Archive for August, 2004

Interns Gone Wild

Like Byron, I was intrigued by (free registration required) the recent Washington Post article about Jessica Cutler, the Washingtonienne. Cutler, as most blog junkies will know, became famous when her blog, in which she narrated stories of her sexual affairs with several Washington insiders, was mentioned in the gossip blog, Wonkette. After he blog was discovered, Cutler was fired from her job but managed to secure a six-figure book contract and a gig posing for Playboy.

In his discussion of the article, Byron comments

I noted on my initial blog post that she seemed really naïve about blogs but this article makes it clear that she is really naïve about *everything*.

And I’d agree that, for the most part, Cutler comes off as being rather naïve, particularly about blogs, though I wonder how much of that lack of sophistication is performed. It seems clear to me that Cutler is being pretty careful in crafting her narrative for specific purposes, whether to sell her upcoming book or to restore her reputation. She mentions her parents’ divorce, watching too much cable TV as a kid, being coddled in a negligent gifted-and-talented program, all things that are designed to set off certain alarms in today’s “culture wars” regarding education, gender politics, and family values. By saying this, I don’t want to suggest that Cutler is entirely in control of her narrative, but she (or one of her friends) acknowledges at one point that the blog served as a kind of device for taking control over her story.

What I find more troubling about the article is that it seems to buy into the popular narrative of a world in which morals are declining. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the article is the implicit comparison between Cutler’s actions and the actions of the soldiers in Abu Ghraib. In commenting on the Cutler controversy, Daniel Yankelovich, who “has been studying American values for fifty years,” states that Cutler is a sign of declining values in the US. As the Post reports:

He means a sign of our times, as is Jessica’s frumpy 21-year-old contemporary, Pfc. Lynndie England, whose gleeful mugging for the cameras as she mocked naked Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib unsettled the national conscience. Both women have left many people questioning: How did we get here?

Jessica’s “behavior is not mainstream majority behavior in the same way that most soldiers in Iraq are not abusing people,” Yankelovich says. “She’s an extreme, but she’s a sign. These kinds of signs are breaking out often enough that you know they are signaling something much larger and more important.”

This implicit equation between the torture of prisoners and consensual sex seems rather unfair. I’m also troubled by the fact that Cutler is singled out as the scapegoat, when it’s pretty clear that several men were also involved, many of whom voluntarily gave her hundreds of dollars in cash. There seems to be an implicit message that when women are having sex like men, that’s a sign that our values are in decline. [Side note: the emphasis on (“frumpy? what is this emphasis on fashion/appearance?”) Lynndie England’s participation in torture of Iraqi prisoners completely ignores the fact that several other (male and female) soldiers were involved.]

The article also frames Naomi Wolf’s comments on Cutler’s story in a fairly misleading way, suggesting that she “agrees with” Yankelovich, when her position seems a bit more complicated, especially in terms of her broader critique of a “pornographized culture” in which “sex has been commodified and drained of its deeper meaning.” I don’t really see her argument as signifying a complete decline in values, and there’s nothing in Wolf’s comments that would even come close to comparing Cutler’s actions with those of the people in Abu Ghraib and others who might have endorsed their actions.

I’m tempted to fisk the whole article, but I’ll identify just one other point for now. Yankelovich goes on to implicitly blame the social revolutions of the 1960s for the contemporary situation that produces a situation, or story, like Cutler’s (sorry: this entry ran longer than expected).

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Winner Take All

Some quick notes about my upcoming composition class:

Even though Michael Bérubé assures us that “this is not a real post to the blog,” the post did remind me that I’d like to include sections of Lani Guinier’s Tyranny of the Majority for class discussion (see his review of Guinier’s Lift Every Voice). The course textbook, Good Reasons, anthologizes a short section, but I’d like to require my students to read a little more, if possible.

Her discussions of citizenship, and the willful mischaracterization of those positions in the media-frenzy confirmation hearings of 1993, should fit very nicely into the course I’m teaching this semseter. I taught a longer section of “Tyranny” when I was at Purdue, and her critique of winner-take-all elections provoked one of the more compelling discussions I had that semester (in a fairly lively class).

