Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cognitive Cleansing

I've been reading The Culture of Fear, by Barry Glassner, in which he does a masterful job deconstructing so many of the popular hysterias we've all been so used to hearing about in the media - drugs, crime, youth culture, etc..  Written in 1999, it has a somewhat dated feel, in that the cataloguing mainly covers the eighties and nineties.  Yet at the same time, this allows the modern reader a sophisticated perspective on current events; things have hardly changed. 

What's maybe the most interesting theme of the book, is Glassner's hypothesis that hysterias are fundamentally rooted in cognitive error.  Society is complex, sometimes uncomfortable and confusing, and very often brutal.  When faced with cognitive limitations in our understanding of why things are the way they are - so often painfully so - we have a habit of looking for real, understandable explanations to ease the sense of unease that arises from feeling as if we are at the mercy of things we don't understand.

So, for instance, the perennial fear of the aged, youth rebellion, attaches to whatever the latest youth craze is - no matter how limited in scope or consequence - and decries it as evidence that civilization is going to hell.  Of course, this has been the refrain for decades, even millennium. 

But other, very real fears, such as income inequality and the dangers of poverty and all that comes with it, find their focus not on larger, complicated political and economic questions about how to organize society, but rather in simplistic, iconic issues.  These issues gain salience as emblems for the larger, inchoate anxiety about things more nebulous such as government, corporations, scientists, politicians, or - so often unfortunately - minority groups.  Thus, relatively isolated dangers can come to take on over-sized import in the public imagination.  Frequently, the dangers aren't even real to begin with.  Based on flawed science or sloppy reporting, the actual truth is less important than the story that is being told in which the larger anxiety is given a seemingly real and substantive causation. 

A perfect example of this is Glassner's discussion of the hysteria surrounding breast implants.  Maybe the most profound example of sexist, decadent patriarchal values, cosmetic breast augmentation is a moral horror to many.  And so when reports that implants were causing pain, disease and even cancer in women, the story was perfect.  See, one might say, this despicable cultural phenomenon now has physical consequences.  As satisfying as the notion might have been, it wasn't true, study after study showed.

Of course, as we also witness again and again, facts have a hard time standing up to cognitive bias, when the story feels as though it is being threatened.  Even though whether or not breast implants are safe says nothing about the objectification of women and patriarchal values, once one has become sufficiently invested in the notion that they are bad because they are dangerous, it becomes difficult to persuade them otherwise.

Another fascinating chapter of the book deals with vaccines, the perennial go-to source of anxieties about "big government" and "big science".  Written before the Wakefield scandal, in which a deeply flawed study was published in reputable medical journal purporting to show a link between a frightening rise in autism and vaccines, Glassner recounts how vaccine fears in the early eighties about a completely different vaccine, and completely different diseases, caused a major stir even though in the end there was no evidence of any problem whatsoever, and children were in fact much better off getting their shots.

Confirmation bias is all over us.  It is unavoidable as as necessarily cognitively limited members of a complex society.  Yet Glassner's book implies some genuinely good advice.  Society is prone to hysteria.  Media accounts are often based on sloppy reporting.  Scientific studies take time, yet are ultimately our best chance at objectivity, as peer review and institutional reputation provide checks on bias. 

Yet as consumers of information, we must be vigilant.  If you have a position on something that someone might disagree with, try and examine it as if you were them.  It is enormously difficult to do so.   Can you examine your assumptions objectively?   What are the benefits of reaching your conclusion?  Is there a larger story you are trying to tell that the particular explanation satisfies?

Society is far from perfect.  Yet how much of its imperfection actually results from people who are wrong, who have accepted untruths, who are not thinking clearly, whose feelings about issues are misguided?  A good deal, no doubt.  In Glassner's book, while he certainly has a liberal bent, he spares no particular ideology.  He is genuinely after what is true.  If we imagine ourselves similarly, we would all do well to follow his lead.

Monday, January 21, 2013

My Fingers Are Not Elephants

Sometimes it's better to not comment at all.  By that strange wiggly-worm process by which one so often meanders the internets, I found myself yesterday watching you tube videos of a man putting forth his explanation, in no uncertain terms, of a scientific process by which one could unlock secret spiritual powers.  I was more interested than I might have been by the absurd charade because it seemed to have been part of a larger, quasi-spiritual, pseudoscientific movement.

The original rabbit link had come from a facebook friend whose affinity for magical thinking is matched only by his passion for science - his feed is a magnificent cascade of authentic scientific appreciation of the natural world interspersed with almost manic platitudes about cosmic energies and galactic spiritual convergences backed up by mathematical formulas derived from religious scripture (often laid out in obsessive charts).  Apparently he did indeed do graduate work in the hard sciences at Berkeley, some controversy eventually ejecting him from a NASA project in astrobiology (I can only imagine it had something to do with his spiritualistic interpretations).

