On The Use & Abuse Of Media

After all that’s been written for and against gay marriage, there’s one major aspect of the issue that has received almost no attention at all. And it may be the most important part.

In the early 2000’s, 31 U.S. states passed constitutional amendments that specifically reiterated the definition of marriage as being one-man-one-woman. By 2015, when the Supreme Court struck those down, a majority of Americans in surveys said they no longer disapproved of gay marriage.

Aside from any feeling about the issue itself, that change should be fascinating. Has there ever been a faster shift of so large a portion of the population on so major an issue? In only about a decade, millions of people just changed their mind.

And nobody seems to be asking why or how.

I think the answer is obvious, if we do bother to ask. Those millions of people didn’t all just spontaneously have random changes of heart, in history’s biggest coincidence.

No. The media worked on us. What else could it have been?

There’s no need here to rehash the many, many positive portrayals of gay people and their relationships on TV over the last few decades (a short summary, though, is here); I don’t think anyone would deny that such portrayals were very common, that they became more common over time, and that the amount of characters involved was disproportionate to the general population in real life.  Again, no value judgment about gay marriage either way is needed in order to simply see that TV’s tendency to preach the virtue of gays was widespread. One might say that this trend was meant to combat ignorance–fair enough. My point here is that the trend exists.

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Teachers as Curators

An old dichotomy has it that teachers are “the sage on the stage” or “the guide on the side,” (though I think it’s really a bit of both), but especially in the digital age, we’re also curators. For an English teacher in particular, a lot of our job now entails being a gatekeeper of media materials.

We’ve always taught students how to evaluate such things (as credible sources in a research unit, for example), but more and more I find myself actively showing young people how to be critical consumers of mass media. From web sites to classic movies to whatever’s on Netflix, the little tangents in class are now frequently spent in comparing and contrasting things, noting on what criteria various things succeed or fail, or modeling some other process of sifting the timeless from the ephemeral in the electronic world.

It doesn’t hurt (or help?) that practically any given day in my classes will consist of bits of various media squeezed in to help illustrate things, make connections, and extend ideas.

Today, for instance, my speech & debate class watched this video about vocal fry. Classes that are starting Huckleberry Finn just got a posting on our class web page about free audio resources online to help them understand the dialects. This was after our last class, where they annotated this article about free speech controversies in American schools, and which I supplemented with another post on our web page with ancillary resources, including this NPR interview with President Obama’s recent thoughts about banning unpopular speech in colleges (he’s against it).

The illustration at the top of that free speech article, though? I pointed out that that little boy looks like Danny in The Shining. Only a few kids got the reference. I briefly summarized the movie and recommended it, for those who like horror. Other great but obscure-to-kids-these-days movies I’ve name-checked and given a thumbs up to in recent classes: Animal House, The Sound of Music, The Iron Giant, Seven, Galaxy Quest…and Dude, Where’s My Car? (They don’t all have to be masterpieces.)

I see myself doing more, not less, of this in the future. With an ever-greater abundance of choices, with an ever-greater past body of work behind them, and with increasing consolidation and dumbing-down of mainstream media, such cultural literacy and evaluative skills will be more important to them than ever.

What this also means, though, is that teachers need to be constantly updating their own reserve of media resources. That’s the professional development of the 21st century.

Dear Reporters of the Future: Here’s the Scandalous Dirt on Huston!

So, you’re a reporter and at some point I’ve become a figure of public note. Anything’s possible.

For whatever reason, society has become aware of me, and it’s your job to provide the details that will disgrace me, because that’s how the media works.

But that requires endless hours of tedious online research, digging into every little thing I’ve ever done. And this blog alone has over 1500 entries! What’s the busy would-be muckraker with a calendar full of Internet porn to do?

Well, look no further! As a service to the journalists, pundits, and (who knows?) rival campaign staffers of the future, here, in one handy-dandy collection, is a treasure trove of quotes that you can use to embarrass me in front of the tabloid headline-addicted world.

Sure, you’ll have to take them out of context and selectively edit them, but you’re part of the press! That’s what you do.

 

 

“I hate all the      

problems society gives to

minorities.”

