Wednesday, October 29, 2008
  DeLay-ed Labeling
Marxism is suddenly on the rise.

Or so it would appear. During a Monday interview with Democratic VP candidate Joe Biden, a Florida reporter named Barbara West used a quote from Karl Marx to ask the senator to defend charges that running mate Barack Obama is “being a Marxist.”

The transcript appears below:
Barbara West: You may recognize this famous quote. "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." That's from Karl Marx. How is Sen. Obama not being a Marxist if he's intending to spread the wealth around?

Sen. Joe Biden: Are you joking? Is this a joke?

West: No.

Biden: Or is that a real question?

West: That's a question.

Biden: He is not spreading the wealth around. He's talking about giving the middle class an opportunity to get back the tax breaks they used to have.

I know this has been a pretty mean campaign. I was on a television station the other day and doing a satellite feed to a major network in Florida. And the anchor quotes Karl Marx and says in a sense, "Isn't Barack Obama Karl Marx?" You know I mean folks, this stuff you're hearing, this stuff you're hearing in this campaign, some of it's pretty ugly.

Since the interview, the Obama campaign has suggested that the reporter is a registered Republican, and that her husband is a Republican strategist. In an interview with Larry King, West refuted the latter claim (but not the former?).

There are several aspects of this event that intrigue me: one, that seeming agreement with one sentence of an author who published thousands of statements is grounds to label someone with the weight of an entire ideology; two, that Republicans (and apparently reporters) can simultaneously claim that Obama is a socialist and a Marxist (which raises an earlier paradox among conservatives who charge that Obama is a Muslim while simultaneously criticizing his ties to the pastor of his former church); and three, that any candidate running for office and receiving sponsorship from industry and social organizations and who doesn’t appear to be calling for a worker’s revolution can be attacked for being perceived as a Marxist.

Lots of ground here. This will probably not be my only blog on this subject.

On Tuesday, I noticed that three of my friends on Facebook were including the label “Marxist” in their concerns about Obama’s lead in the polls. The proximity of all these specific charges of a specific ideology raised my suspicions. What are the odds that so many people in the same week (most of whom I would have been surprised to learn understood what Marxism is or that it even existed – and in truth when I inquired, most of my friends apparently conflate Marxism with socialism without demonstrating an ability to distinguish between the two)?

Then I looked back at the transcript of the West/King interview, and read the line in which West said, “I think a lot of people who are talking to me out on the street are saying they are very, very concerned that this idea of redistributing the wealth means taking it out of somebody's pocket who is a wage earner and putting it in somebody's pocket who refuses to work. And they're asking about. That's what they don't want. That is what they want to know, what does this really mean?”

A lot of people on the street are asking about Marxism?

How could so many conservatives suddenly become concerns about an ideology that many did not seem to know existed and many still quite ignorant about?

I did some digging. Turns out, this particular charge appears to have originated from a surprising source: Tom DeLay. Yes, Tom DeLay, former Republican congressman and Speaker of the House (before he was ejected during after a Texas grand jury indicted him for conspiracy to violate campaign finance reform).

Apparently, DeLay gathered together a group of conservative bloggers (many of whom were already making this argument) and issued them the Marxist charge, demonstrating that you’re never too far removed from power in the G.O.P. to issue misleading talking points. He had made the claim back in June to the mainstream media.

Maybe these events will lead to a discussion of the differences between socialism (in its many forms), Marxism, the views of Marxian scholars and communism.

But somehow I suspect not. This campaign has largely been run on the backs of vague claims about scary terms that the general electorate seems unwilling to investigate (I still can’t believe I find people labeling ANYONE as an “Islamofascist,” which continues to be a contradiction in terms).

I wonder how much damage we’re doing to our democracy with this constant deluge of vaguely defined constructs of fear? Shouldn’t we be encouraging a healthy discussion about our fears, to ensure they’re brought into the public discourse for examination?

I also wonder if the damage to our dictionary might be even greater.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
  Can it still be called a newspaper if it's doesn't appear on paper?
It’s happening.

In a startling revelation this morning, the Christian Science Monitor announced it will abandon its print publication and resort to publishing exclusively on the Web in April.


My immediate reaction? Surprised at the timing, not the conclusion. Nor do I think this is necessarily a signal of things to come in the next year or so.

The Christian Science Monitor is rather niche in its nature. I have long appreciated the foreign coverage it provides, but the publication is nonprofit, so one wonders how relevant its strategic decisions are to its profit-driven counterparts.

Although the publishing industry is technically declining, it is still wildly profitable. And I suspect most news organizations will not be forced to abandon print in the near future.

One question this raises for me: IF this decision DOES signal a trend (which I do not suspect at the moment), how would this trend call researchers to reevaluate the Digital Divide literature? If a large portion of our population do not have access to the Internet because of physical location or because they can’t afford it, what will it mean for democracy if we see print organizations move to the Web?

I have a thousand questions rattling in my brain, but I have to go teach class. Perhaps more later.
Monday, October 27, 2008
  Expelled? Or "misportrayed"?
I'm FINALLY catching up on some of my Netflix and got around the Ben Stein's documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Purporting to investigate the persecution of freedom in the American scientific academy, the documentary represents the worst its genre.

Say what you will about Michael Moore, when his critics use his methods (which they claim are dishonest and misleading), the ring of hypocrisy is hard to deny.

Below appears the review I wrote for Netflix (I gave the film two stars out of five):

A clumsy and manipulative exploration of an interesting topic.

Stein prowls the alleyways of academia without distinguishing between instructor ranks and tenure-track ranks. And several of his prominent subjects apparently have credentials, but the viewer is not provided with details. This represents the worst problem with Stein’s approach: the lack of context. Large numbers of qualified academics are denied tenure every year, and to assert without question that each of these cases is political demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of the tenure process itself.

And in at least one of the cases, the instructor was not on tenure track, making the argument about the connection between academic freedom and her release from the university blurry at best.

Stein also points to eugenics as a cause of the Nazi Holocaust (spending no effort to discuss other variables that contributed, such as Hitler’s experiences in WWI, the economic forces in modern Europe, the influence of Nietzche on modernity or even Hitler's own religious faith). Stein equates eugenics as a natural outcome of “Darwinism,” instead of the narrow movement that it was within the academy. The result is the unsubstantiated claim that "Darwinism" directly justifies the Holocaust and will create another such movement in America today if unchecked.

I was more amused than offended at the expulsion from the Smithsonian. Does any viewer really think that ANY uninvited camera crew WON’T be tossed out of the Smithsonian? They sell prints and videos of their cultural artifacts as a major source of revenue.

And then there’s Stein's ambush of Richard Dawkins. Having read Dawkins' recent book, "The God Delusion," it is clear to me that Dawkins' views (which I ultimately disagree with personally) are not represented by Stein's interview. Watching Dawkins struggle to make sense of Stein's questions is painful, it does look as if he thought the conversation was geared for another treatment (which supports his widely circulated claims that Stein lied both about the title and the intent of the film when he arranged the interview).

All said, it was never clear whether Stein possesses the needed credentials, background or gravitas to make him a good focal point for this needed discussion. Much context about the rancor surrounding these debates is missing, leading the viewer to take on faith that there exists a terrible and arbitrary bias within the academy.

Perhaps Stein should limit his cultural authority to his gifts of comedy and financial insight (though did he not also miss the recent crisis on Wall Street? I don't remember any warnings from him to his viewers and readers).
Considering our place in a hyper-mediated world.

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