The following was published at the Urban Times on November 12th, 2012. It is posted here for archival purposes.

Do politicians use the rhetoric of dispassionate decision making to sugarcoat the ideological?

The concept of technocracy, a government managed by experts insulated from public opinion, is one that has enjoyed a certain appeal as of late – particularly considering its direct conflict with the central purpose of democracy. As the “Euro-crisis” continued, there was much excited media talk about the “technocrats” who were to take over from the governments that purportedly plunged the continent into crisis. This piece is not an attempt to opine about such talk specifically, but rather to look at the broader phenomenon of whether the rhetoric of technocracy, this holy grail of rational, cost-benefit based decision-making, is used to conceal what really are ideologically motivated policy changes and budget cuts.

At its core, this sort of rhetorical sleight of hand is just a particularly noticeable form of the old political game of targeted messaging, tailoring rhetoric to different slices of the electorate. A great example of this sort of dual messaging is the recurring debate in the United States over the funding of public broadcasting. Every so often, some in the Republican party threaten to remove federal government funding from NPR and PBS. Most recently, this debate was triggered by a promise Mitt Romney made at the first presidential debate this cycle to cut federal funding for PBS.

Here we can see him targeting both groups. He said that  while he “love[ed]” Big Bird, a reference to an iconic character on the PBS children’s staple Sesame Street, “I’m going to stop borrowing money from China to pay for things we don’t need.” On the one hand, the reference to China is a clear attempt to paint the ending of the government subsidy as a necessary move to cut the budget deficit. On the other hand, we hear a slight nod to the underlying ideological underpinnings of opposition to public broadcast funding by saying that PBS is something “we don’t need”. The ensuing debate followed the same template as previous debates over public broadcast funding, with those on the left pointing out that public broadcasting composes a vanishingly small part of the federal budget (0.014% to be exact) and those on the right arguing that it still is not something the government should be funding.

This sort of dual rhetoric is not limited to the American political scene. In Canada, Toronto mayor Rob Ford has become a polarizing figure through the course of his mayoralty, which he has held for just short of 2 years. Ford ran on a campaign based largely on taking back the city for the taxpayer, tapping into voter grievances about government waste and a perceived inability of the previous mayor to stand up to union demands. A particular phrase he leaned on during the campaign was the idea of the“gravy train” – that bureaucrats had become fat at the direct expense of the taxpayer. By all accounts this framing succeeded with a surprisingly wide cross section of voters in the city.

An obstacle to productivity? (image: Wikimedia Commons)

Ford’s actual time in office, however, has struck a different note. One of the major controversies during his tenure involved the funding of the Transit City project, an attempt to expand bus and light rail service. A major plank of Ford’s campaign centered on ending the project entirely and replacing the light rail lines with two subway lines. While he cited cost reasons for stopping the plan, a major theme of his opposition was that Transit City represented a part of the “War on the Car” that needed to be stopped. In the ensuing controversy, it became clear that the budgetary justification for eliminating the light rail lines was far from clear cut, leaving it as little but a fig leaf for the underlying ideological opposition to forms of transit that “impede” cars. This was one of just many episodes of this rhetorical sleight of hand. Another involved his removal of a bike lane on a downtown street. Despite the $300,000 removal cost, he dubiously claimed that the removal would pay off in extra economic activity that would come from the two to seven minutes saved by drivers.

What we are left wondering after looking at these cases is whether it is ever possible to detect the intent of a political policy. At its root, all budget decisions are motivated by an underlying ideology; even the very concept of “technocracy” is a very distinct and real ideology, with a whole host of assumptions about the fallibility of democratic majorities baked into its prescriptions of expert-based governance. Whenever any sort of government action is proposed, it sells to say it is because of rational, impartial criteria. Opponents, in turn will often want to paint their opponents as dangerous ideologues—see the debate in the US over the Paul Ryan budget and in Canada over the Harper Government’s budget cuts. Ideally, the public would consider political policies on their merits, and often they do. Even so, the way that a voter views the merits of a policy is inevitably colored by those who succeed in framing its intent.

