Thursday, July 30, 2009

Viral Video: "Words Are Just Words" - Frank Zappa On Crossfire

This is an old favorite of mine. It's Frank Zappa's appearance on Crossfire in 1986 while Congress had the Parent Music Resource Center's infamous "Tipper Sticker" hearings.

In addition, here's a few of my favorite Frank Zappa quotes that I found in the process of finding the video:

"Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny."

"Don't mind your make-up, you'd better make your mind up."

"Why do you necessarily have to be wrong just because a few million people think you are?"

"Most people wouldn't know good music if it came up and bit them in the ass."

"Hey, you know something people? I'm not black, but there's a whole lot of times I wish I could say I'm not white."

"Politics is the entertainment branch of industry."

Interviewer: "So Frank, you have long hair. Does that make you a woman?"
Frank Zappa: "You have a wooden leg. Does that make you a table?"

"Without deviation from the norm, 'progress' is not possible."

"There are more love songs than anything else. If songs could make you do something, we'd all love one another."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

You Say You Want A Revolution: Students For A Democratic Society

This was one of the papers for David Farber's Sixties history class at Temple. The essay is based off of a graphic novel called Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar and Dr. Farber's The Age of Great Dreams.

Students for a Democratic Society emerged in the 1960s as a coalition of students with a variety of interests, backgrounds, and agendas. In their attempt to create a “participatory democracy,” SDS was plagued by the flaws inherent in democracy since disputes and divisions in the organization marginalized the students' mission. SDS grew out of numerous movements with different ideals and goals as evidenced by the organization's factionalism which tore it apart. The organization sought to alter the United States policies fundamentally in order to create a more democratic society as its name implies, but these “radical” changes to the American way of life would find resistance within the mainstream of the country. While students joined SDS as idealists with ambitious agendas, the organization itself could not withstand internal divisions and outside resistance.

Protest at Columbia University

SDS initially emerged from League for Industrial Democracy which had a student chapter with the same name (Pekar 3). However, tensions eventually rose between the two over SDS contact with communists, which LID was staunchly against. In 1962, SDS released the Port Huron Statement written by Tom Hayden, a student at the University of Michigan, declaring their intention:
...the establishment of democracy of individual participation governed by two central aims; that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation (4).
In putting “participatory democracy” into practice, SDS encompassed a large variety of goals. The main priority of the organization became its call to “end the invasion of Vietnam” and a call to end the draft (6). Members contributed many other ideas to the organization, including ending racism, legalizing drugs, ending sexism, organizing impoverished communities, and fighting corporate/capitalist exploitation.

Not everyone in SDS agreed with all of these goals and this created factionalism within the group. Organizing SDS democratically was difficult and created strong conflict among groups, especially in regard to local chapters and the national organization (13). Disagreements created different factions within the SDS. Black organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) distanced themselves from partners at SDS (18). Feminists left for women's groups to give women more power (38). Disputes arose between pro-communist and anti-communist factions within SDS. A large division came over the Progressive Labor Party to which many new SDS members belonged. The organization had “prided itself on its non-exclusionary stand” but others wanted the Progressive Labor members out of SDS (34). The anti-PL sentiment within SDS would culminate in the emergence of a splinter group, led by Bernadine Dohrn and other charismatic non-PL members of SDS, called the “Weathermen” which advocated a more violent approach to bring about revolution. The debate over what tactics to use to bring about a revolution was the fatal division within the organization.

A famous photo of a student protest at the Pentagon
SDS used a variety of tactics to spread their messages to the masses. Taking influence from the Civil Rights movement, SDS mastered the technique of manipulating the media to its benefit. The organization produced its own materials, from pamphlets to newspapers, to state its political goals. The organization managed to get thousands of SDS members to protest on at least fifty college campuses (31). The protests, both on college campuses and in the face of the establishment at locations like the Pentagon, The White House, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention, attracted a national audience. In this way, the organization succeeded in forcing the American people to think about the problems which SDS sought to address. Even with America's attention, SDS failed to persuade the majority of the country into changing its ways. An ongoing debate over the use of violence further fragmented SDS, pitting PL and Weatherman members against each other (46).

SDS was not a partisan group. One of most famous protests of the 60's was at the 1968 Democratic National Convention where a variety of protest groups picketed, nominated a pig for President, and confronted police (even a young Dan Rather got punched in the stomach by security). The riots captivated the American public's attention. Their message did not spread as well as their images however and frustration led some members of the organization to more drastic measures.

