Saturday, October 24, 2009

Howard Dean "Beyahs" the American Media

Last week, the College Democrats brought Dr. Howard Dean to speak to the Fordham community and I got to interview him before the event for a piece in The Ram.

Before this, all I knew about Dean was basic. It was basically "beyah" - the infamous roar of the doctor/governor who lost the Democratic nomination in 2004.

Researching for the interview, I learned that as both a politician and a medical doctor, Howard Dean has had a significant influence on America, spearheading some truly innovative health care reform in his home state Vermont and largely reinventing traditional campaign strategy, essentially setting the tone for the innovative Obama campaign.

But most of America does not know this. Like me, all they associate Dean with is "beyah," thanks to the media syndication of utterance.

As an aspiring journalist, I am very interested in what some academics have termed "media psychology," the influence of the media on human understanding of policies, events and people.

In this case, I believe the media frenzy and commotion over the "Dean Scream" has both helped and hurt him. Positively, the viral publicity the media created brought Dean attention he would not have otherwise received in 2004 (he was just a governor at that point, not a national political figure). Negatively, voter knowledge of him often stopped there, he was confined to this one association, all his sophisticated policies and goals were sacrificed for one this one trivial moment on his campaign.

Looking at the clip years after it happened is interesting. What was once constantly replicated on every news channel and spoofed by both professional and novice satirists, now seems extremely trivial. In fact, I would argue that both Obama and McCain each had individual instances of much more resounding rhetoric during their respective campaigns than the "Dean Scream" moment.

The positioning of media within politics is complicated. It is a vehicle that, when used well, can result in much positive political change. However, it also works against politics, focusing sometimes on these trivial bouts and criticizing the activities of government to a point that is counter-constructive.

Will Dean’s legacy be “beyah” or bettering America? It remains to be seen.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

American Studies at DisneyWorld

To celebrate my father's return from Afghanistan my family went on a 4 day vacation to Disney World last weekend.

I had never been before and there were a few things I found there that surprised me.

Firstly, the Hall of Presidents. This attraction is meant to be a celebration of the American presidency and the men who have held that position. Since Disneyworld is a family theme park I wasn't surprised that the presentation avioded some serious issues, but I was surprised at what they chose to present.

Thomas Jefferson recieved no mention in the presentation while Andrew Jackson got extensive coverage, without mention of the Trail of Tears of course. Lincoln was presented as having run for the presidency on a platform of abolition of slavery. An interesting rewrite of history which I suppose was intended to lend a sense of morality to Lincoln's election.

Any dissatisfaction I had with the historical accuracy of the presentation was erased when, halfway the introduction of all of the presidents the Bill Clinton animatron checked his watch.

The next encounter I had which gave me pause as an American studies major was at Splash Mountain. The popular attraction tells the story of Brer Rabbit and Brers Bear and Fox. Brer Rabbit is an adaptation of Brother Rabbit the African American folktale in which he outsmarts Brother Fox and authority figures. Brer Bear is presented as a Sambo character, dumbly following Brer Fox's orders and twice making a fool of himself by being caught in his own traps.

I'm suprised that such a portrayal of slave era Black stereotypes recieved such a display in a major theme park like Disneyworld.

Disney's Carousel of Progress displays how technology has played a role in the American family. The American family of course being a white family with one daughter, one son, and a dog. The Carousel opened for the 1964 World's fair and tauts the benefits of scientific progress. Unlike the Pastoralism discussed by Leo Marx in Machine in the Garden Disney welcomes all new technology for the increase in quality of living it provides.

The last scene of the dislpay shows the family at Christmastime where the mother has just finished programming the family's kitchen appliances to respond to voice commands. In the scene the father unintentionally increases the temperature of the oven to 975 degrees, burning the turkey. So, while Disney himself was a technophile, there is a still a sense that we are not entirely in control of the technology we are creating, and while it makes our lives easier in some ways, in other ways it controls us.

Overall the trip was a lot of fun, and after seeing all of the crying, screaming children and the parents that thought it would be a good idea to bring them to Disneyworld I would recommend to anyone that they wait till their children are in their 20s before going for the first time to avoid a lot of tears and frustration.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Cambodian Legacy Presented by Cathy Schlund-Vials