A childhood friend of mine in Santa Cruz, CA, that hotbed of new-agism, I've come to realize he is far from alone in his wild theories.  Spending some time looking at his ideas, I found myself recalling just how fervent so many in that city were in their particular brand of late 20th century mysticism.  A link on the page of a friend of his, a student at UC Santa Cruz, pointed me to a website devoted to something called "DNA Awakening".

After spending much longer than I probably should have watching a young bearded man named Peter (oddly, his surname was absent from the site - legal issues?) pontificating into his webcam, I gathered from the confused and rambling lecture, that our DNA was actually designed to receive electromagnetic signals from hidden dimensions of the universe, yet without proper spiritual training we would not be able to pick them up, and thus not be able to reach higher planes of consciousness.  He was also peddling "courses" in  that you could purchase from him for a few hundred dollars.

At some point, Peter may indeed have gotten to the part where he explained what evidence for any of this actually was - what the physical process was behind the hypothesis, how you might measure it, and whether there was any research to back it up.  I mean, hidden dimensions, higher levels of consciousness, electromagnetic frequency interaction with organic molecules, the translation of that interaction into cognitive awareness, etc. - you would think that even a shred of evidence for any of it would be sort of Earth shattering and worthy of at least a few million dollars of research funding.

Of course, there was none of that.  In one segment, he lamented quite passionately how painful it was to hold such radical, unorthodox views among such a skeptical public.  I can imagine.  His explanation was classic ad hominem: the skeptics' objections arose not from  rational, logical conclusions, but rather from deep fears about the truth of what he was claiming, and the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance it creates.  Ironically, this sort of rhetorical tactic works beautifully for anyone who himself is fearful of cognitive dissonance and wishes to avoid the possibility of objective analysis of his assumptions.

Which brings me to what I think is the crux of the issue.  What are our standards for truth?  Sure, none of us can know much of anything for certain, but we can know things, and some things are not true.  For instance, my fingers are not elephants.  Seems a reasonable enough claim to make.  I could be a brain in a vat, but in the meantime, I need to live my life.  Part of that means practical, day-to-day navigation of a world that makes sense.  Another part, rooted indeed in the fundamental truth that my consciousness is limited, means a lifelong quest to understand myself and the world around me.  And logic and observation are the basic principles in which this process must unfold.  Believing that my fingers are, or could at any moment be elephants would not only be impractical, but it would represent a major failure to fulfill my goal of understanding the world.  It would be a sort of nihilism, a sort of giving up on life itself, a death of consciousness.

But what about the larger world, the one beyond my immediate knowledge and understanding?  I can know my fingers with a high degree of certainty.  But with most things I must place my faith in external authority.  This is a logical step.  If I know that certain things exist, or could plausibly exist based on what I already am confident I know,  I can then delegate - in a manner of speaking - the gathering and organization of knowledge to others whom I trust.  If my wife tells me she saw a man in a clown suit standing by the freeway, as unlikely as it might be, it certainly is not out of the realm of what I know is possible, and therefor I can trust her statement with confidence.  If she told me she saw a man levitating by the freeway, I would have to be much more skeptical.  The logical device known as Occam's Razor tells me that I ought to trust the most likely probability: that my wife was either mistaken or has developed a mental illness, and not that multiple laws of nature had suddenly been broken.

Gravity I understand pretty well.  But when it comes to more complex questions, my trust is tested somewhat further.  I don't have personal access to a Doppler radar device, nor the expertise to run one, but when the weather man says a large hurricane is forming over the Atlantic, I trust him.  He could, of course, be lying, and if he were the only weatherman in the world I would be much more skeptical.  But he is not.  His reporting is backed up by the reputation of his organization, which is in turn backed up by other organizations who would take great glee in pointing out his mistakes.

This is not a foolproof scheme, obviously.  The weather is hardly controversial.  For other, more complex issues it is often hard to feel confident in one's authorities.  Yet a few guiding principles allow one to maintain a healthy balance between complete skepticism and complete naivete.  The first, of course, is one's own knowledge.  I know that 2 + 2 = 4, and I'm going to be very skeptical of a larger claim based on its denial.  The second is institutional authority itself.  The larger an institution is, the more connections it has to other institutions, the harder it would be for false information to be knowingly peddled for any great length of time, especially if the facts are readily available.  Of course, if flawed assumptions are shared by all, then falsities can linger.

