Saturday, January 15, 2011

Wikileaks' Lessons for Media Theory and Politics

Regardless of whether one agrees with allegations that Wikileaks is an international security threat, a new media-facilitated champion of democratic accountability, or that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is a rapist, it is an unmistakably rich object of media and political analysis. Arguably, l’Affaire Wikileaks(hereafter WA) holds lessons about changing relations between new and old media forms and production; attention, circulation, media capital and celebrity; political economy and journalism; and even democracy and international relations.

The WA above all begs attention to attention.1 The affair, not just the material released, became a huge agenda-setter in 2010. Several news organizations dubbed it a “top” story of 2010.2 In Canada, Wikileaksfounder Assange was voted top newsmaker of the year by senior editors at Postmedia Network newspapers and Even more impressively, Assange was nominated for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.4 Other global news organizations, such as France’s Le Monde, named him person of the year.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

More Spin About Voters' Motives?

More discussion of the voters' polling data from the election last week. Big article over at the New Republic. It supports my earlier analysis that people voted a bit out of confusion and anger (perhaps lack of knowledge) about the economy and what Obama's government has done to help improve it. However, a majority of voters said their financial situation was the same OR better than two years ago. A majority of the MINORITY (41%) who said their situation was worse voted Republican. The authors of the article spin it the other way. What to say about those 60% who feel better or at least don't feel worse off? That statistic causes problems for the quick inference that voters voted against Obama.

60% disapprove of Obama's job performance
60% say same or better off financially than two years ago
80% say very concerned about the economy
25% blame Obama for economy
Blame Obama and Democrats and vote Republican??

(Oh, and 20% think he's muslim, and and another 30% who just aren't sure. Figure that in)

The authors do overall suggest the voters are misinformed and voting out of frustration about their perception of the economy. As they say, and contrary to the spin about "the people" having had enough of "Big Govt" and the healthcare bill, blah blah blah, the data shows the contrary.

The authors write:

"The election did not appear to be a repudiation of the new health care reform law. About as many said they wanted to see it remain as is or be expanded (47 percent) as said they wanted it repealed (48 percent). Nor did it appear that voters were embracing the GOP position on tax cuts. A 52-percent majority of voters wanted to either keep only the Bush tax cuts for those under $250,000 or let them all expire compared to 39 percent who wanted to keep all the tax cuts.

Political commentators are notoriously prone to over-interpreting election results. Strategic and policy decisions certainly made some difference in the magnitude of losses, but in a horrible economy it's difficult to escape the reality that Democrats were poised to lose a significant number of seats no matter what they did."

This is more or less what I wrote a couple of days ago, albeit with a longer critique of public opinion polling and analysis that claims to speak for "the people." If you missed that, try it here.

Also published at OP-ed News

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Nov. 2 "The People" Didn't Speak; They Grunted

Americans awoke November 3 to more headlines and soundbites about "the people's voice." I'd call it more of a grunt.

We The People by self
"The American people's voice was heard at the ballot box," declared Speaker-of-the-House-to-be John Boehner. Soon variations of "the people's voice" echoed around traditional news and Internet. Obama has to say, "I hear you, and then, I heard the people speak last night," parroted columnist Mark Shields on PBS's News Hour . "The people have spoken" framecontinues to dominate analyses of what happened and thus what must follow. Seems clear, actually misleading.

Read on and please comment (tell me it sucks, it's great, ramble about something off topic--anything)

The New Elite (The Tea Party is Right About Something?)

I happened upon this Wash Post article plugged on the great Arts & Letters site. At first I thought it's reference to "new elites" was a more journalistic argument supporting my claims about a new kind of authoritative source in the convergence of new media/old media news-making. Actually, it's about a sociologically observable new class of social and political elites in the U.S. and how the Tea Party at least have that right. That old chestnut? "Ordinary" Americans have for quite a long time been complaining about the bankers and fat cats, usually in a couple of metropoles and areas on the East Coast, usually whipped up by some populist orator and with common doses of bigotry in addition. One of my friends who grew up in rural Utah (yes, coastals, go ahead and prove the point of the article: "that's like saying "rural Kansas or Nebraska"--redundant!) tells of a sign on the main highway. In one direction, Los Angeles and the number of miles to it; in the other, New York and "not far enough!"

The thing is, as author and political scientist Charles Murray points out in the article, that this "provinci
alism" is as common in suburban Massachussets and Connecticut (insert joke about redundancy) as it is in rural Utah and Kansas.

So, here's what Murray has to say (I'm not saying it justifies the Tea Party, but...):

That a New Elite has emerged over the past 30 years is not really controversial. That its members differ from former elites is not controversial. What sets the tea party apart from other observers of the New Elite is its hostility, rooted in the charge that elites are isolated from mainstream America and ignorant about the lives of ordinary Americans.


On the surface, it looks as if things have changed. Compared with 50 years ago, the proportion of students coming from old-money families and exclusive prep schools has dropped. The representation of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans has increased. Yet the student bodies of the elite colleges are still drawn overwhelmingly from the upper middle class. According to sociologist Joseph Soares's book "The Power of Privilege: Yale and America's Elite Colleges," about four out of five students in the top tier of colleges have parents whose income, education and occupations put them in the top quarter of American families, according to Soares's measure of socioeconomic status. Only about one out of 20 such students come from the bottom half of families.


