Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thoughts on Pearl Harbor Day

Today is the anniversary of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which brought the United States into the Second World War. By all means, let us remember the victims of the Japanese militarist regime and the bloody struggle that finally led to its defeat. But let us also place it in historical context and bear in mind not only the distinctive peculiarities of imperial Japan, but also everything that it had in common with the other great powers of modern times, including the United States.

In terms of the sheer scale of human suffering involved, Pearl Harbor was a minor episode by comparison with what happened to the peoples of Japanese-occupied Asia -- China, Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc. At the time of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese aggression against China had already been underway for a decade, while Japan's colonial occupation of Korea and Taiwan was already almost half a century old. The Western powers had few qualms concerning these earlier phases of Japanese imperialism. In fact, in the early part of the twentieth century British ruling class observers had expressed great admiration for Japan's colonial exploits (in tsarist Russia they shared a common enemy).

Observing the world around them in the mid-nineteenth century, Japan's rulers realized that they faced a simple choice -- to fall victim to the Western colonial powers, like their Chinese neighbors, or to exert the herculean effort needed to learn from them and become like them. Alone among the underdeveloped countries, Japan set its sights upon imitating the existing colonial powers and succeeded in becoming a colonial power itself. Despite a few exotic paraphernalia like emperor worship, imperial Japan modeled itself on its Western colonial precursors. Like them, it took pride in its technological modernity and boasted of its "civilizing mission" to the "backward" peoples of the world.

If Japan learned from its Western teachers, later the Western powers also learned from Japanese "achievements." Wartime Japan had an intensive biological warfare research program -- the infamous Unit 731, which conducted horrendous experiments on prisoners of war (Chinese, Russian, and several other nationalities). After the war, the US military authorities gave all those involved in Unit 731 immunity from prosecution in exchange for access to the results of their experiments -- information that the US used to develop its own biological warfare capability. During the Korean War the US, advised by former members of Unit 731, conducted bacteriological warfare against northeast China. At the time these charges were dismissed as communist propaganda, but the meticulous research of Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman has established beyond reasonable doubt that they were true (The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea, Indiana UP, 1998).

Another massive atrocity of imperial Japan was the kidnapping and enslavement of Korean and other "comfort women" to serve as prostitutes to Japanese soldiers. See, for example, George Hicks, The Comfort Women: Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War (W.W. Norton, 1994). Here again we find a certain continuity between the Japanese militarists and their American victors and successors. In Chapter 6 of his book, entitled "The end of a nightmare, the beginning of another," Hicks recounts how the "comfort women" system continued under the US occupation of Japan. The victims now were Japanese women, enlisted from the lower classes by brothel keepers with help from the civil and military authorities to serve American soldiers, thereby "protecting" Japanese women of the upper class. True, in this case it was not necessary to kidnap women on a large scale, though there was some use of force: usually the threat of starvation was a sufficient goad.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Manufacturing the News

Mark Fishman, associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, investigated routine news production by examining the work practices of reporters and other news workers. His research findings were published by the University of Texas Press in 1980 in a book entitled Manufacturing the News.

At the beginning of his book, Fishman touches on the practical mode of social reproduction by quoting from W. I. Thomas, The Child in America (1928): "Our picture of how the world works is integrally tied to how we work in the world. By acting in accordance with our conception of the way things are, we concertedly make them the way they are, whether we are treating pieces of paper as money, conducting a routine conversation, or electing a president" (p. 3).

The research setting

"At the time of the study (1973-74), the Purissima Record held a virtual monopoly over news consumption in both the city of Purissima (population 75,000) and its metropolitan environs (population 150,000). The paper's daily circulation of 45,000 approximated the number of households in the metropolitan area... Its news department consisted of 57 full-time reporters, editors, and photographers--at least four times the news gathering resources of any other media in the area... The Record, as well as the smaller news organizations, covered the community by following activities in city hall, county government, and the police department. Only the Record extended its coverage beyond these agencies into the court system, educational institutions, suburban governmental units, environmental protection agencies, and the financial, small business, and real estate communities" (pp. 18-19).

The beat

Fishman notes that there are many conceivable ways by which a group of individuals could be organized to report the news--the happenings of the world. But since the 1890s American newspapers have settled on one predominant mode of coverage, known as "the beat." The beat is a journalistic concept grounded in the actual working world of the reporter. The beat provides places to go and people to see (by making "rounds" of the beat) that will provide a stable supply of "news" on specific topics of public importance through written accounts and interviews. The beat is defined territorially as an entity with stable locations, stable actors, and stable actions.