But this is quite a different thing than a falsity being conspired upon by large numbers of people within and across institutions, which is the general claim of those with radical, unsubstantiated claims.  The truth, according to them, cannot be uncovered and shared because it is being actively kept from us by conspirators.  While conspiracies indeed have occurred, I can think of none that have involved the secreting away of knowledge so radical that it would upend standard, accepted assumptions.  For instance, conspiracies such as Whitewater or tobacco industry efforts to knowingly sell dangerous products involved quite plausible activities.  Their covering-up was limited to a very small group of people within isolated organizations.  Wiretaps were found.  Internal memos were found.  Politicians are often sneaky, and the tobacco industry faced an existential threat.

Conspiracies such as the link between vaccines and autism or a faked moon landing were not plausible at all.  With the former, one study was published and faced enormous push-back in peer review against its published results by thousands of scientists and doctors spread across hundreds of reputable institutions, and subsequent studies were done and made available publicly.  With the moon landing, decades of research and experimentation had been done in the open, all culminating in an almost completely public event, involving hundreds of respected institutions.

As far as I know, no conspiratorial claims about "DNA awakening" are being made (although I wouldn't be surprised).  Rather, the willingness to go out on such a pseudoscientific limb seems to have more to do with a particular susceptibility to magical thinking among the new age subculture.  First and foremost, a sort of deep spiritual yearning is present.  This then seems to drive the individual towards a scaffolding upon which to invest their yearnings.  New age culture is nothing if not a smorgasbord of quasi-religious, pseudoscientific errata.

The spiritual yearning is deeply dissatisfied with traditional, "Western" ideology and its tired baggage, and so seems to ingratiate itself to any cultural tradition, no matter how obscure or bizarre (maybe the more so the better) - as long as it is not Judeo-Christian or European in origination.  From this, you get all manner of cultural flotsam and jetsom - funny smelling oils from Turkmenistan, healing ointments made by llamma herders in Peru, astrological navigations written in Sanskrit.

Yet, while "Western" authority is swapped out for that of, well, anything else really - hunter-gatherers in Botswana will likely do, what is maybe most fascinating is the sort of factual relativism that erupts, opening the door for seemingly any old kooky therapy, life lesson, mystical teaching , or spiritual world view.  Much like Protestantism overthrew Catholicism's grip on Biblical interpretation, the New Age movement goes a step further and overthrows reality itself.  Not satisfied with the fact that viruses cause colds, try this magnetic bracelet.  Want to be happy?  Drink this concoction of herbal teas and rub this root salve on your temples.  Not OK with the thought that no evidence for aliens have ever existed?  Go this guy's seminar and hear about how he transformed his life by communicating with an ancient race of one-eyed super-beings through meditation.  Want to levitate?  Want to teleport?  Want to talk to your dead relatives in a past life? Why not?

At this point anything could be true, because nothing is, really.  And when Peter tells you that your DNA are vibrating in harmonic convergence with cosmic energies, what is stopping you from believing him.  Science has become "science".  Truth has become "truth".  Authority has become "authority".  My fingers may not be elephants.  But maybe I'm just not "seeing" the world correctly.

I left a comment on Peter's you tube video, poking fun at his naivete and misguided assumptions.  But I shortly thought better of it and deleted it.  What good was I doing?  This was his religion we're talking about here.  Well, religion in quotes, but same difference.  I felt bad for mocking him.  The internet, the world doesn't need any more of that.  He's not really hurting anyone who isn't already on board.   In order to believe in such things one must already have given up on objective truth or reality.

Its a funny thing, this vapid posture of openness to anything and everything all the time forever and ever.  We all have our ways of escaping.  Religion is probably the oldest, and ultimate form of it.  Sense.  Making sense of the world, finding meaning.  One could hardly argue that it isn't a worthy endeavor.  So many have struggled with so much, and have such a need for comfort.  Who am I to take the pillow from their head, even if it is nothing but an illusion?  Lord knows we need illusions.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

It Shall Be the Fuck Ups

Statue of Benkos Bioho, 16th century slave
Ahh, Fridays.  A fellow teacher in the lounge at lunch told me it couldn't have come too soon.  Slightly overweight, she hobbles around on a prosthetic leg.  This is her 26th year of teaching.  Somewhat of  a polymath, she teaches Earth Science, Life Science and Algebra, depending on the year.  These are lower-level, core subject classes that students take who have demonstrated a history of lower grades and lack of study skills, who would likely not be successful in more difficult subjects.