Far from spending their college years in a meritocratic melting pot, the New Elite spend school with people who are mostly just like them -- which might not be so bad, except that so many of them have been ensconced in affluent suburbs from birth and have never been outside the bubble of privilege. Few of them grew up in the small cities, towns or rural areas where more than a third of all Americans still live.

Let me propose that those allegations have merit. Read on

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Olbermann Suspended!?? Spin Circus!

So it's at the top of the tickers: Keith Olbermann, MSNBC's counter to Bill O'Reilly, is suspended on ethics charges. Hmm. Don't know where to begin. I'm a professor, if people don't like where I put my money outside of work, tough tartare. It shouldn't prevent me from doing my job. One could say this about hundreds of other jobs, too. But the analogy doesn't even hold. Olbermann is not a journalist, any more than Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh is. He's a daggum commentator, dagnabit. What is this spin circus? Stop the world and let me off.

Matt Taibi of Rolling Stone, says it pretty well.

ust quickly: I just found out about the suspension of Keith Olbermann for making political contributions. NBC apparently has some policy prohibiting journalists from donating to candidates, so they suspended him indefinitely without pay.

I went online and read the news and found the inevitable commentary by ostensible experts on journalistic ethics, who are all lining up to whale on Olbermann. One quote I found in this Bloomberg piece:

"Journalists who work for a news organization have an ethical responsibility to honor their guidelines and standards," said Bob Steele who teaches journalism ethics at Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. "If NBC and MSNBC spelled out those guidelines clearly and Olbermann violated those guidelines, then he should pay the price."

He should pay the price? Is Bob Steele kidding? What the hell is wrong with people?

We had a whole generation of journalists who sat by and did nothing while, for instance, George Bush led us into an idiotic war on a lie, plus thousands more who spent day after day collecting checks by covering Britney's hair and Tiger's text messages and other stupidities while the economy blew up and two bloody wars went on mostly unexamined ... and it's Keith Olbermann who should "pay the price" for being unethical? Because, and let me get this straight, he donated money, privately, to politician." Read on

Sunday, October 24, 2010

That's Democratainment: Obama, Rumor Bombs, and Primary Definers

Published in Flow
A recent survey shows nearly 20% of Americans now believe Barack Obama is a Muslim. That’s about 56 million Americans, a number that has climbed considerably since 2008 (to say nothing of the 43% or 120 million Americans who are “unsure”).1 The bigotry of the phenomenon aside, its durability points to the use of rumor bombs (RBs) to elect and govern, and to the role of a new kind of authoritative source therein.

In 2008, FlowTV published my article on the RB, in which I analyzed issue-agendas that convergence culture produced in the 2008 presidential election, including the RB that Obama is a Muslim (RBOIAM). I argued there was an agenda-setting interplay between old and new media technologies, enabled by YouTube, Adobe Photoshop, and Facebook, among others associated with the revolution in cultural production, distribution, and reception—all of which have been associated by some with a new democratizing agency but which I insisted has economic, political rhetorical, and social constraints. 2 Since then, other RBs have exploded in American media culture with greater and lesser damage (e.g. “death panels” RB regarding Obama’s healthcare bill, and the “racist” Shirley Sherrod RB).

Now I argue not only that accounts of democratizing cultural production must confront the contingencies of distribution in a context of information warfare (exemplified by RBs); but, further, that Hall’s concept of “primary definers,” significantly criticized in media- and cultural studies of the late 80s and early 90s, returns with a new applicability in convergence culture (CC), with the caveat that primary definers/opinion leaders have changed.3 “Primary definers” refers to elite sources who define hegemonic issues and frames for journalists who repeat and alter them. The media capital they wield complicates theories of democratizing media production and distribution in the forging of widely attended issues in public spheres.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Rumor Bomb Barack Obama is a Muslim: Another Episode in Political Vertigo and Negative Politics

Here's the link to my work in progress recently presented at the International Political Science Association's conference on e-democracy in Dubrovnik.
Abstract followed by link:

The rumor bomb Barack Obama is a Muslim: Another episode in political vertigo and negative politics

By Professor Jayson Harsin, Dept. of Global Communications, The American University of Paris

Presented at the IPSA E-Democracy Workshop, Dubrovnik, Croatia

May 2010

Abstract: This study uses the concept of rumor bombs in convergence culture to contribute to analyses of vertiginous public discourses in e-democracy. Furthermore, it has two primary goals: 1) to provide an empirical analysis of rumor bombs on TV news, and 2) to analyze the relationship between internet agenda-setting and "old" news agenda setting. First, it provides a case study of the Rumor Bomb Barack Obama is a Muslim from the 2008 American presidential campaign, a rumor bomb which continues to appear in viral circulation on internet and email over 1.5 years after the election of Obama, with increasing numbers of Americans who say they belive Obama's religion is Muslim. It provides a content and frame analysis of the "Muslim" rumor bomb on American TV news in 2008 in order to see how exactly it appeared and thus how audiences were invited to view the rumor bomb. Secondly, the empirical data is then interpreted within the context of psychological studies and theories of rumor, and of trends in political communication such as negative campaigning, and in news values, such as tabloidization and infotainment. The study finally shows that the links between traditional elite news media and the Internet, contrary to some arguments, demonstrate not the disappearance of elite "primary definers" but a new kind of elite primary definer as a key node in a network of often ideologically homogenous "news" and opinion.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Lost Histories of Economic Rights article-download

