Djinn City

A review by Bob Roman

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Djinn City by Saad Z. Hossain, The Unnamed Press, Los Angeles, 413 pages, $17.99

I’ve been whining about how so much of genre fiction amounts to remixed clichés that have, through endless repetition, become almost unpalatable even when cleverly constructed, even when accompanied by an important message or point. Well, Earth may be a small planet but it is, nevertheless, a big world. Meet Saad Z. Hossain, a writer of science fiction fantasy social satire from Bangladesh: a breath of richly oxygenated water in what is otherwise becoming a grossly over fertilized dead zone in the pop sea.

Hossain achieves this partly by bringing a cultural perspective from Bangladesh that gathers originality as it becomes an import. There is an additional benefit for readers in the States as Hossain writes in English. With translated work, one is also dependent on the work of the translator who, even when competent, might not be suited to the material. On the other hand, some American appreciation of Bangladesh (and the Indian subcontinent in general) will help illuminate Hossain’s commentary and humor.

Hossain is a funny author very much in the style of Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and he is a more than competent story-teller. Unlike Hitchhiker’s Guide, Hossain’s humor is as much in service of his story as it is in service of social commentary or absurdity for its own sake. (Hitchhiker’s Guide began as a BBC Radio drama, not as a novel. Story-telling was consequently a secondary priority.)

Djinn City is a big story, populated by a great many characters: Caution! It’s worth paying attention to them all as multiple characters play major roles, even if they tend to exist more as humorous caricatures than as carefully crafted personalities. That they are caricatures is mostly a trade-off as a character-driven soap opera would have been a very different project (but maybe fascinating?) and probably much longer. I only have one regret about this. I would have loved to have gotten better acquainted with Aunt Juny. She is a powerful character that gains strength from her violation of gender expectations. As written, her caricature functions partly as a commentary on those expectations and some of that humor is nervous laughter evoked by just how uber competent someone like Juny must therefore be. Her function in the plot is kind of a deus ex auntie, as it were, out djinn-ing the djinn.

Bringing a story to a close is a major test for a story-teller. At this test, Hossain is either brilliant or horrifying. If it is the latter, you will see a sequel sometime very soon. When I reached the end, I was full, happy but ready for something different. A sequel: no thank you. You might see Djinn City on the big screen, however. I understand the film rights have been sold.

I do have one complaint about The Unnamed Press edition of this book. Brendan Monroe’s cover art is seriously lame. He could be an artist but, in this case at least, he is no illustrator. On the other hand, when was the last time you saw a new book of fiction with a table of contents with chapter titles?

If my comments are not enough to motivate you to read this book, there’s a much better (or at least different) review by John Venegas at Angel City Review.

Which Side Are You On?

a review by Bob Roman

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, HarperCollins, 2016. 264 pages, $27.99

This memoir is about coming of age in the Appalachian parts Ohio and Kentucky. The book has been out for a while now, and there have been a considerable number of reviews: Understandably, as J. D. Vance self-identifies as a conservative and this book promises a reasonable insight into the cultural revolt that delivered some crucial working class votes to Donald Trump. Most of the reviews, rightwing and leftwing, were written with an ideological and political argument in mind and most of them present something of a caricature of what you will actually find in the book. It’s mostly been “Hooray for our side!”, “Boo for their side!”, “Who appointed Vance spokesman for the hillbillies?” In my humble opinion, the best of the reviews, but still not great, is Joshua Rothman’s The Lives of Poor White People in The New Yorker.

Vance actually gives the reader two things with his book. One is a personal story of resilience, growth and discovery that is well-written and engaging. It very much reminds me of Nathan McCall’s rather more violent 1994 memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, but it could easily be any number of other escape from poverty biographies.

The other thing is a discussion of poverty as a social and political issue. Vance steps into the middle of a very old conversation, best represented by an exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. As I recall the conversation, F. Scott Fitzgerald opined, “The rich are very different than you or me.” To which Ernest Hemingway replied, “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”

It is here that Vance and most of his reviewers lose their way. Vance’s journey is more than just an escape from penury. He grew up in unstable, traumatic, violent, self-destructive circumstances that, despite the best efforts of his grandparents and Middletown, Ohio, schools, left him unprepared to navigate the adult world. This was not only the lack of knowledge and confidence to negotiate bureaucracies or to accumulate and use “social capital” — in other words all the expected aspects of what some call the “culture of poverty.” It was also how to negotiate emotional and social intimacy. A happy family was a stunning discovery. It’s understandable that Vance would stand before this broad new vista and consider: “The rich are very different than you or me.”

