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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Arendt's thoughtlessness..

A flashback this morning as I recalled a televised scene from coverage of the demonstrations (later characterized as a "police riot") outside 1968 Democratic Party Convention held in Chicago. Besides the shouting and beating of heads that is shown in the old news clips, there was a great deal of theatric performance on the street, all in tune with the "Yippie Party" agenda that set the tone for what was happening. Although I never saw it again in any documentary footage, what I remember is a group of protesters standing on the corner, arranging themselves in choir-like order facing a "conductor" who was leading them in a chant notable for its clear unison expression: Anarchy! Anarchy! Anarchy!....

What brought on this recollection was piece in the latest New York Review of Books by Jeremy Waldron on the recent flurry of published works and attention (see, for example, here) given to Hannah Arendt (sorry, it is behind subscription wall). He offers a critique of her admirers (I regard myself as one; see here) who want to play the intellectual game of "what would Hannah Arendt say?" if she were confronted with our own "dark times". To put his point briefly (at least as I see it), Waldron argues that she would take exception to the question and wonder why we aren't thinking for ourselves rather than seeking guidance from her.

One of the most striking contributions Arendt made to the debate over the modern "human condition" was her locating her famous "banality of evil" in the thoughtlessness of our actions, and by that she meant not merely the absence of contemplation, but also the adoption of simple and ready-made formulaic responses to the challenges and dilemmas of our public and private lives. Finding and following some Arendtian perspective on issues of the day, Waldron argues, would be the opposite of what she advocated and pursued in her writing....

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Blogging for grades...

One of the options I offer students in my American Government course (in lieu of research paper, etc.) is to create and maintain a blog on a relevant subject throughout the semester. Several folks have taken me up on the offer. The first operating one is "Present Arms!: Military News for the Average Joe", and I have high hopes for John's making a good site of this.

The topic is certainly a good one -- especially if he addresses some current issues about the military's human resource problems that are making the front page of the New York Times and other papers. There are also a couple of interesting "Open Source" shows (here and here) devoted to the topic....

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Bravo Mr. Steves!

I am a longtime fan of Rick Steves' travel show on PBS for a variety of reasons. Although a bit tacky at times in the past (he has gotten better with age -- and children to deal with), he is practical in his advice and easy to listen to in the half hour segments. And at the time we watched him in the past we were not really travelers at all, but had dreams of taking the kind of trips he laid out for folks. (We have done quite a bit by now, but not as much or in the style of Steves....)

My positive impression of Steves went down a couple of notches while I was residing in Northern Ireland between 2003-2005, mainly for the short shrift and negative coverage he gave Belfast and Northern Ireland in one of his Ireland shows. If I recall, in a show that was probably done in the 1990s he was essentially saying: interesting spot for a one night stop over, but you certainly would not want to visit for longer -- and it is best to head out for the west or south....

But last night I got my first viewing of Steves' revamped show on "Belfast and the Best of Northern Ireland" (filmed in July 2004, from what I can gather) and all I have to say is: bravo! Not only was it a fair and treatment of Belfast and the North Antrim coast (see especially the Wikipedia article on the Antrim Coast Road that features one of my Randi's pictures of the area....), but it is perhaps the most effective presentation of a mixture of sights and politics I have yet seen in any travel show.

What is unique about Northern Ireland is that you cannot visit or tour the place without immersing yourself in knowledge about the Troubles (and even earlier history). Between "Norman" the Black Taxi driver (who I am certain is someone my colleagues and I met and used as a guide during our stay) and Steves' official tour guide, Stephen McPhilemy, you get a really straightforward view of the place -- from bustling Belfast's downtown and Port Rush to the Giant's Causeway and Bushmills.

Bravo Mr. Steves!

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Praising Schwarznegger!!??

Terrific OpEd piece by Gar Alperovitz in this morning's New York Times, although it feels a bit strange to be supporting the wisdom of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But the desirability of reinstating the progressive notion of federalism -- one reflected in Brandeis' praise of the American states as the "laboratories of democracy" -- needs to become part of the debate as we attempt to overcome the knee-jerk anti-governmentalism of the past 30+ years. California and a few other states (Massachusetts, Washington, etc.) are now taken on the role that new York, Wisconsin and even Texas had during the Progressive era. Especially in the areas of health care, environmental sustainability and even economic development, certain states are driving the public agenda.

Many students of US government in my discipline (political science) have bought into the convention wisdom (which we have been teaching for decades) that such activity is the exception to a historical trend in which the national administrative state becomes increasingly dominant. In that light, the recent reemergence of federalist principles in the (Rehnquist) Supreme Court seems like a throwback to the pre-New Deal doctrines of constitutional law. But the de facto reenergizing of state activism in those public policy arenas that have been under attack in Washington is a truly hopeful sign for the future.