Violence seemed to contradict the message of peace promoted to combat the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, the Weatherman and SDS allies like the Black Panthers argued that violence was necessary in the face of the overtly violent United States policies. In the later part of the 1960s, radical SDS members bombed and burned university buildings. Taking influence from Malcolm X and other leaders associated with the international revolutionary movement (as covered in my first paper of the semester), members of SDS argued that such drastic action had to be taken to achieve true freedom “by any means necessary” (30). The American people and other SDS members were turned off by these violent tactics. Many believed that the violence senselessly created counterproductive chaos. The result was an unsympathetic public and a fractured organization rather than a strengthened revolution against United States' oppression.

The National Guard were called in to "keep the peace" at student protests on Kent State University. Four students were shot dead under circumstances that are still unclear today but certainly represents the tensions between students and the United States government.

In addition creating infighting, the violence of SDS met violent and nonviolent resistance from mainstream America. One of the flaws of democracy that strongly hindered Students for a Democratic Society's progress was the lack of efficacy inherent to traditional democratic politics. Members began to see little impact from their massive protests, complaining, “it doesn't seem to influence the government a bit” (24). This complaint has some legitimacy in that SDS protests did not change the policies of the United States government, especially with the election of the more conservative Richard Nixon in 1968. SDS influenced the government, just not in the way that they had intended. Government agencies including the FBI and the CIA sent spies to “infiltrate the organization.” J. Edgar Hoover called the organization, “one of the most militant organizations” in the United States (18). Some student organizations, such as the National Student Association and student magazines like the “Partisan Review” and the “New Leader” received funding from the CIA (23). More overtly, both violent and nonviolent student demonstrators had confrontations with police at protests. Protesters took beatings from cops as tensions among the groups heightened. In addition to resistance from government and law enforcement, radical students' lifestyles were rejected by their parents, fellow students, landlords, and employers. Their mission to change America's perspective on countless issues failed as “participatory democracy” faded into the background, become secondary to the counterculture caricature portrayed in the media. The radical nature of the movement created American demands for “law and order” as they saw their comfortable lives being “taken away from them before they had the chance to enjoy them” (Farber 210).

Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign promised the American people a restoration of "law and order" to the country amidst the contentious atmosphere of the 1960s. Needless to say, Nixon was not a fan of SDS, or anyone for that matter.

Despite the problems that plagued the goals of Students for a Democratic Society, the organization's actions were not totally in vain. Many of the ideals promoted by the group have gained traction even since the group's dissolution in 1969, especially with concern to civil rights, women's liberation, and global pacifism. Public opinion turned against the Vietnam War by the end of the 1960s, forcing Richard Nixon and Congress to end the war. Contrary to the assertions of those who beat the war drums to invade Iraq, the American people have learned that “protest is patriotic.” Student resistance in the 1960s taught them that the government can be wrong and should be questioned. The flaws that brought SDS to an end were problems inherent to democracy as a system of government. The United States can learn from the successes and failures of this organization as a model for creating a more responsive and participatory democracy in the modern era, reaffirming the American cliché of “united we stand, divided we fall."
Works Cited

Farber, David. The Age of Great Dreams. Hill and Wang, 1994.Pekar, Harvey. Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History. Hill and Wang, 2008.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Concert Review Series: Sheep Go To Heaven, Goats Go To Hell

Yesterday, the summer weather set the scene for Baltimore's free Artscape Festival while CAKE serenaded an audience from all walks of life. As the sun began to hide behind the roof of the Maryland Institute College of Art, the crowd clothed the once naked grass hill and patiently awaited the sun's disappearance after staring into the firey-heavens in anticipation of the band's early evening set.

Aside from the UV ray damage to my eyes, Cake made the show worth the wait. John McCrea and crew came to the crowd with a confident stride, opening with "Stickshifts and Safetybelts," an ode to America's oil addiction. The band's confidence in juxtaposition to the nervous pacing of the River City Reservation, who put on a valiant effort with a smaller, unfamiliar crowd amidst a less than superb mix (I could not hear the banjo player or the cellist throughout the whole set). Cake played a solid hour-and-a-half set to the packed grassy ampitheater.

