The Meaning of LeBron James

There’s a photograph of a close friend and former student that has remained fixed in my mind: two young lads, teenagers, wearing LeBron James, Cleveland Cavalier’s game shirts, number 23, one red and one white, stand amidst the solemnity of the Walling Wall, or Kotel, located in the Old City of Jerusalem at the foot of the western side of the Temple Mount.

Ryan at the Walling Wall

Ryan at the Walling Wall

LeBron James means something to these kids from Cleveland. He was the world to them to such an extent that they appear at one of the holiest sights in the world sporting his jersey. LeBron was hope — not just for Cleveland but for the post Michael Jordan NBA; his is the American Horatio Alger story we so need to keep alive — from poor Akron, Ohio, to the fourth highest paid athlete in the world, the kid who wasn’t suppose to be holding up the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy after the Heat beat the Spurs, 95-88; he was the new face of Black American hope, even before President Obama, as James explains how he’ll be the first billion dollar athlete and, to this aim, he installed his closest friends to run his empire, heard first on the  60 Minute interview.

LeBron James means something to the NBA. He’s moved our attention past the dearth of exhilarating play that fell on the NBA after Michael Jordan retired. He’s excited new narratives — is he better than Michael? will he have an equal amount of championships — can he catch Jordan? is he more like Magic Johnson? is he the best of both?

The game today is not the game Michael played. And for me, speaking strictly basketball, James is the prodigal son of a long standing prototype that has adapted to and animated the evolving play of the NBA. LeBron James is true, imaginative adaptation. Think Karl Malone, “The Mailman, “ generally considered one of the greatest power forwards and long held to be a strong leader, even another coach. Think of the 6’9″ Magic Johnson and the selfless play, the incredible vision, the passing, the shooting, the quickness. And we can take a page out of Larry Byrd, too, if we consider basketball IQ in a deep and penetrating sense. LeBron James is all these players — and Michael Jordan (who wasn’t all these players).

Basketball — as in most sports — is keen on comparing numbers and trophies, the accolades that fund a vertical profit structure and that can give a player — and a team — value; this is why racing to comparisons with Michael Jordan abound and are easy to make. The comparisons are trite, though; these types of comparisons are like statistical models in economics, say: they only tell one small piece of the story. What this modeling fails to see is that LeBron James, in his young career, has already outdone Michael Jordan — if we look at the whole man, beyond the game, and understand that, unlike Michael, there are moments when a figure appears and transforms his sport, as well as the perceptions of fans and the culture at large.

LeBron James is a product of our culture and he’s transforming it as well — the good and not so good. This is his true meaning — and some may not like this, while others see vitality and hope. It’s a fresh narrative line when we most need it since the other being that was to transform our culture — Change Obama — has clearly not, acting more like Mike then LeBron.

Here’s how it works:

Mediated sports in American culture — their immediacy, their narrative strategies, their universal appeal — occupy the unique function of continuing the ongoing tensions — relationships, influences and antagonisms — in the dominant culture. The assumptions about popular culture concerning race, class, and gender — especially masculinity — are grahically displayed in media’s representation of sports. In other words, there are but a few figures that stand in the center of this spectacle that are transforming these tensions, while also, before our eyes, being transformed by them. And it is here where we are offered a mirror of who we are. One such person is LeBron James, of course.

But to get there, we have to begin with Michael Jordan’s problematic position in popular culture.

“To some, Jordan in his prime became the embodiment of Black Power,” writes William C. Rhoden in Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete; “to me he is the antithesis, however, the embodiment, if anything, of the destructive power of the Conveyor Belt and the perversion of the nobler goals of integration.”

Who is Mike? asks Rhoden.

Jordan is the one who fully exercises the won right to be publicly neutral, not to have to deal with quotas and segregation, and even to have the ‘black’ elements of style and image — bald head, baggy pants, soaring acrobatics — not just accepted by the mainstream, but revered, freeing him to be obsessed with wealth and image. Freed by the Civil Rights movement to be neutral, he’s lightly shrugged off the historical mission of black athletes to push for progress and power.

Jordan paid a price for this. In May 2003, Jordan was summoned to Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin’s office and categorically dismissed, Rhoden tells us (as did many others in the media).

“I didn’t do this for the money,” Jordan told Pollin. “I thought I was going to take over the franchise eventually” (in Rhoden).

“That was never a part of the arrangement,” Pollin responded, Rhoden tells us. “I’ve worked thirty-nine years to build this organization. I’m not giving it to you and I don’t want you to be my partner, Michael.”

Says Rhoden, “Intentionally or not, the dismissal served as a warning shot that reverberated through the NBA. The greatest athlete of all time — “God,” “the deity,” His Airness — couldn’t prevent his own firing. Jordan was effectively taken out into the yard and shot like a dog.”