I’m also considering revisiting a discussion I had two years ago with my students about citizenship using material from Chris Hables Gray’s Cyborg Citizen, an assignment that worked very well a couple of years ago, but something I’m not sure I’d be able to re-create. One of the most important points raised in Gray’s “Cyborg Bill of Rights” is his stipulation that “Business corporations and other bureaucracies are not citizens, or individuals, nor shall they ever be,” which would allow for a discussion of what it means that corporations, under certain circumstances, can be understood as “persons.”

I know that I should be finished with my syllabus. After all, classes start on Tuesday, but I’m just tinkering at this point, I promise. I’ll try to post my syllabus in the next few days, but I’ve had a bad habit of not posting my new syllabi lately.

Update: Here’s a transcript of George Lakoff’s appearance on NOW with Bill Moyers, which includes a discussion of “framing” that might be useful for my students. In addition, I think I may have my course title (courtesy of Ruth Rosen of the Rockridge Institute): “Demcoracy Matters.”

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Open Water

Perhaps my single biggest phobia is death by water. In fact, one of my earliest childhood memories is of nearly downing in a Boulder, Colorado, swimming pool. So, naturally, I decided to see the low-budget ($130,000 according to IMDB) thriller, Open Water, last night. Open Water tells the story of a married couple, Susan and Daniel, who are abandoned in the ocean by a scuba boat that caters to tourists. The film’s low budget, its lack of special effects, and its genre connections, have inspired comparisons to The Blair Witch Project, but such comparisons don’t really do justice to either film. While BWP uses horror film motifs to reflect on visual technologies, Open Water’s use of suspense conventions to create a much more philosophical, almost existential, series of reflections (see Roger Ebert’s review on this point).

The film opens with Susan and Daniel preparing to leave for their vacation. There is some mild tension in their marriage, in part because both of them are so focused on their careers. The film opens with both of them on cell phones, talking to colleagues, before Daniel, waiting in the car, uses his phone to call his wife inside their house. But the film wisely de-emphasizes their marital tension for the most part, focusing instead on the lack of control they seem to have over their work lives. As David Edelstein points out (he also makes the Blair Witch comparison), these sequences are very effectively mundane, capturing the ordinariness of their lives in a fairly subtle way.

The couple arrives at an unspecified Caribbean island, and they begin to unwind, to relax just a little, and to separate themselves from the demands of their work obligations (Susan even declines the offer to check her email). The scuba scenes that follow are nicely done, with the couple playfully swimming underwater, admiring the harmless ocean creatures they encounter. Then, as Susan and Daniel resurface to climb back on the boat, they discover that the boat is gone, their isolation beautifully conveyed with a high-angle, extreme-long shot showing them completely surrounded by water, floating helplessly in a vast expanse of water.

For the last hour of film time, we are more or less left floating in the ocaen with Susan and Daniel. They know they are in danger, but, as Ebert notes, the ocean is relatively calm, and there’s nothing much to do but talk and wait. Gradually, the sense of danger begins to build. A jellyfish stings Susan. Sharks approach. They begin to feel thirsty. Daniel remembers information he learned watching the Discovery Channel and warns Susan against drinking the salt water of the ocean, and the couple talks to pass the time and ignore the growing threat they face. Their conversation is relatively banal as they try to pass the time, and while they fight briefly over who is to blame, that question quickly becomes irrelevant.

Wisely, the film rarely cuts away to the shore, choosing instead to maintain our identification with Susan and Daniel, leaving us uncertain of what’s happening on the shore, where one of the crew members gradually realizes that the two divers are missing. I found the ocean sequences completely fascinating (unlike James Berardinelli, who inexpicably found the dialogue “pretty pedantic,” and dsecribed the film’s last hour as occasionally “dull”). The “POV” shots, where the camera floats just a few inches above the ocean’s surface help create the powerful effect of isolation and helplessness. If anything, I felt these sequences should have been of even longer duration, to build the sense of dread even more effectively (one gripe here: the acapella music was a distraction and seemed to take away from the sense of isolation that the film was so careful to create, but then again, I’m not a big fan of most non-diegetic music).

