How I do Political and Social Commentary


I haven’t done a real writing post here in awhile, and since I’ve been writing quite a bit of commentary lately, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about how I do it. It’s a little different from the other forms of writing I do, so I approach it differently.

First of all, if you take a look at the political stuff I’ve done here and at Sourcerer, you’ll notice that I try to write about issues rather than people. Now, sometimes it’s impossible to avoid writing about people, because politics is a social thing. But for the most part, I don’t talk about party politics, elections, or specific ideological adversaries if I can help it. The reason I approach it that way is because writing about people rather than issues generates conflict, and while that may be good for a few extra page views, it creates problems. Once things become personal, reasoned discussion goes right out the window and the best thing to do is find a way to disengage. I won’t pretend I’m perfect with this. Usually, if I’m writing about a political issue at all, I have an emotional stake in it. But I do make an effort to stick to issues.

This may not be as apparent unless you follow me very closely, but when I get into political mode, I tend to focus on the issue I’m writing about until I’ve done all I can with it. This means posting plans change, maintenance gets postponed, and networking takes a back seat to writing. That’s because political blogging is such a small part of what I do, and I don’t do it just to express my opinion and have a debate. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a legitimate thing to do, lots of people love it, and there are plenty of blogs that have grown huge audiences by doing that very thing. But it’s just not my style.

If I’m spending my time blogging about a political or social issue, it’s because I see something that I think needs to change, and I’m trying to have a political effect. I’m very realistic about just how much effect one small-time blogger can have, but I still put all my effort into it once I decide to take up a cause, and I use the same rhetoric I’d use if I were writing for mass circulation. Most of the political things I blog about are things that I believe demand an immediate response. Usually, when I’m engaging in politics, I’m trying to write whatever I’m going to write as quickly as possible and offer it to people who might actually use it.

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I promised to run amok. Doing it now. For the greater good. #SB2681 #Mississippi


Go read this, then come back.

GiveItUp

Basically, I’m pulling out all the stops to get Mississippi up in arms. I am trying to help the ACLU. They say tomorrow is an important day, and auspicious for legislative action. They haven’t actually told me what is going on, but what the hell? I’m willing to play along and help some white-hat wearing people fix my state.

If you live in Mississippi, you really should consider contacting a state legislator on Wednesday and  letting them know that Mississippians dislike discrimination just as much as the rest of these great United States. Also, that that your are not sure at all that SB2681 will do anything productive in the way of protecting your religious freedom, and that you are inclined to view the whole situation as so embarrassing you wish it could just go away. Or something. Put it in your own words and tell them how how you really feel about it.

We’ll have a Batman post at Sourcerer tomorrow, but it might be posted a little later than usual. And we will have a Doctor Who post over there on Thursday.

And I will have a real writing post here tomorrow. One that explains how I do political and social commentary, from the  perspective of a writer.

Personal.


I am having a strange moment of cognitive dissonance right now. I’m supposed to be getting Tolkien and Batman ready for later in the week on the other blogs, but there’s a knock-down, drag-out legislative battle going on around me over Mississippi Senate Bill 2681, which would allow people to assert religious freedom as a way of discriminating against non-heterosexual people, and would also, in my opinion, open the door to all kinds of other mischief.

Since I’m too stirred up to write about books right now, and I’m waiting on my social media to tell me what to do next, I thought I’d come here and express my feelings about all this. So here’s how I feel.

First of all, we need to get away from the business of prescribing sexual norms to consenting adults. Sexual prescription is one of the hallmarks of authoritarian societies, and I think the Western world has had enough authoritarianism to do us until the end of time. Everything else I say here really flows from this first point. Non-violence is a theological principle for me which I will not compromise. The belief that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights is something I take for granted, so you can see why my patience is running out with people who want to make sexuality criteria for legal discrimination, and use religious freedom arguments to back it up.

Second, I am embarrassed for Mississippi, because this is not how we really treat people. Our legislature is pandering to the 60-and-older crowd with a few fundamentalists thrown in. Young Southern people are different than the way Southerners are portrayed in the media. They have interracial relationships. They have differently-sexual relationships. They’re friendly to first-generation immigrants.

Third (and now we might be getting somewhere) I’m a little pissed off about the fact that I feel compelled to participate in politics all of a sudden. Because I swore off participation the minute I actually felt competent to understand it.

Politics is nasty business. It gives people an excuse to destroy one another, and mostly, the destruction is over nothing. It makes me sick to look at it. But at the same time, it affects peoples’ lives. And I’m talking about real people – sons, daughters, parents, wives, husbands, cousins. Homeless people and rich people.Politics is important, whether I like it or not. I do understand it, and I’m good at it. You know what that means.