“I enjoy sleeping with

my family at home at night while all the other families and

children

sleep in their homes.”

“I support killing

any attempt to censor the views of

my political opponents.”

Star Wars Episode I was

not

a really good movie.”

 

 

That last one alone should get any target demographic to rally against me!

“Culture Trumps Politics”

Mark Steyn, as always, is way ahead of the curve here.  By the time most of my fellow conservatives figure this out, I fear, we’ll be even more of a consciously inconsequential minority, a marginal annoyance with little functional power, than we already are.

*****

Where the Action Is,” National Review, 3/10/14

You can’t have conservative government in a liberal culture, and that’s the position the Republican party is in….Liberals expend tremendous effort changing the culture. Conservatives expend tremendous effort changing elected officials every other November — and then are surprised that it doesn’t make much difference. Culture trumps politics — which is why, once the question’s been settled culturally, conservatives are reduced to playing catch-up, twisting themselves into pretzels….

Culture is the long view; politics is the here and now. Yet in America vast cultural changes occur in nothing flat, while, under our sclerotic political institutions, men elected to two-year terms of office announce ambitious plans to balance the budget a decade after their terms end. Here, again, liberals show a greater understanding of where the action is….

So, no, I’m not particularly focused on a Tuesday in November in 2016. Liberals understand that it’s in the 729 days between elections that you win all the prizes that matter, on all the ground conservatives have largely abandoned.

What Is the Future of Conservatism?Commentary, January 2013

The Democrats used their brutal Romney-gives-you-cancer/ Ryan-offs-your-granny advertising in Ohio as bad cop to the good cop of Obama’s cultural cool. The trouble for conservatives is we have no good cop. That’s to say, we have no positive presence in the broader cultural space where real people actually live. We have all the talk-radio shows and cable networks we need, and the rest of the country is happy to leave us walled up in those redoubts. But culture trumps politics, and not just in the movies and pop songs, grade schools and mainline churches, but increasingly in the boardrooms, too. Instead of giving your hard-earned dollars to help drag some finger-in-the-windy squish with an R after his name over the finish line every other November, conservatives need to start fighting on the turf that matters. We risk winding up like the Shakers–dependent on conversion while eschewing all effective means thereof.

 

“There’s No Such Thing As Normal!”

In my years of teaching, perhaps no pop-culture cliché has annoyed me as much as this.  I’ve heard dozens of earnest, zealous teens announce this one with a look of holy glee on their faces, ecstatic at the chance to show off how well they’ve internalized this bit of media indoctrination.

Whenever this line gets repeated, I, in my role as a teacher of the English language, feel compelled to address the error:

Me: “Yes, there is.  It’s in the dictionary.  Look under ‘N.'”

Teen: “But it doesn’t mean anything.  There’s no such thing as normal!”

Me: “Since you won’t look it up, or consider my point, I’ll walk you through this.   Continue reading

“Speaking Out”

This is one of the great media clichés of our time.  Whenever a news outlet reports on an event, if they favor what someone’s saying, or if they want to make it appear artificially dramatic, they refer to it as “speaking out.”

Only good people “speak out.”  People speak out about curing cancer, improving education, helping the poor, and promoting peace.  Nobody speaks out about insignificant issues, or political causes the media doesn’t like.  People certainly do talk about these things publicly, but they can’t be given the media’s honored sanction of “speaking out.”

Look for this in the news, especially local news, and you’ll see what I mean.

 

How Scripture Study Counteracts the Negative Effects of Sensory Overload

From a great essay at  Segullah:

Input always travels the path of least resistance. So the second time we see the new image, it will travel the same route. And before long, the new neural pathway has been stimulated enough to “desire” of itself continued activation. A habit is born.

After that, when the brain is not currently occupied, we long for that image. That is why we constantly check our phones or email. That is why, when we have a free moment, we click onto a favorite blog, check facebook, and tweets, or any other source of input we frequent. Without realizing it, we have begun to crave these places of input, hunger for them, to the point where they can surreptitiously dominate our time.

