Googling towards Bethlehem

“What do you think happened to that plane?” a friend asked me. I knew she was talking about the missing Malaysian airliner that has dominated the news.

“It crashed.” I felt I was stating the obvious.

“No, I mean, what do you think really happened to it?”

This friend is otherwise entirely sensible and intelligent. Her question – with its sense that something beyond the obvious must have happened to that plane – made me think. After all, hadn’t all the networks asked the same question repeatedly?

And what answers did they offer? Miniature black holes, Islamo-extremo-terrorism, hijacking, stairways to heaven, alien abduction, all presented with impressive gravitas.

Clearly something out of the ordinary happened: planes don’t fall out of the sky every day. (Well, not quite every day.) Why did the discussion get so crazy so quickly?

We all know the saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” How about this update: “A little information is a dangerous thing.”

No, wait. If anything, we’ve got access to more information than ever before. But, what does that mean for us?

In the past few years, I’ve tried to explain to my students the difference between information (data connected by context) and knowledge (information analyzed, criticized, interpreted, internalized, applied, and otherwise subjected to intellectual forces). They don’t get it. In some cases, they explicitly refuse to get it. “Why should I learn that?” more than one has said. “I’ll just Google it if I need to know it.”

What can we learn from Google? I just asked Google some questions and learned some interesting information:

So, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Information, however, is different from knowledge.

Information demands we do something with it – examine it, analyze it, even reject it. Otherwise, we risk being overwhelmed by it.

And these days, we’re drowning in a sea of information. In the absence of knowledge, a lot of unexamined information is even more dangerous than ignorance.


It was a dark and Stormy satire

Recently, our local television news reported on a professor’s office décor. The story, which dubbed David “Stormy” Williams “The Professor of Profanity,” concerned a group of inflatable dolls and a series of posters that Williams displayed in his office.

Williams calls the dolls his “executive team.” The posters satirize the all-too-common features of many offices: the faux inspirational mantras and clip images exhorting workers to work harder, faster, stronger to achieve . . . what? The posters in Williams’ office acknowledge a harsh reality of business: “Keep buying shit or we’re all fucked.”keep buying

Discussions of academic freedom aside (exactly where the television reporter left them), I’m a tad puzzled. Where’s the offense?

The language? These words, while vulgar, cross no lines of religious sensibility. They’re not sexist, ageist, or racist. Indeed, they’re amongst the oldest words in the English language, some predating the Norman Conquest.

lunch decoyThe dolls? While they clearly owe a debt to inflatable sex dolls, these figures have no orifices and display no “nudity.” Their mouths do not open, and their clothes mimic traditional office attire, albeit painted on.

Further, Williams did not design or manufacture these items. He bought them from businesses. And now, he’s fucked.

Williams has been accused of creating a hostile workplace, yet what is more hostile than the forcible redesign of one’s workspace according to some ersatz and sanitized notion of corporate culture?

In an earlier post, I discussed people who, while capable of acts of economic and military obscenity, cannot bring themselves to use certain words – a strange and misplaced prudishness in light of the destruction unleashed upon us by men like Mitt Romney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Sadly, Williams has fallen victim to this same misplaced and misinformed sense of delicacy that focuses more on our words than on our actions.

When I taught university-level introductory English literature courses, I insisted my students read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Swift’s satirical attack on the feeble attempts to help impoverished Irish Catholics — with its outrage-inspiring suggestion that these people could raise their children for meat — continues to inspire essayists and activists. Because of that legacy, I felt the essay was important for students to confront, consider, and understand as an example of satirical power. And, as the popularity of Stephen Colbert and Rick Mercer suggests, we still appreciate sharp satire.

One way I approached the essay was to have students evaluate Swift’s project as a business plan, a familiar approach since so many of them embrace the argument that the sole virtue of their education lay in their improved ability to earn an income that would allow for unfettered consumption of market goods. Thus, they focussed on the economic benefits of Swift’s plan: the generation of revenue alongside the reduction of the taxes for publicly funded support services.

Swift’s seeming proposal is obscene, yet his writing does not stray beyond the pale of gentility (and he did have access to some lovely swear words, trust me). In the classroom, I noted Swift’s wielding of the power of numbers, reflected in the ease with which students accepted numbers and projections without question. Some students got it.

In later  years, I developed my own Swiftian approaches in teaching business students, to suggest that while capitalism is a lovely system, it’s not a universally beneficial or even suitable mode of evaluation for all life’s activities.

Want to make a lot of money? Crystal meth crystallizes (pun intended) many of the desirable qualities of an ideal commodity: plentiful demand, flexible supply, competitive market, and generous profit margins. What’s the problem? Social degradation? Collateral damage? The law? Doesn’t business cross those lines — indeed, redraws those lines — on a daily basis? Now who’s being naïve?

