Thursday, August 30, 2007

State Censorship and Corporate Media Self-Censorship

Justin Delacour writes an engaging media blog, Latin American News Review, in which he comments on news of Latin America and links to articles and essays that are written from perspectives not often found in large corporate media coverage of the region.

In a recent post, “Freedom from One-Sided Expression,” Delacour links to a series of articles and essays commenting on mainstream media coverage of the controversy surrounding Hugo Chavez and the non-renewal of a license for broadcasting for television station RCTV, a station associated with political opposition to Chavez’s government. One of the articles Delacour links to is “Why Can’t Foreign Lefties Learn to Be Objective Like Us?” by Christian Christensen.

The arguments of Christensen’s interesting essay can be summed up as follows I think. (Some of this is clear and explicit in the essay, and some is my interpretation of unstated premises beneath Christensen’s explicit statements – so please take a look at Christensen’s essay itself.)

1. There is a bias against “leftism” on the part of major corporate North American media outlets, whether concerning “leftist” governments or the possibility of “objectivity” on the part of “leftist” media. (Something not discussed so much by Christensen, but something I have encountered in some media coverage of the controversy is a converse assumption of objectivity on the part of media in opposition to “leftists.”)

2. Chavez is the leftist bogeyman de jour, and mainstream corporate news coverage presents a consistent bias against him and his government.

3. Mainstream North American media coverage is not as objective as it claims, but reflects the interests of the corporate conglomerates of which media outlets are a part, in the process practicing a form of self-censorship.

4. It is hypocritical for mainstream media commentators to decry things like state censorship of opposition-associated stations in places like Venezuela while engaging in a form of news censorship themselves.

I don’t so much find major grounds to disagree with what Christensen has said or implied as I do have a couple reactions. First, while I agree that corporate media self-censorship is a major concern (it makes it difficult to have an enlightened public engaged in civil society), and that the emphasis on Chavez’s state censorship is even hypocritical, the hypocritical nature of much North American coverage of Venezuela is no reason to not be concerned about Chavez and his government’s actions in some instances. (I want to be careful to say that Christensen doesn’t say that there’s no reason to be concerned about Chavez – it’s just not really a topic he addresses. The matter of Chavez and the non-renewal of RCTV’s license for public broadcasting is also complicated. Is it an instance of state censorship? In one sense, a license was simply not renewed, and the channel has apparently returned, though as a cable channel, which in Venezuela has reduced its potential audience. At the same time, the non-renewal of the license was clearly politically motivated.)

Finally, I think that both state censorship and corporate media self-censorship are causes for concern. Christensen doesn’t actively conflate the two, though I find it worthwhile to draw a larger distinction between the two practices. Not only are the actors different – states and corporations, but more importantly, these are different modes of channeling public discourse. When a state, any state, acts to shut down a media outlet or to proscriptively influence what can be said, this is a repressive act. Some of what could be said has been disallowed, and even if only one station or newspaper is actively targeted, there is a broader chilling effect on public discourse. The effects of corporate self-censorship might be just as or even more pervasive in some instances but works in a different way, through the production of a particular discourse. The effects on what someone without the time, inclination, or ability to seek out alternative perspectives is likely to hear and read are severe, but there’s no real repression in this instance. There’s no repression of blogs like Delacour’s or essays like Christensen's or even national news weeklies like The Nation which regularly present alternative perspectives (and which are readily available to anyone looking for them).

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Myth, Mythic Literacy, and Contemporary Culture

I recently posted a piece, “Uses of Myth,” in which I discussed a recent essay on Reginald Shepherd’s Blog, “Mythology in Poetry.” I mentioned Shepherd’s discussion of different modes of utilizing mythology in poetry, and I also discussed ways in which myth is used in examples of other sorts of literary writing.

A key consideration in all this is the relationship between myth and contemporary culture, especially contemporary discourse and shared cultural models or knowledge. Consider again a key paragraph I previously quoted from Shepherd’s essay:

“Mythology can serve several functions in poetry. Myths are interesting in their own right as culturally resonant, compelling, amusing, frightening, or just intriguing stories, an engaging realm to explore. They are a reservoir of cultural knowledge, hopes, fears, and passions, of archetypal figures and situations, an inexhaustibly rich lode of charged materials that each poetic generation can mine and remake. Much of Western literature is built on allusions to mythology, particularly to Classical mythology and to Judaeo-Christian mythology, and much of it doesn’t make sense without knowledge of those myths. Myth can also be used to place one’s own experiences, thoughts, and feelings in a larger context, opening them up to realms beyond the individual, making them less purely personal and idiosyncratic, as Louise Glück does in Meadowlands, in which she treats her own divorce in the terms of the myth of Odysseus. One may not have access to Glück’s personal experience, or even care about it, but anyone has access to the stories in which she couches that experience in that book, and the myth opens up beyond the merely private.”

I received an email from a reader of my previous post that essentially raised the question of whether a lack of religious literacy (and I’d expand that more broadly to "mythic literacy") is a problem here.

Certainly for the sorts of literature Shepherd or I were discussing, lack of literacy in or awareness of the myth being alluded to, relived, or revised, can present problems of comprehension, though to varying degrees. Again, “Much of Western literature is built on allusions to mythology, particularly to Classical mythology and to Judaeo-Christian mythology, and much of it doesn’t make sense without knowledge of those myths.”

Take the four prose examples I presented. Even without prior knowledge of The Epic of Gilgamesh or The Iliad, Mitchell’s and Baricco’s texts should make sense to any reader, as they present new versions of those tales. Prior knowledge enriches the experience, but isn’t necessary – I’d even say that anyone unfamiliar with the originals would be well served by Mitchell’s Gilgamesh and Baricco’s An Iliad as jumping off points.