So I don’t know what to do, as I sit here and wait to see what the next move is, except write this, and publish it even though it’s really not up to snuff, and hope that this time — just this once, my side wins.

The bill is online now. (Via Deep South Progressive.)

TGIF


Just a quick post to wish everyone a happy weekend. I’ve been a little under the weather this week, and I have a big event at work on Monday, but I think I have everything in hand, so hopefully I’ll be able to get some writing done this weekend.

Here are the things I’m working on, for those of you who are following my process and plans.

  • A post on marriage equality for Sourcerer. I spent all my writing time on this last night, and it’s still not good enough to publish. I changed my schedule and put this at the top of the list because this is one of the three issues I’ve identified as suitable political blogging for Sourcerer, and my social media is awash in pink equal signs and rainbow flags at the moment because my home state is considering a nasty piece of legislation that could allow all manner of discrimination under the guise of protecting religious freedom. My general rule is that only 10 percent or so of Sourcerer’s content be political. I think of the political posting I do there as the editorial page, but sometimes this stuff has to get done, and at the moment this is both a local issue and one that directly affects people I know.
  • Another installment of my Tolkien series for Part Time Monster. I intended to have one for today, but spent last night working on the post I just mentioned.
  • Awards posts. I need to give awards to a lot of bloggers  in the next couple of weeks. Once I get the two top-priority posts taken care of, I’m writing at least three awards posts before I do one more thing.

In case you missed our debut of Part Time Monster’s Pinterest account earlier this week, here’s a writing-related board you might enjoy exploring.

There are many more boards there, covering everything from Blogging and Social Media to Digital Humanities to images of tattoos, and a lot of them are themed to match the content of our blogs (So, things like Comics, Tolkien, Batman, and Feminism). Diana put a lot of thought into the initial setup, and once we’re a little further along, I plan to build a few boards there myself.

I have next Tuesday off, and the following week is spring break, so I’m just trying to get through the next week or so, then I’ll be able to really catch up, and hopefully get most of my writing for the A to Z Challenge done.

It’s good to be busy! Thanks for reading our blogs and for encouraging us to keep this project going. I’m always happy to meet up with bloggers on other social media, and I don’t mind promoting blogs I like. In fact, I sort of enjoy it.

A Speech for the Ages


Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968

I regard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam,” also known as his “Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam” to be one of the finest pieces of writing ever produced in American English. Even though it is designed for oral presentation, he had to sit down and write it first, and it is truly powerful. American Rhetoric has an audio file of the speech and a certified transcript. Excluding the salutation, it is 6,720 words long. He delivered it on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City – a year to the day before his assassination.

I am not going to explicate the speech here. You can read it if you like. If this is your first encounter with it, I strongly suggest taking a look. It is Dr. King’s explanation of why he decided to publicly oppose the Vietnam War, and a critique of profit-driven, materialistic society. It is an important document. Here is why I think it is important:

  1. He connects militarism and poverty in a way that is easy to understand.
  2. It is a statement of conscience. Part of what he is doing is explaining that he’s looking as some ugliness and he has no choice but to talk about it. I believe this part of it.
  3. By 1967, he’s already accomplished more of the things he set out to do than any man has a right to expect. He has woken millions of people up and seen civil rights codified in federal law. He’s crystallized generations of struggle into real results in a very few years. He’s put the country on the path to progress on racial equality and vindicated a lot of the people who came before him. He could have retired from activism and just been a preacher for the rest of his life, or confined himself to racial justice, or done any number of things other than give this speech. He chose to give the speech.
  4. You can read this speech and just know, if you have any frame of reference for the U.S. in 1960s, that it has consequences. It is the sort of speech that gets you labeled a radical. Called a communist. Accused of sympathizing with our enemies. Yet still, he chose to deliver it.
  5. It is a rich, complex text. There is something of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in it. It obviously draws upon the founding documents of the American republic. I think it’s informed by Gandhi, as well. Sometimes I look at this speech and I wonder what he must have felt, in those last few moments before he walked up to the pulpit and started speaking.

I’ll leave you with a trio of excerpts. The first is my favorite part – you can find it in the first 10 minutes. It is part of a long list of reasons he gives for speaking out against the war:

Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

This one, a little later, identifies the problems he is really getting at (emphasis added):

We must rapidly begin…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

And one more. One that I think we would all do well to consider, when we think about what sort of society we’d like to live in:

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

I believe it to be true.

image: public domain via American Rhetoric; the text of the speech is copyrighted by the King Estate

Technology, Writing, and Humanities Education


This is a set of links I have been collecting for a while. They all relate technology to either writing, humanities education, or both. Diana and I have been having a conversation about technology, writing pedagogy, and more general humanities concerns for weeks now.