She doesn't have to explain the weariness in her voice; I know it all too well.  It comes from teaching five subjects a day to students a majority of whom are either failing outright or barely passing, struggle to stay focused, have poor organizational skills, frequently miss class, do the minimum amount of work required (even at a substantially lowered bar), frequently disrupt class and get in trouble, and generally find education repellent.  It comes from struggling to find the line between holding to high expectations yet at the same time recognizing practical realities of what the students can actually do (their "zone of proximal development"), and maybe most importantly, empathizing with what can only be described for many of them as tragic home lives and understanding that this socializing force lies at the root of their relentlessly poor performance,

When I entered education, I did so after having spent my undergraduate years trying to understand the roots of social inequality that I saw all around me as I drove back and forth across the class boundaries clearly demarcating the San Francisco and Oakland neighborhoods in which I worked as a delivery driver.  I was convinced that through education, students could be empowered to transcend the shackles of socio-economic disadvantage.  If they came to love learning, they would set themselves on a path to consciousness.  I had experienced enough brain-numbing, authoritarian teaching in my own education to see the glorious value of empathetic, compassionate and inspiring teachers.

Yet after nearly ten years of teaching, first as a substitute in various districts, then as a teacher in various grade levels, I've come to more fully appreciate the ultimate limitations of education as liberation, especially within the context of traditional instruction.  The brutal truth is that the level of developmental disadvantage and relentless life hardship is so great for so many students, that the educational system by itself is woefully inadequate to address their needs.

The classroom is not the proper arena for social change.  It can be a place of rich learning, socialization and self-discovery.  But this can only happen if children's more basic needs are being met.  If a student has not been reared in such a way as to develop age-appropriate cognitive and emotional skills, or is living in an environment at home which causes high levels of stress, the effects of formal schooling are only going to have marginal impact.  Some students, luckily, will possess the right mixture of luck and temperament to overcome such disadvantage, but on whole, most will not - an empirical truth backed up by fact.  Children have basic developmental needs.  In a recent article for the New Republic, Jonathan Cohn lays out just how powerful this developmental disadvantage is.  Research shows that a good portion of a child's developmental trajectory is laid down in its first two years.
a scientific revolution that has taken place in the last decade or so illuminates a different way to address the dysfunctions associated with childhood hardship. This science suggests that many of these problems have roots earlier than is commonly understood—especially during the first two years of life. Researchers, including those of the Bucharest project, have shown how adversity during this period affects the brain, down to the level of DNA—establishing for the first time a causal connection between trouble in very early childhood and later in life. And they have also shown a way to prevent some of these problems—if action is taken during those crucial first two years.
Unfortunately, these are years that are, among disadvantaged populations, going to be spent - by definition - in a context of developmental disadvantage.  And these are only the first two years of life.  By age 5, development is already deeply behind advantaged peers.  The gap only grows.  By the time the child reaches high school, all manner of life trauma and developmental drought have conspired to bring the full weight of social inequality pressing down upon his neck until he either drops out, destined if not for jail then a life of minimum wage toil, or barely squeaks by with a diploma, however with a penchant for rebellion and nihilism that so diminish his sense of self-efficacy that hopes and dreams seem impossible, if even extant in the first place.  Yes, there are those who escape, providing fodder for myths of free will and self-empowerment free from social constraint.  But upon closer examination these prove little more than feeble justifications for a bias towards a status quo which denies structural effects of inequality and seeks to confirm its own flawed assumptions.

For us to continue to pretend that minor education reforms - those centered around the classroom experience, teaching and curriculum - are adequate to deliver social equality to millions of disadvantaged children in America is to ignore the desperate reality of their situation.  If we take a sober look at what these children truly need in order for them to be successful, our gaze cannot but survey a landscape of broken homes, neglect, family crises, neighborhood decay, substance abuse, and a generalized, creeping sense of communal despair at a future of low-wage work and frustrated opportunity. 

No one likes to be treated unfairly.  Even if they don't understand why, they intuitively know that the game is stacked against them.  This seems a basic cognitive truth, grasped by no less than primitive apes, as this video clearly demonstrates.
What the scientist in the video is illustrating is just how obvious injustice is, even to a monkey, who understands quite clearly that he is being punished for doing the same work.  Now, apologists for the status quo might object, claiming that the disadvantaged don't do the same work.  The students in my class are not doing nearly the work of their more successful classmates.  But this is a misunderstanding of human psychology, and the nature of motivation and reward.  Yes, they are fuck ups.  They draw pictures on the desk instead of thinking about the lesson.  They throw papers at their friends instead of copying down notes.  They smoke pot instead of do their homework.

But what is work?  And what does it take to complete it?  An advantaged student who has been given adequate development in a safe, emotionally satisfying and cognitively rich environment hardly has to work to be successful.  Her heart and mind are quiet as she sits, pencil in hand, her book open and organized to digest the lesson.  She has had no conflict with a family member or friend, no sleepless night, no hangover from an escapist substance.  The lesson makes sense because it meshes smoothly with neural patterns in her memory that have been laid down neatly for years.  She makes it look easy because it is.  For her.