Onward Schwarzenegger! (I cannot believe I am writing that...)

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Popper fix

This morning I got to listen to this week's installment of Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time as I drove to campus, and besides making the drive more bearable it also provided me with a much needed fix of "Popper" that I require to keep my addiction going....

I find Karl Popper to be one of the more interesting philosophers of the 20th century, and perhaps one who does not get his due when put up against others of his time. Most recently his name was associated with a rather silly and trivial incident that was the focus of Wittgenstein's Poker, a book which I found unhelpful and annoyingly demeaning of Popper.

Bragg's panel, in contrast, did not even touch on the incident (thank goodness) and instead helped put Popper's ideas about science, philosophy and politics in context. What emerges is a sweeping picture of a brilliant thinker who applied a consistent perspective across that range of topics.

An interesting dimension to the discussion was the focus on Popper's longstanding commitment to socialism -- a fact often lost to those who frequently associate him with the likes of Hayek, Orwell and Koestler.

This show is another example of the high quality offerings at In Our Time. As always, the logic of topic selection remains baffling -- last week was Genghis Kahn, several weeks back it was Hell, and earlier the Speed of Light -- and next week will be Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Temptation of lifeblogging

I often wonder if anyone is reading these posts except for a few friends (and perhaps my curious students), and that was answered in part when I received an email from Scott Carlson who (in response to an earlier post of mine) provided a link to a featured article on lifeblogging he authored for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The more I read about lifeblogging, the more I become intrigued -- and I have the feeling I might give it a try in some limited form if the opportunity presented itself. But there would be barriers -- similar to those I face whenever I give some thought to getting a motorcycle. (I think I would love the experience, but anytime I mention it aloud my spouse gives me one of those "not in my lifetime" looks -- and thus provides me the minimal excuse I need to get passed that little urge for adventure. But who knows -- perhaps someday I will take the leap onto that cycle or into lifeblogging....)

The Carlson piece seems to touch all the bases -- positives and negatives -- to lifeblogging. But the most telling part of the article is his decision to keep the files he accumulated during his experiment despite the potential for embarrassment and exposure. When I told a colleague about the article, he related the story of a neighbor who had installed video camera throughout his home in order to monitor the activities of his kids while they were under the care of a nanny. Initially it was a security measure, but when it came to erasing the stored files they realized what they had -- a record of their kids growing up and doing things that as empty nesters they might want to recapture years later.

Ain't human nature interesting....

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Course prepping made easy....

The recent "scare" (more of a media circus than anything else) in Boston involving guerrilla marketing of a cartoon movie is a wonderful example of two major trends in the mass media business coming home to roost.

I am now teaching a course on Mass Media and American Politics at UNH, and the episode in Boston could not have been better timed since I have been focusing on "challenges to mainstream media" (MSM) and was making the case that over the past decade or so MSM has been transformed by two emergent corporate cultures which I label "New News"and "No News".

The New News label I lifted directly from Marvin Kalb's 1998 work at the Shorenstein Center which was featured on two segments of PBS' NewsHour (here and here) just as the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit the airwaves (and Bill O'Reilley, an erstwhile student of Kalb's was settling into Fox News). Bottom line is that it was evident at that time that MSM -- the traditional or "legacy" media -- had given itself up to investigative tabloid-ism that we now consider commonplace. It was Paddy Chayefsky's "Network" scenario come true on a major scale and the entertainment divisions and ratings-driven norms took possession of all except the most dedicated of news sources.

The "No News" culture is the label I provided another MSM phenomenon that was effectively documented by Frontline and Nicholas Rushkoff in their "Merchants of Cool" broadcast in early 2001. While the relative indifference of younger generations to "news" and the preoccupation of teenagers and young adults with their "popular culture" is nothing new, the corporate fostering (and exploitation) of the "cool" market (through "coolhunting") has reached a level where it has become news itself.

The Cartoon Network episode is really just a clear manifestation of the resulting clash of these two cultures. Here you have Turner Broadcasting (owner of Cartoon Network), a major corporate MSM by any measure, generating the "No News" cultural event through its hiring of Interference, Inc. to conduct the Boston version of its guerrilla marketing campaign and then hyping the story of Boston's reaction on its CNN

What a wonderful set up for my Monday morning class as I played the 1998 NewsHour segment, followed by the first segment of the Merchants of Cool, followed by a wonderful discussion of the Boston events on Weekend America.

Oh, thank you Turner Broadcasting!

Tomorrow I am talking about the emergence of alternative media -- blogs, etc. As preparation I am sitting in front of my computer waiting for some interesting blunder -- I mean case study -- to fall in my lap.... broadcasts with its well honed "New News" machinery.

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