of the US country's quality, but more a consideration of how its self-importance tramples upon other people who have equal (and chronologically better) claims to the term American but are denied or disregarded.  I point this out, but in Jacoby's attempt to create equality of racial identity by declaring U.S. citizens a "race", he relies then on a cultural bias (as well as another racial split between U.S. Americans and other "Americans") that has been at times, equally damning as the racial bias in U.S. history.

So, does the race question deserve to be on there?  What purposes does it serve?  If the race question shouldn't be there; what about the sex question?  The age question?  The "Hispanic, Latino or Spanish" question?  Where do they fit in?

What about the issues of categorizing and keeping track of the larger picture of national composition of the population and who is "what"?

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The Big Bad World

Maybe it’s because I’ve read a good share of horror or because I have a vivid imagination or because I’ve seen this play out in history time and again, but the Miller McCune’s “The Comforting Notion of an All-Powerful Enemy” seems like an article that just makes so much sense to me.

So often we define ourselves through others.  “Who are you?”  If the questioner is not asking for my name, but exactly “who” I am, I’m apt to respond in relational terms.  I’m a teacher; I’m a writer; I’m a comic book fan.  These are relational definitions within a cultural context.  I may also answer “human” but even that just connects me to the entire human race, instead of a specific group.  Other people and their roles help me to define myself.  This has a lot to do with both history and cultural identity.  Many cultures rely on enemies or the “Other” to help define their own roles and beliefs; what they are and what they aren’t.  History is chockfull of examples of “us vs. them” moments such as civilization vs. barbarian societies, Christians vs. Muslims, Colonists vs. Natives, colonists vs. mainlanders, capitalists vs. communists, citizens vs. immigrants.

In the creation and maintenance of this other, it makes sense that the other is given more power and influence beyond typical expectations; thus in the immigration debate, we’re told by major news outlets that immigrants are going to take our jobs, are drug addicts, freeloaders, and other nefarious and erroneous beliefs about the group as a whole so that many feel threatened even when they have no need to.  In the days following 9/11, we feared that terrorists were everywhere and could do anything; malls, city-halls, and companies across the country believed they would be struck next and needed to take precautions.  The media fueling the flames of fear certainly helped.

Projecting the Enemy

But the interesting piece is that when faced with a chaotic world or a clear enemy, people opt to reposition their fears onto that enemy.  One cannot (with much great success) focus their anxiety and anger at the universe at large (or in religion, hating God is a big mistake).  Thus, the more challenged and problematic the world becomes, the more we are apt to fracture and feel deeply resistant to those we don’t identify with.

The line that strikes my fancy and gives me pause is:  “So, again, we see that the need to perceive enemies is reduced when people are made to feel that they are in control of their lives, or that there is a reliable, efficient social order that protects them from the threat of random hazards.”  So much of our current public debate sways between extremes (or rather is made extreme by the two “all power” enemies) of saying that government should stay out of everything or government should control everything (realize, these are the extremes that each side slings at one another and there are ample shades of gray inbetween that most people inhibit).  But a balance is needed; a quality mix of government empowering and people taking responsibility.

Where else can we relate the information in this article to in our counter?  It makes obvious reference to the healthcare debate, and I’ve mentioned immigration, but what else?  How has this piece place a role in history and the distribution of rights and resources?  What examples come to mind that this article sheds light upon? 

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Finding the Point

So as you can tell by my first two posts, I’ve been toiling away and thinking about what I’m going to do here in this ole blog of mine.  I had lots of trouble finding a focus and angle with which to engage in this form but I had the light-bulb flickering today of how to go about this.  I realized that the best way for me to organize or focus my thoughts within this blog would be to think about who would be served best with my ramblings.  Well, who has been served best (ok, that’s a big claim) by my ramblings in the past.  My students, of course.  That is, semester after semester there is ample material that I come across in which I think could be useful in any of the various courses that I teach and here would be an excellent opportunity to keep track of them and allow for asynchronous discussion from the different vantage points.

Here’s what I’m imagining; though have no clue if it will ever be this good.  As I come across articles, ideas, thoughts, and relevant material that I think is worth mention but also discussing, I will include in here.  But, by assigning different tags (comics, history, literature, etc), I will also categorize it for future use.  At the end of each segment, I plan on asking questions directed at the different courses/subject areas that the article might be applicable to. 

What I foresee and hope for the project is an ongoing discussion with students of different times (both with me and with each other over a singular semester and beyond) as new students enter, others exist, and still some linger around because it’s a good conversation.  In a lot of ways, this corresponds to my ever-evolving philosophy of teaching.  I tend to see my “role” as a college-instructor as symbiotic, gaining a great deal of material, ideas, and inspiration from my students and hopefully, that is reciprocated and will continue to be so beyond just the standard classroom setting.  I’m invested in my students’ intellectual development and want to provide opportunities for them further engage and benefit from my experience, knowledge, and resources.  I think this forum will significantly help me reach those goals in new ways. 