Compare her to a child of disadvantage, whose heart is beating fast, stress hormones pumping through his veins, who never had a father, whose family is poor and suffers the slings and arrows of any number of social problems that might have landed them in poverty, who's found solace in a stance of rebellion and a respected identity as one who is unbounded by external rules and limitations.  He didn't come prepared, and he has no intention of completing his work.  But he knows how to play the game well enough to stay out of trouble just enough not to get sent to the principle, yet who is damned if he is going to sit there and suffer through 50 minutes of academic labor.  Because it isn't easy for him.  If the girl next to him makes it look easy, he knows how hard it is.  Trying to concentrate on the teacher's voice, reading the assignment on the board, remembering to get out his notebook and pencil (if he even remembered to bring it), is the academic equivalent of mining for granite with your bare hands in the hot sun (and considering how hopeless the entire endeavor seems - today, and every day for years now - there is no paycheck to look forward to. 

Work, for him, is just showing up and not punching anyone in the face.  Work is maintaining sanity one day at a time.  Work is struggling to finding a way to squeeze something meaningful and fulfilling out of this relentlessly antagonistic world.  Assuming in him that the task is simple: just do your work and behave, is a vicious insult to everything he has ever learned about the world.

Cohn outlines some good directions for policy in his article.  But we have a deeper problem, one that we have yet to come up with a solution for, and can only fumble to put band-aids on.  We live in a system in which societal capital is leveraged for individual advantage.  In a non-linear trajectory, advantage secures more advantage, while disadvantage secures ever more disadvantage.  A war on poverty, a war on inequality must grapple with this fundamental aspect of our system at large, in which both are built in to and perpetuated by the nature of the system itself.  A system of enormous productive power, it also breeds exploitation of the disadvantaged by ensuring their continued existence.  If there can be distilled a singular dilemma that propels this blog, it is this: Some one must clean the floors.  It shall be the fuck ups.  And we shall fuck them up.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Gifted, Talented, and White

Is it any surprise that New York City's gifted and talented programs are overwhelmingly filled with White and Asian kids?  Of course they are.  Pick any district across the country, and gifted and talented kids will disproportionately come from homes with higher societal capital; they will have parents with more education, higher incomes, more stability, less health problems, less abuse, less crime on their block, etc.

While some students are clearly "gifted" in some areas, this is often going to be secondary to their development overall.  By the time a child has entered public school, her cognition, vocabulary, emotional skills, etc. will have been determined to a large extent by the environment in which she was raised.  A child who has been taught high levels of grit, determination, self-control, for instance, will be in a position to be much more successful in a learning environment.  These simple skills will give them a non-linear developmental advantage, as new opportunities for learning build on themselves in a productive loop.

I teach lower-level high school students, those who have not demonstrated an ability to be successful in higher-level science classes.  Many of them I would indeed consider very intelligent, possibly gifted.  However, due to any number of individual life and developmental issues, they would not be successful in a gifted program.  On the other hand, I could imagine a student's simple ability to remain focused and complete her work would find her in an excellent position to excel in a gifted environment of higher-level thinking, problem-solving and creative learning.

As we near the end of the semester, around half of my students are at serious risk of failure.  This is not due to their inability to comprehend the work, but rather their lack of academic focus and ability to complete relatively simple assignments.  Why is this?  Why can't they simply complete their work?

The answer to this question is key to understanding American socioeconomic and political philosophy.  In the article on gifted programs I linked to above, a professor of education was paraphrased thusly:
looking at the gifted landscape in New York City suggests that one of two things must be true: either black and Hispanic children are less likely to be gifted, or there is something wrong with the way the city selects children for those programs.
A co-worker of mine, my hunch a Republican who nonetheless understands the degree to which these students are severely academically dysfunctional, commented to me that these kids have a choice to make if they want to be successful in life: either get right and do well in school, or continue to slack off.  To the extend that they have a choice, he is right.

But how much choice do they really have?  To me, the professor of education got it nearly right: either poor and minority students are less likely to be truly gifted, or that we have a highly stratified socioeconomic system in which citizens' life success is determined by how much societal capital they have.  There is really no evidence for the former, and by all accounts truly "gifted" individuals are equally common across race and class lines, with socioeconomic effects on development largely crowding out genetic effects.

Yet there is overwhelming evidence of the effects of societal capital on human development.  Unfortunately, little of it seems to have had much impact on the assumptions of modern conservatism, which holds to the notion that the effects of class are marginal, and that ultimately every individual makes a choice.  This allows them the convenience of being able to ignore the effects of power relationships that inevitably become increasingly entrenched in capitalist societies, as capital is able to be leveraged in a non-linear way so as to rigidify class lines and limited mobility.