Or are they? As I said, it’s an old conversation, and I remember earlier an iteration of the debate where, in reply, an author stripped a family biography of all class and ethnic identifiers. On the face of it, the stripped biography could have fit quite nicely among the worst of Vance’s home town of Middletown. The family? An American political dynasty: the Kennedys. If that’s not enough, just consider how dysfunctional celebrity gossip is sold to us as entertainment. Or consider Donald Trump. “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”

So J. D. Vance has picked a side, and given his experience, his choice is entirely understandable. I think this is the point most reviewers miss. What Vance misses is the degree to which the dysfunction of hillbilly culture is really a reasonable attempt by individuals to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt. As individuals, the odds are stacked highly against them. As Trump might put it, the game is fixed. As individuals, they are essentially powerless and of no consequence and they live lives of no consequence — no consequence for themselves and maybe not even for their children as why should anyone expect circumstances to improve? Under these circumstances, being lazy is not unreasonable, though being poor comes with more of an overhead of work than the better off might imagine.

Capitalism may have failed them, but so has everything else, including the left. You can find exceptions like occasional desert oases. Families, extended or otherwise, sometimes provide the needed support; Vance may be an example of this. Church communities can also serve, not just as a source of values and norms but as a venue for mutual aid. But when industry died, unions went away as well. There’s no political organization that has a presence outside the middle and ruling classes. I suspect a survey of Middletown would find a disorganized community: few clubs and civic organizations, few businesses, churches with mediocre market penetration among the faithful, and on…. Not much different than many urban poor neighborhoods.

Vance portrays this as a crisis. It is a crisis but it’s not exactly a new crisis. Poverty in Appalachia gets discovered periodically every few decades then forgotten except for when it is convenient for discrediting whatever had been previously proposed as a solution. Vance seems to imply this is a new crisis: a half truth. Just as Blacks had the Great Migration, hillbillies had their own exodus north (Readin’ Rightin’ Route 23)for some of the same reasons. (Arguably Black migrants were as much political refugees as economic migrants, hillbillies not so much.) What is new for southeast Ohio is that the jobs, the greener fields that the hillbillies fled to, left the country or were automated, leaving these economic migrants stranded.

Vance is not really very helpful with explaining the Trump phenomenon, partly because the book was published prior to the election. His account does kinda help make sense of it to me at least. The best way of thinking about Trump with respect to working class voters is as a wooden shoe: as an act of sabotage, in other words. For many voters, Trump was not elected in support of any particular agenda (promises! promises! politicians promise then go away) so much as an intent to disrupt things as they are. Loki, Coyote, Disrupter-in-Chief: Trump need not do anything more than make the world scream to be a success. Whether they’ll put up with success for four years is another matter.

So read this book. It’s not likely to change your mind in any major way. But Vance’s experience is worth sharing even if his diagnosis is inadequate. He’s also far closer to what might pass as the political center than any of the reviewers would let on. But I don’t think Vance is any longer a hillbilly. These days he’s one of them.

Brett Kavanaugh

by Bob Roman

Brett Kavanaugh has absolutely no business being a justice of the Supreme Court.

It’s not that he’s a political hack with an ideological agenda. Quite frankly, despite all the smiley faced homages to impartiality and The Constitution, most of the justices who have inhabited the Supreme Court bench have had agendas and biases. Sometimes the biases and agendas of a justice change over their career, sometimes for the better. And while Kavanaugh is a hack with an agenda that I oppose, that by itself is not an absolute disqualifier. Elections have consequences, after all. Nor is the Republican caucus’ rush to approve him a disqualifier. It’s odious, but much in politics (and life in general) stinks. These are grounds for opposing Kavanaugh’s appointment and for remembering, for vengeance, those who enabled it but, in my humble opinion, they are not grounds for saying Kavanaugh has absolutely no business being on the Supreme Court.

Kavanaugh is a liar, to us and to himself: that is what disqualifies him.

