The Grinning Face of Propaganda

Posted: September 12, 2006 in Politics, Television

Judging from the activity of the mainstream media, the 5-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is so much more significant than the 4-year anniversary). I’ve seen a few blog entries that rehash the details, go on record against terrorism, or ask the “where were you?” question. That’s well-trodden ground, and frankly, no worthwhile result obtains (beyond the trite “never forget” idea — as if we could).

The one piece that makes a great deal of sense to me and has a worthwhile reminder of where we ought to be after five years is this one by Keith Olbermann. Among his insightful remarks is that now five years later, we still have a 16-acre hole in lower Manhattan. No memorial, no building project. So if we all came together in support of victims, civil servants, and Pres. Bush, well, we haven’t yet been able to similarly put aside our differences and get something done on the site of ground zero.

Olbermann also makes a rather spooky reference to a Twilight Zone episode where conquering aliens remark that once they set us against each other, the aliens themselves don’t really need to do much to wipe us out as our own paranoia and mob response are pretty potent weapons. Leading that charge, by Obermann’s assessment, is the Bush administration, for which he has nothing but contempt, apparently.

Probably the worst aspect Olbermann notes is that the 9/11 attacks have been used by political opportunists (again, the Bush administration figures strongly) in shameless propaganda campaigns to advance partisan agendas, notably, the war with Iraq and rolling back civil liberties. And it’s not over. ABC’s docudrama The Path to 9/11 has been roundly denounced as “[f]actually shaky, politically inflammatory and photographically a mess” by the Washington Post. I’m the wrong person to comment on this, as I didn’t watch any of the docudrama, nor did I watch either of the Hollywood movies treating the same subject. Like the JFK assassination, with so much disinformation, outright fiction, and conspiracy theory floating around, I rather doubt the truth behind either event is truly knowable with any confidence after they’ve been spun and massaged and coopted as party propaganda.

So although politics is not really my focus, I’ll offer a brief five-years-later assessment. It makes me infinitely sad that whatever lessons might have been learned in the aftermath of the attacks, including some serious self-assessment about the things we did to get us to the point of becoming a target, that opportunity has been mostly squandered in unthinking American jingoism and flailing retribution taken on the wrong parties.

The Dark Earth and Scotobiology

Posted: September 6, 2006 in Culture, Philosophy

These images of the Earth from above are pretty interesting:

I especially like the views of the Strait of Gibraltar and the Red Sea, which incidentally shows the Nile delta. The last few show the Earth in darkness, revealing man-made light. I presume the images are composites, as no view of the Earth looking away from the Sun would be in darkness except perhaps during an eclipse. In fact, I’m suspicious the whole Earth is superimposed on a generic star field just for effect.

The dark Earth, lit by man, folds nicely into another idea I stumbled across. A webpage at the National Park Service discusses its Night Skies program to preserve darkness. It avers that light pollution is the sign of an “inefficient society.”

“The emerging field of scotobiology (scoto = darkness, biology = life) is uncovering many examples of wildlife impacted by artificial light.” For instance, baby sea turtles, just after hatching, have been known to mistake a paved road with streetlights for moonlight reflected on the water, which they try to reach. Predictably, they get flattened by passing cars and trucks.

There is also this lament: “Two–thirds of Americans cannot see the Milky Way from their backyard, and 99% of the population live in an area that scientists consider light polluted. The rate at which light pollution is increasing will leave almost no dark skies in the contiguous U.S. by 2025.”

I’m not usually interested in environmental issues, so I’ll save my usual diatribe. However, I suspect that this issue will be dismissed by policymakers as unimportant in comparison to lots of things (crime! terror! war! oil!). Still, it reveals that the human footprint still has many deleterious effects that are only now just being observed.

Update: A website called Dark Sky Finder shows the extent of light pollution. Especially east of the Mississippi River, there are whole states where everything is lit up, meaning there is no dark sky to be found for hundreds of miles.