Unfortunately, too, the current progressive coalition has so watered itself down with neoliberal apologists for capitalism and the magic of markets, that it has lost sight of the very real and serious implications such a system has for the disempowered and de-capitalized individuals, in both the societal and financial sense.  The entire education reform movement, with its emphasis on market-oriented solutions to the achievement gap such as teacher accountability, high standards, curricular narrowing to core subjects, and charter schools, is predicated on deliberate, strategic ignorance of underlying dynamics of societal capital.  To do so is, according to the movement's gallingly hubristic proponents, simply "making excuses".  When a car is heading for a cliff, its brake lines cut, would the observation that pumping the brakes is not the real problem be considered to be "making excuses"?

We currently do not know how to rectify our socioeconomic dillema: how to promote equity of societal capital in a system in which the unequal distribution of societal capital is key to its being leveraged for individual social gain.  Gifted programs are perfect example of this reality.  As the article points out:
Ms. Lindner, the fifth-grade teacher, said she was “always surprised” when she saw more than two or three white children in her general education classes. 

As a parent herself, and a resident of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she said, “there’s no way I’d put my kid in a general-education class here, no way, because it’s right next to the project and all the kids in general education come from the projects.”

She said her experience was that many of the children in her general education classes were at grade level or below and did not get the same support from their parents that the children in the gifted classes got. “They’re tougher kids,” she said of the general education students in the school. “They’re very street-savvy. They don’t have the background; their parents are hard on them but don’t know what to do with them.”
This is the inconvenient truth of education in America.  Socioeconomic effects, societal capital leveraging are real and fundamental to how we live our lives, and it isn't pretty.  People don't strive to move into the projects, they strive to move out of them.  We want the best for our children.  We want them to have every advantage in the world.  How could we do any less?  And in a system of competitive leveraging, this is going to create barriers to entry, and entrench power hegemony. 

Just because we may not know how to address such deeply tragic and predestined systemic inequities from a policy standpoint, we cannot pretend that they do not exist, or that they are only of marginal import.  Rather, we must face the brutal truth that they are the locus of modern inequality.  Only then will we be in a position to seriously take on the notion that unless every citizen receives at least somewhat equal access to societal capital, he or she will not be truly free.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Year In Media: Part 4, Music

I had originally intended this series of posts to be focused on a list of my favorite albums of the year.  However, looking at media in general turned out to a more lengthy exercise.

But here we are.  I should start with an embarrassment.  At my particular age and space and time, I've somewhat lazily come to depend pretty much primarily on's album recommendations.  I've been following that site for over a decade now, and am generally satisfied that I'm not missing out on much that they don't catch.  (Although, one might ask, how would I know?)

But in the end, it really comes down to the amount of new music that I really have time to digest.  Between listening to four decades of popular music in alternating rotation, and discovering older material for the first time, there is only so much time in the day to properly involve oneself with brand new albums in an intimate way.  The albums on this list earned their status only after repeated listens, each of which is a great album in the classic sense: that it is generally excellent from start to finish.

Julia Holter - Ekstasis
The Men - Open Your Heart
Grizzly Bear - Shields
Frankie Rose - Interstellar
Lotus Plaza - Spooky Action at a Distance
Beach House - Bloom
Stina Nordenstam - The World Is Saved
Joyce Manor - Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired
Perfume Genius - Put Your Back N 2 It
dissapointments: Wild Nothings, Twin Shadow

One of my favorite experiences in the appreciation of music is the rare occasion upon which an album that seems dull, or even downright awful, on first listen grows on me more and more until something suddenly switches and I fall in love with it.  It is a strange and beautiful feeling, and at a larger level makes listening to music that much more exciting, as first impressions are not necessarily to be trusted, especially negative reactions.  An element of abandon is introduced in which I must give in to the process, trusting that the art itself, and not my reaction to it, will lead me to its beauty.

This happened in part with a few albums this year.  Julia Holter's Ekstasis felt oddly removed and alien, its avante garde stance feeling at first maybe gimmicky in the way that studiously fragmented classical new music can.  But rather quickly its emotion began to resonate and a strange beauty shone through.

Open Your Heart, by the Men worked in a somewhat opposite way.  It unfolded as a series of songs that felt kind of pedestrian at first.  Been there, done that, maybe.  Bonehead guitar solos were fun enough on the first couple of tracks, sliding then into countryfried psychedelia jamming.  Its like the Supersuckers took a break and channeled the Spacemen 3.  But out of this, midway into the album the tone becomes a bit more fragmented and dissonant, with abstract vocals, and sounding more like Sonic Youth.  Abruptly then, the jangling noise hardens into a thick mass of distortion, with delicate harmonies melancholically spinning above.  One can only think of My Bloody Valentine, a high honor indeed.  In its final half, the album plays with each of these themes, blending them together at times, in a mixture of emo/thrash and post-punk/shoegaze.  That these disparate elements can be pulled together with such consistent dexterity is quite a feat.