I am still at the point of trying to separate what we actually know about this stuff from what we simply think we know. This post is a sort of annotated bibliography to help me figure out where to go next.

Here is an article from 2001 by Marc Prensky explaining the idea of Digital Immigrants .vs Digital Natives. The metaphor can be problematic, but I’ve found it very useful to understanding generational differences in the way people relate to technology.

I have also been looking at a more recent article by Nancy K. Herther, “Digital Natives and Immigrants: What Brain Research Tells Us.” It was published in the Nov./Dec., 2009 issue of Online. I haven’t been able to locate a copy to hyperlink, but it is a fascinating read, and it includes a good bibliography. You can read the abstract here, and I have a fair-use copy I can email you if you want to read it.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article last month about how to give Liberal Arts graduates better career opportunities.  This part is worth emphasizing here:

For several years now, I have been meeting with the center’s faculty members, students, and internship directors to learn what they are hearing from employers about our students. Again and again they hear potential employers say things like, “We like liberal-arts graduates. They are curious and creative, they write well, they can do research, they are quick learners, and they are good critical thinkers.” The best of them have the “ability to synthesize and distill large amounts of information.” And “we especially need individuals who are good storytellers—who can convey the mission of our organization in a variety of forms.”

All good so far. We liberal-arts faculty members pride ourselves on graduates who have those qualities and who can do those things. But employers also have other, more specific and immediate needs: “What we ­really want right now is someone who can build and maintain our website and publicize our work appropriately using social media. We want graduates who can generate content, of course, but they also need some technical skills. And most of the time we can only hire one person. Do you have anyone like that?”

“We want liberal-arts graduates who are not digitally challenged,” one museum director said.

The presidents of Stanford and the University of Michigan published an editorial in the Washington Post the same week arguing that the United States is in danger of marginalizing the humanities in higher education, and a long list of important skills along with it. They emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary education and conclude:

The crucial issue is not whether a student will be a “science and technology person” or a “humanities and social sciences person,” or whether one or the other is more important to preserving the United States’ global standing and maximizing a student’s job prospects. The critical issue is that a person needs both types of skills and knowledge to innovate and lead in a rapidly changing world.

The Arendt Center has a discussion of a recent open letter by Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee on threats to the humanities and the importance of defending them. He is not optimistic about the state of the university as incubator of independent thought because he believes people at all levels of higher education have lost sight of the value of the humanities, which is bad enough. This only makes the situation seem more dire:

We also find this same loss of belief in the humanities in the ever-increasing talk about using the humanities to teach basic literacy or critical thinking “skills”, in the parlance of recent jargon that dominates committees discussing educational reform. Here is Coetzee:

Even if we grant that critical literacy is as important as you claim, do students really need to know about Hesiod and Petrarch, about Francis Bacon and Jean-Paul Sartre, about the Boxer Rebellion and the Thirty Years War, to attain a sufficient competence in such literacy? Can you not simply design a pair of one­-semester courses – courses in which all undergraduates, no matter what their career track, will be required to enroll – one course to be entitled “Reading and Writing”, in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; and the other to be entitled “Great Ideas”, in which they will be briefed on the main currents of world thought from Ancient Egypt to the present? A pair of courses like that will not require an entire faculty of humanities behind them, merely a school of critical literacy staffed with bright young instructors.

In other words, to argue that what students need are simply skills is to abandon any actual defense of the humanities. While skills can be taught through the humanities, they can likely be taught as well and more cheaply in other ways. Attempts to defend the humanities because they inculcate useful skills does not and cannot defend the humanities themselves. Whether those skills are themselves useful is an open question; the bigger question is whether there are easier ways to acquire those skills then spending years reading and writing about old books.

The thought of adding critical literacy components to the core along the lines of the courses Coetzee describes has occurred to me, but I was thinking of them as courses that would teach students basic things they need to know before taking the rest of their humanities courses. I never thought of using critical literacy courses to replace humanities requirements, but I can certainly see it happening. Doing it that way looks more efficient and can be easily spun as an innovation.

I am not sure what this all means, or where it leads, but I think it is important to pay attention to this stuff, because it has to be influencing the evolution of higher education and some other long-term social trends. Just ignoring it, or leaving it to a small group of experts does not seem like the best way of dealing with it.

Here is one other link, to a New York Times article about an experiment which involves a writer having his brainwave activity monitored while he composes a novella. Once it is published, a group of readers will also have their brains monitored while they read the novella for the first time. The goal of the experiment is to compare the brain scans to see whether or not the readers experience the same or similar emotions that the writer experienced while composing specific parts of the text.