I said that parts of Delaney’s Tales of Neveryon present a complex instance of using myth turned scholarly theory turned back to myth. The section of the book in question is certainly most fully experienced with awareness of the Freudian/Lacanian and Malinowskian allusions, but it probably makes for an interesting narrative even without.

Atwood’s Penelopiad is, I think, a different story – it’s presented in a way that I don’t think any intelligent reader would be too troubled following the story, but at virtually every turn, the narrative’s impact largely depends on simultaneous awareness of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca in The Odyssey.

This is, of course, an issue for allusion in general. Any creative activity utilizing allusion, whether it be poetry, prose, ethnography or other scholarly writing, visual art, or music, by definition relies on prior knowledge of what’s being alluded to for the full experience to register. Shostakovich’s Symphony #15, with its musical allusions to Rossini and Wagner, depends upon a listener familiar with the canon of classical music in order to register the full experience of the music (though a listener not familiar with the allusions would still experience something – perhaps something quite enjoyable or profound to them).

Is there a problem of “mythic illiteracy” in contemporary culture?

In one way yes. There’s broad awareness in the U.S. of a de-emphasis in public education on topics like the arts, religion, myth, and the classics, or increasingly any number of topics not emphasized on standardized tests. (See this news article. This is simply one article focusing on “religious literacy,” but it’s common to encounter accounts of the alleged ignorance or lack of literacy of Americans on a wide variety of topics.)

It’s possible to overdo this, though. I’d say that it’s not that Americans are less literate or knowledgeable with regard to myth, religion, the arts, etc. It’s more that highly educated individuals are less literate in such fields than highly educated individuals in the past, and moderately educated individuals are less literate about such topics than their corresponding peers of the past – and that’s something to be concerned about.

At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that now and in the recent past, a much higher percentage of people in the U.S. and in many other parts of the world have the opportunity to become at least moderately well educated – so that aggregate awareness of mythic, artistic, or other allusion may be at an all time high. Throughout the 19th century and through much of the 20th century, many people in the U.S. were either not served at all or were ill-served by public education, something more strikingly the case for some sub-sets of the population if you take into account social factors like race, gender, or class. Public libraries were unheard of until the late 19th century, and as an interesting study by Paul Sturges, “The Public Library and Reading by the Masses,” makes clear, for much of their early history served mainly a very small, highly literate and highly educated elite.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Discourse, Practice, and the Sewer

Like many anthropologists, I’ve long been interested in the relationship between patterns of discourse and practice, or in more simplified terms, between what we say and what we do. (“Saying” and “doing” is a more simplified presentation in that it potentially confuses the non-mutually exclusive nature of discourse and practice. Discourse and practice are not so much different human activities, as different modes of interpreting human activity – what we say, our discourse, is a key sort of practice, and our patterns of behavior constitute not just what we “do,” but also constitute a form of discourse – something recognized in phrases like “actions speak louder than words.”)

Recently, much of my own research has focused on public health issues, including especially the study of cultural models of drinking and related activities. I’ve also been interested in thinking about novel ways to do ethnography through utilization of a broader set of research methods than are typically used by anthropologists. (See my previous posts: Thinking Problem, Measurement and Interpretation, A Clarification on "Qualitative" and "Quantitative," Ethnographic Research Methods and Ethnographic Writing.)

On a topic such as this, it’s relatively easy to collect data on drinking discourse and on what people claim about their own drinking behavior – and in some cases observational data from participant observation style research can complement and inform such discursive data, but this often depends on the specific nature of the population being studied. For instance, along with other colleagues at my university, I’ve been specifically interested in students’ cultural models and actual drinking patterns. I could do participant observation on drinking behavior with this population, but I’m under no illusion that what I would see would come remotely close to “natural” behavior – while I strongly feel that participant observation is the best research method to use for some research purposes, here it’s simply not a very efficient or reliable way to go about studying the cultural context, and the precise relationship between what students claim about themselves and what they do when not being asked questions by pesky researchers is left murky.

I recently encountered an interesting news story on the website Medical News Today, Evidence in Sewage of Community-Wide Drug Abuse. Researchers analyzed raw sewage and were able to discern distinct community patterns of drub use. The research says nothing about any individual’s actions (and so, at least debatably doesn’t violate confidentiality or infringe upon informed consent rights – though that’s a debate I think would be worth having), but this style research could say quite a bit about aggregate patterns concerning any patterned behaviors which would result in chemical traces in urine. (I’m not sure what that range of patterned behaviors that could be studied this way would be, but it’s interesting to think about. On a related note, I remember reading a science news article from last January or so that talked about ecologists having detected elevated traces of cinnamon in Puget Sound as a result of people’s holiday baking.)

I certainly don’t expect ethnographers to dive into this style of research, but I do think it’s worth considering whether unconventional research methods such as this could be of use to the anthropological study of cultural patterns. In instances where behaviors result in chemical traces, such analysis could open an insightful window on that complex relationship between discourse and practice.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Peoples and Cultures of the World Course Blog

I have just started a blog for a course I teach at the University of West Florida, “Peoples and Cultures of the World.”

The following is from the description of the blog’s purpose I have posted:

“This Blog is intended to complement assigned readings and in-class activities of a course I teach at the University of West Florida, “Peoples and Cultures of the World.” It is intended primarily for students enrolled in the course, but it is open for anyone to read along or comment. I envision this as an opportunity to expand class discussion beyond the classroom.”

The first post on the blog is “The Importance of Reading.” I would especially welcome comments on the course blog from anyone with thoughts on the topic. I’d find that interesting in its own right, and I think my students would find it helpful to encounter a variety of perspectives on why reading is important.