Fishman's investigation into the news gathering practices of the Record revealed that 70% of the reporting staff were assigned to covering beats. The rest of the reporting staff worked on "general assignment" out of the newsroom, where assignments were given by editors, or to specific reporters at their specific request. From neighborhood associations all the way up to federal agencies, the beat reporter encountered an already formed and systematically organized structure of activities and information. "Without exception, only formally constituted organizations and groups were the routine subjects of information gathering on beats" (p. 49). "When it turns out that even rocks, trees, and squirrels are made available to the newspaper through official agencies such as the Forestry Service, it is no exaggeration to say that the world is bureaucratically organized for journalists" (italics in original, p. 51).

Fishman found several analytically separate stages in news production and listed the associated tasks sequentially as: detecting occurrences; interpreting them as meaningful events; and investigating their factual character. He goes on to explain that these tasks are in practice performed for the reporter with little input from him or her, because "the structure of the reporter's news gathering work (the round) is shaped by the bureaucratic organization of the activities within the beat territory. The substance of what reporters gather (bureaucratically packaged activities) is produced within the agencies they cover. Whatever the sphere of human activity or natural occurrences, as long as it is systematically covered through the beat, the news worker sees it from a round and knows it through officials and authorities, their files, and their meetings. Quite literally, the domain of coverage is produced for the news worker in formally organized settings by clerks, forest rangers, police officers, stockbrokers, councilmen, morticians, and judges--all certified status incumbents in structural positions of knowledge" (p. 52). "For reporters, the most creditable information or the hardest data are accounts that come from the most competent news sources, who are bureaucrats and officials recognized as having jurisdiction over the events in question" (p. 94).

Bureaucratic idealizations

So we see that the methods (work practices) by which journalists detect events and determine facts are integrally tied to bureaucratic idealizations of the world. Such practices lead reporters to present an ideological view of the existing social and political order, because news work is predicated on the assumption that bureaucracies function "properly" (for example, that officially declared goals, criteria, and guidelines are those actually followed).

Bureaucratic case histories (an accumulation of "accounts of the accounts which agents produce and through which they produce the meaning of the world"*), when treated by reporters as plain fact, help the bureaucratic agency make the reality it wants and needs to make in order to justify itself. Not only does routine news provide ideological accounts (constructs of constructs) of real people and real happenings; it ends up by legitimating institutions of social control by disseminating institutional rationales to the public as though they were facts.

It is not so much that the media persuade news consumers that all is well with the present social and political order. Rather, news consumers are led to see the world outside their first-hand experience through the eyes of the existing authority structure. Alternative ways of knowing the world are simply not made available. One result is a sharp disconnect in people's perception of social reality between the restricted sphere within which personal experience provides a counterweight or corrective to the official frame of vision and the wider sphere within which the absence of personal experience leaves the individual wholly dependent on official accounts. The disconnect is experienced most clearly on those rare occasions when official news reports deal with events in which we were personally involved, enabling us to compare official with personal accounts.

Ultimately, routine news places bounds on political consciousness. The public is led to assume that the world outside their direct purview is the proper sphere for official (bureaucratic) control, that everything falls within the jurisdiction of some official agency, that policy makers do indeed make the important decisions while administrators merely implement those decisions, and that with the exception of a few corrupt or incompetent officials governmental institutions function in accordance with rational legal standards.

"In the natural course of events"

Fishman's research suggests that reporters do not really do much "from scratch" when producing routine news stories. The detection, interpretation, investigation, and even much of the formulation of the written story have already been done for them by police officers, city clerks, insurance adjusters, morticians, etc. The work that remains to be done by the journalist amounts to little more than compilation.

Naturally, the work of these "outsiders" is on their agencies' dime. Imagine the labor costs that a news organization would have to bear if it did not have such bureaucracies to rely on for this essential work! In effect, an enormous network of governmental agencies, corporate bureaucracies, and community organizations underwrite the cost of news production. The modern news organization is utterly dependent on this invisible subsidy. Even if a news organization were able to afford the cost of a more independent investigation of events, it would be to a large extent hamstrung by institutional barriers erected to impede unofficial communication (the penalties that both governmental and private employers impose to deter potential whistle-blowers, the threat of libel suits, commercial secrecy, etc.).

Many media critiques, from Sinclair Lewis' The Brass Check (1919) to Robert W. McChesney's Political Economy of Media (2008), have focused on the distortion of news, especially in selection and emphasis, exerted by advertisers. Fishman shows that even with no direct interference from private enterprise the news production process shapes the news in support of the status quo "in the natural course of events." Conspiracy in the narrow sense may not play a significant role, but the broader structures of domination are at least as effective in producing the same outcome. To paraphrase a REM song:

You've got your feet on the ground,
But it's your head that leads you around.