On Thursday, October 8th, I had the pleasure of meeting Cathy J. Schlund-Vials during an open discussion with my thesis class. Following the discussion, I attended her lecture entitled, “Battling the Cambodian syndrome: Cambodian/American Memory, Politics, and Youth Activism.” Both the open-discussion and lecture were extremely informative and intriguing. They largely focused on the impact of the “Killing Fields”- an era in Cambodian history in which massive genocides were conducted by the Khmer Rough. These genocides unfortunately resulted in approximately two-million Cambodians perishing.
Ms. Schlund-Vials informed my peers and I that the legacy of the “Killing Fields” has not been adequately dealt with in Cambodia. Shockingly, many people living in Cambodia have known next to nothing of the genocidal history. Currently, “no consistent policy for reconciliation exists in Cambodia” (Schlund-Vials, 21). Even memorials of the genocide that do exist in Cambodia can be labeled as sites of “atrocity tourism,” where Cambodian subjectivity is elevated to spectacle. By willingly paying money to visit these sites, tourists are being interpellated into accepting a commercial system in which profits are made by exposing human suffering and atrocities.
Thankfully, Cambodian-American rapper, PraCh, is allowing some form of Cambodian justice to be served through his music. PraCh was immersed within hip hop culture in his community in Long Beach, California. He had felt connected with this particular culture, or way of life, which has historically been a means for the socially marginalized to express their interpretation of life. Hip hop music is therefore a cultural product. PraCh’s hip hop music exposes his personal truth and a larger truth for all Cambodians. Though it has not made it into the American mainstream, it seems more meaningful than many modern hip hop albums which only discuss drugs, crime, and women.
By exposing trauma and memorializing the “Killing Fields,” PraCh consciously resists against the hegemony of political officials who have successfully kept the past hidden from the public through both ideological and repressive means. His music relates to the popular saying, “the personal is the political.” Political and historical events shape our conception of self and the world around us.
PraCh is both creating and exposing a collective Cambodian-American identity with his music. This identity is complicated by refugee status. While PraCh and other Cambodian-American youths consider the US their home, they also realize the US has approved of foreign policy initiatives which contributed to the strength of corrupt Asian regimes. US policy has also led to the deportation of numerous Cambodian refugees. PraCh, therefore, does not buy into the concept of American exceptionalism. The US is a flawed nation which often seeks to fulfill its own interests at the expense of others. Similarly, PraCh is critical of the myth of the “American Dream.” The US is not necessary a place of paradise with limitless opportunity.
PraCh’s music is a transnational means of communication. This relates to the argument Susan J. Douglas makes in her article, “The Turn Within.” She argues that “new communications technologies have not created a global village but have, ironically, led to…a “turn within” (66). While music itself is not a “technology,” it is a product of technology. PraCh’s music was created with advanced technological equipment that enabled the mixing of recorded political propaganda speeches, traditional Cambodian musical beats, instrumentation, and vocals. It was dispersed and heard overseas with the aid of communications technology. PraCh’s innovative music ultimately challenges Douglas’ argument. His music, which was created in the US, became extremely popular in Cambodia. It has enabled Cambodian and Cambodian-American youths to connect with one another in a radically new way. Therefore, his music is promoting a more connected world in which people from distant geographical places can link like never before. New international communities are being formed.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Mad Men

It took me nearly three seasons to catch on, but I am glad I finally did. The lying! The cheating! The scandals! I mean, it’s no wonder I spent half of my summer in front of the tube barely blinking and the other half waiting for the mail man to arrive with my next Netflix installment.

I am of course referring to my, and in a larger sense, America’s, fixation with Mad Men, AMC’s popular and critically acclaimed period drama set in a New York City advertising agency in the 1960s. While the characters’ engagement in taboo behavior, such as drinking alcohol in the office, committing adultery, and chain smoking while pregnant, certainly command a viewer’s attention, I am most interested in the show’s extreme commitment to historical accuracy.

Because of history and Hollywood's notorious incompatibility (Pearl Harbor anyone?), I was pleasantly surprised to discover how well Matt Weiner recreated the era and its corporate culture. According to my limited research, Mad Men is one of the most meticulously put together shows with very little creative licensing. Vanity Fair’s Bruce Handy describes one story in which Weiner replaced the apples they were using as props, because they did not resemble the non-genetically enhanced produce of the era. Weiner and his team research weather patterns, repeat costumes, and, as the apple story indicates, select props with care. Handy also reports that the writers extensively consulted the commuter train schedules from the Westchester suburb where Don Draper lives to Grand Central, aiming for accuracy whenever possible.

My Mad Men obsession intensified after reading The Conquest of Cool, which I read last week for the senior seminar. According to Thomas Frank, the 1960s advertising culture co-opted the counterculture in order to sell the very products that the “hip” detest. The book also discusses the sort of corporate environment of the 1960s ad agencies, which Mad Men manages to depict with great accuracy. I do not want to spoil any plot lines, so I think I will stop there, but I will say that Mad Men enhanced my reading of The Conquest of Cool. If you want to imagine “the man in the gray flannel suit,” look no farther than Don Draper.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Cultural Analysis of College Safety

The Daily Beast, a "news reporting and opinion web site," published by Tina Brown (a former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker) and edited by Edward Felsenthal (a former editor at The Wall Street Journal), recently compiled a list of the 25 most unsafe college campuses in America.

Safety at Fordham is a delicate issue to all students here, not just American Studies majors, especially in light of the recent string of off-campus incidents.  However, I thought it would be interesting to evaluate this list through some of the cultural studies theories we have recently learned about in the American Studies thesis seminar.