Arguing On-Line

Posted: June 7, 2006 in Blogosphere, Debate, Manners

I stumbled into an interesting post at The Futurist called "Deconstructing the Leftist 'Mind'" and the even more interesting comments thread that follows it. Never mind that The Futurist is a right-leaning blog and that the post was bait for left-wingers. If one were to discard all the news and debate that subscribes to hopelessly reductive and increasingly meaningless dualisms such as left/right or red/blue, there would be little left to attend to. The comments have a really interesting exchange between Conrad and GK, but as the number of comments climb, the level of civility descends and the exchange devolves from debate to argument to name-calling and worse. Naturally, things spin out of control. There's an old bit of wisdom from UseNet that the first person to mention Hitler or Nazis in an argument concedes defeat by admitting he/she is out of good ideas.

This article by Charlie Brooker at The Guardian describes the same phenomenon. A brief quote serves to characterize his viewpoint:

There's no point debating anything online. You might as well hurl shoes in the air to knock clouds from the sky. The internet's perfect for all manner of things, but productive discussion ain't one of them. It provides scant room for debate and infinite opportunities for fruitless point-scoring: the heady combination of perceived anonymity, gestated responses, random heckling and a notional "live audience" quickly conspire to create a "perfect storm" of perpetual bickering.

The American Experiment in democracy is sometimes described as an ongoing public discussion or argument, which results in a sort of equilibrium superior to either of the extremes. To have one side (thinking of only two sides of a coin) or facet (thinking of a multiplicity of perspectives) become too dominant is politically unhealthy precisely because the equilibrium disappears and extremism rules. Further, stifling of dissent and disappearance of principled argument signals the sort of desperation that leads to violence and war. 

I still have hopes of learning new and interesting things, many of them interpretations and opinions (as opposed to mere facts), and I fully expect my opinions and perspectives to change as a result. However, human nature apparently being what it is, it's difficult to find interlocutors who can maintain decorum. It's a shame.


Posted: May 15, 2006 in Television

I haven't watched TV in about five years. That includes everything on TV: shows, ads, news, everything. Because it's so ubiquitous, I have actually seen bits and pieces of a few things. And I purposely tuned into the pilot of Commander in Chief because I wanted to see how the writers got a woman into office. But I've never seen a single episode of The Sopranos, Sex in the City, House, American Idol, or any of the various shows discussed around the water cooler. The amount of wasted time I recovered has pretty impressive, which filled up with other things pretty quickly.

From time to time, folks discover that I don't watch TV. It's usually in the context of "did you see this commercial" or "can you believe what happened on such-and-such show?" I usually respond that I don't watch TV and the next question is "at all?" I say "yes" and the jaws drop. It's as though I just said I don't breathe anymore. The idea of not going home and giving over several hours of veg time is frankly beyond some people's comprehension. Parents with children regard the TV as a lifesaver at the same time they acknowledge it's probably unwise to park kids there for extended periods of time (but still do it).

So a friend of mine recently forced on me loaned me a copy of the first season of Lost on DVD. I've tried to be open-minded but can't escape the sense that I'm still watching TV. The eight-minute segmentation to accommodate commercials is grating even without the commercials (but thank goodness for no commercials), and the 45-minute story arcs are a formal frame that really confines sensible story-telling. The way each episode plays like a parable or morality tale is also shockingly facile. I knew all this before I stopped watching TV, but it is especially glaring to me now. The other monstrously irritating thing about this particular show is the endless parade of dramatic pauses and knowing looks in response to simple questions any normal person would answer unhesitatingly.

Q: "Do you have matches?"
A: pause — look — "Why do you want to know?"


Watching is mostly a take-it-or-leave-it proposition for me at this point. Of seven DVDs, I watched four. I'll have a nagging sense of incompletion if I don't finish, I suspect, the same as with books. The fact that I'll never see season two or three doesn't bother me a bit.