Monday, December 9, 2019

News of the Random

I was browsing through the BBC News wbesite, and came across this video story of a man stealing a woman's wheelchair. The woman is in the chair when the man approaches her, and he puts a fair amount of effort into dumping her out of it, before attempting to make off with it. Other passengers swarm out of the train after him, and reclaim the wheelchair for its owner.

My first thought was "Wow. Must have been a slow news day in Britain." But I'll admit it. I clicked on it. I think I was expecting something more substantial than some random guy attempting to steal some random wheelchair from some random person in a random part of the United States. After all, this is the BBC that we're talking about. Surely, there's enough important stuff going on in the United States and/or Canada that something this trivial wouldn't have made the newsworthiness bar. While there's a part of me that responds to that with "Silly me," I will admit to being somewhat disappointed. But I suppose that I shouldn't be. New of the weird is popular everywhere, now that I think about it.

And while odd stories like this are effectively harmless, I wonder what role they play in that fact that, as Pew Research Center puts it, "public perceptions about crime in the U.S. often don’t align with the data," something which seems to be a recurring phenomenon. I was recently reading an essay on the Web (one that I'd neglected to make note of) in which the author observed that her overall mood and opinion of humanity tracked negatively with her diligence in keeping up with the news. And it wouldn't surprise me if the culprit was, at least in part, this habit of holding up random crime stories as if they were somehow important.

But I guess this is a side effect of the fact that most of the public at large, the day-to-day news isn't anything that they can take action on. So while news is often billed as informative, I think that it's often more useful, if that's the right word to use, as a form of diversion and/or entertainment. And I suppose that the ability to "tsk, tsk, tsk," at events happening elsewhere counts.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Mythologizing

I'd been under the impression that the now-legendary "419" scam had always been something of a small-time operation. Sure, a particular scammer might have a dozen or so people that they were stringing along, but that was the extent of it. So color me surprised to learn that a lawyer in the Dominican Republic has managed to rack up nearly 30,000 "clients" in a scheme to lay hands on what is supposedly billions of dollars that is sitting in banks after an ancestor deposited gold some 150-plus years ago. The story, by Joe Nocera, is a fascinating read.

What I found to be most interesting about the whole thing is the power of the myth that lay at the bottom of it. And I don't mean "myth" in the often pejorative usage of a false narrative, but rather as a traditional story which embodies a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of experience. The belief that members of the Rosario family are heirs to an impressive fortune can be said the be the driving force in all of this; the current lawyer is not the only person to have formally looked into this, simply the only one to have told the family that they're correct, and that the money is waiting for them. They just have to pay some up-front expenses first...

Regarding the various Rosarios that have bought into this as stupid, greedy or naïve is easy. Perhaps too easy, since it does provide a convenient narrative for why they were taken in when so many other people have managed to see through this and similar ruses. Rather, I wonder what this says about the power of disappointment and disillusionment that people would go to what strikes me as such great lengths to avoid them. Maybe it's because I'm not desperately impoverished and wasn't raised with a narrative that says, in effect, "our current lot is not our genuine fate" but I find the tenacity with which the story of the gold, and the wealth that has since become, maintains its hold to be remarkable. I would have expected that everyone would have given up by now.

But I suppose that this is the reason why there is a reading of the Pandora myth that claims that Hope was just as much an evil as the other maladies that were in the wedding gift jar. I have a difficult time seeing how Hope isn't a curse for everyone except the lawyer.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Words

I think today, American people have to focus on something else, which is the sacrifice and the service that is given by our law enforcement officers. And they have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves―and if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.
United States Attorney General William Barr, 3 December 2019
So... What Did Barr Mean When He Said Ungrateful “Communities” Could “Find Themselves Without Police Protection?” Good question. Although I’m not sure that it’s a particularly relevant question. After all, it’s a safe bet that whether one reads it “as a not-so-thinly-veiled threat to communities” or as an oblique warning of the consequences of assigning low status to necessary services neatly (if not always exactly) tracks to a person's overall partisan affiliation.

And I wonder how much that partisanship impacted the speechwriting process. Not in the sense that Attorney General Barr set out to make a comment that Republicans would see as innocuous and Democrats would see as threatening, but in the sense that if the reactions to a speech are known beforehand, why bother being careful with one’s language? Peloton’s stock price dropped 9% due to criticism of a recent advertisement for its stationary exercise cycles. Maybe this is because it’s already at historic lows, but  currently, political stock simply doesn’t move in that way when something that can be taken badly is said. And personally, I think that it’s just as reasonable to claim that the Attorney General is treating policing as a “protection racket” as it is to consider the Peloton commercial “dystopian.”