You do not have to assume Kavanaugh is lying when he denies Christine Blasey Ford’s story to see his habitual untruthfulness. There is ample evidence that Kavanaugh has lied to Congress while under oath about numerous matters. This is not a crime, apparently. At Vox, long before Blasey Ford surfaced, Dylan Matthews outlined several instances of untruthfulness then asked a handful of law professors if these would constitute perjury. Errrr… not exactly… no… were most of the responses. But Ciara Torres-Spelliscy from Stetson University was perhaps the most forthright:

If federal prosecutors are really going after lying to Congress, that could open up an entirely new front of liability for lots of less than truthful witnesses. I doubt anyone at DOJ would have the moxie to go after Judge Kavanaugh for these statements. Whether as a circuit judge or if he gets elevated to the Supreme Court, the remedy to remove him is through the impeachment process, and I don’t see Congress having the stomach for that either.

Kavanaugh is not unique in this level of sleaze with regard to the Supreme Court. William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas come to mind as comparable examples. No, what slams the scale firmly and absolutely to the NO side is Kavanaugh’s inability to be honest about himself. He did not even have the courage to listen to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before presenting his statement in reply. It’s clear that revisiting his high school years and confronting Christine Blasey Ford do more than threaten the prospect of an appointment to the Supreme Court. They threaten Kavanaugh’s own story about himself to himself and to his family. They threaten who he thinks he is. This is perfectly human, but it means Brett Kavanaugh will never be more than a toady to the Establishment: deadwood nailed to dogma and narrow class interests with little capacity for empathy, insight or enlightened compromise.

Others may argue that it is Kavanaugh’s loathsome behavior as a high school student that should not be in any way rewarded by an appointment to the Supreme Court, even decades later, especially when it comes to sexual assault — attempted rape, to be blunt. After all, this is the impulse behind the move to extend or repeal statute of limitation dates for such offenses. I won’t disagree, even though experience has shown and continues to show that lust makes people, men and women, stupid. Add youth and testosterone and alcohol and class privilege for an ever more toxic mix. That is not an excuse, but it does raise the question: What would restorative justice look like in this instance?

You tell me for I don’t know.

Design with Nature

a review by Bob Roman

How could I resist:

“The world is a glorious bounty. There is more food than can be eaten if we would limit our numbers to those who can be cherished, there are more beautiful girls than can be dreamed of, more children than we can love, more laughter than can be endured, more wisdom than can be absorbed. Canvas and pigments lie in wait, stone, wood and metal are ready for sculpture, random noise is latent for symphonies, sites are gravid for cities, institutions lie in the wings ready to solve our most intractable problems, parables of moving power remain unformulated and yet, the world is finally unknowable.

“How can we reap this bounty? This book is a modest inquiry into this subject.”

Thus begins Ian McHarg’s classic introduction to ecological planning, Design with Nature (1969).

Back in July of 2018, I wrote a brief post remembering the extraordinary early PBS television program The Great American Dream Machine. In that post, I mentioned an earlier, pre-PBS program, Public Broadcast Laboratory. Both of these programs had a big influence on my values and my politics. In particular, one Public Broadcast Laboratory episode included an hour-long documentary directed by Austin Hoyt based on landscape architect Ian McHarg’s book, Design with Nature. That episode, “Multiply and Subdue the Earth,” was my introduction to Ian McHarg, and I was hugely impressed.

I’ve only been able to find one complete episode of Public Broadcast Laboratory and a partial episode: “Multiply and Subdue the Earth,” the McHarg documentary, both on YouTube.

“Multiply and Subdue the Earth” is below. It is of only adequate quality; you won’t gain anything by putting YouTube in full screen mode. And it’s grey-scale when the original film (and TV program) was color. Around the turn of the century, this documentary was still available for rental from a division of Indiana University, VHS format, but the folks who had done the transfer from film had waited too long. The color dyes were becoming distinctly magenta. Grey-scale may thus be a mercy. (Copies of Public Broadcast Laboratory episodes are also held at the Library of Congress and WGBH in Boston and possibly elsewhere. It may be that a fair copy exists or could be cobbled together.)

How do the documentary and the book hold up? Watch it yourself; the hour is well worth it:

The documentary is in large part a summary of McHarg’s book, but it begins where McHarg ends: with Dr. John Calhoun, another mostly forgotten yet influential thinker of the mid-20th Century. Dr. Calhoun was obsessed with population studies for various rodent species. He would set up rodent utopias where the population was supplied with as much food and water as needed, with no restrictions on breeding. Things would go well until population densities would reach a tipping point. Then rodent society, such as it is, would begin to break down and, even though they were supplied with adequate food and water, the population would collapse: rodent apocalypse!

