Individual Rebellions

Because yesterday’s executive order signals a monumental change in US policy, nay, identity.  Because many are attacking the decision to read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which has surged in popularity in recent days.  Because the ideologies popping up lately are not always easy to talk about.

Every person north of 16 with access to an internet connection has heard the term “big data” thrown around, beaten with a stick, and roasted on a spit in the past decade or so.  The social media era has introduced, from the standpoint of a cultural critic, a new set of texts that we can look at to sketch out models of human behavior.  There’s a really great piece on Antidote Zine published recently that deals with a new take on this “big data” phenomenon: Trump Knows You Better Than You Know Yourself tells a tale of a fact-avoiding demagogue, a data-harvesting psychoanalysist, and a population almost completely unaware of the digital footprint each microtransaction online leaves behind.

I talked to my Freshman composition students about this article today (I don’t know why; it isn’t relevant; I just do things sometimes, okay?). The idea is this: Facebook and other networking sites turn many or all of your online actions, ie. likes, friendships, geotags, conversations, hashtags, etc. and turns them into profit by selling that information to globe-spanning, multi-national corporations. These companies then, in turn, use this new data that’s been harvested to augment and intensify their grip on the consumer marketplace.  They can effectively penetrate the socious deeper than ever before.  This Foucaultian, Negri-esque conundrum has proven difficult to police by governments because, well, it’s not always seen as a problem.  It might not be (but it is).

Grassegger and Krogerus, the authors of the big data piece, attribute its harnessing by the 2016 Republican campaign as a primary reason for their outstandingly effective rhetorical pitches to the vulnerable voters in America’s heartland and rustbelt.  It’s a problem when you look at it in light of current political discourse.  We’re one week in to an administration everyone, and I mean everyone, is likening to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

This morning, walking through my local public square at the Ithaca Commons near Cornell University, I found a small group of about one hundred citizens gathered to protest, but not really discuss, the varied policies of our new Entertainer-In-Chief.  They held up signs; they chanted; they demonstrated solidarity with underrepresented and oppressed groups that have been targeted by the Doublethink-administration in the past week.

A few questions need to be asked.  Exactly how and when is protest effective? Do protests turn people?  Do they educate? If they’re celebrations, that’s fine, but we should recognize them as such.  I’m not arguing that protesting in the Ithaca Commons isn’t effective; I think it is, or at least can be. But exactly how is it effective? Would a Facebook status from the same 200 people, perhaps using a unifying hashtag, be just as effective, if not more so? My point: more people see your Facebook post than hear you chanting in the street.  But only people in the street make the evening news.  A combination, it seems, is in order.

What is a protest?

Individual rebellions, no matter how small, contribute a difference. Every act is a statement, and in fact contains many, many unintentional statements.  I advise protestors to examine exactly how their actions, chants, and signs act rhetorically- because I’m not sure they’re always as effective as those “already-turned” believe them to be.

On the topic of social media: recent reports from Politico and others out of JFK and other airpots indicate immigration officials, acting off of yesterday’s executive order, have been demanding incoming travelers from “ban list” nations turn over social media information, passwords and login information.  This gross overreach of power infringes state control into realms of personal identity, domestic communication and citizenship.  This is the NSA controversy from a few years ago, which many consider one of the defining issues of our times, intensified with the tempers of fascism, xenophobia, nativism, propaganda.

With every public statement, the Doublethink administration tries to amend, slant, camouflage its own history as it’s being written.

How might one respond?

I, like many composition professors I’ve spoken to, am introducing Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to my students this semester.  It’s not the best example of dystopian literature, nor is it the most original or most thought-provoking, but my hope is that because of its mainstream and easily-understood thematic qualities, it will be the most easily talked-about novel we have to choose from.  Orwell’s greatest accomplishment with the novel is the creation of a universal language to talk of dystopia, and I want my students to be introduced to this language.  I want them to talk to their friends, their co-workers, their online networks and their parents about these issues, in this language.

Orwell’s novel seems to facilitate quality conversation most effectively.  And that- effectiveness- is the goal, right?

I joined in with the protestors I encountered in the Commons. I sang with them, I spoke briefly to some of the gathered people, and I posted a few small videos online for others to see. I’m just not sure I challenged anyone, even myself, to think differently.  Orwell, when no one else did, challenged us.

Greed Is Not Good

It’s a now-normal 21st-century anxiety, but it wasn’t always like this.  Perhaps it was my wide-eyed, dangerously-sincere reading of Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II as a high school senior that did me in, but I’ve always harbored an uneasy fascination with cult of personality figures.  Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, even Steve Jobs, Jon Gruden, Elon Musk. It’s a Ted Talk that lasts years from the same persona.

We oftentimes say these figures have got “charisma” and leave it at that, but I think there’s more to it. It’s a curious blend of confidence, entertainment, desire. These figures represent a lifestyle.  They are a lifestyle. There’s something in their… rhetoric.

What is it about these (straight, white) men that makes so many people accept, unequivocally, their self-serving worldview?

Watching Donald Trump yesterday compare the intelligence community’s leaking of unverified information to something typical of “Nazi Germany” is not merely offensive but also .

Nothing within Trump’s demeanor carries much weight anymore- half the population will support anything he does or says, and half will oppose it-  and at this point we’ve weeded out any possible middle space.  I’m not ready to declare our cultural era “post-fact” quite yet, but we seem to have almost completely lost sight of appreciating critical judgement on what we should value within our “cult of personality” leaders.  And don’t think this is something out of a science fiction film or a historical reenactment gone awry- we’re more susceptible than ever to pleasing, echo-chamber charisma.