Joyce Manor's Of All This I Will Soon Grow Tired is classic hardcore emo, and as such, you have to be up for its in-your-face, heart-on-its-sleeve emotional exposition.  I suppose my listening habits have strayed in the past ten to fifteen years since bands like Fugazi were on heavy rotation.  As such, Of All This... felt somewhat of a throwback, and I probably will not ever be as excited about it as I might once have.  Nonetheless, it is enormously well-made.  The songs are short and sweet, and filled not just with hooks but with an admirable gravity.

Perfume Genius' Put Your Back In 2 It is a sad record.  It is beautiful, raw, and earnest, but terribly sad.  It may be that this year has been an emotional struggle for me in many ways, but I'm not sure I've still really been up for meeting the album on its own terms.  It's also a very gay album.  There's such a sense of fragile outsiderness to it, singer Mike Hadreas pouring out his vulnerability in a lilting, delicate tone.  Gospel progressions give the songs a sense of deep pain, struggle and triumphalism.  But all of this, not to mention the sort of Castro disco pseudo-R&B number pun in the title, makes me feel like I am listening to a gay record.  Again, an album to be taken on its own terms.

The other albums on the list were pretty much known quantities, constructed with the same brilliant dexterity as the artists' earlier works.  Bloom, by Beach House might just be my favorite of their yet.  Victoria Legrand seems to keep getting more and more powerful and determined with each new album.

Frankie Rose far surpassed anything with the Dum Dum Girls, creating in Interstellar a hugely dynamic and fascinating electro-pop orchestra. There has been a movement in recent years that might be called "Better Than the 80's", in which contemporary artists pick up the synthesized sounds, guitar tones, simple beats of eighties pop and, well, do it better.  There was always something haunting and melancholy about that era's production values and awkward danceability of its beat.  Shades of The Smiths, Depeche Mode, The Cure, as well as sillier pop acts like The Go Gos, the Bangles, The Eurythmics or Cindy Lauper echo throughout this new sound.  Frankie Rose works heavily in this area, sharing space with DIIV, Wild Nothings, Twin Shadows.  Other bands work deeper angles, such as Washed Out and M83's more ambient, Krautish sound, or How To Dress Well's thoroughly deconstructed R&B.

Which of course, can get old.  Disappointingly, Wild Nothings' album this year was unremarkable.  And Confess, Twin Shadows' follow up to 2010's gorgeous Forget, was, apart from its generally great first track, Golden Light, an often times aimless, unlistenable mess.

All in all, here's hoping 2013 is more interesting.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Year In Media: Part 3, Books

Late this year I started a book club on called "The Society Book Club", with an emphasis on social, political and philosophical issues.  We meet every couple of months, and it's been fun.  The group dynamics are however interesting, as some members tend to Bogart the discussion.  As the de facto leader I do my best to promote everyone's voice, but I probably contribute to the problem to a degree.  Part of the issue is that a number of the members have rather "broad" political leanings.  By this I mean that, while everyone is generally liberal, these members seem enthralled with a type of cheap political analysis that relies on broad generalizations and grand theories of causality, where nuance and skepticism is sacrificed for a simplicity of moral confidence. 

Hence, the term "they" is often referred to as the source of most social ills, "they" being an amorphous liberal bogeyman equal parts corporate boardroom and wealthy 1%.  In this world view, these puppet-masters control what we think, what we buy, how we feel, what our priorities are, and how we behave.  Every social ill is thus easily explained by a larger pattern of social decay set in motion and determined by a small cadre of profit-hungry, greedy capitalists. 

One can see the allure of such a view.  It is indeed partially true.  But it is absurdly simplistic.  Not only does its convenience blind itself to nuance and general causal diversity, but it misses larger structural explanations that place blame not with rational individuals, but with larger, deeper systemic dynamics in which no one is to blame individually, but rather agreements and assumption we have all implicitly accepted as governing model for how we want to structure society.  The problem with seeing this larger structural narrative as a primary causal agent is that it is enormously unsatisfying.  Not only is it difficult to understand, but there is no one to really point our collective fingers at in blame.  And worse still, there is no clear vision for how to replace this structure.  For most progressives, there indeed are very specific policy proposals, in general looking like a more social-democratic, European model (however, even there social ills still remain).  But standing in the way is not necessarily any shadowy corporate malfeasance, but rather an enormous plurality of Americans who just profoundly disagree with the progressive vision, both in cause and solution.  It can be argued that these Americans are mere "sheep" to corporate advertisement, but the reality is that modern conservatism is a cohesive ideological narrative with deep historical roots that stands on its own, needing little help from corporate benefactors to promote its anti-progressive message.

