News You Won't See on TV

Read a fantastic article earlier this week on the state of journalism, and how what we see on television (and, so far as I can tell, what we hear on the radio and read in the paper) is often “trivia framed as Truth.”

The article is Journalist-Bites-Reality! by Steve Salerno, and it includes these encouraging facts — indisputable facts — that no television, radio, or newspaper report will tell you outright:

– The current employment rate is 95.3 percent.
– Out of 300 million Americans, roughly 299.999954 million were not murdered today.
– Day after day, some 35,000 commercial flights traverse our skies without incident.
– The vast majority of college students who got drunk last weekend did not rape anyone, or kill themselves or anyone else in a DUI or hazing incident. On Monday, they got up and went to class, bleary-eyed but otherwise okay.

In news, however, everything is a crisis. (I wrote about this phenomenon a few years ago in my Ornery American essay, “The Redemption of the Vietnam War?”) And, thinking along those lines, this excerpt particularly speaks to the phenomenon of concentrating on relatively rare negative incidents to cast aspersions on large, difficult, complex endeavors:

For all its cinema-verité panache, embedded reporting, as exemplified in Iraq and in Nightline’s recent series on “the forgotten war” in Afghanistan, shows only what’s going on in the immediate vicinity of the embedded journalist. It’s not all that useful for yielding an overarching sense of the progress of a war, and might easily be counterproductive: To interpret such field reporting as a valid microcosm is the equivalent of standing in a spot where it’s raining and assuming it’s raining everywhere.

I think, for the sake of my sense of well-being, I will start inverting all the statistics — and maybe some of the stories — I encounter in news reports.

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We All Believe in Magic … Or We Should

The article Magical Thinking by Matthew Hutson (Psychology Today, Mar/Apr 2008) brought to mind my short story, “The Rocket Seamstress.” This passage from the article especially reminded me of Jelena Olenek, the Russian grandmother who is the main character of my story:

People who truly trust in their rituals exhibit a phenomenon known as “illusion of control,” the belief that they have more influence over the world than they actually do. And it’s not a bad delusion to have—a sense of control encourages people to work harder than they might otherwise. In fact, a fully accurate assessment of your powers, a state known as “depressive realism,” haunts people with clinical depression, who in general show less magical thinking.

Jelena’s magic makes the mighty Russian rockets fly, but there is every possibility that her magic is only a personal delusion. From this magazine article, however, we may get the idea that Jelena is mentally healthier than her relatives who don’t believe in her magic or any magic.

“To be totally ‘unmagical’ is very unhealthy,” says Peter Brugger, head of neuropsychology at University Hospital Zurich.

“The Rocket Seamstress” was originally published in Zahir. It’s now available from Anthology Builder.

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Boredom Sets in and We Die

Which of my high school friends came up with that phrase, which we repeated at some point in almost every class? I think it was either Joe or Shawn, but it was so long ago I’ve forgotten the source. How long ago? In those days, many of us carried pocket knives — from Barlow, Boy Scout, and Swiss Army knives to more exotic blades like butterfly knives — to school without fear of reprisal; and not too many years before, an afternoon hunter could keep his shotgun in his locker during the school day.

But enough reminiscing.

What brought to mind that mantra of frustration? I thought of how sharply it contrasts with a Boston Globe article I read yesterday: “The joy of boredom,” by Carolyn Y. Johnson.

As [Richard Ralley, a lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University in England] studied boredom, it came to make a kind of sense: If people are slogging away at an activity with little reward, they get annoyed and find themselves feeling bored. If something more engaging comes along, they move on. If nothing does, they may be motivated enough to think of something new themselves. The most creative people, he said, are known to have the greatest toleration for long periods of uncertainty and boredom.

The usefulness of boredom, in spurring us to explore new possibilities, makes sense. It seems that a key factor is what we find rewarding. I slogged away for years at writing THE ELEMENTS OF WAR, “with little reward” except my own satisfaction; frankly, it’s brought more than its share of disappointment (q.v. my entry yesterday). But the same is true for most of my writing. The internal reward keeps me going, even if the pursuit becomes difficult (and yes, boring).

Sometimes that internal reward is barely enough; I hope for more. I keep writing and sending out stories, etc., in my arrogant belief that they have worth beyond the confines of my own mind. So far the world mostly disagrees, so I labor — I slog away through the boredom and doubt — to prove the world wrong.

Boredom sets in … and I write.

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Beware the Surgeonsoldiers

If I weren’t ill, I would’ve found something else to do than reading so deeply into the classified ads today; but then I wouldn’t have found this gem on p. 14F of today’s News & Observer:

Evolving out of the evolutions (integral to each other) of Democracy (where every voice counts), Philosophy (where every action counts) & Love (where every love counts) .. is the word ‘surgeonsoldier.’

I haven’t quoted the whole thing, and I won’t, for the simple reason that it’s too confusing and convoluted to carry much meaning … which leads me to suspect it may be a code of some sort, intended only for those who know what it means.

This may be paranoia. Or it may be prudence. As my dad says, “Pay your money and take your choice.” I’ll take the latter.

It just seemed odd, so I dug around a little online: I found a similar item from last Sunday in the Google cache of the N&O, and one from 2004 in the classifieds of the East Carolinian. Last week’s N&O item quoted the East Carolinian item, including reference to “The Day … we ‘n 10 milyun [sic] surgeonsoldiers … proceeded to Bagdad [sic].” Today’s is even more cryptic, with its inclusion of a postscript to a mysterious “Report #389 (News Argus 11/05/00).”