Ethics, Human Subject Research, and the Institutional Review Process

Greg Downey, on the “Culture Matters” group blog, has written a series of insightful posts about ethnographic research ethics and the human subjects institutional review process. His comments are especially useful, written from the perspective of someone involved both in ethnographic research and in the institutional review process at his university.

I would especially recommend his latest post, “Some Practical Notes on Ethics Applications.” I think (or at least hope) that by now, nearly all ethnographers take seriously ethical considerations of informed consent, confidentiality, and minimizing risk to research subjects in the course of their research. Many, if not most, are by now aware also of the complexities involved at all levels of research, writing, and publication. What’s most useful about Downey’s latest post is that it provides a pragmatic guide for thinking through these important ethical considerations, and I think both as a way to ease the institutional review process and to think more systematically about seriously important ethical considerations for research activities.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Uses of Myth

On his blog, Reginald Shepherd has posted an essay on “Mythology in Poetry” that will be of interest to anyone interested in myth and/or poetry and literature in general.

The following paragraph is from Shepherd’s post:

“Mythology can serve several functions in poetry. Myths are interesting in their own right as culturally resonant, compelling, amusing, frightening, or just intriguing stories, an engaging realm to explore. They are a reservoir of cultural knowledge, hopes, fears, and passions, of archetypal figures and situations, an inexhaustibly rich lode of charged materials that each poetic generation can mine and remake. Much of Western literature is built on allusions to mythology, particularly to Classical mythology and to Judaeo-Christian mythology, and much of it doesn’t make sense without knowledge of those myths. Myth can also be used to place one’s own experiences, thoughts, and feelings in a larger context, opening them up to realms beyond the individual, making them less purely personal and idiosyncratic, as Louise Glück does in Meadowlands, in which she treats her own divorce in the terms of the myth of Odysseus. One may not have access to Glück’s personal experience, or even care about it, but anyone has access to the stories in which she couches that experience in that book, and the myth opens up beyond the merely private.”

The following paragraph is from a later point in Shepherd’s essay:

“There are three main ways in which writers engage with myth, though of course these modes aren’t mutually exclusive, and all can overlap with one another. A writer can retell the myth, staying within the terms of the myth and basically giving another version of what’s already been written and handed down. This is, from my perspective, the least interesting way to approach myth—it adds little new, doesn’t explore very much or investigate or question. A writer can relive the myth, entering into it to explore a moment or a character, perhaps opening up an underdeveloped element in the myth, while still accepting the overall terms of the myth. Or a writer can revise the myth, questioning its terms, bringing out what it represses or excludes, giving voice to those whom it silences, giving presence to those it makes invisible. The German critic Walter Benjamin called this reading against the grain. This approach has been especially popular with women writers exploring and interrogating the role of women in classical myth, who are so often objects but not subjects of desire, spoken of endlessly but rarely getting to speak on their own behalf.”

I’d simply add that each of these ways of engaging with myth can also be found with other literary and artistic endeavors. Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh is a retelling of The Epic of Gilgamesh and other texts telling the Gilgamesh myth, it’s a new version of the myth – it doesn’t add anything new to the myth, but it is a very nice retelling.

Alessandro Baricco’s An Iliad seems to me both a retelling and a reliving of Homer’s Iliad, (see my earlier post, “Troy and the Purposes of Art”) – the written text is mainly a new version of the tale, while the series of public readings associated with its initial publication was an intentional reliving of the orality of the original sources of Homer’s written text, and also, in the context of debates over the war in Iraq, involved an enactment of the text with a differential emphasis, enacting a text that still entails a glorification and aestheticization of war but which also emphasizes the way in which the text is doing so.

Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, like Glück’s Meadowlands mentioned by Shepherd, revises the tale by telling it primarily from Penelope’s point of view and perhaps even more radically by introducing the voices of the twelve maids hung by Odysseus upon his return.

In a fantasy novel of potential interest to anthropologists, Tales of Neveryon, Samuel R. Delaney engages in a still more radical exercise of transforming myth that had been changed into theory back into something like myth. A character living on an island chain (pretty clearly modeled on Malinowski’s account of the Trobriands – which has taken on something like mythic quality [in a true Lévi-Straussian structuralist sense] among anthropologists) hypothesizes about the role played by certain objects exchanged among men (essentially kula items) in producing their social roles as masculine and powerful, reproducing the Lacanian recoding of the Freudian Oedipal narrative of the phallus, castration anxiety, and the Oedipus Complex. (Any worries that I might be over-interpreting Delaney’s fantasy novel should be allayed by the quotations from Derrida, Foucault, et al. that begin each chapter. Delaney clearly knows exactly what he’s doing, and it’s both insightful and hilarious.)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Max Roach, 1924 - 2007

It’s a sad fact that those jazz greats from the period of the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s who did not die tragically young for any number of reasons (such as Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, and John Coltrane each did) are now aging, with most in their 80s. As a result, over the past few years we have seen several legendary figures pass away one by one. Max Roach, one of the greatest drummers of all time, is the latest.

Roach is most associated with that period of jazz music history from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s. It’s hard to say this was the golden era of jazz, for there was certainly great, wonderful jazz both before and after, but it was definitely a golden era for the music, a period associated with performers worthy of their legendary status. There were a variety of jazz styles during the period, “bebop,” “cool jazz,” “hard bop,” “free jazz,” etc., but there was a loose unity of style as well (cool and hard bop styles were direct and clear developments from bebop, and even with free jazz, there is continuity both in the senses that most free players were well grounded in bebop related styles and the freeing up of the parameters for individual improvisation begun with bebop was magnified in the free style). I would say that this period was the golden era for the small acoustic jazz combo (as opposed to the earlier dominance of big band swing or later experiments with electric instruments and fusion and even acoustic groups directly or indirectly influenced by those experiments).