Hello. Here's the MS Word version of my article
published in Cultural Studies, Volume 24, Issue 3 May 2010 , pages 333 - 355
Abstract: This article examines the concept and the discontinuous historical usage of the term “economic rights” in American political discourse from the perspective of democratic political freedom. It views the idea and ideology of “economic rights” as a discursive marker pointing to historically contingent relations between government, national economy and individual freedom. It focuses on the only two American presidential articulations of an Economic Bill of Rights and their conjunctures: one by Franklin Roosevelt and another by Ronald Reagan. These two articulations represent two opposing political traditions of economic rights in the United States: the neo-liberal laissez-faire free market tradition and the liberal welfare-state tradition. Both of these liberal traditions are haunted by an older democratic-republican discourse of economic rights, from which they continue to draw normative and affective energy without ever confronting its guiding premises. Contemporary popular discourses about the economic crisis demonstrate the continuation of deeply entrenched though historically outdated understandings of the promise and possibilities of individual freedom and autonomy within the folds of a society completely transformed by capitalist modernity. Present considerations of this history reveal possible resources for political struggles.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Rumor Bomb article download

Here's a new link to my original article on the Rumor Bomb. You should be able to click the title to download the Pdf. "The Rumour Bomb: Theorising the Convergence of New and Old Trends in Mediated US Politics"

    1. Harsin, Jayson. The Rumour Bomb: Theorising the Convergence of New and Old Trends in Mediated US Politics. Southern Review: Communication, Politics & Culture; Volume 39, Issue 1; 2006; 84-110;
    2. ^ (reprinted in Michael Ryan (ed.). 2008. Cultural Studies: An Anthology. London: Blackwell.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Hurricane Katrina, Four Years Later

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the property and lives of thousands of New Orleansiens. Indeed, 1,836 people died in the hurricane and subsequent flooding. Over 700,000 applications were made to FEMA for housing following the hurricane. Four years later, over 100,000 still live in the nearly 38,000 trailers provided by the government. There has been a lot of talk about security over the last eight years. Sadly the term has been largely applied to military preparations. Katrina was a poignant example of how government social security is absolutely necessary in any humane democracy where we have obligations to each other, not just to ourselves. That kind of humaneness and moral duty requires some financial sacrifice in the form of taxes. A private corporation can't provide this security. Who would pay for it but citizens, and their motive would be profit (sorry to even have to point this out, but extreme anti-government sentiments have recently reared their heads in the healthcare non-debate). IN addition, lack of resources or re-located resources in downsizing government, cutting taxes, cynically in the name of "security" was reportedly part of the reason the levees were not repaired and strong enought to protect thousands of citizens in New Orleans.
Let us have a moment of cyber silence for those who died, and those who are still suffering, their livelihoods, families, and possessions completely devastated by an act of nature and an act of government negligence (which many of us are complicit in, as we supported its ideologies).
Here's what I had to say about it three years ago:

"[Also appears atBlogcritics:]

copyright 2006 Jayson Harsin

One year after Hurricane Katrina, the mediated remembrance of that American political (as much as natural) disaster remains sadly selective and, well, typical. On Katrina's first anniversary, American media cheerfully circulate a renewed barrage of stories about glorious private generosity in a time of need; and hackneyed political slogans about security, freedom, duty, compassion, and an ownership society. Those who deliberately use such words are obviously cynical since they imply that democracy does not require careful discussion of complex and emotionally powerful words/ideas such as freedom and security, so they use them with clear consciences to gain consent for their own agendas.

The material insecurity of thousands of American citizens in New Orleans (representative of millions of others in that country and the world) so terribly evident in the images of floating bodies, on the one hand, and an exodus of SUVs, on the other, was the bitterest of ironies since it came at a time when political speech and news media inundated the American public with platitudes about national security and freedom. Recent attempts to exploit the occasion of the uncovered London bombing plan have generated a similar mediated political climate on Katrina's anniversary. Yet such powerful but contested words, as Abraham Lincoln noted, must in the name of ethics be defined and their competing interpretations discussed:

Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names—liberty and tyranny.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty. (Address at a Sanitary Fair, 1864)
A year ago, it was obvious to many Americans (certainly to those waterlogged and praying on their rooftops for rescue of their bodies, since the material markers of their American dream were gone forever) that it was time for a re-thinking or rediscovery of security and government and citizen responsibility for the minimal wellbeing of all American citizens. This latter issue should not have to be argued here, but for those doubters, consider the caution of some of the world's greatest thinkers on the health of democratic republics. Katrina has everything to do with the health and future of American democracy as an example for the world.