This is not LeBron James. He learned from Jordan’s don’t make waves, go along quietly and just Be like Mike attitude. In fact, James may have learned from the Williams sisters: they’ve paved their own way, created their own, respective voices in tennis and, literally, as in the case of Serena that “runs women’s tennis like Kim Jong-un runs North Korea: ruthlessly, with spare moments of comedy, indolence and the occasional appearance of a split personality,” designed their own lives and fortunes — on their terms.

LeBron James’ meaning encompasses something of all the descriptors used for Serena Williams, the antithesis of the Be like Mike, quiet persona that refuses to take a stand on anything. James is something other then Jordan’s passivity and reluctance to engage any racial challenge. When LeBron James was handed the MVP and the NBA championship, standing with each trophy securely in his arms, he acknowledged coming from Akron, Ohio, saying that he wasn’t even suppose to be here, the champion, a profound political statement in a dramatic moment.

As Rhoden suggests, Jordan was fully aware of his double standard and, like most African – Americans “playing the game, seeing racism and sidestepping it, grumbling about it under his breath, but pushing it to one side in order to reap the full benefits of a multiracial society. At the same time, even if his attitude about race was familiar and defensible, his actions remained troubling.” Who could forget, in 1992, when Jordan balked at wearing the Reebock designed United States Olympic Committee awards-ceremony uniform and covering it with the American flag, of all things?

What’s the point?

The point is that LeBron James is reaching far beyond the confines of race in sports, pushing the boundaries, creating new models to consider. Somewhere in America today, young boys are running around trying to be like LeBron, not Mike, and wonder, as LeBron has said, if they too can use basketball as a stepping stone to other ventures.

But this, too, is the problem, and deeply felt, more then most, by Cleveland fans. In order to be the first million dollar athlete, and taking a page from the Williams sisters, more so then from any other story today — except for, maybe, Muhammad Ali — LeBron James is floating to the heights of capitalism like no other athlete before, conflating Black Power, Black Style and (Black?) Capitalism. This was made evident in The Decision. James said he wanted to win championships, the hard road to value and to making an impact on history. The people of Cleveland were devastated; unfortunately this is because most fans don’t understand the business of sports and how a player is valued, financially and historically. Players will float to the money — and money, even though there are rules in the NBA, has no allegiances, except to more money.

I received a text from another student post the Heat victory: Even though I love LeBron, she says, the Spurs are a REAL team. This is another meaning of LeBron: he represents the conditions in which the game takes place. Pat Riley and the Heat management bought a team — and helped LeBron make his mark. In the Heat vs Spurs NBA final, we saw two histories, two narratives unfolding that are mirrors of our lives: bought, immediate success vs the labored building of success over time. LeBron James has given meaning to this business form — which is also a military form, “shock and awe.” We don’t like this when we’re affected by it. (Sort of the hatred of the winning Yankees, the glee in their losing.)

LeBron James is the meaning of our times — loved and despised; admired and yet disliked, too, for his grace, agility and strength; he is liked and disliked because of his work ethic, professionalism and business, as well as basketball, IQ (no one said, as an announcer said about LeBron during the NBA finals, that Michael could coach any time; he’s failing miserabley with the Bobcats because his basketball IQ is just not LeBron’s); and he’s both admired and admonished because he forces us to look at race in an America that still asks that African Americans be like LeBron, or Mike, or Magic or …, to succeed while others hope for the best in the injustice of it all. Think Detroit, think Akron, think South Bronx.

LeBron James’s meaning is that he’s us — we are him. He is a mirror of our extremes; he is a sign that all is not right, but suggesting that what is right requires self-reliance, certitude, facing fear without reservations, and launching out with dead reckoning, much as Herman Melville would suggest. We love and hate LeBron James because he captures all of who we are and he’s letting us know; and we are uncomfortable, in Apartheid America, that one individual is actually striking out, not on the Pequod, but on the basketball court, and calling it his own.

LeBron James and the Williams sisters, too, are the future. They’re in control of it — we’re not.

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Women and the New World Order

CATHERINE RAMPELL reports in The New York Times that, “With the recession on the brink of becoming the longest in the postwar era, a milestone may be at hand: Women are poised to surpass men on the nation’s payrolls, taking the majority for the first time in American history.”

In “As Layoffs Surge, Women May Pass Men in Job Force,” Rampell says that, “The reason has less to do with gender equality than with where the ax is falling.”  The ax is falling on jobs that have been dominated by men.  “Women tend to be employed in areas like education and health care, which are less sensitive to economic ups and downs, and in jobs that allow more time for child care and other domestic work.”

This, I believe, is a major shift in our cultural construction of how power is controlled, even determined.  In fact, this bit of news can be seen as  a last breath of the old hegemony that has nearly driven us to the point of complete destruction.