Max Roach was an integral part of jazz music and history during that two decade period (I don’t intend to slight anything he did later, but it is the case that he was a driving force in the mainstream of jazz mainly during the two decade period under discussion).

Among the highlights of his career:

In the mid- to late 1940s, as part of the bebop scene he was as responsible as any drummer for introducing complex polyrhythm on top of straightahead 4/4 time, transforming the drumkit from a time keeper into simultaneously a time keeper and a frontline instrument. He was part of many classic bebop recordings alongside other legends like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, including “Disorder at the Border,” “Ko-Ko,” “Anthropology,” “Scrapple from the Apple,” and “Now’s the Time.”

In 1949 and 1950, he was a major part of the creation of the “cool jazz” sound, participating in the Miles Davis nonet recording sessions, first released on 78 rpm records, that were ultimately collected as the famous Birth of the Cool album a few years later.

In 1953, he participated in one of the most famous jazz concert recordings of all time as a member of “The Quintet” in Jazz at Massey Hall, alongside Gillespie on trumpet, Parker on alto sax, Bud Powell on piano, and Charles Mingus on bass. I wouldn’t claim this as one of the most important jazz concerts of all time – this wasn’t one of those moments that changed music, no radically new innovation was introduced, or anything of that sort – instead it’s five established and very accomplished musicians playing some damn fine music.

In the mid-1950s, Roach played in one of the best hard bop combos, Brown and Roach, Inc. The “Brown” was the talented trumpeter Clifford Brown, who died far too young in a car accident in 1956. Given Brown’s untimely death, the group didn’t record much, but what they left behind is well worth a listen, especially the Roach original “Mildama” and their version of the standard “I get a kick out of you.”

In 1962, he participated in a piano trio recording with Duke Ellington and Mingus, producing the Duke Ellington Money Jungle album. (15 tracks were recorded in a single day – I’m continuously amazed when reading jazz album liner notes with how quickly massive numbers of tracks would be recorded by jazz musicians in the 1950s and 1960s. By the way, this album was part of one of the busiest months in the career of Ellington. Within a span of about a month, he recorded this album with Roach and Mingus, and the Duke Ellington meets Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington and John Coltrane albums.) Money Jungle could be described as the closest Ellington ever got to free jazz – and on some tracks that’s actually pretty close.

Just a bit earlier, in 1960, Roach had already forayed into free jazz territory with his important album We Insist!: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (an album featuring, among others Booker Little, Coleman Hawkins, Olatunji, and Abbey Lincoln). This recording attempted to unify the emphases on freedom in jazz improvisation and in the demands of the civil rights movement.

An obituary of Roach can be accessed here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Opera in America

I’ve just encountered an engaging article on “America’s Opera Boom” by Jonathan Leaf. For anyone interested in opera or the arts generally, there’s a lot of interesting information in Leaf’s article, and also some encouraging news about opera in America.

Concerning the growth of opera companies and a surprisingly healthy audience size, Leaf writes:

“The U.S. now has 125 professional opera companies, 60 percent of them launched since 1970, according to the trade group OPERA America. The U.S. has more opera companies than Germany and nearly twice as many as Italy. In the most comprehensive recent study, the National Endowment for the Arts found that between 1982 and 2002, total attendance at live opera performances grew 46 percent.
“Annual admissions are now estimated at 20 million, roughly the same attendance as NFL football games (22 million, including playoffs, in 2006–07). In part, this reflects a shift toward seeing opera domestically. “Foreign opera destinations like Salzburg and Glyndebourne are more expensive, and more Americans are staying home—and probably feeling safer for it,” says Richard Gaddes, general director of the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico.”

Obviously this is not to suggest that opera rivals professional sports in popularity in the U.S., for if you include television viewing, the NFL’s audience dwarfs that of opera, but nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised to see just how many people do attend live opera. Leaf does point out elsewhere in the article that this doesn’t mean opera makes big money – it doesn’t – but most opera companies in the U.S. are able to find donors (who are mostly passionate about opera) to make ends meet despite relatively meager state support in most U.S. contexts.

In some of the more interesting discussion in the essay, Leaf points out that it’s not just opera in general that’s popular but new opera, and that the cultivation of new opera in America is happening largely outside of New York. Here is Leaf:

“On the morning I meet them, Smith and Johnson are on a high, savoring a recent rave review from the Los Angeles Times for their production of a new opera by Ricky Ian Gordon based on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Minnesota Opera’s successful introduction of new works is characteristic of a wider pattern. Almost all of the most acclaimed recent operas have been introduced outside New York. John Adams’s Nixon in China was first presented by the Houston Grand Opera, Tobias Picker’s Emmeline by Santa Fe, Kirke Mechem’s Tartuffe by San Francisco. The last, a gorgeous, touching, and amusing opera, has had over 300 productions in six countries since its premiere in 1980.
“Stefania de Kenessey, a highly regarded new composer working on an opera based on Tom Wolfe’s novel about Wall Street, Bonfire of the Vanities—with Wolfe’s enthusiastic encouragement—says that companies outside New York can be easier to work with. “The regional companies usually plan out their schedules three to four years in advance, while the Met plans out about eight years ahead. That means the regionals can be more flexible in picking new works and can more easily spot and take advantage of musical trends.”

From a later portion of the text:

“This trend toward doing new works appears to be broadening. According to Santa Fe’s Gaddes, 'The repertory of opera companies has changed [since] 10 or 15 years ago. It’s become more adventurous and more contemporary.' In many cases, the premieres of new or unfamiliar productions are selling better than the repertory staples like Verdi’s La Traviata. The Minnesota Opera notes that it sold more than 98 percent of the tickets for The Grapes of Wrath, and St. Louis is proud of its sellout of an opera by David Carlson based on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. This summer’s Santa Fe program includes the American premiere of Chinese contemporary composer Tan Dun’s Tea: Mirror of the Soul, sung in English, and three other new productions.”