As I tried to explain to my grandmother why I needed to leave work early to see a band named after a dessert, I realized that Cake is a difficult band to describe to a non-listener (I was not even going to try to explain the phenomenon of Cake fans holding up store-bought cakes in the air). The Artscape bill listed Cake as "alternative rock," a loaded label in itself. Their sound is distinct with McCrea's carefree monotone voice, Xan McGurdy's jangly guitars, a variety of synth-sounds, a solid rhythm section, topped off with the peppering of Vince DiFiore's trumpet, yet their band's essence remains troublesome to define to outsiders.

While Cake certainly sees themselves as a band with something to say, having taken on topics such as global warming, social philosophy, and religion in their songs and their frequent updates on their website, the band manages to avert the self-righteous attitude of rock's Bono-fied arena activism. Cake possesses an ironic self-awareness that is a breath of fresh air given rock and roll's ubiquitous ego problems. As the band began the soft and somber, Spanish guitar laden tune, "Mexico," McCrea deadpanned that the saddest loss of the new millenium was the death of the 3/4 time signature in popular music, explaining that its disappearance is "why there is no hope."

Cake certainly understands not to take themselves too seriously. After playing the song "Rock and Roll Lifestyle," which turns a mirror to the excesses of the rock consumer's upper middle class luxury, McCrea assures the fans, almost facetitiously, that the song is not about them. He asserts that Cake has "civilized listeners" as puffs of smoke rise in the sky and a few drunken fans yell in response to his playful taunting. McCrea's banter between songs had the crowd laughing, even as he scolded one side for not singing loud enough as he had directed them.

McCrea balanced his chiding of the audience with words of encouragement as he conducted the crowd through the band's 90's hit, "Sheep Go To Heaven," calling for the "powerful people" to "make powerful music" while also repeating "go to hell" as the fans sang. In my experience of concert going, I have not seen many mobs as tame as the Cake audience. While some fans were distinguishable as Cake fans with their pseudo-hipster-meets-hippie "alternative" attire from the time that one saw them waiting for the subway to take them into the main stage, the diverse audience defied any stereotype or demographic. Later, during "Short Skirt Long Jacket," McCrea concluded the song with a spacey, yet poetic mantra about coexistance exclaiming, "See? Everyone can get along! There's no us and them. We don't have to fight each other" slyly adding, "or do we?"

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Editorial: An Objection To Objectivity

During the 2008 primary campaign, Democratic candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Bill Richardson opted to boycott the debates that were sponsored by the Nevada Democratic Party and Fox News (Grim). The party asserted that the network was not "fair and balanced" as the organization’s slogan purports. Edwards’ deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince argued that the Democrats did not need "to give Fox a platform to advance the right-wing agenda while pretending they're objective" ("Obama To Nix Fox Debate"). Fox News CEO Roger Ailes responded to the boycott stating, "The candidates that can't face Fox, can't face Al Qaeda" ("Fox News CEO"). Left-wingers have long mocked Fox News’ ironic "Fair and Balanced" branding; the network is anything but objective. Even Bill O’Reilly, who claims to be a political independent and an objective journalist, admits that the network "tilts right" ("O’Reilly"). It is easy to pick on Fox News because their denial of bias borders on absurdity. However, their claim of objectivity reflects a problem within the entire journalism community. We find bias in newspapers like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal just as we find bias in all the 24-hour networks. CNN and MSNBC are no exception. Nostalgic journalists lament the loss of supposed "golden ages" of journalism and focus on the ideal of objective journalism. Can journalists ever maintain total objectivity? Or are journalists’ biases inevitable in their purportedly non-biased coverage? Should objectivity even be a goal for journalists or should journalists disclose their biases?

Should Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly have to shut up and just report the news? Am I displaying bias just by my choice of pictures?

Dan Gilmore argues in "The End of Objectivity" that no person can ever be objective. He notes, "We are human. We have biases and backgrounds and a variety of conflicts that we bring to our jobs every day" (Kovach 81). If journalists accept Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthal’s argument that "journalism’s first obligation is to the truth," journalists should disclaim their partiality to their audiences. Transparency of belief should be a goal for journalists in order to provide readers the tools they need to consume information responsibly.