Moussako, Abraham. “The Smokescreen of Technocracy?” The Urban Times, sec. Politics: Critical Conversations, November 13, 2012. http://urbantimes.co/2012/11/the-smokescreen-of-technocracy/

10-22-09 Photgraphy project 057

The following is a work of fiction, mostly in the sense that it isn’t a work of fact, journalistic or otherwise.  Any resemblance to real events or persons is entirely coincidental. This is the second of a multi-part narrative (Part One).

4:35

In case you’re wondering, the panhandler was actually slightly entertaining, enough so that even someone disinclined towards generosity might have dug a quarter out of their wallet corner. The train pulls out of 137th street, and rolls onto a viaduct, again bathed in the spring afternoon light. Almost instantly, one of the phones buzzes with a text. There apparently is a “free” tonight, which is great, fantastic, good shit, and also opens up another problem.

Procurement, if you will.

[exposition/background]

Actually, let’s back that up, for two reasons. First of all, someone should have bothered to introduce these kids, and perhaps tell you how many of them they are. Sorry. Anyway, this group of five high schoolers–three more so than the other two–has been through a fair bit together. Not in the sappy, characters-in-a-long-running-family-sitcom-sense, but more in the sense that they’ve had to endure the company of each other for far too long.

The kind-of ringleader of the group was a character named James Cohen, who was, as per the classic, well-worn underachiever mold, clever but distinctly lazy. As it stood on this mid spring day, he was on the wait-list for Columbia University. Not to spoil this story, but they won’t accept him. He knows it, they know it, and his guidance counselor sure as hell knows it, but thanks to his triple legacy, the admissions committee up at 116th will go through the motions of reshuffling his application and sending him another letter in a month or so. Of all the kids in the group, James was the one with the closest to a decent social life outside of hanging out with these other four misfits (read: losers), and he of course was filled with the most grandiose visions of college parties, women, and supposedly, much easier course work. Discounting the Columbia string-along, James was probably going to stay in-state for college, either at one of the more respectable New York state schools or some small liberal arts school his parents would shell out for to paper over the vague embarrassment of their well-tutored child not getting into a “prestigious” university.

James’ best friend in this group, and the only one of them he would trust with information of even mild confidentiality, was a kid named Steve Ronson. The two had gone to middle school on the Upper West Side together. He too was an academic underachiever, at least relative to his parents’ expectations, but he also worked much harder than he generally let on, and is headed to Chicago for school in the fall. He could probably use the distance from New York. Steve was once a fairly respected kid in middle school, but a dreadful faux-pas in freshman year–the specifics of which are not relevant to where he and his friends stand in early April, 2011–consigned him to his now mediocre social life. People far removed from his social circle still occasionally reference his name. Negatively. Still, he’s a good, kind kid, and most importantly for the afternoon’s purposes, has a fake. It was Steve’s cards and bookkeeping that kept that game back at the pizzeria going.

Alex Williams rounded out the three closer-knit kids in the group. He also went to the same Upper West Side middle school as James and Steve, and his continued association with the two was basically the residue of those initial three years together (Alex, unlike the other two, had went to parochial school before 6th grade). The three got along well enough, but over the past year Steve and James had started behaving more as a pair, with Alex stuck as sort of a third wheel. Alex probably cemented this frost by subtly trying to cock-block James at a somewhat grimy party a few months ago. Subtle enough for plausible deniability, but James can truly hold a grudge at times.

The other two kids on the train that day, the two not as “in the loop” (presuming one even wants in on this ‘loop’), were Lewis Hernandez and Richard Yee. They were the only non-white kids of that five. Those two facts aren’t related, unless you want them to be. Richard was the one who didn’t have money, or the inclination, to join the poker game earlier. Their slight isolation from the other three was mostly a function of not having gone to the same middle school as the other three. Anyway, Lewis and Richard were both on the school newspaper, which was a truly depressing experience, least of all because no one else gave a shit about them being on the newspaper. The two often played ball with James, Steve and Alex on Friday afternoons. Both lived in Queens–Richard in Flushing and Lewis in Astoria–but probably were going to crash in “the city” if the evening got too interesting.