Leaf also has an interesting discussion of what makes New York’s Met unique, where this uniqueness is in some ways advantageous, in some ways disadvantageous, to opera in New York:

“The Met deserves its reputation, with the world’s best singers, a superb orchestra, and lavish spectacle. Last year, the Met, under its new general manager, Peter Gelb, inaugurated high-definition video presentations of several of its operas in movie theaters around the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Europe. But in other respects, the Met is ill-suited to assume a tutelary role. Few of today’s top singers first made their names on its stage, and the Met’s immense size works against both dramatic effect and subtle and refined singing.
“The Met is designed to hold an audience of nearly 4,000 in a structure with five ascending tiers and broad rows of seats. By contrast, La Scala in Milan has 2,000 seats; the Vienna State Opera, 1,700; and the State Opera in Berlin, 1,300. These more conventional operatic theaters, which can feel almost like drawing rooms, have an intimacy that the Met cannot come close to matching.
“Into the Met’s vast space, singers must project—without amplification—across a stage extending 80 feet back, 103 feet across, and 110 feet up to the rigging. The result is a preference in New York for singers with gargantuan, if sometimes metallic, voices. Not only can the hall’s scale dwarf the singers and the story, but it can damage young voices.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Revolution, Peaceful Resistance, Guerrilla Warfare, Part I

I’ve been reading a classic book in the sociology of revolution, Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution, first published in the 1930s and updated in the early 1960s. In it, Brinton compares the contexts and events of four European or Euro-American revolutions, ranging from the early modern English through the Enlightenment Era American and French to the industrial era Russian.

While clearly cognizant of the many distinctive features (including awareness of the American Revolution as the most atypical of the bunch, given its status as anti-colonial national struggle as much as social or political revolution), Brinton’s emphasis is on uniformities the four revolutions share in common. He smartly refrains from universalizing, making no claims that these four are typical of all revolutions – in fact he makes many explicit claims to the contrary – but he also makes a significant contribution to comparative history in that if there are important uniformities across these four quite different contexts, then there’s a good chance that this tells us something about many revolutionary, including failed revolutionary, contexts in general, even if not about all such settings.

One uniformity he discusses has to do with early stages of armed struggle in the revolutionary setting. In each case, the revolutionary factions are successful in armed struggle initially – there will be some setbacks later in some cases, but initially there is some degree of armed success, perhaps beyond that expected by either side. Keeping in mind that the cases under consideration were ultimately successful revolutions (not successful in achieving all, or even most, revolutionary goals, nor in putting off forever some form of conservative reaction, but successful in effecting a political transition), this is perhaps a statement of the obvious – armed revolutionary movements that don’t achieve at least a modicum of initial success in their armed forays are squashed before the revolution really even begins – Castro is a seeming exception with his spectacularly failed attack on the Moncada barracks, but that attack was the initial and last foray by a failed movement, leaving Castro and other Cuban revolutionaries to start anew once out of prison. (Early in the text, Brinton points out that much of his analysis will be to state the obvious, something which I agree is sometimes important in that sometimes simply stating the obvious allows for greater clarity of insight than would have been apparent without doing so.)

So, in one way or another Parliamentarians, Sons of Liberty, Jacobins, or anti-czarists (by no means mostly Bolsheviks in early 1917) gained the military upper hand over the officially constituted military. Charles’ fairly well organized and constituted army was overcome by a better one raised by Parliament. The British military establishment that could have overwhelmed the colonial militias (and very nearly ultimately did) was not much garrisoned in the North American colonies, allowing the colonists, well armed for civilians and with some militia training, to gain some early success.

It is the case of the Russian Revolution I am most interested in here. As the one industrial era revolution Brinton discusses, it is the one that perhaps speaks most closely to 20th and 21st century realities. The critical factor was that most units of the official military either refused to engage the revolutionaries or actually joined their side. In other words, the revolutionaries won largely without having to fight the military. (One major reason for the military’s refusal to engage had to do with a crisis in the Russian state, such that there was massive opposition to the state from nearly all social sectors, and along with this, failure to properly provision the military, partly because of the war context and partly due to structural failings and incomplete and partial industrialization.)

As Brinton points out, the Russian Revolution is an important counter to frequently made claims that in the industrial era, where modern states have militaries characterized by mechanized transportation, industrially produced modern weapons with ever increasing levels of sophistication, and the provisioning of large standing militaries, it is impossible for civilians to stand up against militaries and potentially gain anything. (There are other contexts refuting such claims as well, ranging from Mexico to Cuba to Iran to Zimbabwe.)

I think what’s more interesting here is that the Russian Revolution’s early successes tell us something significant about the ways in which it is possible to engage in movements for massive social transformation or revolution in the 20th century. Even in the weakened state of the Russian state, had the bulk of the Russian military acted to squash the revolutionaries, that’s almost certainly what would have happened.

In any modern state that is remotely functional (and the Russian state in 1917 was perhaps remotely, but only remotely, functional) and where the military supports the state (a critical factor not holding in 1917 Russia), civilians cannot any longer hope to enact revolutionary transition through direct armed struggle.

This has led to a change in how transformative struggle tends to work, with the growth over the past half century of movements utilizing non-violent public resistance or guerrilla warfare. This is something not much discussed by Brinton, as even for the updated edition of the book, most instances were occurring as he wrote or occurred after. Both strategies have been associated with successful social transformation and/or revolution (the civil rights movement, the 1989 transitions away from communism, the “People’s Power” ouster of Milosevic in Serbia, revolutions utilizing guerrilla warfare in Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Zimbabwe) and with failures (Tiananmen Square, most guerrilla warfare). In a follow-up post, I will address the potentials and limitations of each strategy in the recent past and contemporary era in effecting change.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Abstinence Only Sex Education

News-Medical.Net recently posted an article on research related to abstinence-only sex education programs, “Abstinence Only Sex Programs – A Waste Of Government Money?”