There are two great moments in the film that are worth mention that I’d rather not reveal to people who haven’t seen the film, so click below the fold at your own risk, but for those readers who haven’t yet seen the film, I’d certainly recommend it.

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Call the Spin Buster…

Just a quick note remindning me to include the Columbia Journalism Review’s Campaign Desk in my course blogroll once things get rolling. I’m still trying to come up with a cool title for the course, so no course blog just yet (because we all know that a cool title makes all the difference).

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Two Notes

I just learned about a planned “Day of Conscience” to call attention to the tragic situation in Darfur, Sudan, and wanted to call attention to it here (via Eric Alterman’s blog, another possible reading for my composition class).

Also, while I’m writing, the AP just released an article on Metroblogging. Here’s the full article, courtesy of Jason DeFillippo.

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A Day in the Life

I’m starting to feel the pressure of fall semester (I start teaching on Tuesday), so blogging may vary over the next few days. Here are a few topics that I’d planned to write about that never quite became full blog entries:

  • School’s Out: I’m looking forward to my annual Dazed and Confused screening. Every year after the first day of class, I watch Richard Linklater’s film about the last day of school. I’m not sure why I picked up this habit (after all, I like teaching), but I’ve had this ritual for several years now.
  • I’ve Got the Power: Steven Shaviro’s review of Bruce Almighty effectively captures my reaction to Jim Carrey’s most recent “pop” film. The film should have been far more self-indulgent when Bruce had divine powers rather than falling into cheap special effects, and I’d argue that the film itself encourages us to ignore the final moralizing closure sequence, which comes across as an almost completely cynical adaptation of Hollywood formula.
  • Sex With Republicans: Both Jen of Good Intentions and Elizabeth Carmody mentioned Fuck the Vote, a website that, as Elizabeth puts it, works “to defeat George Bush by offering sex to Republicans who promise to abstain from voting in the election.” I promise to refrain from any “swing state” puns.
  • Movie Night: I’m planning to see Garden State tonight, but George’s recommendation of the Metallica movie sounds promising (even though I don’t share his unironic love for Lynyrd Skynyrd).

On Francois’ suggestion, I dove into my archives the other day to see what I was thinking about this time last year, and of course most of my thoughts were focused on teaching, but I was pleasantly surprised to come across a discussion from late last summer that addresses some of the questions raised recently in the anonymity discussion. I don’t have anything particularly new to the current discussion, but it’s interesting that it has re-emerged at the beginning of a new school year. Now I really should be organizing my syllabus or working on my Fight Club article.

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Post Apologizes For Pre-War Coverage

Interesting Washington Post article on their pre-war coverage of U.S. assertions that Iraq had WMD. The article (free registration), by Post reporter Howard Kurtz, acknowledges that the newspaper should have been more assertive in warning readers that evidence of WMD was “shakier” than most people believed. The apology seems a little half-hearted in that memebrs of the Post staff still insist they did more to question the WMD claims than other newspapers, but that they simply didn’t introduce those questions assertively enough:

An examination of the paper’s coverage, and interviews with more than a dozen of the editors and reporters involved, shows that The Post published a number of pieces challenging the White House, but rarely on the front page. Some reporters who were lobbying for greater prominence for stories that questioned the administration’s evidence complained to senior editors who, in the view of those reporters, were unenthusiastic about such pieces. The result was coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting, in hindsight looks strikingly one-sided at times.

Still, the article provides an interesting window into some of the decisions that editors and reporters face on a daily basis, including the Post’s tendency to provide the administration a “mouthpiece” on page 1 and to bury points of view critical of administration claims.

I’m not sure there will be anything completely new for people who were or became skepitcal about Bush administartion claims about WMD (Greenwald’s Uncovered addressed these issues months ago, and the New York Times has also apologized for pre-war reporting on WMD), but the “inside story” on how news decisions are made is interesting reading.