4:50

The five kids stand outside of the newer head-house at the 72nd street station, having just got off the train. James asks Alex, who got the original text about the parent-free house,

“Is this going to be just a free or an actual party?”

Before the answer, a note about terminology here. A “free” simply means that the parents are away. Typically this lends itself to a small, usually exclusively male night where the guys sit around and have Meaningful Conversations, play video games, and compare notes on attractive women in their classes they couldn’t get with. Beers are typically invovled. A “party” typically features the parent free house, but more people, more interesting diversions, and more importantly, a decent number of girls (or should we say women?).

“Not sure. Keep in mind this thing wasn’t even supposed to happen just a half hour ago,” Alex responded. “At any rate, there is drink to be acquired.”

But first, they were going to go to the house in question, just as soon as the kid’s parents left for their upstate country house. That supposedly was going to happen soon, as signaled by a text he would send 10 minutes after they drove away. They sat on the benches in the not-quite-a-park next to the station and waited.

The story continues: Part 3

131st st (1) to the north

The following is a work of fiction, mostly in the sense that it isn’t a work of fact, journalistic or otherwise. It unfolds in multiple parts (Part 2)

3:30

The pizzeria isn’t much. Actually, it’s just a storefront with a few tables and not-too-comfortable seats inside. Every few minutes, there is the faint rumble of a nearby elevated subway line. The pizza itself isn’t great, but good enough for a midafternoon snack. This could be anywhere in New York’s outer boroughs, but in this case it’s the Bronx, close to the northern stub of the 1 train.

All the nearby schools have let out, and the owner steels himself for the onslaught. He appreciates the brisk business the afterschool hours bring, especially on the Fridays, but hates the highschoolers themselves. To him, they’re a hormonal horde of loud, boisterous, and occasionally aggressive nuisance. The telltale voices of a group of students approaches, and the kids walk in. The owner relaxes a bit. These kids don’t look like troublemakers, he thinks to himself. If asked to actually defend such a sentiment, the owner would probably back away from the statement, but anyone whose lived long enough in a major American city would probably “get” what he meant.

The kids approach the counter and order. Most ask for slices, two deicide on the spot to split a calzone. After ordering, they pull two of the small tables together and array the chairs. While waiting for the food, one pulls out a deck of cards, while another pulls out and opens a folder, grabbing a well-worn sheet with a bunch of names and numbers. Poker has been the rage for the past few months among the school’s upperclassmen, and this group of seniors is no exception.
One of the kids, too cheap (and too poor in pocket money anyway) to gamble, instead takes out his iPod and starts playing one of the game apps. Conversation swirls around him.

“You guys doing anything this weekend?”

“meh, not really”

“I hear someone has a free house, definitely tomorrow, and maybe tonight”

“where are the parents going?”

“country house upstate, I hear.”

A few minutes pass, and the owner shouts over the counter. The food’s ready. The kids get up to pay and get it; some drop a few extra coins and reach into the cooler for a soda. They sit down again.
The mid-spring air is warm, and pregnant with the usual anticipation of the approaching end of school. For these kids, who can finally envision the next stage of life with slightly less guessing, the approaching end has slightly more meaning. To them, it’s the end of all This Bullshit, a catch-all phrase for the onslaught of tests, college applications, and essay-writing they endured in the first half of the year. The arbitrary and punitive management from their school’s administration didn’t help their view towards the past few years.

After a half hour or so, the pizza long eaten, the kids finally call an end to the poker game and head towards Broadway, and the 1 train. They start up the staircase when a familiar rumble is heard.

“Train!”

The kids hurry up the stairs, making it to the turnstiles as the train pulls into the station. One springs ahead, making it inside first and putting his hands on the side of the door. The conductor, rolling his eyes, closes the doors on the back half of the train, but the rest of the kids make it to the platform and on to the front half of the train before the conductor can close those doors. The train leaves the station

4:10

It’s just before rush hour, but on this Manhattan-bound train, the kids find a nearly empty car after walking forward a bit. They, again, sit. Under normal circumstances this would mark a restart to the poker game, but the owner of the deck of cards got his pocket picked back at the pizzeria, so he conveniently forgets this routine. Instead, he brings up what qualifies as important conversation to a group of boys in late adolescence.