The following is a section of the article:

“The latest research confirms and supports earlier work which has stated that programmes which exclusively advocate abstinence from sex in order to stop risky sexual behaviour or help in the prevention of unwanted pregnancy, are ineffective.
The researchers from Oxford University in the UK found abstinence only sex programmes had no negative or positive impact on the rates of sex infections or unprotected sex and did not appear to affect the risk of HIV infection in high income countries.
The Oxford team reviewed 13 U.S. trials involving over 15,000 people aged 10 to 21 and their conclusions question the continued use of public money to fund abstinence only programmes especially in the United States.
Abstinence only programmes encourage sexual abstinence as the exclusive means of preventing HIV infection, without promoting safer sex behaviours, but their effectiveness in high income settings has been unclear.
Abstinence-only programmes are very popular in the U.S. and also have their supporters in the UK, but such programmes fail say experts because they provide no safety net for young people who do have a sexual relationship, which many do.”

I’ve long felt, both on the basis of intuitions arising from research I’ve done in the past on HIV prevention efforts and because the logical basis for abstinence only programs doesn’t make much sense to me, that abstinence only education doesn’t work very well on pragmatic grounds. Hopefully, the upshot of this and similar recent research demonstrating on empirical grounds the lack of pragmatic efficacy of such strategies will be greater support for other strategies demonstrated to have greater effect – though I’m not holding my breath with the current U.S. administration.

I have other objections to abstinence only sex education beyond the pragmatic. First, it’s bad education. No educational program on any topic can convey to students all the possibly relevant information nor all possibly relevant perspectives on the issue at hand. So, no teacher, no program, no policy can be faulted for not teaching students everything about a topic. It’s quite another thing, though, to forbid teachers from discussing with students information or perspectives that are clearly pertinent to the topic at hand, e.g. discussing the documented facts regarding the rates of efficacy of condoms at preventing pregnancy or various sexually transmitted diseases. Educationally, it’s a bit akin to a classical-physics-only class where Einstein is verboten, or disallowing the teaching of Darwinian evolutionary theory (and nowadays, as controversial as Darwin can be in the U.S., most creation scientists and intelligent design mavens are “simply” demanding equal time for their pet ideas, not a taboo on teaching scientific evolutionary theory per se). Abstinence-only programs are anti-intellectual and anti-educational in structure and design.

I’ve written frequently of the importance of individual autonomy. In addition to objecting to abstinence only programs for pragmatic and educational reasons, I object for ideological and moral reasons to attempts to inculcate an inhibition on consensual activity, including an inhibition of consensual activity into legal adulthood up to the point of marriage. Let me be clear, lest my words be distorted: I’m not advocating active promotion of youth sexuality. Nor do I object to anyone saying publicly that they think that people should not have sex before marriage – I might disagree with them, but support anyone’s right to say such things. I object to the incorporation into formal public education an educational strategy that emphasizes inhibition of free individual autonomy.

The sex-negativity of abstinence only programs is a further problem – simply put, the implication that sex in itself is bad (especially given the lack of a factual basis – you could discuss – and I think should – with students potential negative consequences of unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases – but it’s hard to imagine any empirical basis for implications or explicit statements that sex per se is negative) is a problem for any serious education. I worry about the effects of abstinence only education for all students. I especially worry with regard to lesbian and gay male students. For them, unless they live in Massachusetts or a country outside the U.S. where gay marriage is possible, the message of no sex before marriage is a further unneeded affirmation of the general sense that there’s something wrong with their sexuality.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Caliban and Colonialism

Reginald Shepherd has posted an excellent and interesting essay, Caliban to the Audience: The Tempest as Colonialist and Anti-Colonialist Text.

This essay should be of interest to anyone interested in Shakespeare generally, The Tempest specifically, or the complexities and relatedness of colonialist and anti-colonialist discourse.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

An Important Essay on Prisons in America

Glenn C. Loury has published an important essay American incarceration, including especially the issue of race and prisons, in Boston Review, “Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?”

The following three paragraphs are from Loury’s essay:

“Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens. In December 2006, some 2.25 million persons were being held in the nearly 5,000 prisons and jails that are scattered across America’s urban and rural landscapes. One third of inmates in state prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape, or robbery. But the other two thirds consist mainly of property and drug offenders. Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged parts of society. On average, state inmates have fewer than 11 years of schooling. They are also vastly disproportionately black and brown.

“How did it come to this? One argument is that the massive increase in incarceration reflects the success of a rational public policy: faced with a compelling social problem, we responded by imprisoning people and succeeded in lowering crime rates. This argument is not entirely misguided. Increased incarceration does appear to have reduced crime somewhat. But by how much? Estimates of the share of the 1990s reduction in violent crime that can be attributed to the prison boom range from five percent to 25 percent. Whatever the number, analysts of all political stripes now agree that we have long ago entered the zone of diminishing returns. The conservative scholar John DiIulio, who coined the term “super-predator” in the early 1990s, was by the end of that decade declaring in The Wall Street Journal that “Two Million Prisoners Are Enough.” But there was no political movement for getting America out of the mass-incarceration business. The throttle was stuck.

“A more convincing argument is that imprisonment rates have continued to rise while crime rates have fallen because we have become progressively more punitive: not because crime has continued to explode (it hasn’t), not because we made a smart policy choice, but because we have made a collective decision to increase the rate of punishment.”