Aristotle, for example, argued that it was in the interest of all that a democracy did not have great extremes in wealth (Politics 6.5, and discussed in relation to the founding of the U.S. by David Hopp): "Poverty is the cause of the defects of democracy. That is the reason why measures should be taken to ensure a permanent level of prosperity. "

He does not say that everyone should have the same amount of wealth, but just that great extremes are dangerous to the health of democracy, since they produce envy, faction, hate, and possibly even revolution. Ironically, George W. Bush has even unwittingly acknowledged this truth, applying it to Iraq and not to his own country:

I believe that God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again. As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny and despair and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends. (State of the Union Address 2004)
America is a great force for freedom and prosperity. Yet our greatness is not measured in power or luxuries, but by who we are and how we treat one another. So we strive to be a compassionate, decent, hopeful society. (State of the Union Address, 2006; See Also Second Inaugural)
One of the greatest leaders in the history of democracy, the Athenian Pericles, went so far as to argue that this kind of equality and commitment to one another in a democracy even made its armies more formidable, as they had so much more to lose, unlike those forced to fight for regimes with huge discrepancies in power. One might recall this, too, as over 2,600 young Americans have now died and nearly 20,000 have been wounded in Iraq in the name of the duty to spread freedom and to insure American security by pre-empting terrorism.

One year later, the cutting irony than Katrina occurred in a media and political culture saturated with security and freedom talk has not abated. This is not wholly the fault of opportunistic politicians, Republicans as well as Democrats, who deliberately stultify such lofty terms as freedom, democracy, and security to suit their agendas. It is also the fault of the news media.

Political Communication scholars note the short-life of new stories or cycles. Newsgathering business values privilege certain orientations over others in the coverage of events--what scholars call news "frames." A frame refers to "persistent patterns of selection, emphasis, and exclusion which furnish an interpretation of events." An episodic frame is one the most popular news frame in U.S. news culture. Episodic frames fit into action entertainment genres. Something erupts out of a state of equilibrium, which then passes, resolved by the triumph of good and the punishments it metes or the healing process of grief. These events give way to another major newsworthy event designed to sustain interest for a short while. Thematic frames, on the other hand, give publics a deeper historical and causal explanation for events, and they would, ideally, provide voice to many different sources in the production of such explanations.
Sadly, though Katrina received some more complex explanations and discussions, they were not terribly widespread, and this partly due to the short time constraints of mainstream news presentations, which due to the structure of their productions, favor limited sources and soundbite explanations, if any at all (often viewers are left to infer what might be the cause of a huge event, such as the LA riots of 1992 or the Seattle Protests against the WTO). So it was with Katrina, and after quick rhetorical fixes and false promises to address the puzzling issue of unequal opportunities and conditions (even to exodus a disaster zone) with "bold action." Katrina, like the news frame that largely accompanied it, swept in like--a hurricane. Then it rolled out almost as quickly, as if such threats to security of citizens and the health of democracy itself were just another episodic news story. Such media and political treatments of the most serious threats to American security have resulted in an ignorance of the magnitude and roots of the problem.

In this context, in memory of those who died and lost their homes and other possessions, it is worth thinking carefully about how our political leaders, media, and society have remembered the tragedy.

Security after New Orleans: What Time Tells Us

Poignant images of poor New Orleans residents retreating from the deluge touched a nation and a world, raising troublesome questions about security and the cyclical issue of poverty in the United States. For some older Americans, these images evoked an earlier security panic—the Great Depression. We heard talk about New Deals: both the rediscovery of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s and the promise of George W. Bush’s. Beneath the surface of apparent similarity, however, the two deals and the insecurity they promised to relieve were fundamentally different. Bush’s affinity for the New Deal does not run deep, and this is not the first time that he and his predecessors have used its keywords to support policies that undermine its spirit of securing freedom for all Americans.

Roosevelt’s deal was new by comparison to the security and freedom doctrine that came before him. His predecessor Herbert Hoover responded to a condition of national insecurity with ineffective solutions of rugged individualism and minimalist government. Roosevelt argued for a more activist federal government, not to expand government-for-government’s-sake, but because the Depression had shown that individuals could no longer be held completely responsible for their own security. In a time when small shopkeepers, entrepreneurs and farmers were fast disappearing, Roosevelt identified the primary threat to security as the market free of public interest. He promoted a vision of Abraham Lincoln’s government of, by, and for the people as a citizen’s vehicle for dealing with the inevitable and sometimes catastrophic whims of nature, markets and businesses. He maintained this mature vision of security even in the throes of World War II, emphasizing the equal importance of military and social security. For Roosevelt, the social and economic aspects of security were so critical to American freedom that he went so far as to call for an Economic Bill of Rights to supplement the already existing political Bill of Rights.

At the heart of Roosevelt’s New Deal was his argument that freedom could not be viewed as a natural state individually embraced through work or willingly denied through sloth when 1/3 of the American nation was ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed. In fact, Roosevelt viewed such poverty as a threat to the nation’s political, social and military security.

The poverty laid bare by Hurricane Katrina demonstrates that obtrusive conditions confronted during the Depression do in fact persist today, in terms of housing, education, healthcare, leisure, political access. Bush’s response to this has been far from “new.” Like Hoover, Reagan, and his own father before him, Bush continues to promote self-discipline and private cures, includig voluntarism, as solutions to large-scale security problems. In this decades-old argument, the federal government should cut all but verbal support for those living in insecure economic conditions, leaving the relief work to good Samaritans who represent the best of the American spirit. But the private sphere of charities could not deal with the magnitude of the security fallout in New Orleans.