The jobs typically held by women–education and health care–are the fabric of society; everything else –finance, construction, high-tech, etc–is crumbling.  The old guard is indeed falling apart, but the fabric of society, patched together by women, is holding.  And with the Obama stimulus package, even increasing its strength.

According to Peter Sloterdijk, the renowned German philosopher and a professor of philosophy and media theory at the Karlsruhe School of Design, there have been 3 phases of globalization: (1) the metaphysical globalization of Greek cosmology; (2) the nautical globalization of the 15th Century that creates global provincialism; and, finally, (3), the overcoming of distance.

It is this last phase–our age–that is extremely interesting from the perspective of a new world order and the emergence of women in powerful positions.  For the past 10 to 15 years, women from traditionally male-dominant cultures have found their way to Western colleges and universities.  It’s an amazing ratio.  Women from the East, especially China and Korea, accompany women from South Asia–India and Afghanistan , for instance–and mingle with women from Africa and the Middle East and Latin America.

These young women, to use Homi Bhabha’s term, choose to be “unhomed” in order to advance.  This, for them, is where “presencing begins because it captures something of the estranging sense of relocation of the home and the world–the unhomliness–that is the condition of extra–territorial and cross-cultural initiations”, says Bhabha.  It is a form of exile apprehended so as to better themselves.  In this condition, women are shifting, apparently always in movement, and challening deeply held beliefs about what has been accepted–to a fault–as the location of women in culture.  Women are re-articulating boundaries. They are redefining material reality.

This re-articulation of boundaries increases the potential for the feminization of cultures.   The current generation of women in our colleges and universities and heading into the (traditional) world is searhing for interconnectedness, though they suffer a sense of estrangement in doing so.  These are the women of the Third Wave of Feminism: the overcoming of boundaries, I call it, which is consistent with the movement’s history. Following Bhabha,  women are inhabiting a space “narrower than the human horizon” that provides an “ethical entitlement to, and an enactment of, the sense of community.”  This is something new, different.  Michelle Obama’s planting of a White House garden, which follows Elenor Roosevelt’s garden historically speaking, is a case in point.  The First Lady’s garden implies the need for a healthier nation, one that grows foods locally and that eats healthier–challenges to health care, the food industry, and the psychology of dependency of American citizens.

Moreover, Michelle Obama is a new model.  Gracious, elegant, classy and beautiful, she is also in shape, as our obsession with her arms shows.  Mrs. Obama is the Third Wave of Feminism, as opposed to Hilary Clinton who represents the Second Wave.  The difference is fundamental: the professional women of Mrs. Obama’s generation did not give up men or family; they pursued careers, but also kept the hearth moving.  This Third Wave comes with an “ethical entitlement to, and an enactment of, the sense of community.”  Women are demanding very different things of the social structures and the institutions that support them.

Women are negotiating languages used in the past to (pre) define notions of reality–and truth.  Nationhood, we can see by how women are stretching themselves across boundaries, is a morally arbitrary notion, a necessity of the post-colonial state, for instance.  Rather, women are more concerned with an “insufficiency of self” and the needs of new urban communities of interest.  Women fully understand the precarious sense of survival we are living today since this has been women’s historical position.  They are best qualified to guide us through.  Women are therefore the agents of change we need.  Women working through their identities, as these come into conflict with ancient–and broken–models, discover their agency and, in turn, transform formally oppressive ways of thinking and being.  It is a slow process, historically, but we are on a path we cannot now change.

What in the past has been perceived as less valuable and thus exploitable, disposable and forgettable in the global political economy, now is no longer.  Opportunities are shifting.  We may be in fact witnessing the emergence of the Fourth Wave of Feminism–matriarchal societies.

America’s Future After an Obama Victory: Hope Hangs by a Thread

Disorder and uncertainty are the guiding principles of our world today, made more so by violent storms and the unpredictability of the environment, the mortgage crises and the constriction of world finances, and always war and the threat of more war and violence in different parts of the world. Instability reigns supreme.

The voting citizenry, almost too late, last minute, gives Obama a healthy victory.

What happened?

Some of the very wealthy–not all, the golf course set mostly–in the top 1 to 2% of the population, fearing a capital gains tax and estate taxes, vote for McCain believing that our national debt and growing financial uncertainty can be solved by reducing taxes, the myth of Republican Fiscal Conservatism. The golf course set turns its back on the history telling us that this has never worked.

The next socioeconomic rung (we begin to understand that we live in a class-based, racist society; see also the July/August The Atlantic) finally realizes that under every Republican presidency since Ronald Reagan, taxes have increased, the debt has mushroomed, defense spending has increased (so have loans to support defense/war), and the size of government–the business of government delving into the privacy of citizens–has grown to an uncontrollable size (and weight).