This dovetailed very nicely with Paul Erhlich’s Population Bomb (1968) over-population argument because the reply to Erhlich and cassandras like him was that technology would save our asses: one way or another food and water and other necessities would be obtained or invented, especially with greed as the motivator. Calhoun’s experiments suggested that utopia, be it capitalist or socialist, would not suffice. You’ll note that in the documentary, much of Calhoun’s list of rodent social dysfunction address the insecurities of the time: gender definition, clockwork orange violent crime, aimless hedonism and sexuality, social isolation. That alone should raise some warning flags regarding the research.

Well, we pretty much know how to cure cancer in mice; it’s been studied so well and so often and for so long. But humans are not mice. While I’m not a scholar and so can’t provide the cites (I recall that back in the 1970s there was an article about this in Scientific American), I do know that others were motivated by Calhoun’s work to study population densities in other species. Other species don’t all react as rodents do and even rodents have coping strategies when the means are available to them.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was also common to associate population growth with poverty. This was reasonable enough when one considered the condition of the Indian subcontinent and of China at the time. Subsequent experience and research shows that capitalism benefits from expanding population and doesn’t deal well with declines — capitalism is expand or die, after all. On the other hand, it does not follow that expansion can continue indefinitely.

Calhoun also inspired at least two major works of fiction. One is said to be Robert O’Brien’s award-winning Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) that later became a nicely done animated feature movie. If I have doubts, it is mainly because O’Brien’s book postulates NIMH experiments boosting the intelligence of rats and mice (genetic engineering, circa 1971!) and because Calhoun was hardly the only person at the Institute doing research with rats.

The other book is John Brunner’s 1967 classic novel, Stand on Zanzibar. Brunner’s novel takes Calhoun seriously and applies a straight-line projection of the trends as would be expected from Calhoun’s experiments. I’ve mentioned Brunner’s novel twice before on this blog and this post is supposed to be about Ian McHarg not John Calhoun not John Brunner; however, McHarg did facilitate a study of health in Philadelphia that suggested some degree of negative correlation between the density of population and good health, supporting Calhoun’s thesis. This was not in the documentary, but an account of methodology and findings is in McHarg’s book.

Design with Nature is an education about ecology (which is not just biology) and its use in planning with case studies encompassing a wide variety of landscapes, including urban and suburban environments, and a discussion of philosophy. If you can find a hard cover, coffee table edition, you should prefer that larger format as the book is lavishly illustrated and the graphics are not just pretty but also a vital part of the content.

For a democratic socialists such as myself, the thunderclap was not so much McHarg’s distaste for market forces and his embrace of planning, but that he was able to provide a coherent and workable methodology of just how planning could be done. Furthermore, it is a methodology that can be computerized, although in 1968, that was aspirational rather than practical.

McHarg contends land-use decisions cannot be left entirely to the market, whatever “market” means. As McHarg put it:

The economists… ask with the most barefaced effrontery that we accommodate our value system to theirs. Neither love nor compassion, health nor beauty, dignity nor freedom, grace nor delight are important unless they can be priced. If they are non-price benefits or costs, they are relegated to inconsequence. The economic model proceeds inexorably towards its self-fulfillment of more and more despoliation, uglification and inhibition to life, all in the name of progress — yet, paradoxically, the components which the model excludes are the most important human ambitions and accomplishments and the requirements for survival. (Page 25)

If the market, left to itself, leads to “despoliation, uglification and inhibition of life,” the environmental record of planning under soviet-style “real existing socialism” is catastrophically worse. McHarg doesn’t touch that subject at all though there were surely inklings trickling out from behind the “iron curtain.” But McHarg does insist on another necessary dimension: values. Here, McHarg places the blame on the “great western religions born of monotheism,” hence the title of the documentary, “Multiply and Subdue the Earth.” Considering that other cultures, including the avowedly atheist soviet socialism, have done as poorly if not worse, this strikes me as being a bit of false determinism born of personal grievance: something connected with McHarg’s father, I would speculate after having read McHarg’s memoir, A Quest for Life. Still, a belief “that man and nature are indivisible, and that survival and health are contingent upon an understanding of nature and her processes” (page 27) seems to be necessary.