The media unwittingly promoted this voluntarist line, telling the New Orleans story almost exclusively through the melodramatic frames of individual heroism and natural disaster. Largely absent from this coverage was an analysis of how Bush and his predecessors’ attempts to repeal the (old) New Deal directly contributed to the un-natural disaster that was Katrina. Katrina was a necessary cause for New Orleans, but it was not sufficient. By relentlessly trimming the “fat” of FDR’s legacy from the federal budget—including income supports, transportation, and public works such as levee repair—the Bush administration has left behind a skeleton security state unable to withstand any significant threat.

In the wake of the hurricane, Bush promised support for minority-owned small businesses but failed to specify how education, public health, and other key resources would be permanently secured for vulnerable citizens. On the contrary, he and some Republicans argued that reconstruction could be financed by trimming more "fat" (part of the plan to promote freedom and prosperity for all). Additional cuts only aggravate the insecurity of poor Americans. Besides, why reconstruct if only to abandon citizens to insecurity again?

George W. Bush staked his reputation on security and has said repeatedly that his number one duty is to protect U.S. citizens. But security has many meanings and demands. The deep floodwaters of New Orleans revealed just how shallow Bush's understanding of security really was. A year later, the president and the media have made little effort to face the deep responsibilities of national security.

Monday, August 17, 2009

"Bye Bye Public Option?" Dangerously Misleading Headlines.

"Frames are principles of selection, emphasis and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens, and what matters."
(Gitlin 1980: 6)

So I awoke to Facebook link-posts this morning to news that "The White House Appears to Drop 'Public Option,'" or even "'Public Option' Proposal Dead". Sure enough my mailing of political headlines from Slate Magazine reconfirmed the supposedly irrevocable: Obama had given in to the astroturf mobs and Rightwing Rumor Bombers. "Bye-Bye Public Option," Daniel Politi wrote in Slate. Looking further into those articles, I realized that this was a dangerously misleading frame/interpretation/emphasis of some comments made by Administration officials.

The most widely circulated article about the alleged Obama dropping of the Obama healthcare hot potato was by the AP. "Bowing to Republican pressure and an uneasy public," the AP wrote, "President Obama's administration signaled Sunday it is ready to abandon the idea of giving Americans the option of government-run insurance as part of a new health care system." Okay, "ready to abandon." That's strong stuff, considering all the Town Hall hoopla of the last week.

Still not getting to the real kernel that allowed this defeatist inference, the article frames the public-option as a "liberal" (real universally positive label) initiative, the dropping of which could allow Obama the option of compromising with "GOP" (not "conservative or right-wing) lawmakers: "Such a concession probably would enrage Obama's liberal supporters but could deliver a much-needed victory on a top domestic priority opposed by GOP lawmakers."

This liberal/GOP frame makes it look like noone but a "liberal" (whatever that is) could be for the program. But the real evidence or statements from which this inference were made came half-way down the page. The dead public option claim is based first on a comment by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is paraphrased to have "said that government alternative to private health insurance is 'not the essential element' of the administration's health care overhaul. The White House would be open to co-ops, she said, a sign that Democrats want a compromise so they can declare a victory." They took "not the essential element" and inferred that the "public-option" was dead for Obama and everyone else?

They finally get to Obama's Press Secretary and Obama himself. Yet they say Press Secretary Robert Gibbs "refused to say a public option was a make-or-break choice." It's a powerful interpretation, one might say biased, to then headline these comments that the public option is "dead" or that Obama "appears ready to drop" it. It's big, big news. But it's a dangerous hyperbole.

Here's what Gibbs said: "What I am saying is the bottom line for this for the president is, what we have to have is choice and competition in the insurance market."

The story also frames Obama as having back pedalled the day before at a townhall meeting in Colorado. "Obama appeared to hedge his bets," they said before the following quote:

"All I'm saying is, though, that the public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of health care reform....This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it."

Well, it may be fair to assume Obama has opened the debateable options, but interpret that he has abandoned the public option, or that it's "dead"? That's a very political, biased framing of the statements.

It's also dangerous because many people may have the impression that the fake grassroots disrupters (astroturfers) at town hall meetings were actually representative of the majority of Americans. Some public opinion scholars would suggest there could be a bandwagon and a spiral of silence effect based on those representations. People often don't want to feel like they're a small opposed minority and so they keep quiet, thinking they're outnumbered. Or they want to be part of the majority, so they hop on the wagon. Then there's the problem of all the Death Panel and other Rumor Bombs and the difficult-to-guage effect they've had. (Also note how some of these defeatist frames have a visual frame that symbolizes Obama as weary, wiping the tired sweat from his brow) Framing Obama as having caved into opponents here invites a perception that the Rumor Bombs and the thugs at town hall's were right all along.