It’s a safe bet that Attorney General Barr could have made the point that law enforcement is entitled to more respect and support than he feels that they’re currently receiving without having come across as threatening people. Then, if there were any discussion of the point at all, it could focus on whether or not one agreed with the premise that police officers are being disrespected and unsupported by the communities they serve and/or what their end of that bargain should be, outside of simply enforcing certain rules. (After all, being in law enforcement is a job. There are plenty of professions that one could make the point are necessary for healthy communities, but are constantly dumped on. Teachers come to mind.) But if the pump was already primed, with a belief that critics of the Trmp Administration and its members would find something critical to say regardless of the content of Attorney General Barr’s words, the effort that a different message would have required could be seen as wasted. And while it's possible to point fingers here, to say that the Administration’s critics are too strident, or the Administration is intentionally tone-deaf, at the end of the day, it’s the broader public that is going to have to be prepared to act. Political stock prices have to plunge when there are missteps (and then rise again when missteps are corrected) in order for people to feel the need to take more care.

Part of me wants to say that there is a problem with the Attorney General’s remarks, but the fact of the matter is that the problem is much bigger than that, and was well-entrenched long before Mr. Barr took to the podium. Good faith is going to be required to fix it. But as long as good faith is seen as a weakness to be avoided, it’s going to be in short supply.

Monday, December 2, 2019

BBS

I've been listening to several of my old CDs recently, revisiting music that I haven't listened to in some time. One thing that I've learned is that listening to songs for the music produces different results than when one listened to songs for the lyrics. I don't really know why I hadn't paid much attention to many of the lyrics to the music in my CD collection prior to this point. Maybe because I tended to use it more as background noise than anything else. But when I'm driving, I'm more in the market for something to actively listen to.

One thing that stood out for me is how many songs could be charitably described as "bitter breakup songs." I'm kind of surprised that they aren't considered a genre unto themselves, given how common they are. I was listening to one soundtrack album that appeared to have no less than four; which seemed excessive, given that the movie in question had nothing really to so with romantic relationships, let alone the breakup of one.

I'm perhaps fortunate in these songs not really speaking to me; I've never had an angry breakup with a former partner. But I wonder if the event is as common as music makes it out to be. After all, a common viewpoint is that there are so many bitter breakup songs because of the ubiquity of bitter breakups. Which would be something of a shame. Although I suppose that like anything else, songs about being okay with life wouldn't be very big sellers.

Friday, November 29, 2019

That's Entertainment

Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, is, like most Black people in the United States, a Democrat. Unlike most people in general, Black or White, he's also a billionaire. This may explain why The Washington Post decided that his views on the current state of the Democratic primary field were newsworthy. In a nutshell, Mr. Johnson believes that everyone in the current Democratic primary field is too far to the Left to beat President Trump, "despite what the polls say." His logic is simple enough: the President's inflammatory rhetoric fires up his base, while at the same time alarming Democrats. The President's supporters see this alarm as an attack on them, and rally even more closely around the President's flag. He also feels that most voters, especially Black voters, are centrists, and that the Democratic party has moved far enough to the Left that this broad middle feels left out.

For a counter-perspective, the Post pulled quotes from the co-founder of Black Voters Matter and the executive director of the BlackPAC. Their take on Mr. Johnson is that he's too rich to be able to speak for working class or Black voters. Note though, that they weren't responding to his comments to CNBC, since those were recent, and the critical quotes the Post used were from July.

So in the end, The Washington Post's story looks something like this: Mr. Johnson makes a comment to CNBC. The Post reports on that comment, and then fleshes out the story with criticisms of Mr. Johnson that were made prior to him speaking to CNBC. I get that it's become something of a fad to complain about the way "the media" handles stories, with Conservatives being generally quick to harp on anything they find to be critical of themselves, but sometimes, media outlets do seem to be doing a slapdash job of things. Surely there's a pollster or a political scientist somewhere that the Post could have called upon to critique Mr. Johnson's statement on the merits. Why go with statements that had been made about him previously, that come across as ad hominem criticisms of the person? Is Nate Silver not taking their calls?

That said, I suppose that there could be a story in there about the growing class divide in the broader Black population of the United States. For all that there is a tendency to see Black people as a monoculture, the fact remains that not all Black people think alike or see the world in the same way. There are class resentments between Black people the same as there are between White people. But even that could have been better covered.

In the end, though, I'm not sure that it makes a difference. Like much of the news the breathless coverage of Mr. Johnson's statements, isn't really actionable for most people. It's a factoid, perhaps more about entertainment than information. Something to talk about on a Black Friday other than shopping.