Tina said the only way to counterbalance this is with ancient and modern scripture. We must expose our brains repeatedly to the image or sound of God’s words. Printed, glowing on the page, read aloud, or discussed with friends. That is where God’s Spirit lives. It is where His mind and will can rise out of the texts we read or the conversations we share, and filter into our lives, allowing revelation to move through us.

And the money quote: “The battle today, between Babylon and Zion, is being waged between the synapses of our brains.”

I Give Another Morningside At Seminary

As this last school year drew near to a close, I figured I just wouldn’t be invited back to speak at the seminary for the high school where I work, even though I’d spoken there the year before, but with only a few weeks left, a couple of young men I know on the student council came and asked me to give another address at the end of May. 

I’d known since right after my first morningside what I’d speak on if I were brought back: living by gospel standards.  Below are the notes I used for my talk a month and a half ago.

  • Review message from last year about Book of Mormon.
  • Share Alma 30:34 & 36:24 about leaders serving to share their joy–and that’s why I’m here (but don’t tell anyone else I care about your happiness–I’ll deny it!).
  • Living by Church standards must be based on our own faith and testimony–anything else won’t last.  Priority–develop a testimony.
  • A lot of people don’t live standards or go to church because they’ve been offended.  Reference Elder Bednar’s talk on offense–don’t deprive yourself of blessings because of someone else.
  • Even if you are active, you must always keep up with prayer and scripture study, or you’ll burn out, like an athlete who ignores diet and exercise.  You can fake it for a while, but you’ll end up angry, hurt, and failing.
  • Call a volunteer to read the parable of the kite:

While Brother Pinegar served as president of the Provo Missionary Training Center, as you can imagine, we often talked to the missionaries about the feelings of happiness and peace that accompany courageous obedience to true principles. We talked of the influence of the Holy Ghost that comes to those who are obedient. We encouraged the missionaries to make obedience their quest. I enjoyed telling them the story of the little boy who went to the park with his father to fly a kite.

The boy was very young. It was his first experience with kite flying. His father helped him, and after several attempts the kite was in the air. The boy ran and let out more string, and soon the kite was flying high. The little boy was so excited; the kite was beautiful. Eventually there was no more string left to allow the kite to go higher. The boy said to his father, “Daddy, let’s cut the string and let the kite go; I want to see it go higher and higher.”

His father said, “Son, the kite won’t go higher if we cut the string.”

“Yes, it will,” responded the little boy. “The string is holding the kite down; I can feel it.” The father handed a pocketknife to his son. The boy cut the string. In a matter of seconds the kite was out of control. It darted here and there and finally landed in a broken heap. That was difficult for the boy to understand. He felt certain the string was holding the kite down.

The commandments and laws of God are like the kite string. They lead us and guide us upward. Obedience to these laws gives us peace, hope, and direction.

  • Show my notebooks of church meeting notes and share my summary of President Monson’s talk from Priesthood Session of General Conference last month (ask if anyone remembers what it was about). 
  • My thoughts about standards: BAD LANGUAGE: addictive, as they can see from their peers–try going without it for one day!  Tell them about “no swear club.”  IMMODEST CLOTHES: like bad language, makes us less godly, more like animals.  WORLDLY MEDIA: “It’s just a song/movie, etc.!” you say.  Then let it go.  PORN: not just “bad kids,” or boys, who need help.  Go see bishop asap or it will hurt life–faith, relationships, will steal from every area of life.  Bishop will think more of you, not less, if you go. 
  • Show them my copy of For the Strength of Youth from my wallet, challenge them to keep one also.
  • Close with the miracle of the sod cutter: Last Saturday I was doing yard work for someone with a sod cutter, a huge machine like a cross between a lawn mower and a rototiller on steroids.  After the yard was half removed, it quit.  I pulled the cord several times and the motor wouldn’t turn over.  I inspected it and tried several more times.  Nothing.  I let it sit for about ten minutes as I cleared away the dirt I’d piled up so far, then pulled the cord several more times.  It was still dead.  I took off my hat and prayed in the driveway, asking for the sod cutter to start because this work would help people in need and, since the sod cutter was a rental, needed to be done right now.  I closed the prayer and pulled the cord again.  It started on the first try, smoothly, and didn’t have any problems for the rest of the morning.
  • Testimony: we’re not sent here to see how much we can get away with, we’re here to enjoy the best blessings prepared for us. 