But now tonight, I read just the opposite, as if Obama is responding to the media framing snowjob of this morning. "Obama Still Favors Public Health Plan," says CNN tonight. Even the Heritage Foundation Blog notes that the administration is trying to correct this wrong impression about the President's position. They also claim the Administration says Sebelius "misspoke": "An anonymous administration official told that Sebelius “misspoke” and White House health reform communications director Linda Douglass released a statement explaining:
"Nothing has changed. The president has always said that what is essential is that health-insurance reform must lower costs, ensure that there are affordable options for all Americans and it must increase choice and competition in the health-insurance market. He believes the public option is the best way to achieve those goals.”
Obama's comments Saturday (perhaps even Sebelius's yesterday) were probably a trial ballon (testing the waters) or misspoken, or a combination thereof. But even so, there is nothing in them to warrant the leap that Obama was ready to give up on the public option. Framing matters. It can also be viral and function like a rumor bomb. Who knows what damage has been done. Tomorrow's frames will surely tell the story.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Album Review: Steve Earle's Tribute to Townes VanZandt

Steve Earle

by Jayson Harsin

A distinctively Earle-stamped tribute to one of the greatest American songwriters of all time. Read on

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

May Day: To the Folks Who Brought Us the Weekend!

[I wrote this a few years ago for this blog, and now I re-post it every year. If you like it, please digg it or yahoo buzz, etc.]

I used to think "May Day" was a distress signal uniquely reserved for hapless pilots and captains. In fact, it wasn't until graduate school while taking an American rhetorical history course that I learned about the Haymarket Riots/Massacre and that Labor Day for many people around the world (International Workers Day), except for Americans, is May 1, in memory of those who died in Chicago on May 3 and 4, 1886 and in celebration of the humanist accomplishments of the international labor movement.

On May 1, labor unions had organized a strike there for the eight-hour day, better working conditions ("The Jungle" is hard to beat on this), for an ideal of international proportions: that one's labor and the person from whom it issues must be respected. For some people such respect meant that laborers deserved certain rights of negotiation and safety to avoid a new feudalism in the age of mass production.

On May3, they organized a strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., where a fight broke out on the picket line; police intervened, killing two workers and wounding several others. Workers across the city were enraged. Anarchists then distributed flyers for a labor rally at Haymarket Square the following day. Reports vary in this highly politicized event, but many note that people listened peacefully to anarchist leader August Spies's address. Then apparently someone threw a bomb over the crowd, which landed on the police line killing a police officer and wounding other policeman who died later. Policeman fired into the crowd killing a number of people (there are no uncontested counts). Eight German immigrants associated with anarchism were rounded up and convicted on no evidence. The motive was that they were anarchists. Seven of them were sentenced to death. One committed suicide. One's sentence was commuted to life in prison. And five were hanged publicly.

The trial produced some of the most eloquent criticisms of American industrial society and its political butresses. Some, such as George Engel's, even provide an explanation/argument for how one came to be a socialist/anarchist. Here is an excerpt from George Englel's address to the jury, which I recommend reading in its entirety by clicking on this link.

[...]On the occasion of my arrival at Philadelphia, on the 8th of January, 1873, my heart swelled with joy in the hope and in the belief that in the future I would live
and in a free country. I made up my mind to become a good citizen of this country, and congratulated myself on having left Germany, and landed in this glorious republic. And I believe my past history will bear witness that I have ever striven to be a good citizen of this country. This is the first occasion of my standing before an American court, and on this occasion it is murder of which I am accused. And for what reasons do I stand here? For what reasons am I accused of murder? The same that caused me to leave Germany-
of the working classes.
And here, too, in this "free republic," in the richest country of the world, there are numerous proletarians for whom no table is set; who, as outcasts of society, stray joylessly through life. I have seen human beings gather their daily food from the garbage heaps of the streets, to quiet therewith their knawing hunger.
I have read of occurrences in the daily papers which proves to me that here, too, in this great "free land," people are doomed to die of starvation. This brought me to reflection, and to the question: What are the peculiar causes that could bring about such a condition of society? I then began to give our political institutions more attention than formerly. [...]

"I came to the opinion that as long as workingmen are economically enslaved they cannot be politically free. [...]
Of what does my crime consist?
That I have labored to bring about a system of society by which it is impossible for one to hoard millions, through the improvements in machinery, while the great masses sink to degradation and misery. As water and air are free to all, so should the inventions of scientific men be applied for the benefit of all. The statute laws we have are
in that they rob the great masses of their rights "to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
I am too much a man of feeling not to battle against the societary conditions of today. Every considerate person must combat a system which makes it possible for the individual to rake and hoard millions in a few years, while, on the other side, thousands become tramps and beggars.
Is it to be wondered at that under such circumstances men arise, who strive and struggle to create other conditions,
over all other considerations? [...]

As this article demonstrates, the radical democratic history of May Day has been coopted in a few places in the world (in an attempt to rob it of its radical history as a resource for current politics), namely the U.S. Like other rights and practices many people hold to be sacred today, the eight-hour day was the result of social struggle and bloodshed (I'm just testifying about it; don't try this at home) by those considered "extremists."