The working class is divided into two camps, one for McCain and one for Obama. The right wing extremists, the religious fundamentalist who reject science, civil liberties and the unity of knowledge known as consilience, which all thinking persons are beginning to understand as the way to bridge culture and science–and who likewise could never vote for a Black president (somehow this is appropriate for Christians)–vote for McCain (see election 2008, from Salon for interesting insights). (see also how the Republicans want to control the 21st Century, as reported to Terry Gross, Fresh Air)

Convincingly, though, Black America and the working class behind Hillary Clinton, better educated on the relationships between science, technology, evolution and the future that depends on our cooperation and collaboration, vote for Obama.

And finally, students and those commonly referred to as the “educational elite,” as opposed to the “political elite” and the “media elite,” but who also cross these rather bogus lines of demarcation made popular by the lackluster press insistent on reporting only the surface structure of things, vote overwhelmingly for Obama.

The citizenry thus awakens to the fact that from Henry Kissinger on, all those who are advising and working closely with the “Maverick” McCain are lobbyist of the strongest sort; all support and advocate special interests, which in reality has been the hallmark of the McCain campaign, made obvious by the selection of Sarah Palin, a puppet, we finally realize, propped up to excite the extremists that near the end of the campaign are worked up to a frenzy about abortion and (gay) marriage as if nothing else mattered.

The citizenry wakes up to the fact that the first presidential decision made by John McCain, the selection of Palin, puts the country at risk. As Bob Herbert, writing for The New York Times, said, “For those who haven’t noticed, we’re electing a president and vice president, not selecting a winner on ‘American Idol’.” We therefore realize that another 4 or 8 years of a continuation of a “Bush doctrine” and Republican control, which is unenlightened and uncreative, would put the country into a tail spin from which we might never recover.

Can we afford electing another half-wit from the bottom of his graduating class? Or should we try something different?

American Culture After an Obama Victory:

Many in America are worried. A Democratic intellectual, the first Black President, is elected. What will this mean?

The first challenge is cultural, societal.

We have to address the notion that we are divided–we are a divided country. For far too long many people have been kept from the seats of power; too many Americans lacking education and healthcare are disenfranchised. Now we are nervous that we are being asked to trust in a process of change without a light at the end of the tunnel–just trust. Trust the rhetoric. Trust the will of this new leader. Trust the judgment.

Where are we headed?

It is a nebulous time. People are scared and immediately following the election, the extreme right wing begins a relentless media attack against Obama, his policies and his ideas. It’s what the citizenry is used to–media instead of substance. The hopeful remain so, but hanging by a thread. The Clintons, and Al Gore, rally around Obama and Biden.

Wall Street is more optimistic, and since they’ve backed Obama all along, continue to their support.

But within the first 100 days, it’s the citizenry that awakens. Some, the older voters who supported Obama come to realize that they’ve heard this before, echoes of the JFK era (this doctrine was never finished; it never even got off the ground), and thus begin to take leadership positions in communities across the country pushing the notion that this election was NOT about Obama or McCain, but rather about what kind of country we want to work for. This becomes the rallying cry and Americans, slowly, some reluctantly, begin to understand that the bigger, faster, stuffed America of the past is not the way and that we must look elsewhere to find solutions.

We in fact have to look at ourselves for the solutions. Obama provides ideas and methods, processes and procedures, but we, the citizens, have to put our shoulders to the wheel–in America and across the world. Innovation is the only solution to change.

Imagination, will and determination, collaboration and cooperation, consilience, and humanity–these are the new words after the election which help us look at energy solutions, education and healthcare, and the wars. The shift in the American perspective begins within 100 days of Obama’s election–but not without war cries from the opposition entrenched in old models.

Energy Policy:

Moments after his inaugural address, Obama is pressed hard to drill for oil in Alaska. But he weathers the storm–some people, and oil companies (the Russians and the Venezuelans, too) get angry. It’s the intelligent thing to do, though. As Thomas Friedman says about drilling for oil, writing for The New York Times, “I’ll tell you what they would have been doing: the Russian, Iranian and Venezuelan observers would have been up out of their seats, exchanging high-fives and joining in the chant louder than anyone in the hall — “Yes! Yes! Drill, America, drill!” — because an America that is focused first and foremost on drilling for oil is an America more focused on feeding its oil habit than kicking it.”

What most people hadn’t realized is that Obama has surrounded himself, not with lobbyists (only one of his team members even resembles a lobbyist), but with experts in different areas–the environment, education and healthcare, defense, technology and so on. The drilling for oil controversy raises the curtain on how Obama is working to move the culture towards what we know–consilience–making this the beginning of an era that will rely on knowledge and information, rather than the gloss given by media and its pundits, usually advocating for one special interest group or another.

Linking energy to defense and the economy, Obama, with the help of Al Gore and his followers, begins to make it easier to invest in green technologies.