Well, I feel good; I feel like I’ve found my place and can surge ahead in my discussion and purpose. 

Of course, this sounds either really interesting to my non-existent (or not yet fully formed) readership or just redundant/irrelevant to those future students who are subject to scouring this blog for material to discuss.  To the former, I have nothing to say since you’re nonexistent.  To the latter, I simply say, this should be familiar to you; you know, me rambling on, trying to make sense of things.  Share and enjoy. 

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Consumed by or Consumation of Choices

Obviously, I like playful titles.  It's like the book's cover.  We're told not to judge by it, but ultimately, we do on some level; after all, it's what draws us in; otherwise, we would still be stuck in the "A's" section of any given library or music/book/video/comic store.  But as I do so well, I digress. 

One of the harder issues for me to resolve around composing and trying to continually update a blog is what to talk about.  What do I choose to talk about and what do I avoid.  How do I provide a subjective but not obnoxious point of view about things that are important.  While it's not hugely important that I don't come off as arrogant, obnoxious, or what have you, I would rather on the whole that I don't.  I want people to think about what I say, not dig in their heels in vehement opposition. That is, I want dialogue and discussion.  Too much of what I see in the blogosphere and beyond is yelling; either in chorus or in a cacophony against.  Too much of it feels like what seems to drive some elements of the Tea Party movement.

See, I made a choice right there to position myself.  First, just by using this particular article and what it implies about my positionality.  Initially, I wrote the above statement without the phrase “what seems to drive some elements of the Tea Party movement” instead of “what drives the Tea Party Movement” (though, I certainly also thought about referring to them as Tea-baggers, as I have trouble not associating the two). 

Back to my larger point, which I’ll sum up easily, though redundantly, everything’s political.  What I choose to talk about, what I choose to write about, what links I choose to put up, and who I choose to support or discourage.  And I won’t say “we live in an age of extreme bipartisanship” because given the history of the world, that’s pretty much every “age.”  I do believe our differences are heightened and dramatized increasingly by mass media which seems to inevitably have to draw upon narrative angles in order to draw in consumers in order to satisfy advertisers and the like.  This does make our buttons quicker to push and often makes us easier to corral; which many did in the wake of 9/11 as did so many others around Obama in the run up to the 2008 election. 

With that mass media comes more ways of gaining knowledge, but not more wisdom.  Much like Victor Frankenstein, we have the knowledge, but not the foresight or rather insight to understand what we’re doing, viewing, or choosing.  I make no claims to have such wisdom.  I’ve been smacked in the face with my own stupidity by a great deal of events in my life and people, sometimes caring-sometimes spiteful, willing to show me the error(s) of my ways.   But do I stand here on my virtual soapbox expounding lessons (as others may choose to do) or do I find some other way of engaging in “the dialogue” of life?

So there’s my dilemma.  In wanting to talk and start discussions, I feel a wee bit of performance anxiety in deciding what to talk about.  In talking about one thing, I’m not then talking about another thing.  What’s more relevant:  my interest in how audiobooks work with listeners; the value of comics in modern society; my (limited) view of world affairs and politics; my attempts and interest at being a better human on social, cultural, environmental, and spiritual levels; or whatever other ephemeral thoughts spring from my hands to the keyboard?    What do I talk about?  The wisest of bloggers will say; all of it.  And maybe that’s just what I’ll try to do, but my thoughts still linger. 

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Greetings and Salutations: Or, Why I Think the Slogan Works

Welcome to this new blog.  I would love to have a solid and clear mission statement here that was inspiring and cause you, the dear reader, to be awed and moved and ready to RSS this thing in every way possible.  But it’s not likely.

The slogan I’ve come to decide upon with this blog is:

The Hitchhiking Adjunct:  Taking a ride into whatever direction opportunities and life takes me.

I like it, because it accurately represents me in so many ways.  As a full-time adjunct, I am among the nomadic tribes of college educators who go everywhere but settle nowhere.  I say that not negatively, but rather compellingly because for me, that’s part of the beauty and reality of my life or just life in general.  Us, “humans” are a pesky lot that strive for permanence in a universe where no such thing exists.  To be in flux is what life is and being an adjunct, merely an accent upon it all.  I know, I’m probably a bit too philosophical about it, but it works for me.

The slogan seems also appropriate since it does indeed represent my versatile interests.  I follow where the wind takes me.  And by wind, I mean my interests.  Indeed, they’ve taken me far.  My father and I still joke that while he thought I was wasting my time reading comics as a kid, I have managed to get paid at several schools to teach courses on comics or in other college courses use my knowledge of comics and introduced them into the class.

Anyhow, I’ll keep this short and save the more verbose and tedious entries for the future.  Thanks for coming.

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