Let Us Now Praise Father Jack

In all of the commentary about the various political interpretations of ABC’s reimagining of the classic sci-fi allegory V, I’ve yet to read any appreciation for the best of its fully realized and original characters: Father Jack Landry.

We’ve all been accustomed for years to Christians being derided in the media, but Father Jack is a huge step away from all of that: a sincere, humane man of faith whose spiritually sensitive nature is undeniable.  He’s not a hypocrite, he’s not a bigot, and he’s (gasp!) not a pedophile.  Mainstream network television has now given us an honest-to-goodness hero priest. 

Father Jack has a background in the military and is comfortable fighting when he needs to (the last episode had him practicing on a punching bag, showing it who’s boss with experienced skill), but instead of abusing this aspect of the character to make him more palatable to the usual pieties (i.e., “Sure, he’s a priest, but look!  He’s also a kung-fu psycho who wears shades, chain smokes, and curses like a sailor!  He probably got dishonorably discharged after stopping some rednecks from killing peaceful natives”–all these clichés are blessedly avoided), they blend to make him even more non-traditional: now he’s a priest and a soldier–the two things Hollywood hates the most!

Though physically powerful, handsome, and comfortable everywhere, Father Jack is quiet to the point of being reserved.  He reacts with patience, only getting worked up when innocent people are in danger.  This week’s episode saw him in a furious storm of self doubt, unable to bear the idea that his revolutionary tactics (call it grass roots activism, campaigning for social justice, revolting against a corrupt establishment, or what have you) might have killed any bystanders.  His pacifism is no rote show: it comes across as a genuine commitment to the value of human life above all other priorities (another major shift in tone for normal TV!). 

We’ve only seen him with his parishioners a few times, but they’re clearly always on his mind, and when he does meet with people, he actually discusses God and faith, not just bland platitudes.  He’s  a real priest!  (Can you sense my shocked excitement?)  This is a great character.

Checking my email just now, I saw a news story saying that V is one of the shows that may be on the chopping block for the Fall.  I hope not: it’s consistently one of the most suspenseful, clever, and relevant shows on television, and has a surprisingly decent hero to boot in Father Jack, the best clergy character I can remember since Father Mulcahy in the glory days of M*A*S*H.

Jersey Shore and the Spur Posse

It would be too easy for me to rail on the hormonally hyper-charged new hit show Jersey Shore.  Like Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, and a ton of other pop culture media outlets over the last decade, the whole point is to indulge in as much vicarious sex as possible.  What really disturbs me more than usual is that Jersey Shore is a reality show, where something like Gossip Girl or Sex and the City is clearly all fantasy.  It’s debatable how scripted any reality show is, or how much it actually reflects reality, but the understanding of all involved in the production and watching of Jersey Shore is that it basically represents the lives of actual, fairly ordinary people.  They might be more attractive and promiscuous than average, but if they were too far beyond the norm to which any viewer is accustomed, the show wouldn’t work.

At least the appeal of the Jerry Springer Show was to denounce this kind of behavior!  Nothing about the advertising, presentation, or public reaction to Jersey Shore smacks at all of satire.  It’s clearly meant to be taken, essentially, at face value.

So what the popularity of Jersey Shore proves is that we have now reached a point where idiots trying to have as much sex as possible is grounds for legitimate mainstream entertainment.  It’s not a comedy (the infamous punching episode shows that), and it’s not social commentary (I’ve yet to read of any serious analysis related to it).  Thinking about all of this last week made me remember something. 

The Spur Posse.  Nearly 20 years ago, in 1993, a national news story broke about a group of high school boys who had a contest going where they scored each other on how many girls they could sleep with.  Continue reading

Media: Woman’s Negligence Kills Baby…Sue The Hospital!