“yo, you never actually told us if you got with that girl last weekend. Did it or did it not happen?”

What else did you expect? Especially among this group of relatively undersexed adolescents, there is one sure-fire way to liven up an otherwise listless conversation, and that is talk of, well, you know.

“Two-thirty-first!”

The others never get to hear the answer to this pressing question, as the doors open at the next stop. In sweeps a panhandler, one of the many minor annoyances of the subway.

The story continues: Part 2

American coverage of the Lebanese Civil War was muted for much of its duration, owing to the low US military involvement. (lifted from the “collectivehistory” tumblr page)

War, Death, and indifference.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Who cares? That tree fell in an African forest, not an American one.

This past Wednesday, I covered for the Columbia Journalism Review a talk about war photojournalism at the Brooklyn Brewery. If you haven’t already, read the piece I wrote up on the event (don’t worry, I’ll wait).

One of the most interesting tidbits from the conversation between Steve Hindy and photojournalist Michael Kamber that I ended up leaving out of the piece–because it was a bit tangential to the main idea–came close to the end of the event. The answer was in response to a slightly lighthearted question asked of Steve–himself a former war correspondent–about whether reporters once had a bar to go at the end of the day and discuss the day’s events. (the question was asked by a reporter who had covered Iraq for the Times) Steve responded that the real difference between Iraq and the conflicts he had covered was the presence of Americans on the ground. The conflicts he had covered in the Middle East during the 70s and 80s ranked comparatively low on the American news agenda. As he put it, “who cares if the PLO and the Phalange get into a horrible battle in Beirut and 40 people die? There was no American there except us…in a way I was envious of the wars you guys covered because at least for a time, Americans were watching.”

This idea, that people only really care about wars when their own countrymen [and women] are fighting in them itself isn’t too surprising, and I’m not going to act like one of those slightly annoying types (see twitter) who feign outrage whenever this type of thing happens. If we take a more recent example, some pointed out after the Boston bombings that while only 3 people died in the attack that day, far more people died that day in Syria and other conflict zones around the world. As these critics pointed out, those other people died on the wrong day in terms of getting the world, and certainly the American media, to care about their deaths–the “hierarchy of death,” as a columnist for the Guardian put it.

If we look at the coverage of the recent Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, we’re seeing the same thing. Despite knowing the identities of two of the three deaths (a third death was announced earlier Friday evening, as of this writing), the media generally limited their coverage of the two who died, simply saying that they were both Chinese students who were coming to the US on vacation. Humanizing enough, but nothing like some of the heartfelt, textured portraits of the victims from the Boston bombings.

I mentioned earlier that I’m not necessarily outraged by this cold reality. Why? Simple. The media, with some exceptions, is a reasonably clear reflection of the audience they serve. People, for better or for worse, cope with the sheer amount of “bad things” in the world by limiting their reaction to those events to those they feel some sort of connection with, be it being from similar circumstances, places, or, in this case, nationality. It’s why, when a ship somewhere crashes, NPR talks about the Americans on the ship, and CBC talks about the Canadians on the ship. These outlets are reflecting the fact that their audience cares about those they feel the closest connection to.

Accidents like the Costa Concordia are excellent demonstrations of how international media first look to cover the fates of occupants from the outlet’s nation.

Now what can be said for this? In the abstract, it’s certainly fair to talk about the arbitrariness of national borders, the accident of birth, all that stuff. In an ideal world, people would care about the deaths (and lives) of people equally, regardless of nationality, socioeconomic status, or profession. But they don’t, and probably never will. (David Wong over at Cracked gives even more analysis on this idea of rationed empathy in his “Monkeysphere” piece) To the extent that people are hard-wired to think this way, and also to the extent that it is physically impossible to give the same prominence to every news story, it’s logical that the news media–even public, not-for-profit outlets–would reflect their audience’s interests. The unavoidable problem, in the end, is that worthy stories–like that battle in Beriut some thirty years ago–often get shunted to the inside pages because of this instinct.