Note to self: This type of material might be useful for class discussion of how biases in news reporting might be more complicated than a simple “conservative” or “liberal” bias. When reading the article, I couldn’t help but think about Andrew Cline’s useful work on media biases.

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The Dude Abides

The Big Lebowski is the movie equivalent of comfort food for me. For well over a year, it was my designated hangover movie, guaranteed to entertain when I was too tired to get up off the couch (for better or for worse, I no longer seem to find myself hungover very often–maybe once a year). But for obvious reasons, I can watch TBL endlessly. In fact, just last night, I watched the film for the first time in several months (and no I wasn’t hungover), and I realized that I’d forgotten just how remarkably funny–and how beautifully crafted–TBL really is.

Fans of the film will know that the Coen Brothers’ paean to bowling, Raymond Chandler, and the counterculture, will know that Lebowski was a box office disappointment (and a disproportionate number of them will claim they liked the film before it was cool), but it has since become a cult classic, complete with a traveling national convention, profiled in this New York Times article (link via Green Cine), in which fans of the film attend dressed as their favorite characters or props from the film (apparently the severed toe is a popular costume). The article also features a profile of Jeff Dowd, the guy who provided the inspiration for the character of the Dude.

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New Bush Campaign Advertisement

Like George, I’ll be teaching an election theme in my freshman composition course this fall, and his recent collection of some prominent political weblogs should be very helpful for me as I set up my course blog (note: I’ve been planning to include one essay by Lakoff, and this exerpt from Moral Politics just might work)..

In addition, I’m planning to ask students to do analyses of some political advertisements (both historical and contemporary). With that in mind, I came across an article on Yahoo about a controversial new Bush advertisement, “Solemn Duty,” which invokes the September 11 attacks. Might be interesting to talk about this ad/the coverage of it in the Yahoo article.

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Gonna Get Myself Connected

Just got off the phone with my parents’ next-door neighbor, and he’s solved my modem problem (it turns out my modem was destroyed by lightning). It looks like I may be returning to the world of the connected either later tonight or tomorrow.

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Breakin’ the Law

Just came across an article from the Birmingham News about the dangers of blogging on the job. According to the article, state employee Doug Gillett, an editor with University of Alabama Birmingham’s creative services department, may be breaking state election law by contributing to his anti-Bush blog and to the comments in the Atlanta Journal-Contitution’s “Politics 101” blog:

The problem is that he was at work at the time. He’s a state employee and was using a UAB computer, and his activities could run him afoul of state elections and ethics laws.

Election law prohibits public employees from using “state, county or city funds, property or time, for any political activities.” The state ethics law has a similar prohibition.

Gillett said Thursday that he didn’t realize his activities might violate the law. […]

University of Alabama at Birmingham spokeswoman Dale Turnbough said Thursday Gillett will face disciplinary action. “UAB has clear policies against using university time and resources for partisan politics or non-university business and takes violation of those policies seriously,” Turnbough said. “We began to look into this matter as soon as it was brought to our attention today, and we will follow up with appropriate disciplinary action in a timely fashion as soon as we conclude our review.”

The Birmingham News articles goes on to quote Jim Sumner from the Alabama Ethics Commission, who notes that blogs represent an interesting new challenge for ethics laws. Discussions that once took place “around the water cooler” are now often taking place in the blogosphere. He notes also that it would be “unenforceable and undesirable” to stop all political speech in the workplace.

Just out of curiosity, does anyone know Georgia law regarding using state or local property or funds for political speech? Or whether such a law would even be enforcable for professors whose work isn’t easily measured by the clock? Or what constitutes “political speech” to begin with?

Update: Here is Doug’s blog.

Update 2: Ann of Practically Harmless has more information on the story.

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Primary Run-Off Elections: Don’t Forget to Vote!

Tomorrow is the day for primary run-off elections in Georgia. Several important races, including the run-off election to determine which Democrat will run to replace “Zig-Zag” Zell Miller. And, as Tim’s recent post on Blog for Democracy illustrates, your vote can make a difference, even in Georgia.