 So, articulating all of that has become my hobby horse at our meetings.  Books we've read:

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules You Behavior, by Leonard Mlodinov
The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stiglitz
The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
How Much Is Enough: Money and The Good Life, by Robert and Edward Skidelsky

Books I personally read this year:

The Ego Tunnel, by Thomas Metzinger
Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke
The Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick
At Home in the Universe, by Stuart Kaufman (didn't finish)
Just Six Numbers, by Martin Rees
A Universe From Nothing, by Lawrence Krauss
Ben Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson
Neuromancer, by William Gibson

As you can see, I went on a bit of a sci-fi kick.  I was basically let go from my job at the continuation school, which I wrote about at the time, and needed some escapism to combat the profound despair I was feeling in the first few months of the year.  Philip K. Dick was gloriously savage in his deconstruction of the interaction between the psyche and the physical world, exposing again and again what we take for granted.  There is a spiritualism here, where the harsh mystery of science and the natural world bumps up against the feeble glue of human consciousness.

I then took on the universe, reading Kaufman, Rees and Krauss, in a succession of what I can humbly describe as fascinatingly vague explications of the physical nature of the universe and reality itself.  Fun, and profound, but nothing I can say I understood all that well.  What I did understand, though, was a beautiful vision of a cosmos the vastness and complexity of which we cannot but be humbled by.

Ben Franklin was a lot of fun.  Mostly however, not so much from an appreciation of the man himself, but from the world and events within which he was traveling.  I was struck by a picture of Philadelphia as a small town of a few thousand people.  Franklin the man was indeed a great mind, but in the end he was a somewhat tragic figure, forming few close bonds and basically leaving his family behind while he spent over a decade in Europe - unlike, say, the resolutely cranky John Adams, who was deeply connected to his family. 

William Gibson was sort of brilliant to read, thirty years later, the digital age well upon us.  His prose was ambitious, albeit messy and too often silly.  But he was establishing things that clearly came to fruition, not in the least the implosion of time and space itself as digital reality compresses all of our understandings of and interactions with our surrounding environment.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Year In Media: Part 2, Television and Film

2012 seemed a pretty lackluster year in cinema.  I honestly can think of very few memorable films.  Now, I'm not a huge movie enthusiast.  My tastes are regularly quite pedestrian.  Looking over rotten tomatoes list of  100 top rated films, these are the best I could come up with, of the few I'd actually seen:

Moonrise Kingdom
The Avengers
Safety Not Guaranteed
Wreck It Ralph

I suppose there are two things I think about with film.  And this is probably true with art more generally.  First, is it entertaining, and second, is it important.  By important, it might be accomplishing different things; it might be doing something new.  There might be a particular aspect of the production of the piece that pushes the art forward.  Whether it is entertaining, is, well, pretty simple.  As I mentioned, I'm not a huge film fan.  What I mean by this is that I like to be entertained by film much more than I want to appreciate it's importance.  While I certainly love interesting cinematography, compelling characters and narratives, set design, etc., I'm ultimately not very forgiving of a film if it isn't entertaining enough.  With music, by contrast, I'm much more forgiving if I feel there is something important going on, even if I find the finished product lacking.

So what to make of the list above?  It seems embarrassingly low-brow. Lincoln and Moonrise Kingdom were maybe the only films interesting in being "important".  However neither seemed particularly interesting.  Daniel Day Lewis was brilliant as usual, and the historical recreation was fun.  Moonrise Kingdom was cute, but Anderson's precious shadowboxes were lacking in emotional depth this time out.  Bernie and Safety Not Guaranteed were I suppose too comedic to rise to that level.  Not that comedy precludes high-art, but it might get in the way of serious themes or artistic expressions by sacrificing depth for irony.  The other three films on the list are decidedly juvenile.  But I'd have to say they were more memorable.  There were moments in the Avengers that were possibly highlights of the year for me.  Being a life-long gamer, Wreck It Ralph couldn't have been more clever.  Chronicle, was beautifully inventive.

I rarely watch anything on cable television anymore, aside from the Daily Show and the Colbert Report.  Netflix has come to dominate my viewing habits.  This past year has found me culling British and Foreign detective shows like George Gently and Wallander (the original Swedish version), as much I suppose for their convenient predictability as for their entertaining characters and mild intrigue.

But of everything I watched in 2012, maybe the most important and compelling was a little documentary produced for PBS' Frontline called The Interrupters.  Made by Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams, it follows the eponymous group of inner-city social workers who literally go out into the streets of Chicago and intervene in violent conflicts, trying to deescalate violent conflict between rival gangs and individuals.  Having come from the same neighborhoods themselves, they bring a depth of understanding and moral gravity into situations that are often minutes away from tragedy.  I showed the unedited version to my continuation students to completely rapt attention.