Some of the cast from The Onion’s new television effort, “Onion News Empire”

The satirical news outfit makes another foray into television programming.

The Onion, the satirical newspaper and website, has not had much success in translating its brand of humor to the small screen. Their first two attempts at television, the SportsCenter parody Onion Sportsdome , and the Onion News Network, a spruced up version of satirical cable news segments previously produced in podcast form, both lasted for less than a year. Since then, The Onion seems to have switched to a web-based production model, which has resulted in a number of comedic successes, from the reality TV satire Sex House to the public access homage Lake Dredge Appraisal. The sitcom Onion News Empire is another attempt at scripted comedy, this time produced by the online retailer Amazon.

Onion News Empire, unlike the two previous full-length series, takes a meta approach; instead of applying the satire to imagined cable news or sports stories, the show is set behind the scenes of the ONN newsroom, in a not-so-subtle takeoff of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. Having seen (and liked) The Newsroom, a parody of that show does have some promise. As critics uniformly pointed out, the Sorkin program had a distinct sense of self-importance, with at-times preachy dialogue, an annoying love subplot, and occasionally contrived situations.

The problem with News Empire, however, is that it takes such a promising premise and squanders it with writing that makes pre-teen sitcoms look subtle by comparison. The ONN network is portrayed with generous amounts of hyperbole; instead of just producing cheap, tabloidish reporting on various stories, the staff is shown as not being above completely staging stories for ratings. In one case, they kidnap a girl and then run days of coverage wildly speculating about the motives of the kidnappers. On paper such a hyperbolic portrayal might make sense, but in reality it leads to a glib, predictable brand of humor. Another scene where the head of the network complains to the news director about sagging ratings in a set of absurdly specific demographics (“Half black-half Asian dentists,” etc.) reflects a similar glibness.

The most irritating aspect of the pilot, however, was the main storyline; the rookie reporter fresh from the Midwest affiliate, trying to make a name for himself on the big stage. The naiveté of the character was—as per the satirical conceit—dialed up so much as to make his presence on screen unbearable. Overall, the funniest portions of the episode are the short clips of ONN news programs we see from the control room or TVs in the background. The show’s downfall is that the satire is too obvious, and none of the characters are written deeply enough for me to actually care what happens to them. Even in the context of a satirical program, once it moves out of the realm of pure news parody into semi-dramatic meta news parody, the characters matter.

Onion News Empire, as of this writing, is simply a pilot; it is one of 14 Amazon-commissioned pilots (6 children’s programs and 8 adult comedies) competing for pickup as a full series. The series that will get picked up, sometime later this year, will be chosen based on audience reviews.  Some of the other Amazon pilots look promising, and I might review some of the others later this month.

My take: 2.5 out of 5 objects; not actively bad, but an opportunity squandered by over-the-top writing and predictable plot. Some bright moments. General cynicism abundant. 

(for my final column, I decide to discuss  topic that concerns me deeply: trains.)

“Inter-city rail in North America is often far below the standards of other developed nations. In many parts of the continent, notably those outside of the Eastern Seaboard and select other hubs, rail service simply isn’t a competitive alternative to driving or flying. The Montreal-New York corridor, spanning two major metropolitan areas across a distance of 381 miles, is an excellent case study of the current issues with rail services across North America, and brings to light some potential solutions. Evidence of the problems is not hard to find—the train currently takes almost 11 hours (when on schedule), substantially longer than taking the bus or driving.”

Read the rest here: http://mcgilltribune.com/useful-at-a-better-speed/

(In which I discuss how social media has shaped our view of public opinion)

“With the rise of social networking as a viable medium for debate, political messaging has changed the way we view public opinion. Companies, for example, have strategies for increasing “engagement” and “brand awareness” on social networks, and media organizations often troll Facebook and Twitter for everything from sources to story reaction. Lost in all of this is a realistic evaluation of exactly who is online, commenting and tweeting their reactions to the news.”

Read more here: http://mcgilltribune.com/understanding-the-role-of-social-media/

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