One thing that is not discussed in the book is how this planning might be institutionalized. The documentary suggests that land-use planning be moved from the local level to the state, using Hawaii as an example. In the movie, at least, McHarg endorses the idea. I’m not sure. Hawaii, after all, is a geographically small state. It could be a useful move, but consider the sometimes willful, pigheaded misunderstanding of things like environmental impact statements (not a requirement of local zoning but of state or federal) and how easily such requirements can be portrayed as “elite” outsiders dictating to the detriment of local residents: Perhaps a multilevel governmental approach would be better, though the division of responsibilities and appeals would need to be thought out better than my vague observation.

In retrospect, McHarg was entirely too optimistic about the weight of science in the process. The evidence, even the science, can always be argued over. Regulations that describe process and decision-making are hard to write without self-subversive ambiguity or without stultifying rigidity or without being an exercise in well-intentioned futility. (Regarding the last, McHarg was totally contemptuous of strip-mining regulations that required companies to restore the land “to its original contours.” What the hell does that mean?) There is also the issue of people using the process for ends alien to its intent: gaming the system. Whether it be Not In My Back Yard fanaticism or “paid troublemakers,” this aspect is pretty well an assumed motive by those afflicted with the pathological cynicism of our times.

The law — or more specifically the courts — is also a difficulty in the United States. According to McHarg’s memoir, A Quest for Life, he was aware of the difficulties involved in the “takings” aspect of constitutional law. It appears that he underestimated the difficulties there, as well. The U.S. Supreme Court has been eager to require governments to pay for any inconvenience imposed on landowners, even when said inconvenience would pay dividends by avoiding predictable disaster, like not building on a primary dune along the seashore or in a floodplain of a river — never mind that in building so, the developer is “taking” from future owners of that property, the government (disaster rescue and recovery) and the surrounding community. If it can’t be priced, it doesn’t exist, and most courts are committed to advancing a libertarian agenda whenever they can get away with it.

It is a pity: McHarg had long ago grown weary of arguing aesthetics with his clients. Designing with nature is intended to not only be beautiful but also to save money by minimizing costs of construction and maintenance,  while delivering beauty and continuing productivity — the substance behind that happy happy buzz word “sustainability”. That approach is also a clue as to how this might be integrated into a social democratic version of capitalism — though, granted, it is not clear that such a version of capitalism is itself genuinely sustainable as social democracy.

2019 will be 50 years since both the publication and the documentary. It’s really past time that we touch base with what may be last hopeful moment in our history. You can start by watching the documentary and by reading the book. Remember, it is entirely possible to profitably hunt a species to extinction (it’s been done), and likewise we have a grand opportunity in the next several decades to demonstrate that it is entirely possible to profitably breed and consume ourselves to the same end.

Post Script: For an example of fairly extreme human crowding, consider Hong Kong:

Where the Marshland Came to Flower

a review by Bob Roman

Where the Marshland Came to Flower by Peter Anderson. Kuboa Press, 2018. 194 pages, $6.

marshlandThis anthology of stories is not something I would ordinarily read these days, though it might have been something I would have picked up decades ago when I was reading my way through the fiction stacks at the Chicago Public Library: whatever looked interesting, serendipity starting with “A” and working upward toward “Z”. Yes, I made it through the alphabet twice, but I don’t remember a word of it.

I ran across this book because, for the past several years, I’ve been paying occasional visits to the author’s blog site, Pete Lit. The thought of a literary liberal one or two towns over from my reactionary Lawrence Welk childhood home was amusing, and his posts, mostly to do with what he was reading or quotes therefrom, were interesting though they mostly did not tempt me to follow his bibliography. Then came his announcement of his latest book… and it’s available for free.

The “marshland” in the title is, of course, Chicago, a fitting homage to the swamp that preceded the city and to its name, variously translated from the Miami as “wild onion” or “skunk cabbage”. Each of the dozen or so stories is subtitled with the particular Chicago neighborhood in which the story is set; the book title is thus sweetly apt. This is both really nice and more than a bit risky, what with the current obsessions with authenticity and appropriation, not to mention a vulnerability to nit-pickers on geography and names and the like.