Rather than claiming to be impartial, journalists should disclaim their preferences and they should abandon attempts to maintain a "neutral voice." Kovach and Rosenthal explain in The Elements of Journalism that the original intent of "objectivity" in journalism referred to the methodology in which journalists gathered information rather than the voice used in their writing. This "discipline of verification" is not the problem facing journalism. The problem is that journalists who fail to uphold an objective method but "then use the neutral voice to make it seem objective" deceive the public (Kovach 83). Through the very nature of human subjectivity, a journalist’s writing is inherently biased. Journalists have to maintain relationships with their sources of information. Advertisers essentially fund journalism and therefore compromise the full objectivity of news coverage. These ads create conflicts of interest for journalists making it difficult to "maintain an independence from those they cover" or to function as an "independent monitor of power" but at least the advertisement works to disclaim this bias. Journalists should stop pretending that their personal views are any less compromising of their independence than the advertisements that pay for their work. It should not be a surprise that a Sacred Heart University poll found that only 19% of Americans implicitly trust the press. An increasingly skeptical audience is not necessarily a bad thing. The poll also showed that 48% of the respondents thought that Fox News has a right-wing bias while the 41% of respondents believed the New York Times has a left-leaning bias (Hutson). Even with journalists promoting their faux-objectivity, the American people are not buying it.

Despite perceptions of bias within the media, journalism treats news more fairly than it has previously. In campaigns of the past, the press has gone to further lengths to push their own candidate. During the famous series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in their campaigns for the US Senate in 1858, newspapers were "blatantly partisan" to the point of editors "improving" the speeches of their preferred candidate (Holzer 7). Today, sound bites and video prevent these revisions of history; nonetheless the media affects the outcome of these contests. While newsrooms do not fabricate facts nearly as much as before, they create narratives to make stories more interesting or sensational, not necessarily to mislead people but in order to make their product sell. Market demands affect editorial decisions rather than newsworthiness. Consequently, journalists’ biases affect stories in a much more subtle way today. In any supposed "golden age" of objectivity in news, people and events have been underrepresented or misrepresented due to journalists' limited perception of the world that surrounded the times. 
During the Watts riots in 1965, newsrooms filled with only white males failed to understand the circumstances that surrounded the riots. The reporters' limited perspective failed them in illuminating the dire conditions in Watts that caused the riots, instead leading the American public in to racial stereotype-driven hysteria. Newsrooms have become much more diverse and therefore are able to depict more nuances in their reporting than previously possible. These differences of perspective should not become silent in the face of objectivity. Attempts to balance reporting obscure the reality of reporting. Sometimes stories simply do not have two equally strong sides to a story and reporting should reflect that reality rather than arbitrarily creating a balance. At other times, stories have more than just the two perspectives presented on a split screen debate. Journalism is supposed to "provide a forum for public criticism and compromise" but it fails to do this when it forces stories into a particular mold or narrative (Kovach 166). News organizations ought to use their current diversity to their advantage and represent all viewpoints rather than stifling opinions in pursuit of objectivity.

Spooky music and scary pictures: The "Golden Age" of Journalism?
Journalists are supposed to work in the interests of the people they serve. Why should this false pursuit of objectivity silence some of the most informed voices? Journalists should be advocates for the ideals and causes they believe are worth fighting for. We cannot expect the people whose profession revolves around news to not have an opinion about the news. If journalists are supposed to utilize a personal conscience, shouldn’t they be able to advocate their personal ideals in their work?

Journalists like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow are renowned for being some of the "most trusted" newsmen of their times. While they maintained an objective style of reporting for the majority of their newscasts, they also had the courage to speak up when they believed strongly about something. When Cronkite called the Vietnam War a "stalemate," President Johnson realized he had lost the American public, dropped out of race for his re-election, and devoted (unsuccessfully) the rest of his presidency to bringing about a peaceful end to the war. Murrow's editorial criticizing the anti-communist witch hunts led by Joseph McCarthy served as a similar reality check to the American people. While they were not remaining traditionally objective, both men are renowned for their candor with the American public because they were willing to speak their minds when they found it necessary.

Journalists should not hold objectivity of voice as an objective. While an objective method in reporting should still remain, the desire for an objective voice in journalism has undermined its most important principles. If journalism is all the things journalists claim it is—a purveyor of truth, a discipline of verification, a monitor of power, a fair public forum for ideas and a mechanism of change—then journalists should acknowledge that they are not always independent from their subjects.