Eric Janszen for instance, “an angel investor and founder of the contrarian market website iTulip.com, which The New York Times credited with ‘accurately predicting that the [internet] bubble would pop.’ Now Janszen believes the American economy needs a fundamental restructuring away from its foundations in finance, insurance and real estate. His prescription: a new bubble based on green technologies.” (Also see Harpers, “The Next Bubble…”)

Literally, all sectors of the economy need to comply–the auto industry, oil and gas, building and construction, local governments, and so on. This calls for mass restructuring but it begins by engaging citizens about what is important. We reach out to other countries, such as the Netherlands, that have far outpaced our evolution into green technologies, and begin collaborative projects.

This is a slow, contentious process but it sends a message to the world that we are indeed operating quite differently than we have in the past. The price of oil stabilizes, though still high because of Chinese demand and because of environmental factors.

Education and Healthcare:

Education: This is a difficult area because the K-12 educational system has mushroomed into an unhealthy and unmanageable nightmare, particularly following the Bush era No Child Left Behind.

First off, Obama places an emphasis on early child care; then on strengthening the next rung. But it gets tricky after: The size of schools and teacher unions make it hard to change or modify existing–and complacent–practices. Obama encourages “innovation” in education, but it’s unclear what this means (I will write on this at another time, in The Uncanny, laying out the challenges and solutions for America’s disastrous educational system, which is, after all, all about class).

On a positive note–since this is going to be even slower then healthcare reform–Obama is calling forth for all citizens to be involved in the education of our children. This coincides with our citizen-roles post the Obama election; however, no sound plan has yet emerged, not in the first 100 days. Vouchers, magnate schools, private vs public, merit pay and accountability, innovation vs the status quo–all these points of contention remain and are the areas of specialization the Obama White House will have to address.

It is a truism that education reform, which is extremely necessary, will be the most painful domestic undertaking in the next 10 years, more painful than healthcare reform. Education is where we can gauge how the rest of the culture is working–another truism.

Healthcare: Healthcare and Education run side-by-side. The way of healthcare is the way of education. This is always true.

But Obama has promised that all Americans will have insurance comparable to that held by government employees. Obama and Biden begin by addressing disparities in healthcare coverage for Americans. This addresses their first theme, “Quality, Affordable and Portable Coverage for All.” A good idea, but insurance companies and pharmaceuticals push back–too much money to be made off illness.

Likewise lowering the costs by modernizing the U.S. Healthcare system–reducing costs of catastrophic illnesses, helping patients in numerous ways, ensuring providers deliver quality care across the board–is important and valuable, but other sectors of the economy have to grow and become healthier since this is an extraordinary expensive venture. And again, given the high cost of providing healthcare in this country, the profits enjoyed by pharmaceuticals and the salaries commanded by some doctors who fear making less and having to change lifestyles, there is significant push back. Obama considers Hillary Clinton’s role in this and she becomes a major policy contributor.

But perhaps the single most important, long term possibility exists in Obama’s plan to fight for new initiatives. Not unlike the environment–and what’s necessary in education and still missing–new advances in science and technologies, advances in biomedical research, as well as continued and renewed support for the fight against AIDS worldwide create an approach to healthcare based on a delicate balance between prevention, intervention and treatment–and this includes mental health care.

Foreign Policy:

To say that Obama and Biden inherit a nightmare is an understatement. The first item on the agenda is to move away from a Machiavellian approach to foreign policy, but which will reinstate the United States as a strong and competent ally.

Though Obama was accused of lacking experience during the campaign, his foreign policy approach calls for a bipartisan, consensus building journey of renewal. The problem has been that the carrot and stick approach has not worked, so we must find new or different ways. Obama calls for more dialog, even with “enemies,” thus enabling us to have better grasp of the challenges ahead–something totally alien to the Bush Administration, which would have been the policy followed by McCain.

The key to Obama’s plan is bipartisanship and an open approach, this way we can all contribute to the complex world we all live in. Diplomacy must be used first and foremost, and it’s the only way to continue a relationship with, say, Iraq, since within 11 or so months after taking office, troops leave and only a small group remains for consulting and training.

But the biggest mess is Afghanistan, particularly following the increase in violence and attacks into Pakistanand Iran–perpetuated by the Bush Administration between September and the end of December of 2008. Pakistan has become hostile to the US for the attacks; likewise, the country has become increasingly unstable.

While bringing troops out of Iraq, Obama and Biden must stabilize rising insurgency in Afghanistan, as well as the instability in Pakistan. This is the new front. It has of course always been there, but the Bush Administration–which McCain supports–kept it off the front burner until moments before the presidential election.

Summary:

Thi is a citizen’s election–our electin; it is about how we feel about our country and in what direction we want to go. Nothing more, nothing less. It is clear that an Obama victory brings challenges. This is because he, unlike McCain, is asking that we participate, that we involve ourselves in our domestic as well as global problems. We can’t do this any other way.