Of course, I imagine few business professors engage in such discussions. In other disciplines, and not strictly those in the liberal arts, students are encouraged to reflect upon the history and consequences of the subject matter they study, to think about what is not illuminated or revealed by traditional approaches. By contrast, many of the business students I know study in a vacuum, in which history does not exist (unless in an elective course), and business is a matter of axiomatic good.

Business faculty trot out Enron, of course, and some even discuss the global collapse of 2008. Yet, most treat these as isolated incidents and not as predictable outcomes. Perhaps if business schools offered a critical view of business history, we might never have to fear yet another cycle of boom-and-bust. Of course, if business and business schools had learned anything since the tulip craze of seventeenth-century Holland, we would likely not have undergone either Enron or 2008.

But that, as my students remind me, is history – and they didn’t sign up for a history class.

In the same building as Stormy’s office, students are taught that their only responsibility is to the bottom line. Faculty can talk at length about a datum from their research, but have no expressed opinion on issues such as predatory marketing and sales practices. The college espouses a vision of itself as a creator of nations, yet continues to express itself through clichés of business as violent and combative.

worst bossAlthough Williams may not have read Swift’s proposal, his office represents an oasis of morality, a voice in the wilderness suggesting that all might not be well with business, a suggestion of a satiric norm. And like the light-seeker in Plato’s cave analogy, he’s suffering for speaking the truth.

In other words, if we don’t keep buying stuff, somebody’s fucked.


Appropriate Hailing of the Annual Solstice Festival to You and Yours

A few years ago, on Mother’s Day, a stranger shouted “Happy Mother’s Day!” at me. It was odd because, while I appreciated the good intention, I am not a mother (NOT THAT I KNOW OF. Thank you, Carol Liefer via my sister). Could one give a conditional “Thank you, but . . . “?

What did it mean that this man assumed that any woman he encountered was a mother? (Shouldn’t a mother on Mother’s Day be surrounded by the evidence of her motherhood, not trudging along Broadway Avenue, power-smoking ahead of brunch with her non-smoking parents?)

I’ve been thinking about that odd encounter as I watch this year’s brouhaha about the perceived war on Christmas greetings.

In the glorious past, so the story goes, we wished everyone a Merry Christmas, and they returned the greeting. We didn’t care if they didn’t celebrate Christmas, much less did we deign to ask them about what they did celebrate, except to emphasize how different they were from us. It was comfy and cosy, in part because we didn’t need to acknowledge anything that challenged our assumptions about our communities. Everybody celebrated Christmas, didn’t they?

But, to this same view, when we are asked to acknowledge that some people celebrate other holidays (and holy days), that some people don’t celebrate any holidays (or holy days), somehow that’s an attack on us! How dare they burst our bubble?! EVERYBODY CELEBRATES CHRISTMAS!

We howl on news channels and social media about “those people” trying to change “our country,” without admitting that what we really want is for “those people” to keep quiet in order to sustain our delusion just a little while longer.

When did “Merry Christmas” become a weapon? Why do some see Christmas greetings as a way to impose their view on everyone in the community and to bludgeon others into either silence or false cheeriness?

I’m not strictly a Christian, but I do enjoy Christmas. I enjoy the sense of history and tradition, the songs we sing only at this time of year that tie us to our past.  I like the challenge of finding presents that reflect my feelings for friends and family, not my ability to pay. I love the calm that descends late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve and the silence of Christmas morning. I appreciate that, as driven by commerce as we are, we stop – for just a day or two – to spend time with each other. I love Christmas as a cultural marker, and I’ll continue to celebrate it as such.

Yet, I  know that for some, it’s just Wednesday. Actually, it’s probably more like “pain-in-the-ass Wednesday,” because they must abide by our traditional need to suspend most civic and commercial services for the day and to crowd the airwaves with Christmas programs. Further, we demand they join in our — not their — celebration. And not complain or even dissent. Hell, if they don’t acknowledge our — not their — holiday, we declare their war on us! Why do they insist on complicating our view of our — not their — world?

Isn’t that like ordering all women without children to disappear on Mother’s Day because they had not blessed the world with offspring? Aren’t we asking them to ballyhoo our terrific party – to which they’re not invited?! Worse, we’ll insist that they tell us how terrific our party is going to be, even if they’re not on the guest list!

So, what to do? I saw a church sign yesterday: “Christmas Blessings.” I like that. A blessing is a nice thing to give and to get. Except for one famous occasion where a blessing was wrestled away from the blesser, there’s usually little violence associated with a blessing. Even if you don’t ask for or want the blessing, it’s nice to think that someone wants to offer you one.

We could do worse than to offer blessings, to acknowledge everyone in our communities, not just those who look and act like us. We can show that Christmas can be about  “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” and even “Fairy Tale of New York,” lovely interpretations of dark and snowy days, not just “OH COME LET US (AND  MAKE YOU) ADORE HIM”!