In that same graduate school class where I learned about the history of May Day, a Polish student who had grown up in the last days of the Soviet Empire told an interesting story. Apparently on May Day, a Polish TV news correspondent was sent to Chicago to report on May Day. He went to the site of the Hay Market, where a monument to the police had been constructed then vandalized. (Only in 2004 was one constructed to acknowledge the workers who died there too. The politics of memorializing this event is quite a story in itself--see "Haymarket Square in the Aftermath"). The Polish reporter went around Chicago asking citizens if they knew that May Day was an international holiday in memory of the Haymarket riots and massacre. No one knew what he was talking about. He responded on their Communist state-run TV broadcast, "This is how capitalism perpetuates itself. Citizens here are robbed of their own history and live in a dreamworld." You don't have to like the Soviet Union to find truth in his observation. (and please, neo-liberals, don't be so cynical as to characterize this memorial as an extreme argument for state ownership of property;it's rather about some redistribution for equal opportunity and the basis for participation in civic life, and limitation of the most powerful who set the terms for the labor market)

The testimony of Engel and others at their fateful trial is also a causal argument about what desperate human beings will do when they suffer political exclusion to work out conflict peacefully. The fact that this event is largely a ghost in American history speaks to how unwilling some people are to look at the ugliness of our history (not that forgetting isn't best in some situations from a certain point of view), the struggles of citizen against citizen because such knowledge is threatening to myths of nation and its tenuous coherence. It's also threatening to those whose interests invested in criminalizing critiques of a consumer society that is killing our planet, not just its people. Part of the reason why it may continue is the suppression of other knowledges of the past and critiques of the present. Just as many wounded laborers were afraid to go to the hospital for fear of being arrested when police opened fire on the crowd on May 4, 1886 (after the bomb exploded) , so today one faces being branded an extremist, a radical, a revolutionary, merely for remembering this past.

Today (yesterday for some people reading this) is May Day. Today, let us remember these people who brought us the weekend.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Economic Crisis and Religious Dictates Against Usury

As I'm preparing a talk on the current economic crisis from the perspective of a history of American popular understandings of democracy and its relationship to economic regulation, I ran across the following article. My own research leaves me amazed at how so many Americans claim to be religious, yet their support of recent economic policies stands in conflict with their religious dictates. The Torah, the Koran, and the Bible all ban usury, and have passages that have been interpreted as obliging redistribution of resources. Why don't people know about their own religions? Certain interests and their selective readings have for various reasons won out recently. Is there chance that will change in the near future?

March 28, 2009

On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced sweeping changes in the nation's finance rules, specifically targeting the derivative financial products that led to the credit crisis, mortgage crisis, banking crisis, and the crisis in the American automobile industry.. Predictably, some conservatives have responded that such policies would lead to "socialism," or a similar compromise of the free-enterprise American dream.

In fact, such regulations are as old as the Ten Commandments, and as American as apple pie: they are nothing more than an update of the ancient prohibitions on usury, or the unfair charging of interest. And while today, "usury" has a whiff of the antiquarian about it (or worse, one of antisemitism), if we look closely at what usury laws were meant to do, I think we'll discover that they are much more relevant, and worthy, than we might suppose.

Western civilization's original usury laws are found in the Bible: the Torah contains several prohibitions against lending money at interest, and the New Testament several condemnations of it. Deuteronomy 23:20-21 is representative: "Thou shalt not lend upon interest to thy brother: interest of money, interest of victuals, interest of any thing that is lent upon interest. Unto a foreigner thou mayest lend upon interest; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon interest; that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all that thou puttest thy hand unto, in the land whither thou goest in to possess it."

I will return to the distinction between Israelite and foreigner below, but first, however, I want to explore rationales for the usury prohibition in the first place. In the Deuteronomy passage above, the reason is somewhat generic: interest is forbidden, like many other ritual and ethical acts, "so that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all that thou puttest thy hand unto."

In Leviticus 25:35-37, however, a more specific reason is given: "And if thy brother be waxen poor, and his means fail with thee; then thou shalt uphold him: as a stranger and a settler shall he live with thee. Take thou no interest of him or increase; but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon interest, nor give him thy victuals for increase."

Here, at least two reasons are given: first, the ethical value of caring for the poor, and second, "that thy brother may live with thee." If one were to charge interest, the text suggests, the bonds of society would collapse; rich and poor could not live together. Later commentators developed these dual rationales. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, said that usury is both morally wrong and an improper form of "double-charging," because money is a means of commerce, not a thing in itself.

"That thy brother may live with me," in other words, is a prudential argument, not a moral/ethical one. The concern here is not only that usury is immoral -- it takes advantage of the weak -- but also that civil society itself would be compromised if usury were allowed. This, not ethnocentrism, is why lending to foreigners was allowed; the concern was with the economic health and civil cohesion of Israelite society, which would are not threatened by lending to outsiders. But if usury multiplied risk and magnified inequity within the community of Israel, chaos would result.

Notice, too, that these twin rationales extend the purview of usury law far beyond the narrow contemporary meaning of charging excessive interest. Today, all states have usury statutes that cap the rate of interest for loans. But the Biblical and exegetical usury statutes are broader: they are aimed at the moral turpitude, societal inequity, and economic instability inherent in making money from money.