McCain, on the other hand, is a salesman doing the two-step around a faulty model–we’ve been here. It’s true, during the last 8 years we’ve allowed a failed student, a failed businessman, and a rather unsuccessful governor rule our country. Bush boasts about his place at Yale, a place that was held for him not because he earned it, but because his family gave it to him. The same holds true for McCain. He graduated 5th from the bottom at the US Naval Academy, a place guaranteed him by his father. McCain went on to destroy 5 aircraft. At one point killing over 100 people on an aircraft carrier; his flight fitness report described him as “less than average.” But he went on to be given the honor of being a flight instructor. How does that happen? Daddy, family, the business as usual of privilege. Yes, he suffered greatly and he acted with great honor in Vietnam. Unfortunately, these are not qualifiers for the presidency. McCain is no maverick, this is obvious; he has been a part of the privileged mainstream, which awards blood not merit.

Isn’t it time we tried something else, please, for our sake this time?

Knowing what you know, what America do you want?: Mainstream media and Truth

Dedication:

to my Afghan students, my past, present and future students in Media, Sports and Identity, and to all my Midd students

Mainstream media protects and serves systems of power. Its role is to push the central narratives of our culture by implying a tension with the dominant culture involving representations of class, race, and gender–and especially masculinity. Political campaigns know this. Case in point is how the McCain campaign is accusing Obama of using the ‘race card.’ The McCain campaign knows that the media will fixate on this; however, this isn’t news, but rather, another sign of the manipulation that goes on for the control of images in politics today given the symbiotic relationship between mainstream media–it acquiesces–and political power–control by the few. (I’ve already covered an aspect of this, here.)

In a democracy, we’re in a bind. Democracy requires an informed citizenry. Are we informed? How are we informed? What work do we to do to keep informed? Who do we trust?

In The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century, John W. McChesney tells us that “the creation of such an informed citizenry is the media’s province.” All theories of self-government have this as a premise. Which means that controlling what the message is–the information, the images–requires control over how the message is delivered–the systems of media production.

“The crucial tension,” says McChesney, “lies between the role of the media as profit-maximizing commercial organizations and the need for the media to provide the basis for informed self-government. It is this tension that fuels much of the social concern around media and media policy making.”

I’d add that it is this tension that produces the shallow reporting we experience today, particularly in agenda driven Op-Ed pages. The agenda is partisan, which is fine and expected (this is why we read opinions), but more often than not, this is tainted by a journalist’s need to push his or her own career in a system that rewards star quality rather than substance. To have “star quality” requires bombastic statements, ill-thought and narrow conclusions about life and death subjects.

The critical problem is that our system hurts the pursuit of freedoms, democracy itself, since to be totally free demands understanding; it, in turn, requires that we participate and debate, challenge and ask questions, and then involve ourselves in the processes of decision making. We must therefore critique and challenge those that describe–and define–the conditions for our debates concerning our differences, needs and dreams.

Media obfuscates this process–it’s been profitable to do so. Good examples are Thomas Friedman and David Brooks of The New York Times.

In the case of Brooks, after William F. Buckley’s passing, his voice is the most formidable of the conservatives. Friedman is difficult to pinpoint because he struggles with attempts at insight while trying to provoke. More often than not, he provokes because he carelessly makes grandiose statements that are extraordinarily one sided, failing to account for any other perspective–The World is Flat is full of these, as undergraduates at Middlebury have pointed out in my classes.

“When the world goes flat, the caste system gets turned upside down,” says Friedman in The World is Flat. “In India untouchables may be the lowest social class, but in a flat world everyone should want to be an untouchable. Untouchables, in my lexicon, are people whose jobs cannot be outsourced” (italics in original).

Friedman must be talking about the lives of sex workers in India, as described by William Dalrymple in Letter from India: Serving the Goddess” (The New Yorker, Aug. 4, 2008). “The majority of modern devadasis (deva means “god”; dasi means “a female servant”) in Karnataka are straightforward sex workers; the devadasis…estimated that only about one out of every twenty of those dedicated as children manage to escape into other careers–not least because almost all of them leave school and begin work from home soon after puberty…Nevertheless, the main outlines of their working lives are in reality little different from those of others in the sex trade.” From Karnataka to Amsterdam to Las Vegas–globalization at its finest.

My students didn’t need Jeoffrey Sachs to suggest that in a world that requires collaboration and cooperation, the “special,” “specialized,” “anchored” and “really adaptable” (Friedman) workers are going to require a totally different form of education, particularly in the humanities, with a strong emphasis on ethics, something that never comes up in The World is Flat.