The findings of this college safety survey were interesting.  Harvard, Yale, MIT, Tufts and Brown (Professor Hendler's alma mater)- some of America's most prestigious institutions of higher learning-  were among the 25 most unsafe campuses in America.  They were accompanied by many schools in Maryland, where crime and crime reporting standards are each very high.  Also with them on the list were six historically black universities. Fordham was (luckily!) not included on this list of unsafe colleges.

For cultural studies scholars, like the ones we've been engaging with in class, the holistic compilation/existence of this list is far more interesting to analyze than it's individual findings.  There are largely two schools of thought in cultural analysis, the Frankfurt School and the Birmingham School, and each would receive the list differently.

Frankfurt scholars subscribe to something called "Critical Theory," believing that "one must be critical of the structure of underlying social practices to reveal the possible distortion of social life embodied in them" (Shawn Rosenberg). In essence, these scholars believe that there is an underlying social consciousness that perpetuates through society, a narrow lens or limited framework we are predetermined to see the world through.  In terms of production and the creation of products, Frankfurt scholars believe that humans are not who the products are made for but products themselves.

Birmingham scholars subscribe to "Reception Theory," believing that individuals are not predetermined to simply believe the social practices around them; they are not passive audiences but active participants.  Birmingham scholars believe each individual has the ability to receive information, "negotiate" its meaning, and ultimately interpret it for himself or herself based on his or her individual circumstances.

Based on my limited understanding of these theories, I believe Frankfurt scholars would be extremely critical of this list.  They would say that,no matter how controlled the methodology the researchers utilized was, the controls would not be enough to circumvent the underlying social consciousness that surround these American institutions.  In essence, the list would always be a reflection of some of society's underlying prejudices- like the association of minority universities with crime and the existence of largely prestigious in poorer areas- and the findings would serve as a vehicle of perpetuation for such beliefs.

Birmingham scholars would take an alternative perspective, believing that the list would be interpreted differently by each respective individual to which it is presented, that people would decide for themselves whether the results were tainted.

Safety on college campuses is a difficult subject to analyze.  Even when the compilation is meant to be scientific (simply ranking universities by the number criminal incidents they report each year) it is inevitably permeated with the individual geographical, sociological and economical circumstances associated with each university.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Bronx Tale

Today I attended two events sponsored by the African and African-American Studies Department. The first of which was the department's open house, the second a book talk for The Rat that Got Away a memoir written by Allen Jones with Mark Naison.

At 11:30 in the morning I met Dr. Naison (also known as Notorious PhD) and two other students from my Feeling the Funk class to go pick up the food for the open house from a small hole-in-the-wall BBQ joint called Johnson's BBQ in the Morrisiania neighborhood of the Bronx.

As we drove down Notorious PhD gave the three of us an impromptu tour of the area, pointing out a few school yards where the likes of Gradmaster Flash would hold his hip-hop sessions early in the movement.

Johnson's was about the size of a large closet, with no seating and only one employee, Duane Johnson. The smell of the food hit us as soon as we stepped out of the car. For health reasons I'm glad I don't live within walking distance of this fine establishment, otherwise I think I would be unable to prevent myself from eating the ribs, fried chicken and collard greens that this place serves everyday (If you haven't ever had the food, you MUST).

After the department open house I went to Duane Library to hear the talk for Allen Jones' memoir. Jones grew up in the Bronx in the 1950s and 60s before going to Luxembourg to be a professional basketball player in Europe and ended up working in banking for a number of years.

Dr. Naison, Jones, and Angela O'Donnell worked together on the book, mostly via email. Jones still lives in Luxembourg while Naison and O'Donnell are faculty at Fordham. Naison emphasized a few things in the talk that I found interesting.

The first was the collaborative element of the writing. Without Naison, Jones never would have written his memoir, and without O'Donnell's editing skills, the memoir would not have its driving plot.

The book, as Naison mentioned, was mostly written via email. The technology that allows me to write this blog, and Jones' to write his novel has made information sharing easier than ever before, and made projects such as this possible. No longer does there have to be the lone writer in a room with his work, the image that Naison contrasted this work with.

Which brings me to the second point that Naison brought up, which is that due to the nature of this writing project, it required a great deal of trust. Trust on the part of Jones' to share his writing with Naison, from Naison that Jones was the real deal, and O'Donnell that all the hard editing work she did would be taken seriously.

This speaks to kind of balancing act we all have to do in this technological era. We have to work together, but we also have to be careful not to be swindled. Its easier than ever to steal someone's identity or personal information. In the case of Naison, Jones and O'Donnell, working together helped everyone and now Jones' memoir is being read in middle and high schools in the Bronx and being given to members of local youth sports teams.

I guess the point of this blog is that you have to be careful on the internet but not so careful that you miss out on the opportunity to write your memoir when someone asks you to, just make sure they're legitimate. And also the Bronx is an amazing center of culture and I hope to get to know more about it so I can write some more of these blogs.