What does it mean that “He returned to the mosque accompanied by 10,000 doctors … to begin the warming of the Cold Peace”? I have no idea. I just hope it isn’t what I’m afraid it might be.

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Saving Daylight

As I type this, it’s not even 9 p.m., and I feel the need to go around the house and change all the clocks already.

Partly this stems from many years ago, when we showed up at church an hour late because we forgot the time change. Partly it stems from my own creeping forgetfulness.

What makes this annoying is that the change isn’t happening when it used to, but we have a nifty alarm clock that knows when it’s supposed to change and make the switch automatically. So, since Congress decided that it’s better to change the clocks earlier in the calendar, we’ll change that clock tonight only to have to change it again whenever the clock thinks the time has come.

Oh, the wonders of technology.

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On Having Eclectic Interests: Specialization is for Insects

One of my favorite quotes, among all the quotes I keep handy, is a Robert A. Heinlein passage from his “Notebooks of Lazarus Long,”

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I often think of that quote with respect to my somewhat schizophrenic approach to life; that is, my tendency to move from topic to topic, the way a bee moves from flower to flower, stopping only long enough to collect what I want and then moving on. I might examine something in depth for a little while, but eventually I will leave it for another interest or another project. And if I have a mental honeycomb to which I return, in which I try to produce something of worth out of the bits I’ve collected, I must admit that its output has been poor and its product too often unpalatable.

At times I think it might be better to have specialized, to have developed some level of expertise, to know a lot about a little instead of a little about a lot. Then I think that perhaps the world has enough experts, enough specialists, and being a generalist is not so bad.

Or maybe I’m just rationalizing my lack of focus and resolve.

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Al-Qaeda: You love life and we love death

What a telling quotation: “You love life and we love death.” If so, what recourse do we have except to give them what they love?

That quotation, from “Al-Qaeda’s chief military spokesman in Europe,” was pulled from Blood & Rage: a Cultural History of Terrorism by Michael Burleigh; i.e., specifically from this review of the book: “The theatre of cruelty,” in the London Telegraph on-line.

(Alan Dershowitz, in “Worshippers of Death” in today’s Wall Street Journal, notes a similar statement from Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah: “We are going to win, because they love life and we love death.”)

We haven’t read Burleigh’s book yet, but from the review the ideas in it sound familiar. Burleigh examines “the moral squalor, intellectual poverty and psychotic nature of terrorist organisations, from the Fenians of the mid-19th century to today’s jihadists – the latter group, especially, being composed of unstable males of conspicuously limited abilities and imagination.” Burleigh’s terrorist operatives are, in the words of the reviewer, “sour, lazy nobodies, ugly, of febrile imagination and indifferent talent, who can only become somebody by blowing others, inevitably persons more talented and intelligent, up.” Added to which, as Dershowitz notes in his article, radical Muslim women have recently been encouraging their sons to become martyrs — if not becoming martyrs themselves.

This all sounds familiar because it runs close to something we wrote back in 2002. In our Ornery American essay, “Yogi Berra, Polybius, and the Recurring Jihad,” we took a page from Polybius and noted that, with respect to the attacks on 9/11/01,

the nineteen assassins were young, “full of unrelenting passion,” not suffering from want or deprivation but well-educated and well-financed, and exasperated against us on the basis of their own imaginings. They and their successors differ from the Gauls [the group Polybius wrote about], however, in having an ideology that screams for conflict. Islam does not mean “peace,” but “submission.” If we forget that, we may cry out “peace, peace” when there is no peace.

There is something noble about being willing to sacrifice one’s self for a just cause. Even as we recognize that, however, the question becomes whether we believe their cause — the cause of death — is more just than ours. And the answer must be no. It cannot be.

They love death. So be it — may it come to them sooner than it comes for us.

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Who’s Afraid of Wiretaps?

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence — the HPSCI, usually pronounced “HIP-see” — will take a classified briefing today on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). We presume the HPSCI members are well-versed in the FISA law itself, so this briefing will cover the current intelligence-gathering situation after the Protect America Act — which amended the FISA — expired on February 17th. In particular, it may include the matter of telecommunications companies’ immunity from lawsuits that arise from their cooperation with national security investigations.

We may hope that, after this briefing, the HPSCI members rise in support of the bill that recently passed the Senate, and pressure the House leadership to bring the matter to a vote. We remain skeptical, but optimistic. How else are we to live?

We wonder, however, at the subtle irony that on the HPSCI’s web page, http://intelligence.house.gov/, we are treated to the graphic of the Homeland Security Advisory System showing an “Elevated” threat level: “Significant risk of terrorist attacks.” How much different might that level be, were it not for our operatives’ ability to eavesdrop on potential terrorist communications? Should our elected leaders not give those operatives every possible tool to protect us?

Yes, they should; the question is whether they will.

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If you heed the Gray Man’s warning, …

… you make it safely through the storm.

At least, that’s how the legend of the “Gray Man,” the ghost of Pawleys Island, SC, has it. Even though we’re not warning about approaching storms — or at least not real, physical storms — this blog marks a new attempt at getting our warnings out to the world.

Hopefully, some folks will come and join us from time to time ….

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