Does Anderson navigate these hazards successfully? Not exactly, I think. As literary fiction, these stories are not obliged to be dramas. Often nothing much happens; instead the narrative serves as a vehicle for sketching a character (who may or may not undergo some transformation, great or small) or as social commentary or as a platform for virtuoso word-smithing. Speaking of which, I do have one small grievance regarding Anderson’s writing. Trains do not “chug” — for over fifty years they haven’t. Since the author is a regular METRA commuter into Chicago, he really ought to know better. Nit picking, begging your pardon, but still!

The characters are often nicely drawn, but something, je ne sais quoi, is lacking. This leaves some of them inhabiting a sort of literary uncanny valley. I suspect this is more noticeable given the nature of the story-telling, and I don’t mean to make too much of it as I’ve seen really well-known authors land in the same place.

The character that sticks with me the most is Mario, from “Prime Time,” mostly because I could hear, in my mind, Tom Waits’ song “Romeo Is Bleeding.” Mario is at a point in his life where he could become someone much like Waits’ Romeo, and it’s a hair cut that decides the matter.

Two of the stories had particular interest for me. “Constant Volume” takes place in Rogers Park, a neighborhood where I’ve lived for over the past third of a century. The protagonist, George Borowski, is a resident building superintendent of vaguely liberal political persuasion. He has fallen from being a fleet automobile mechanic to his precarious employment, from having a second floor apartment with a view to an unimproved basement “garden” apartment, from having a girl friend to being alone with a TV. The antagonist is Denny Palmer, a conservative Loyola University student resident in the building. I wonder about the name choice there: Palmer as in Chicago’s old aristocracy vs. the ethnics? This is a commentary story. I do have one nit to pick: Sheridan Park is not in Rogers Park but somewhere on the west side. Anderson certainly knows this and I wonder if this was a misdirection toward disguising an individual Anderson knows.

“Sous” takes place in Armour Square. I lived in that “neighborhood” for about three years. Armour Square was not actually in any way a single neighborhood back in the 1970s, despite what city maps might say. It was, at minimum, a half dozen rather different neighborhoods (I lived in two of them), some of which did not tolerate other parts of Armour Square, never mind most of the rest of Chicago. While I lived there, had you asked, I would have drawn the northern border at 26th Street, so it was interesting that Anderson’s protagonist is from Chinatown, the neighborhood’s actual northern territory. It’s a character study, wherein the protagonist affirms his values. Only Chinatown from Armour Square is represented in the story, but I had a backyard garden back then, too.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, though take this with caution because, once again, it’s not my usual reading material; I’m not a literary critic and I don’t have literary critic standards. Am I thus pounding a irregular polygon peg into a square hole? Regardless, I didn’t feel as though my reading time was wasted and I felt other folks ought to hear about the  book. And so you have.

Voilà.

Fake News

by Bob Roman

Recently David Greising, the President and CEO of the Better Government Association, posted an editorial, Even in an Age of ‘Fake News,’ the Truth Wins Out, that denounced fake news and the spread of “alternative facts” and innuendo in public life while, reasonably enough, touting the good work that the Better Government Association does in promoting truth. Among other things, Greising wrote:

When President Trump first called reporters “enemies of the people” in early 2017, it was a shock. The term came from the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, via the Third Reich’s Josef Goebbels via the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.

“Fake News” has its own ignoble lineage. Like George Orwell’s “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” in the novel 1984, “Fake News” is pure double think.

If it’s fake, it’s not news. If it’s news, it can’t be fake.

It is a clarion call for the light of truth against the cynical, power-obsessed forces of self-serving lies: Forces so inured to deception that its practitioners are unable to distinguish actual journalism from their own bloviating. As Roy Edroso at the Village Voice put it:

Yeah, that’s how journalists operate. They claim they’re “reporting news,” but they’re really passing on orders to kill. It’s easy to understand why conservatives think this way. They themselves admit that right-wing media outlets don’t do a lot of reporting, and most are simply content to chest-pound on behalf of Donald Trump. So would they even recognize what journalism is? Under such circumstances it would make sense if they came to consider journalism in the same way they consider creative endeavors: as vaguely disreputable dark arts practised only by their enemies, to be beaten back with slander and propaganda.

But: “If it’s news, it can’t be fake”? Really?