Translated into today's economic realities, this has indeed come to pass. Wealthy institutions have lured poor people into unsustainable and unstable credit arrangements, and indeed, the basic cords of our society have begun to fray. As we have seen in the excesses of executive compensation, we have lost the moral compass which once tied pay to some notions of actual work and fairness, rather than to the made-up prices of economic bubbles. Indeed, our current crisis is exactly the economic, societal, and ethical chaos which the usury laws sought to prevent.

Today's derivatives market, for example, is precisely about "making money from money" -- but taken to new and ludicrous extremes. The credit default swaps which were largely responsible for sinking insurance giant A.I.G. were essentially bets about whether certain debts would be paid or defaulted-upon. Now, as it happened, debtors defaulted in such numbers that they brought down the house. But this derivative security should never have been legal in the first place. It is a bet on making money from money; or rather, a bet on making money from lending money at a near-usurious rate of interest, and thus a usurious attempt to make money from making money from making money. As the Bible itself knew, bubbles pop.

The anti-usury value does not and should not depend on the percentage rate of interest. It is a wider prohibition, both ethical and prudential, against making money from money. Of course, it cannot be taken too literally, either; credit is what makes our economy run, as we have now learned the hard way. But in principle, anti-usury values are fundamental to the American experience, and more needed now than ever.

To ban or heavily regulate usurious derivative securities is not socialism. It's the Bible.

Jay Michaelson --from the Huffington Post

Thursday, April 09, 2009

NATO Protests and Repressive Tolerance: State Containment of Free Speech

The tactics of French police directed by the State to thwart the rights of freedom of expression in Strasbourg this week for NATO meetings are a troubling but sobering sign of a recent trend of ever more repressive tolerance in Western liberal democracies, by which I refer to the phenomenon of increasing state caricature of rights to free speech by cordoning it off, thwarting its circulation, which amounts, in effect, to freedom to speak to the wall.

French police literally shut down the entire city and quarantined the protestors. While 40,000 to 50,000 protestors were expected, according to the AP wire, only about half of that estimate were counted on site. There is evidence that the reduced presence is due to police harassment, detainment, containment and arrests of hundreds of protesters. One wonders what tactics were used to reduce the numbers further. The AP Wire writes,

"On thursday night in Strasbourg police detained at least 300 people and forced demonstrators back into a tent camp on the edge of the city."

Was the city effectively closed by police order to deprive the protestors of an audience and to create less of a media spectacle ? In other words, did the state attempt to stifle free political speech?

While there is also a trend of violence among fringe protestors, it is no wonder that violence broke out in Strasbourg given police provocations and the frustration born of this quarantine.

21 March Le Monde: "The mayor of Strasbourg didn't really have a say in the deployment of security forces in the city [for the NATO summit]. It was the French and German governments, in consultation with NATO and the U.S., which decided on the security measures and put them in place." The article continues, "The inhabitants of Strasbourg have the impression of witnessing their city under seige: no parking, transportation by bicycle encouraged, buses rerouted, and public services temporarily closed." Many businesses closed as the result of the policy.

Another independent account states that all bridges were closed and the protestors had no way out. IN other words, they were brutally, strategically quarantined. Why?

A Le Monde journalist Arnaud Leparmentier spoke of how he was allowed, ironically, to be seated two rows behind Obama for the press conference. Police, the journalist said, tightly blocked entrance to the conference, yet no one ever checked his bag, which he noted could have of course contained a bomb, hypothetically. Why the double standard?

Yesterday, Wednesday July 9 I was approaching the Invalides metro, the common site of a great many protests in Paris, to find Tamils, of which there are estimated to be 60,000 refugees in France," protesting the Sri Lankan governments offensive against Tamil rebels. I was shocked to see hundreds of them boxed in like cattle in an approximately 20x10 yards square area. Many were seated on the ground, while others stood and chanted. I witnessed no violence whatsoever. Some police mocked the protesters, while others attempted to block any contact the protesters could have with an audience of passersby. One man leaned over a makeshift fence to offer leaflets to anyone who wished to have them. Several people including myself approached him out of curiosity. Immediately, the police rushed over and took his leaflets, telling him he could not pass them out. Why, I don't know, unless French foreign policy includes silencing protests such as this.

Outside the 2004 Republican nominating convention in New York, protesters were confined to what was euphemistically called a "free speech zone," which protesters referred to as a cage. What is free about free speech in these situations? Is this what founders of Western constitutions had in mind when they spoke of liberty and equality, sacred rights of political assembly and freedom of expression. These are tactics more akin to fascist control of protest, provoking violence, then meeting it with disproportionate force. But most of all they have media effects.

There are few spectacular media images such as the fire hoses being turned on children in the Civil Rights movement. The spectacular images are of the lunatic black block, precisely the undermining of the protest organizers' strategies. None of the stories I read when I googled "Strasbourg," "NATO," and "protests" attempted to discuss why and what is was protesters were protesting. Instead we got tried and true frames that media business values commonly dictate. Conflict and violence. But this frame was lent by the State attempt to control speech. Why these measures? In the same way that states have learned from their mistakes in control (or lack thereof) in war situations, from Vietnam to Algeria. So they've learned ways to defuse the power of protests.

What this means is that the old strategies for effective change via consciousness raising in marches are largely co opted today. They must find other ways of addressing audiences and circulating messages in the way they intend.

more pictures here