I was one of a million people who was recently outraged by the horrifying, tragic story of a young Las Vegas woman named Roshunda Abney who was ignored–ignored!–by emergency room staff for six hours until she went home and gave birth to a premature baby who then died.  Imagine that!  The hospital ignored the moans of a pregnant woman in agony, for hours.  They must have been playing poker or something back there that whole time.  Surely, there is incompetence or racism or something equally nefarious going on here.

There’s just one problem.  It turns out there’s something pretty important that most media reports have left out of this story.  The hospital didn’t know the woman was pregnant.  For that matter…neither did she.

That’s right.  She was six months pregnant and thought she was just having stomach pains.  Somehow, the reports of this story that made national news, especially the official Associated Press version, completely left out this little detail. 

Now, I can’t imagine how a woman could possibly not know that she was pregnant for six months–it would seem that some major physical signs would have had to be present–but it goes without saying then that she had gotten no prenatal care.  Still, I have to wonder what her lifestyle was like during that time that killed her baby.  I’d love to know if she was smoking, drinking, or doing anything else unhealthy during that time. 

In their rush to run yet another story that makes some big, bad, scary institution look evil, the media has really dropped the ball on this one.  Unfortunately, the lion’s share of responsibility for this poor baby’s death probably has to fall on the mother who wasn’t even good enough to know that she was a mother.  I may be wrong, but one thing’s for certain: the media has largely given us an unbalanced story, and too many people are hurrying to condemn the hospital. 

Read the AP version of this story here.  A local story that briefly mentions that the woman didn’t know she was pregnant is here.

Two Thoughts About “V”

Yesterday afternoon I told my oldest son about the rebooted series V, and how much I enjoyed the original version as a kid.  When I explained the plot to him–aliens show up and solve all our problems, pretending to be our friends, so they can win our trust and then eat us–he said, “Hmm.  Sounds like that Twilight Zone episode, ‘To Serve Man.'”  He’s only ten.  I was so proud I could have cried. 

**********

After watching the show last night (truly excellent, by the way), I was struck by just how silly, impossible, and outrageous the story was, though.  I mean, c’mon, an attractive leader shows up out of nowhere, promising to magically solve our problems with little more than broad bromides about hope and peace, and everybody just goes gaga and falls into line?  Why, this leader even has a simpering media quickly trained to jump through hoops!  And I refuse to accept that this leader’s minions could be actively recruiting young people to subversively carry on their work.   

Seriously, who could ever buy into a story that crazy?  Clearly, clearly, this is some pretty far out science fiction.  Luckily, nothing like that could ever actually happen in real life.

 

Defining Down Dorkiness

Picture a kid wearing earphones all the time, wrapped up in his private musical world.  At school, he keeps the wires hidden under his shirt or jacket, and he might share one of the earphones with a friend.  At home, he likely spends a lot of his free time getting seriously engrossed in the latest video games.  He knows all about the game technology and platforms, and is looking forward to the next wave of products, which he already knows everything about.

If the kid you’re picturing is in school today, then he’s just another average kid, exactly the same as most of his peers. 

But if this kid was in school twenty years ago–listening to a Walkman instead of an iPod, playing the original 8-bit Nintendo instead of an Xbox–he was a nerd.  Those music and game addicts of two decades in the past were a fringe subculture, and just about at the bottom of the social ladder.  Anyone wearing earphones or getting enthusiastic about video games twenty years ago might as well have been wearing a pocket protector.  They were social pariahs the likes of which today’s kids just couldn’t understand.

So what happened in the intervening years to bring their cherished oddities into the mainstream?  An evolution of interest in math and the arts?  A burst of genius for Generation Y?  Not likely.  If that were the case, then where are the all of the after school clubs for writing new program algorithms, and where are all of the kids using their powerful music tools to sample more music than any other group has ever heard (versus overdosing on the same few clusters of popular music from within their own lifetime)? 

No, this would seem to be just another victory for the merchandising media.  The things that may have attracted those nerds of the 80’s and early 90’s are still underground themselves, but the passive elements of dazzling entertainment–that’s what drove the spread of electronic entertainment beyond the bounds of the AV Club geeks and into the pockets and bedrooms of every normal kid in America.  Our kids are no smarter than the non-technologically obsessed kids of twenty years ago…just better entertained.