Whatever else is going on, there’s a fundamental miscommunication here. For partisan ideologues, fake news can also be news with an agenda or news with a particular spin, including controversies based on a biased or false premise. (When did you stop beating your wife?) Partisans have a particular reason to be sensitive to this as so much of what partisans do is directed at putting their particular issues of concern on the political agenda, in other words, manipulating the news media coverage (or lack thereof) of issues.

This can be really quite blatant. Consider for a moment the practice of setting up “spin rooms” for journalists after a political event such as a debate or a political convention. The point is to reiterate and explain talking points, making sure of the most favorable interpretation of events. “Spin rooms” as a formal practice was first begun by the Reagan for President campaign back in 1984, but similar efforts before and since can be found in the old Sunday morning talk shows on TV or even today on social media such as Twitter. Is this “fake news” only when it includes lies?

Broadcast media, radio and television, dominated journalism for most of the 20th Century, and these entities had been encouraged to be neutral, at least in the sense of allowing time for multiple viewpoints. They use a publicly “owned” medium, after all, with the consent of the government by license: the electro-magnetic spectrum. This has had a decisive influence on the ethics of the profession, but before broadcast news, there was not even a pretense at neutrality. In the 19th Century, for example, U.S. newspaper editors were typically major players in the internal politics of U.S. political parties (including minor parties).

But journalists are not just journalists / reporters / scribes. They are story-tellers. If you’re a journalist, your bosses want an audience to sell to advertisers, yes? And you, the journalist, want an audience to read or watch or listen to what is said, right? So: “if it bleeds, it leads” or “personalize your story”, but there is more as well. As any story-teller will confide, a story stands on the shoulders of previous stories. Your audience will bring their own baggage to whatever they are consuming so it helps if they can tell part of the story themselves. As an experiment, find a news story covering the politics or an event in some part of the world about which you know next to nothing. Don’t be surprised if it makes no sense or, at a minimum, if it leaves you puzzled. The puzzling missing pieces are the parts of the story the intended audience brings to the report. If you are telling the audience something entirely new, the audience will require an education. This imposes an “opportunity cost” on any new perspective while the familiar will go down easy.

Likewise, story-telling evokes expectations of drama, irony, gossip and closure. My impression is that maybe closure is a bigger part of broadcast journalism than the web or print, but it is nearly universal. Listen to almost any radio or TV news report and pay attention to the last few sentences: it will be a conclusion, typically some clichéd conventional wisdom apropos the topic of the report. It’s the safe thing to do, after all, and often enough the reporter is dealing with a subject about which the reporter knows very little. How could one go wrong by parroting what is broadly accepted, however inane? Except that often this wisdom is also a judgement: Trump has no chance of winning or Bernie Sanders’ campaign will go nowhere, as examples.

As an aside, it’s not only the need for drama that turns political coverage into a horse race story. The late Tom Wicker learned the hard way as a journalist: If you do not want to be scooped, you have to cover the possibilities as well as what has happened:

“…Whitman had had the foresight to get a pledge from Kurfees that if he did run, he’d break the story in the Sentinel. I kicked myself for weeks because if I’d thought there was even a possibility that Kurfees would run again, I could have offered him more circulation for an exclusive in the morning Journal. Moral: in writing about politics, the possibilities matter as much as the supposedly known facts, which often are not facts at all.”

— Tom Wicker, On Press, page 37

Fake news, definition 2, anyone? “Which often are not facts at all,” fake news, definition 1, anyone? And this isn’t even allowing for interviews with players who speculate on possibilities with the aim of creating a particular outcome.

Tom Wicker is right. Sometimes what we think we know is simply untrue. Consider the routine press reports about studies recommending how a particular diet will lead to particular healthful benefits. Often enough these are studies using small populations of dubious statistical value, sometimes even financed by entities with an interest in the results. Is this “fake news”? Public radio’s On the Media has devoted episodes to debunking false statistics (see, for example, “Prime Number” or “The Stat Police“), yet they continue to be routinely incorporated in reporting. But repeated and debunked often enough, it leaves room for people to doubt even spectacularly dangerous phenomenon like human-induced global warming.

When you add all this to an epidemic of pathological cynicism and mistrust, you have an atmosphere deadly to even republican democracy. But contra David Greising, the profession of journalism is not a simple victim here.