I’m inclined to think we’ve lost the ability to accept any gray areas within super-partisan social conventions.  You’re either one way or the opposite in today’s attention economy.  There’s little room for gray area when identity itself is increasingly simplified to nothing more than a liked social media page, a Twitter bio or a showcased college you attended.  We like labels.  We like differentiation. Is there any such thing as a “complicated” political actor anymore? If we’re progressives, we’re grouped into the umbrella category “Bernie supporters.” If we’re any kind of Republican, you’re automatically either a pro-Trump-Repub or a Never-Trumper, and there is no middle. If you’re a libertarian, you’re… going to have to make some concessions.

Will we ever again elect a president whose act doesn’t privilege entertainment and emotion over reason and policy articulation?

Make no mistake about it- Obama himself is a “cult” figure as well, though I contend Trump to be a far more obvious and caricatured stock example. We respect the dignity Obama lends to the office of president.  We respect his approachability, his everyguy-ness, this president of Jay-Z albums and basketball shorts.  We respect his community-centered approach.  We respect his family.  We respect the respect he gives to others.

And what is it that Trump supporters most admire in their “cult” figure? I can list the keywords- deals, greatjobsmediaswampwin(ner)business, tradewall, TREMENDOUSsuccess.  We admire his business success, his playing of the system to his organization’s benefit.  We admire his willingness to say the politically incorrect thing.  We admire his honesty (I choked writing that). He is nothing if not candid.  He wears everything on his sleeve.  Everything he does is centered around his image.

I think if we watch our own admiration of Trump closely enough, we find ourselves celebrating greed and gluttony on an unprecedented scale.  We see someone who celebrates narcissism, who embodies it, a man whose every act seems driven not by a desire to do what’s right for the people of the United States but by a desire to make himself look like a winner. His policies may be good or bad- you can decide on that- but no one can watch a Trump press conference or look at his Twitter feed and claim he’s anything but image-centered. He does nothing outside of talk about himself. Every issue circles back to his image, his brand.

He’s a celebrity first, and a politician second.  We can’t keep up.

Watch two hours of MSNBC or Fox News.  You’ll be just as jaded as I am.

Trump is a lifestyle.  Think about the values of the life that he lives.

MOOC Anxieties

The next step in my career path requires me to be able to demonstrate reading-level proficiently in a foreign language.  I won’t get into specifics, but due to this requirement I’ve decided to make it my New Year’s resolution for 2017 to, at the very minimum, increase my working knowledge and vocabulary within the sea of the French language.

I have a bit of a background with the language: a few years in middle school and high school combined with two years of college-level coursework. Unfortunately, I’m no longer fresh with the language, and short of enrolling in some sort of language-immersion group (which is far different from language instruction) or taking a stand-alone course at an institution of higher learning, there aren’t many available options for me that seem more advantageous for structured learning than a MOOC, or massive online open course.

My experience with Coursera was a largely positive one, though I can’t say I learned as efficiently as I have in other settings due to a variety of unique MOOC conditions. I won’t outline them here, but while Coursera was a solid fit for learning the Python computer coding language, I’ve decided on Carnegie Mellon’s online learning initiative as being the best fit for my French learning endeavor.

In all fairness, I want to disclose the fact that my education included both some minor and major caveats surrounding online education- for the most part, its teaching and pedagogical course-design aspects, rather than its impact on a student’s particular learning procedure.  Pedagogical theory has long-emphasized the affective and emotional avenues students interact with course materials through, and with this in mind I’ve decided to pay particular attention to what’s on my mind as I begin this course. So, in the interests of critiquing my own learning process, here’s a small list of anxieties and possible problems I foresee. At the end of the 15-week course, I’ll post a response detailing the results of these “hypotheses.”

  • Time.  You’re busy, I’m busy, the dog next door is busy.  There’s no real accountability for this course- it’s free and there’s no ending outcome in the form of a degree or earned college credit.
  • Instructions.  They’re sometimes in French!
  • Class structure.  It’s different from what I, or anyone who’s been through a typical high school or college education, have been through.  Video lectures aren’t the same as in-person lectures- you can’t really talk back or ask questions right away, instead having to rely on email or comments from a professor.  The medium is the message. YouTube and message boards aren’t an 8:00a.m. Monday morning classroom.
  • Relationships.  Will I make one with the professor teaching the course? What about the other students I’m learning alongside?
  • Merit.  My purposes don’t really require official documentation, standardized learning outcomes or institution supervision, but it would make me feel better (and likely improve my dedication) knowing others might recognize this course as worthy of my time.  At best, I’ll add a line to my CV reading proficient in basic French.  I’ll perhaps even let my CV’s readers know I completed the course, primarily to display a personal dedication to learning.
  • EDUCATION.  Will the course teach me French? Will it cover the topics I’ll be “tested” on later in my career?
  • Enjoyment.  I have a real appreciation of languages of all kinds, and I foresee myself enjoying immersion in French just as much as I did in high school.  Will the impersonal nature of distance learning impact this?

There’s a lot to be said on the topic of distance learning– which I briefly tackle elsewhere— but it’s tremendously valuable to theorize and critique our own pre-course biases if we’re to understand processes of learning, education and language intake.