You know, to be kind of Christ-like about the whole thing.

And so, in the altered words of Tiny Tim, everyone bless us, every one.


Money For Nothing

Students regularly greet university graduation with public declarations of “Sayanora, SUCKAHS!” Usually, the SUCKAHS in question are faculty who, these students claim, are clearly failures because they never have and never will make the DOLLAH$.  Yet, these same voices deride those SUCKAHS for being more interested in their salaries than their responsibilities, as defined by those same students.

The speciousness of the argument regarding faculty work aside (I will return to that at some future date), there is a shiftiness to the metric that divides “doing it for the love of” (in other words, SUCKAH) from “doing it for the DOLLAH$.”

We seldom ask CEO’s to work “for the love of it,” but we’re happy to ask nurses, teachers, and even some professional athletes, to sacrifice their lives, minds, and bodies “for the love of it.”

Worse, that “love” one’s profession becomes a pink and lacy sledgehammer that we slam on their heads should any of these professionals dare to raise the issue of compensation reflecting contribution. In those circumstances, we lob our harshest criticism: “They’re only in it for the money.”

On the other hand, we’re quite happy to applaud those who do it precisely for the money.

In my admittedly limited experience, I have listened to students denigrate professional athletes’ salaries (“It’s just a GAME”) and defend CEOs’ salaries (“They work rilly rilly haaaaaaard!”).

Our commentariat media applies same arguments applied with the same selectivity: Teacher? Nurse? Childcare worker? You should be ashamed to even think about something as material as a comfortable living much less compensation that reflects the importance of your task. Obviously, if you’re thinking about paying the bills, you’re not wrapped in the pink cloud of looooooooooove that should characterize your work life.

Oh, and if anyone in your field EVER performs to a less-than-satisfactory degree, you will be held responsible.

EXTRA BONUS: If anyone anywhere EVER sees someone in your field performing non-work related actions – making a phone call, yawning, suffering a momentary lapse of memory – you will be held responsible.

CEO? Reality Show Celebrity? Buzillionaire Actor of Demonstrated Limitations? Clearly your earnings demonstrate your merit. You deserve it. KUDOS to you, sir! And KUDOS AGAIN!

Oh, and if anyone should question your ability, rest assured that your supporters will use your earnings as an indicator of the quality of your contributions.

EXTRA BONUS:  You can wear whatever crazy hairstyle you want. Everyone will notice, but nobody will think the less of you for it – because you are clearly a person of superior merit.

Would I prefer to earn my living through something I find personally fulfilling rather than through something I find monetarily rewarding but soul-crushingly dull? Absolutely. Unfortunately, our society and our institutions seem uninterested in offering those options.

And, should you choose one of those limited options, well then you deserve what you get, SUCKAH!


Step One: Acknowledge the problem

I don’t remember when I read my first word. My mother told me it was some time before I started school. I do remember watching my mother read, to herself, to my father, and to my sister and me every night at bedtime.  Like the kids in the old drugs PSA, I learned to read at home.

Some may say, “Oh – you’re sooooo like me/my friend! She/I just looooooooooooove(s) to read. She/I must go through a book a week.”

Those people are social readers. They read as a diversion. I’m different.

My sister once compared my reading to breathing: it’s an involuntary activity. And, for me, it’s an almost constant activity. My books are scarred by water, toothpaste, coffee, food (most of those are cookbooks, but not all), and cigarette ash. Their backs have been cracked and re-cracked to allow me to read while performing other tasks.

I have seen my reading affecting others in a negative way.

I have been known to sneak a page or two at work.

I have allowed my reading to affect my work performance.

My reading has affected my relationships with family and friends.

I have a hard time not reading for an extended length of time.

Worst of all, I read in public.

People have begun to notice my reading and some find this behaviour offensive.

“You like to read?”

“What’re you reading?”

“You know what you should read?”

“Why’re you reading that?”

“How can you read like that?”

“Are you still reading that?”

“Didn’t you read that already?”

“How many books do you figure you read in a week/month/year?”

“Why are you reading The New Yorker? You don’t live in New York!”

“Why would you come to a bar to read?”

“You don’t need to read a book about that!”

Behind all the questions lies the big one: “Why are you reading here?”

My name is Salty Broad. I am a constant reader. Admitting the problem is the first step.


I’m Watching Too Much Law & Order: CI

There’s an apocryphal story about one of Busby Berkeley’s famous extravaganzas. In “Fashions of 1934,” Berkeley presents a line of chorus girls “dressed” in ribbons and feathers, representing harps. This spectacle prompted a mother to write an article, “Mr. Berkeley, I’m not raising my daughter to be a human harp!”Human Harps

Based on today’s popular culture, what would that mother say? “I’m not raising my daughter to be a eroticized thrill-seeking murder victim who disappears before the first commercial break”?