Loury further makes an argument regarding potential motivations for the shift to more punitive measures. I don’t feel that the essay provides a complete explanation (I think that a clear part of the rise in incarceration rates alongside falling crime rates is the rise of private enterprise and profit as a component of prison systems), but it’s an interesting argument worth taking a look at nonetheless. In the following paragraph, Loury, drawing on the work of Vesla Mae Weaver, writes:

"The political scientist Vesla Mae Weaver, in a recently completed dissertation, examines policy history, public opinion, and media processes in an attempt to understand the role of race in this historic transformation of criminal justice. She argues—persuasively, I think—that the punitive turn represented a political response to the success of the civil-rights movement. Weaver describes a process of “frontlash” in which opponents of the civil-rights revolution sought to regain the upper hand by shifting to a new issue. Rather than reacting directly to civil-rights developments, and thus continuing to fight a battle they had lost, those opponents—consider George Wallace’s campaigns for the presidency, which drew so much support in states like Michigan and Wisconsin—shifted attention to a seemingly race-neutral concern over crime."

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Race and Infant Mortality

A recent news article at Science Daily on a recent study reports that “Disparities in Infant Mortality Not Related to Race.”

On reading the article, I conclude from what’s reported that the study actually indicates that disparities in infant mortality in the U.S. are very much related to race – as a social construction with social and biological consequences – though not related to what race is often thought to be, i.e. infant mortality rates are not so much linked with genetic traits thought typical and distinct of populations with African or European descent.

The following passages are from the article and should provide a sense of the overall argument and shape of it:

They compared birth weights of three groups of women: African American, whites and Africans who had moved to Illinois. Most African-American women are of 70 to 75 percent African descent.

"If there were such a thing as a (pre-term birth) gene, you would expect the African women to have the lowest birth weights," David said. "But the African and white women were virtually identical," with significantly higher birth weights than the African-American women, he said.

The researchers did a similar analysis of births to black Caribbean women immigrants to the United States and found they gave birth to infants hundreds of grams heavier than the babies of U.S.-born black women.

One reason African-American mothers have babies who weigh less at birth is that they are at greater risk for such conditions as high blood pressure and preeclampsia.

Also, minority women are subject to stress caused by perceived racial discrimination, the researchers said.

David and Collins spoke with black women who had babies with normal weights at birth, comparing them with black women whose babies' birth weight was very low -- under three pounds.

They asked the mothers if they had ever been treated unfairly because of their race when looking for a job, in an educational setting or in other situations.

Those who felt discriminated against had a twofold increase in low birth weights. And for those who experienced discrimination in three "domains," the increase was nearly threefold.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Accessibility/Difficulty as a Quality of Creative Expression

One quality of creative expression is its accessibility or difficulty. Although this quality can be expressed using either of two concepts, “accessibility” or “difficulty,” it is a single quality with accessibility and difficulty being inverse measures – a high degree of accessibility equals a low degree of difficulty and vice versa.

I have previously written about different types of difficulty (and thus, implicitly, different sorts of accessibility) in ethnographic writing as one form of creative expression (See Difficulty in Ethnographic Writing). In that piece, I was drawing on Reginald Shepherd’s writing in “Defining Difficulty in Poetry,” where he delineates five sorts of difficulty in artistic expression: lexical, allusive, syntactical, semantic, and formal difficulties, where in each case, difficulty results from disjuncture between readerly expectations and textual experiences, with different sorts of disjuncture arising from separate components of creative expression.

What I’d like to most emphasize here is that when it comes to artistic expression, accessibility/difficulty is an important quality (or really a set of qualities, given different varieties of difficulty) which is independent of the aesthetic merits of a work, that is, independent of whether a work manifests something profound or beautiful, independent of whether a work successfully unifies the concrete and universal, the timely and timeless (see my recent post, Great Art, Timeliness, and Timelessness).

This is actually a fairly simple and straightforward point, but I make it in opposition to common claims or assumptions that either accessibility or difficulty signal either good or bad art. (For example, I recently attended a conference on creative writing at Florida State University. During a panel discussion on poetic difficulty, one audience member continually asserted that poetic success was measured by “communication,” that accessibility fostered communication, difficulty hampered it, with the implication that accessibility is inherently good in itself and difficulty inherently bad.)

Similar assumptions are often made with regard to a related quality of creative expression – its popularity or obscurity (like accessibility and difficulty, these are simply inverse ways to regard the same basic quality). (These qualities are related not in that most accessible art is particularly popular nor that most obscure art is necessarily difficult. For that matter, a work’s level of popularity or obscurity can change over time without its level of difficulty particularly changing, e.g. a 1930s movie comedy I briefly mentioned in “Great Art, Timeliness, and Timelessness,” Earthworm Tractors, is now a quite obscure film, though it starred a then popular comedian, Joe E. Brown. It’s neither difficult now nor then. Instead, the relationship between accessibility/difficulty and popularity/obscurity is more that most popular works tend to be relatively accessible and most difficult works tend to be more obscure – it’s hard to imagine the free jazz saxophone work of Albert Ayler ever being hugely popular – though there are plenty of exceptions – inventor of free jazz Ornette Coleman will be playing at Bonnaroo.) Some argue that either popularity or obscurity signal good or bad art, something I argued against in my posts “Miles Davis’ Ferrari, or Popularity and Art” and “Art, Black Art, and Seriousness in Bebop.”

With accessibility/difficulty as an independent quality of creative expression, art that is profound or expresses beauty or is otherwise of high aesthetic merit can be either accessible or difficult. Much of Robert Frost’s poetry, or Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, is fairly accessible. Orff’s Carmina Burana or Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring represent musically accessible works (perhaps deceptively so) in that most listeners are immediately able to ascertain basic features of these works (and most tend to immediately react positively or negatively to them as well – though both also have great depth in the sense that many subtle features of the works are typically missed on initial or superficial listenings). On the other hand, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is not what I’d consider accessible. Free jazz, serial music, and aleatory music in different ways present formal difficulty for many listeners – a feature they share in common is an often minimal distinction between musical sound and noise, making it difficult to ascertain such works’ status as music at all (see “Free Jazz and the End of the History of Jazz” and “The End of the History of Music”). Likewise, when it comes to bad art, both accessible and difficult examples could be found (an exercise I’ll refrain from here, because I don’t think it would add anything to the basic point and would simply be snarky).