Essay written mainly by Joe R. Hopkins, edited with additional observations by Stephen D. Shenfield

* H. Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology (Eaglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967).

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Arguing about sexual insults

Recently I had two separate but quite similar e-mail exchanges with male fellow socialists about the use of sexual insults. It is not my intention to point my finger at the individuals concerned, so I won't use real names or give other information that might help identify them.

First case. Looking through the minutes of a meeting, I read Tom complaining that Jim had been insulting him. Specifically, Jim had been calling Tom a cunt. Jim responded to Tom's complaint as follows: "You are a cunt!"

As I pointed out to Jim, those who study these arcane matters agree that calling a man a cunt is much more insulting than calling him a prick. The insult therefore expresses not just a general contempt for the genitals of both sexes, but an especially intense contempt for female genitals and by implication for women as such.

Jim replied that his insult was not sexist as it had been aimed at a man not a woman. (There were women present, however.) He agreed that it would be wrong to call a woman a cunt. Besides, he and Tom were now friends again. He also observed that this bit should not have been included in the minutes.

Second case. X, a male participant in an e-mail discussion group, circulated a long diatribe against a former comrade, Y, also male, in the course of which he called Y a slut. I objected to this use of "slut" as an insult, because the word in its original meaning expresses contempt for a woman who has sexual relations with multiple partners. Such contempt is again reserved for women, as shown by the fact that there is no equivalent insult for a man who behaves similarly.

X replied that the sense in which he had used the word "slut" bore no relation to the meaning I attributed to the word.

For the sake of fairness, I note that in both cases the response to my criticism was polite. Neither Jim nor X disputed that sexism was something to avoid. However, I saw no sign that either of them had grasped the point I was trying to make. As that point is surely not so very difficult to grasp, I suspect that they were trying NOT to understand. Or is that paranoid?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Blowing leaves

At this season of the year, when the leaves fall from the trees, it is possible to observe in leafy suburban areas one of the more curious customs of this society -- leaf blowing.

In ones or small groups, men wander the streets with specially manufactured leaf-blowing machines strapped to their backs. (There seems to be some taboo against women engaging in this custom.) When switched on, these machines blow gusts of air through an attached tube. The operator guides the tube to blow leaves, as well as dust and other debris, off the ground in certain areas (the so-called "clear areas") until they settle in certain other areas (the "target areas").

People who are unfamiliar with the leaf-blowing custom often wonder how the location and boundaries of these clear and target areas are determined. My investigation has revealed that "clear areas" consist of yards, drives, and stretches of sidewalk adjacent to buildings whose owners, residents or users have agreed to pay the leaf blowers or their employers to clear away leaves. Conversely, "target areas" are adjacent to buildings whose owners, residents or users have refused to pay for said service, despite repeated opportunities to do so.

Why, however, is leaf clearing regarded as a valuable service? Why is reluctance to clear leaves regarded as a sin to be punished? After all, leaves are often beautiful. Dry they make a pleasant crunchy sound when trodden underfoot. They protect and enrich the soil as compost. One might therefore have expected people to pay to have leaves moved onto rather than away from their property. So far I have failed to clarify this mystery.

Leaf moving has very unpleasant effects for the passerby. The dust blown into the air gets in your face and makes you cough and sputter, while the mechanical noise intrudes for a considerable distance, drowning out birdsong and other more pleasurable sounds. It must be incomparably worse for the leaf blowers themselves, whose exposure to the dust and noise is almost continuous and who wear no protective devices. The total waste of labor and energy in this flagrantly irrational activity must be quite significant.

So why do they do it? However harmful and irrational it may be in terms of the social interest, it is a way of making some money for men who would otherwise be unemployed and without means of livelihood. This makes it a rational activity in their eyes. If they can get someone to pay them for doing it, that is sufficient justification and they do not feel the need to inquire further. On the contrary, when I tried to explain to a leaf blower the harm that he was doing, he made motions with his finger that I interpreted as meaning that I was insane.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The plight of public schools in Florida (from Joe Hopkins)

Joe Hopkins, a correspondent from Florida, has provided the following update on the plight of public schools in that state. SDS

The clock is ticking for Florida public schools

The clock is ticking down on Florida's Liberty County School District. Liberty School District has had their $9 million budget chopped by more than $3 million since the 2007-2008 school year.

The 1300 student liberty district has been labelled "failing" under George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB is the law that requires students to study for standardized tests in Math & Reading which reduces "learning activity" to institutionalized "operational activity"; programmed teaching - the result is that student creativity (real learning activity) is banished to the dustbin. "When learning is carried out at the level of operations, the child follows in the teacher's footsteps, very much like a puppet." [1]

Jack Jennings, former General Counsel for the House Education Committee said this is the worst environment for education funding since Ronald Reagan proposed abolishing the U.S. Department of Education in the 1980s.