Speaking of the Democratic primary, I’m endorsing Denise Majette over “Criss-Cross” Cliff Oxford, who has stated (according to Jen) that he will vote for SR 595, which would add an amendment to the Georgia Constitution banning gay marriage.

If you haven’t already registered to vote, you won’t be able to vote in the run-off, of course, but there are still several weeks left to register before the election day in November. Like George and Jason, I’ve included a link in my sidebar to one website where you can register to vote quickly and easily.

Update: I’d also add a quick show of support for Debra Bernes who is in a “non-partisan” run-off for the Georgia Court of Appeals. She sounds like a great candidate. Meanwhile, her opponent Mike Sheffield is under the mistaken assumption that conservative judges (“standing up for traditional Georgia values,” by which I believe he means that he is “a church-going family man with children who believes in traditional marriage between a husband and wife”) are not activist judges.

Progressive Georgians successfully supported Judge Leah Sears against a conservative judge. Let’s win another one.

Update 2: Due to probelms with some absentee ballots, the Court of Appeals election mentioned above has been postponed. I forgot to vote this morning, but just called and Dekalb County precincts are open until 7 PM (I’m not sure about other Georgia counties).

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Sam Waterson and Rhetoric

CJ has a great idea for teaching rehtoric: show an episode of Law and Order. I quite like the idea of using a courtroom scene from Law and Order to illustrate the importance of audience awareness to students. I’m going to continue using blogging to illustrate this point, but courtroom TV shows and movies, especially L&O, can be a great way to illustrate this point.

CJ includes even more useful suggestions in the comments. I also like the idea of using John Edwards’ “Two Americas” speech, and given my course’s focus on the election, I’ll likely direct my students towards that speech, either for class discussion or as one possible text for their first paper assignment, a rhetorical analysis.

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McMaster University Institute on Globalization

Footnote for my (currently in incomplete outline) paper on Fight Club and globalization: McMaster University’s Institute on Globalization. Some useful resources are available here. If I were teaching this course theme again this fall, my students would be spending a lot of time looking at this website.

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Spiderman 2

Okay, I know I’m a little late on this one, but I wanted to make sure Spiderman 2 made $350 million or so before going to see it myself. To be honest, there were so many other movies playing here in Atlanta, it just got lost in the shuffle. I’m not going to write up a full review of the film (I’m probably one of the last people in the US to actually see it, but for anyone who hasn’t, spoilers follow), but it was quite interesting for a superhero film. I do have a few questions for readers who have seen the film and/or have read the comic book series.

I’d always found Spiderman/Peter Parker’s seclusion to be a bit selfish in a way, and the decision to have Peter reveal himself (intentionally or not) to Mary Jane was an interesting plot move. There is something chauvenistic about Peter not allowing MJ to decide what level of risk she’s willing to take to be involved with him, altough the basic superhero rescues damsel in distress model seemed to persist. I’m not a regular reader of the Spiderman comic books (my parents quietly steered me away from superhero comics when I was young, so I never picked up the habit), but the plot move allowing MJ to choose Peter strikes me as a fairly serious departure from the comic book storylines. To what extent is that true? What did other people think of that particular plot choice or of the film in general?

BTW, it was very cool to see one of my favorite character actors, Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem from Do the Right Thing), in a minor role as a newspaper reporter.

Update: I forgot to mention two or three shots from the film that I found particularly interesting. The first shot I mention below (in the comments) was a freeze frame during the sequence in which Peter Parker briefly gives up his “responsibility” as a superhero. The freeze didn’t seem to fit the context, but for some reason I just found it an interesting disruptive moment.

The other shot sequence I liked: the “POV” shots from Doc Ock’s tentacles, where the screen is divided into four “simultaneous” quadrants a la Mike Figgis’s Time Code. The fragmented, almost crystalline, vision simply struck me as very cool, a nice disruption of “normal” cinematic vision.

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