Accessibility/Difficulty is a quality not just of art but of any form of creative expression, including ethnography. I’ve argued before that ethnography can function in an artistic mode, and at the least, many ethnographies have their artistic moments, but ethnography need not function that way, nor is that what makes it ethnography (see “Ethnography as Art or Science” and “Ethnographic Research Methods and Ethnographic Writing”). Ethnography has as a primary goal the elucidation or explanation of some cultural context. This makes a difference. With art, accessibility/difficulty is a quality independent of other considerations, whereas with ethnography, some forms of difficulty do comprise barriers to basic functions of the text as ethnography.

As I wrote in “Difficulty in Ethnographic Writing:”

“One major difference in poetic and ethnographic writing has to do with the goals or motivations for writing. With poetry, a primary goal is to create a unique sensuous object with its own qualities to be experienced in itself (something that happens with any text, but something that is a primary function of literary writing, including poetry). The poem may make reference to something in the world outside the poem through the sense of the words, but it need not necessarily do so, and in any case, that is not the main raison d’etre for poetry (and if you want to communicate something directly and clearly about the world, there are far better means than poetry). Ethnography at its best might have poetic or other literary qualities, but that’s not what makes it ethnography. Unlike poetry, a definite (and usually ideally clear) connection between the sense of the text and the context in the world outside the text which is its reference is a necessary component of ethnography – it wouldn’t be writing culture if it weren’t definitely writing about culture.

“As a result, one difference between my writing about difficulty in ethnography and Shepherd’s in relation to poetry is a difference in attitude toward difficulty. Shepherd is interested in difficulty as an aspect of poetry which is neither inherently good nor bad – since reading poetry is about experiencing the poem as an object of experience in its own right, various difficulties in grasping its meaning are not bad per se, and are often important components in the experience of pleasure from the poem. In the case of ethnography, where communication about something in the world is a key consideration, in most cases difficult writing, to the extent it creates a barrier to understanding, is more straightforwardly something to be avoided – though there are interesting exceptions to this as well.”

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Enlightenment Values

The most important contribution to world culture of the Enlightenment was the promulgation of a set of important ideas and values, most notably those of freedom/liberty/autonomy and equality. These are ideals that have continued to have value well beyond the specific 18th/early 19th century period usually referred to as “The Enlightenment,” so that we can speak of an ongoing “Enlightenment Project” of implementing these basic ideals. (There were/are varieties of Enlightenments and Enlightenment Projects. Associated with the French Revolution was the famous triad of liberty, equality, fraternity. Coming much later, but still very much associated with the continuing project of expanding freedom, the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata emphasized land and liberty, the emphasis on both the ideal and the material condition necessary to implement it. In the U.S., liberty/freedom has been especially foregrounded as an ideal. Equality of opportunity and equality before the law have been generally held ideals, while equality of social condition has not been as widely held as an ideal, and the French “fraternity” is largely absent from consideration.)

In practice, Enlightenment values have always been coupled with contradictory practices, e.g. practices of slavery and Jim Crow laws alongside values of equality and freedom.

As a matter of historical or social analysis, these contradictions between ideals or values and practices must remain coupled. Both are part of historical or current social realities.

Further, refusing to decouple Enlightenment values from contradictory practices enables us to better understand things like racist thinking associated with slavery and/or colonialism and their aftermaths. These are syntheses of the contradiction between values and practices. Much scholarship on race in early colonial North America indicates that masters felt no particular need to distinguish greatly between white and black forced laborers, nor a particular need to defend such practices. Racism grew up alongside developing notions of freedom and equality. As the radical inequality associated with forced labor began to seem wrong, but the profits generated were hard to pass up, the development of notions of inherent racial inequality served as useful rationalization – one could treat some unequally because regarded as naturally unequal.

A similar type of thinking developed concerning gender and the growing contradiction between the value of equality and realities of gender inequality. In an engaging essay, “Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology” (the essay can be found in The Gender/Sexuality Reader, edited by Roger Lancaster and Micaela di Leonardo), Thomas Lacqueur discusses changes in scientific thinking about female and male reproductive anatomy and physiology in the late 18th/early 19th century. Earlier, it had been typical to think of males and females as manifesting degrees of difference along a continuum, with this related to a lingering humoral conception of the body. Male and female genitalia were thought of as the same structures, for example, with “hotter” male bodies extruding the genitalia and cooler female bodies having the same reproductive structures introverted, i.e. females were males inside-out, or perhaps outside-in. Beginning in the late 18th century, males and females began to be seen more and more as different species in terms of their biology, with females’ rationality in particular being affected by menstrual cycles.

As a matter of values for ongoing scholarship and engagement with the world, though, historical and current contradictions between ideals and practices should be decoupled. I don’t mean that practices, now or in the past, that contradict the values of freedom and equality should be ignored, forgotten, justified, or anything of the sort. Far from it. I mean that contradictory practices in themselves don’t undermine or invalidate the values.

The fact that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder doesn’t undermine his words regarding liberty and equality. It makes him a hypocrite, something he himself was aware of, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t make his words in the Declaration of Independence any less stirring (nor do you have to be a communist to be stirred by the evocation of those very words by Ho Chi Minh against French colonialism in the mid-20th century). Nor was his slaveholding a part of an Enlightenment Project. Instead, this was a practice resisting such a project and contradicting his own stated values.