Friedman’s flat world is either you’re this or you’re out. This is not sustainable–or tolerable. The disenfranchised, the marginalized and the small are voicing challenges to the globalization at any cost because the already powerful can gain even more power and control mantra. Proof is evident in what is being described as the “DOHA failure.” I partially agree with what Tim Worstall points us to in an interesting piece on global trade negotiations by Martin Jacques in the Guardian:

The irony of Doha is that it is being killed by western disinterest in the face of the growing power of the developing world. The rise of China and, to a lesser extent India, is likely to be accompanied by a parallel irony. The west, which has been the traditional defender of free trade – because free trade always favours the most powerful and advanced economies – is likely to run for cover and put up protectionist barriers, unable to cope with the political, social and economic implications of the rise of China. In a sense, the death of Doha is a dress rehearsal, albeit an early one, for the end of globalization. And those who bury it will be those who designed it and proselytized for it – the US and Europe.

All systems move towards entropy. Friedman never accounts for this–ever, anywhere. He is a part of an old system that relies on fragmentation and departmentalization, which is buttressed by an education system that relies on partial truths, fractured information and decontextualization. This is how a ruling hegemony is supported. This is also why we fail to see and understand the solutions we need today.

In Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Plent, Jeffrey D. Sachs says that,

To solve the remaining dire problems of environmental degradation, population growth, and extreme poverty, we will need to create a new model of twenty-first-century cooperation, one that builds on past successes and overcomes today’s widespread pessimism and lack of leadership…Such multipolar cooperation is time-consuming and often contentious. Solutions will be complicated; the problems of sustainable development inevitably cut across several areas of professional expertise, making it hard for any

single ministry—or academic department, for that matter—to address the issues adequately.

It is therefore incumbent on institutions of learning to engage in the myriad ways technologies are enabling a closer look at how we educate and learn, how we become. This requires a focus on the process of learning as defined by a critical pedagogy that questions and articulates that relationships that exist between knowledge production, the teacher and the student, and technology and the ever shifting terrain of language. This also involves understanding the relationships between knowledge production, educational institutions and power.

A few years ago I taught a course where I placed Friedman’s The World is Flat side-by-side with Bill McKibben’s Wandering Home and asked one simple question at the beginning and at the end of the course: “Knowing what you know now, how are you going to live the rest of your lives?” Resoundingly, after criticizing both texts, the class concluded that Friedman’s pursuit of rampant globalization misses the point, particularly in terms of individual rights, the pursuit of happiness and how both of these interact in a single life that has to live close to the earth, a prerequisite, students concluded, for being a vital part of the human race.

There is no accounting for how to maintain a world that is obsessed with more production for consumption’s sake. We have to collaborate and cooperate in a world where we are increasingly intertwined.

Stories in the media, and Op-Ed pages in particularly, aggravate the disciplined world bifurcated along differences that stress continued exile–and concomitant tensions–along borders. If we want to see how the world is really being shaped, we need to actually examine those who are exiled because of war and natural disasters. Our inability to confront these challenges shows how narrow our thinking is.

A perfect example of Friedman’s lack of personal connection with his subject, a lack of understanding of his responsibilities as a journalist in a democracy is his Op-Ed piece “Drilling in Afghanistan” (July 30, 2008). I sent this out to my six Afghan students, friends of Afghanistan I know and to folks that are living and working inside Afghanistan. (Has Friedman ever been to Afghanistan? Does he know any Afghans?).

Most distressing to my students, and others, was Friedman’s cold, callous statement that, “The main reason we are losing in Afghanistan is not because there are too few American soldiers, but because there are not enough Afghans ready to fight and die for the kind of government we want.”

Countless Afghans have died for the cause of freedom; theirs is a historically long battle for independence. In fact, Afghans are known for their tenacity and skill on the battlefield. And what about the Afghan journalists that have died trying to practice the most fundamental premise of democracy, freedom of expression? According to the Kabul-based South Asia Media Commission, five Afghan journalists were killed in 2007. This is on top of countless suicide bombings that have killed civilians and police. And On December 20, 2002, 65 civilian Afghans were killed by U.S. air strikes.

Where is Friedman on any of this? Where is any mainstream journalist on this, faulting the Bush Administration’s callous indifference immediately after 9/11? What about John McCain’s pursuit of the exact same policies as the Bush Administration?

Afghan blood is being spilled without cause. Afghan military and Afghan police, along with Afghan journalists, are the first line of defense–this we know for sure. But Friedman is blind to this. He also knows how responsible we are for this tragedy since we evolved a vituperative foreign policy that turned its back on Afghanistan for an energy policy that required the occupation of Iraq. Now the entire situation is a disaster. Afghans aren’t doing anything? The real question is what have we done? Answering this question is the first step towards reconciliation–without it, we can’t move forward.