With the rise of the web and cable as major media, we’re seeing a shift back to advocacy as a legitimate part of journalism. This influences expectations regarding all of journalism. And being human, when we look for bias, inevitably we’ll find it, even when it’s not exactly there. See, for example, On the Media’s exercise in navel-gazing back in 2012 on whether National Public Radio has a liberal bias (~ 20 minutes):

What journalism should consider is a professional standard that admits to bias and advocacy but requires the inclusion of information sufficient for the news consumer to decide for themselves.

Fake news as manufactured lies is indeed a problem, has been a problem for longer than we usually remember (doctored photos for example), and promises to become a more of a problem as it becomes possible to create audio and video that is very nearly convincing. For a deep dive into the possibilities, check out Radiolab’s episode Breaking News (2017). For an update on the progress of video algorithms, see A New Computer Program Generates Eerily Realistic Fake Videos at Science News.

I don’t mind David Greising tooting the BGA horn; they do good work, mostly. And I’m certainly no friend of Donald Trump. But it is worrisome that when we discuss “fake news”, we seem to be talking past one another, assuming that there is a mutual understanding of what is under discussion when in fact there is not.

It’s also difficult to defend journalism from our Liar-in-Chief when journalists have been so willing to give past occupants of the White House a free pass. And consider just how uncritically beat-the-drum, rah-rah coverage has been over our various military adventures. This hasn’t always been true, it’s true. LBJ had his credibility gap, for just one example. But this very inconsistency leaves journalism’s credibility open to question at a time when it should be galvanizing the public to action instead.

six months, three days, five others

a review by Bob Roman

six months, three days, five others by Charlie Jane Anders. Tom Doherty Associates, New York, 2017, 188 pages, $12.99.

This is a small anthology of science fiction / fantasy stories by a journalist and editor who already has a best-selling track record with fiction – though, of course, I’m so unhip that this is my first exposure to her fiction and I don’t remember her nonfiction. Anders has written for (or edited) a great many of the journals that I read on occasion, but generally I don’t retain names. My bad.

“Six Months, Three Days” is, as you might guess, the star of the collection, having won a Hugo award for best novelette in 2012, but the other five stories are almost as good. Anders is a good writer and an even better story-teller, so I was absolutely thrilled to read this book – to the point where I’m almost sorry to not own a copy as I can well imagine re-reading it.

“Six Months, Three Days” is about two lovers who both can see the future. There’s nothing particularly original in that, except that the woman “sees” the future as a range of possibilities dependent upon her choices, mostly, while the man “sees” only one fixed future. As you might surmise from the title, they both know how long the affair will last. They also know the arguments they are going to have, as well as the good times. Would you fall in love under those circumstances, also knowing that the love will end disastrously? And why? Anders does wonderful things with the premise.

It should be no surprise that NBC is working on its own version of the story. I hope Anders was paid very well for the rights even though I’m pretty certain video will turn it into garbage. For example, the protagonists do not actually “see” the future so much as they remember the future. Considering how chancy human memory is, this allows for delicious conflicted ambiguities in the narrative, but how do you make that visual? Worse yet, apparently NBC intends to turn the couple into bickering private-eyes…

“The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model” is seriously cute. The aforementioned “Fermi Paradox” is, FYI, the old question that, in a universe as old and as huge as it is, shouldn’t there be other technological species around? Where are they? There are various answering speculations posed by science fiction, including the possibility posed in this case: that technological civilizations tend to go extinct pretty quickly. But think of the salvage opportunities! Until you meet one that didn’t quite manage to do themselves in.

“As Good As New” seems to be your typical post-apocalypse story, until our surviving protagonist, formerly an aspiring playwright, finds a bottle with a genie… who was once a theatre critic. Careful what you wish for!

“Intestate” takes a trope out of mainstream fiction: a final family gathering around the family patriarch who is shortly to die. It includes some of the conflicts usual to such a set-up (who is going to get what, for example), except that not everyone at the gathering of the clan is exactly human…

“The Cartography of Sudden Death” is a time travel story, beginning in an extremely hierarchical society. Can a visiting time traveller liberate someone who has deeply internalized such values?

“Clover” is the runt of this very fine litter of stories, IMHO, but it’s about cats. And love. And redemption… or the lack thereof… some cats are good at grudges. It’s also an out-take from Anders’ novel, All the Birds in the Sky. NBC would have been better off buying the rights to this one.

While there were no passages of writing that frizzed my hair, gosh I’m happy to have read this!