An Idea For A Remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

The classic Mr. Smith Goes To Washington was released in 1939.  I’d like to suggest an idea for a 75th anniversary remake, which could be ready in time for a 2014 release. 

The idea of remaking Mr. Smith was lampooned on The Simpsons once, where it was a stand-in for the current rash of updated old movies and TV shows, the majority of which are terrible.  In The Simpsons’ spoof, Mel Gibson stars in the remake and the climactic scene doesn’t have Senator Paine confessing and Smith emerging vindicated, but Smith whipping out a tommy gun and running amok as he slaughters Congressmen left and right.

So the concept of making a new Mr. Smith is touchy, but I think it’s something our country needs, and something that would be important and do well.  My updated story looks like this:

It starts off basically the same, with Smith appointed junior Senator to replace the deceased Senator Foley.  However, in the original, Smith was a leader of the “Boy Rangers,” because the Boy Scouts of America wouldn’t give permission for their name to be used.  I think now, with membership and revenues dropping, they might be more open to cooperating.  They could use the good press.  So in my version, Smith is a Scoutmatser. 

Also in the original, Smith is automatically ridiculed by the elite media for being a simple guy from outside the big city.  They mock his naive optimism and reverence for the nation’s heritage.  In the 21st century, that would pretty much play out the same way.  Think Sarah Palin.

One of the two biggest areas of updating, though, would be the nature of Smith’s bill and subsequent scandal.  Continue reading

Michael Jackson Comments

I don’t really want to write about this, but a few things have come to mind over the weekend, and for what it’s worth, here they are.  Behold, the cathartic power of writing:

  • Michael Jackson was not that great of a musician.  Sure, he had some great songs, but most well known artists have some great songs.  His music was innovative and formative of the 80’s era, but let’s remember we’re lionizing someone who hadn’t written anything memorable in nearly 20 years, only released a few albums over a very long career, and never truly realized his potential.  In terms of both musical quality and actual cultural impact (as opposed to perceived cultural impact), tons of acts–from Lionel Richie to Madonna to U2–are far more important, and that’s just from the 80’s.   The best thing we can really say of Jackson’s talent is to remark that he was an amazing dancer–it was often angry and sometimes disturbing, but his skill there is undeniable.
  • I remember when “Black or White” came out, some people accused him of ripping off INXS’s “New Sensation.”  I bought it at the time, but that was dumb.  The resemblance is superficial–certainly not amounting to the kind of sampling that irritates us all.  MJ may not have been perfect, but he sure didn’t need to steal ideas from Australian pop bands.
  • His guest stint as the voice of a Michael Jackson wannabe on The Simpsons–yes, that was really him–was truly cool.  If I remember him well, it’ll be for that.  That and letting Weird Al parody a couple of his songs (Prince famously told him no).
  • I don’t know if he ever molested any children, but it’s likewise undeniable that he put them in positions that did bother and scare them.  He may have loved them, but his clueless self-obsessive behavior hurt others.  It’s hard not to ignore that.  During the recent NBA finals, I couldn’t appreciate Kobe Bryant’s awe-inspiring performances because I couldn’t stop thinking, “You know, that guy who just made that incredible shot is probably a rapist.”  Same thing here. 
  • How much does it suck to be the ghost of Farrah Fawcett right now?  Her untimely death (genuinely untimely, not one brought on by years of voluntary prescription drug abuse) got about five minutes of headline time before MJ took over and the world went into full time worship mode.  Her inspiring, dignified battle with cancer?  Might as well have never happened.  Remember when Mother Teresa and Princess Diana died within a week of each other in 1997?  Remember which one got a hundred times more coverage?  Did we learn nothing?  Even worse, it’s unlikely that the passing of TV pitchman Billy Mays will unseat Jackson any time soon.
  • If MJ hadn’t died, how would we all feel about him today?  I’m not saying that we need to go out of our way to disrespect the dead, but honoring him now is just dishonest.  The world is full of real heroes who have recently died, and many more who still struggle on.  Let’s spend some time on them, and less on trivial pop culture trends, OK?