Sure there is corruption in Afghanistan. But ours is not a corrupt system? The Bush Administration has been quite efficient in its pursuit of destabilization as a means to profitable ends for the very few friends of the White House–mostly oil executives. This is a strategy deployed by banana republics we thumb our noses at–but we’re no better, not to the world we’re not. Why is the media not taking this tack?

But as one of my friends (from Benington, Vermont) pointed out, as did an incredible Afghan student, it’s best to listen to people that are in the country, such as Barnett Rubin and Ashmed Rashid. We don’t though, and this is one of the causes of our problems, giving the Friedmans of this world the opportunity to gloss over lives sacrificed for catastrophic policies that have no vision at all.

We exist in a world where life is cheap and sensationalism, bombastic statements and a fixation on aesthetics is more important. We’re headed deeper into the abyss created by a conservative agenda.

David Brooks is a voice for continuing down this dark path. In Missing Dean Acheson (August 1, 2008), Brooks says that “In a de-centered world, all it takes is a few well-placed parochial interests to bring a global process tumbling down.” By “parochial,” Brooks means the weaker nations, those that are commonly the labor on which globalization for the dominant is built. These nations should reconsider their narrow local concerns for the greater good of humanity (read: the powerful, the societies that already have).

This is an old agenda ensuring that many will still reside on the borderlines; it is the last breath of audacious colonialism. Brooks fails to see that the disenfranchised live in-between spaces that provide terrain for elaborating new strategies for articulating identities. The Doha failure is no failure at all, but rather, a new narrative emerging. But Brooks can only rely on existing–and very old–systems of power. He longs for them. The smaller but emerging nations are articulating their sense of difference from a minority perspective we cannot now turn our backs on, as we have in the past. They won’t let us–the consequence of our interconnectedness.

Brooks clearly wants to hang on to a world that no longer exists. “The dispersion should, in theory, be a good thing, but in practice, multipolarity means that more groups have effective veto power over collective action. In practice,” says Brooks, “this new pluralistic world has given rise to globosclerosis, an inability to solve problem after problem.” As is his style, this is not what Brooks means; he means that the failure to solve problems is a consequence of smaller, weaker and developing nations not acquiescing to the will of the powerful–the US, mainly, but now China, India and Brazil that are, in turn, also challenging the hegemony we’ve learned to rely on. Collaboration is only good when it’s among the powerful. We need not collaborate and cooperate with the marginalized. The future, though, is dependent on how creative we are in our work with others, and particularly with those that have suffered greatly because of our needs.

Our vision is myopic. A new discourse is essential. New disciplines for the US are required as well. Brooks says that “for the first time since World War II, an effort to liberalize global trade failed.” Of course! The effort would have meant further destabilization by ensuring that the “resourced power of tradition be resinscribed through the conditions of contingency and contradictoriness that attend upon the lives of those who are ‘in the minority,'” as Homi K. Bhabha teaches us in The Location of Culture. Simply going along with how things have always been done would mean further estrangement–but estrangement is good for the powerful because it guarantees a “slave class”; it guarantees that the devadasis will continue their trade, though devastated by AIDS.

In Brooks and Friedman we see how media protects and serves. By merely echoing representations of the surface structure of things, nodding to an alleged tension with the dominant culture, we, the citizenry, are dealt the illusion of truth. There is no truth in what Brooks and Friedman say–other than it would be best if the ways of production designed by the ruling hegemony remain. Everyone need simply go along. It is still, in their hands, an “us vs them” world, which is exactly the Manichaen world defined by very close minded conservatism that is running out of air.

Of course there are moments when Brooks blasts the conservatives for not being conservative enough. And there are moments, likewise, when Friedman addresses the Bush Administration’s narrow field of vision concerning the Middle East and the environment. But as Noam Chomsky points out in Manufacturing Consent, the progenitor to McChesney’s work, dissent is built into the system, it is allowed, even expected so to give the illusion of a dialog between differences, whcn in fact, read this way, dissent becomes merely another vehicle for the strengthening of the ruling narrative.

(We never see Chomsky, for instance, anywhere in mainstream opinion pieces, do we? Why? We never saw Edward Said, either–why is that? What’s the relationship between power and the control of voices of opposition to the ruling class?)

So, knowing what you know now, how are you going to live the rest of your lives?

Freedom and democracy require a lot of work; ciphering through information delivered by powerful institutions is the most difficult thing we have to do because it requires that we first face our biases, then our differences and pierce through the fog of mythologized idealism.


There are alternatives to mainstream media. It’s up to you, the reader, to seek these out–and to read.   Here are but a few:

Asheville Global Report: Progressive News Sources

Democracy Now!

Pacifica Radio

WBAI, New York–99.5 FM Pacifica Radio

Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting

Foreign Exchange with Daljit Dhaliwal

Dahr Jamail’s Mideast Dispatches

Raising Yousuf and Noor: Diary of a Palestinian Mother