Even Arne Duncan, current Education Secretary, says NCLB, which requires all students to pass standardized tests in Reading & Math encourages schools to dumb down their curriculum because it judges them on a rigid pass-fail system.

"Duncan estimates that about 80 per cent of schools - including those that are generally high-performing - are in danger of being labelled failing because of the system's rigidity." [2] Liberty School District is considered a high-quality district of Florida but NCLB seems designed to fail most public schools in the country to open up Public Education to market forces through management or ownership of schools by private, for-profit corporations. In the market, cost of production must be reduced in the extreme to be competitive (A profit must be made to stay in business.) - This leads to a good looking balance sheet . . . . and stupid kids. Pupils and students are transformed into market commodities that perform low-paying low-level chores in the workplace.

The dominant and monied class, with their long established business and political connexions, send their children off to elementary and secondary schools that have a student teacher ratio of 5:1 in their effort to reproduce themselves and maintain the conditions of the status quo.

There is, and has been, a class war going on in the United States since the U.S. Constitution was drafted. It was transported here from England. It's been going on for so long the class war has become concealed behind the veil of normalcy - it's hidden in plain sight. It's just the way things are to the dominated class of workers.

What Is To Be Done?

The corporate class has commandeered the Charter School Project to their advantage. The good idea behind Charter Schools at its inception was to allow concerned groups - teachers, communities, social organizations - to start their own schools with the boost of public funding. This aspect of Charter Schools has for the most part (to the general population) fallen from view and died out because of lack of attention and knowledge.

When groups of interested and dedicated people know something positive is possible that particular "something" becomes site and stake in the struggle. All world history is a chain of social struggles and it behooves us not to allow history to die from lack of participation.

Talk to each other about Charter Schools being in the hands of community organizers, in the hands of teachers themselves - with the added input and participation of the students themselves. Talk about organizing with an emphasis on the struggle against the Goliath and then organize.

Incite insight. It must be done. If we don't do it - who will? Organize - Organize - Organize!

[1] V.V. Repkin, Learning Activity, Journal of Russian & East European Psychology, (M.E. Sharpe, 2003), 18 (V.V. Repkin is Vice President of the International Association for Developmental Teaching).

[2] Bloomberg Businessweek, (July 11-July 17, 2011), 29.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Reflections on the firing of a CEO

The press has given extensive coverage to the recent firing of Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo. To be precise, not to the firing as such -- a common enough event even for CEOs -- but to Ms. Bartz' open admission, in an e-mail to all Yahoo employees, that "I've just been fired over the phone by Yahoo's chairman of the board." This breach of etiquette earned her a rebuke from Jennifer Chatman, professor of corporate management at the University of California, Berkeley.

Another commentator, Alexander Chancellor (Guardian Weekly, 9.16.11), is more sympathetic. His protest too is not aimed at the firing itself, which for him is clearly no big deal ("I've been fired lots of times"), but at the "insult" of its delivery by phone rather than face to face.

Whether CEOs should be considered members of the working class is a moot point for socialists. Although they are employees and as such can be fired by their employers like any other employees, their high earnings (including business expenses, bonuses and stock options) enable them to accumulate enough wealth to climb out of the working class by reaching the point where they no longer NEED to find employment in order to satisfy their needs. Unless, I suppose, the extravagance of their lifestyle matches their earnings.

I suspect that the emphasis on HOW one is fired is a way of avoiding the main issue. Being fired is bound to feel humiliating, however politely it may be done. Especially for a high-level manager who identifies with the company and is used to being treated as a colleague in an enterprise of which he or she is part. Even if a CEO has saved enough not to have to worry about making ends meet for the rest of his or her life, the experience of being fired is a shock that dispels long-cultivated illusions and suddenly reveals the stark reality of the underlying power relationship. Like all the lesser employees that YOU have fired (on behalf of the boss), you too are no more than a dispensable tool in someone else's hand.

Surely at some level the CEO must have been fully aware all along that this is so. But it is not legitimate to object to being fired as such, as that would be tantamount to objecting to the employment relationship itself -- that is, to capitalism. It is an essential prerogative of the employer to hire and fire. So anger at the humiliation of being fired is diverted to side issues.

Socialists are opposed on principle to employment ("jobs") as an inherently oppressive and humiliating institution. We do not demand that the government create new jobs, nor do we proclaim that having a job is a right. We demand the right to a livelihood and the opportunity to do useful work for society without having to get a job. That is, without having to put ourselves in a situation that exposes us to the risk of some employer subjecting us to the humiliation of being fired.

Monday, March 28, 2011

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