Thursday, June 28, 2007

In praise of gesellschaft: notes on the quiet glory of the bureaucrat.

So, I'm reading the Nation a few weeks ago and I come across this piece "In Praise of Red Tape," by Christopher Hayes. It's a smart little essay, I think. Hayes points out that bureaucrats in the U.S. government--normally a derided subpopulation whose machinations are thought to suck the life out of all that is good in the world--are to be praised for their insistence on following the rules and making things relatively difficult for the Bush administration. Because the Bush administration wants to break the rules, and because bureaucrats are all about minding the rules, this puts U.S. government bureaucrats in the role of button-down 'truth to power' types, unwilling to bow to the cult of Cheney that demands loyalty (a charismatic concept, after all) above all. Who stands in the way of the Bush administration's destructive swath? Midlevel intelligence professionals, State Department planners, scientists "in the bowels of the" EPA, and other clipboard-holding Bob Newhart types.

When thinking about this, I'm reminded of cinematic tributes to the low-level bureaucrat, and I think we see this kind of praise of the bureaucrat, or of rational-legal authority, in a few different movies: Hot Fuzz, Jaws, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

First, Hot Fuzz. The plot: a truly incredibly talented and successful cop (Simon Pegg) is determined by his supervisors to be an embarrassment to the London force, where his efficiency and results put his peers to shame. He's rather forcefully directed to become a cop in a small English town, where there is said to be the lowest crime rate in Britain. The plot thickens, and in time, the small town is shown to be a violent place where a cabal of city leaders exterminate anyone and anything that get in the way of their dreams for a picturesque, Village Green kind of place. Hilarious violence ensues. The upswing of this? The movie pits a supercop--a stand-in for the written law and for meritocracy--against the idyll of the small town. A lesser (and less funny) film would show the cop falling in love with the slower pace of the small town. But no, this gemeinschaft striver cop peels the surface off the small town, to show all the wriggly, evil stuff that goes on in the gemeinschaft-y little town. Without sermonizing, the movie suggests that the comfy small town has problems of its own (without getting into the very dumb American Beauty-like suburb-bashing that I'll take on some other time). The viewer is left with a sense that strong community bonds aren't all they are cracked up to be in our 21st century world.

A similar theme turns up in Jaws. For those who forget what Jaws is all about (except, one assumes, for the shark), it's really the story of a small town (on an island, no less) sheriff (Roy Scheider)--here it's easy to think that he might be the grown-up version of Simon Pegg's character in Hot Fuzz, after years in the small town--who keeps does his level best to face up to the challenge presented by a 25-foot Great White Shark that keeps on eating the visitors to his island. He struggles with bureaucrats who, like the town leaders in Hot Fuzz, keep on getting in the way, making his job impossible. He also faces off against a raft of amateur, self-appointed shark-hunters, who are portrayed as a bunch of drunken dimbulbs. But against the odds, he winds up joining forces with an ichthyologist and a whale-hunter to go out and kill the damn shark. Gemeinschaft rules. The villagers simply don't have the ability to do what needs doing (and many fight against the worthy goals).

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three pits two minor bureaucrats against a ring of international crooks, who have taken the titular subway train, and threaten to kill everyone on it if they don't get paid. It's the same thing: the mayor's a feckless boob who is concerned mostly with his television image, the regular folks mostly don't know what's going on, and it's up to transit sub-chief Walter Matthau and mid-level policeman Jerry Stiller to save the day. Using their expertise for how things really work, they do indeed save the day. Then the crooks' leader (played by Robert Shaw) kills himself by touching the third rail. Classic.

What am I trying to say here? I suppose I'm trying to bring out an apologia for the bureaucrat. While communication and other fields cling stubbornly to the idea that truth and value are excised somehow through the involvement of bureaucracy, a simple rejection of bureaucracy seems terribly wrong-headed. The critique of bureaucracy can often be traced to the ideas of Max Weber, but it is easily forgotten that his take on bureaucracy was far more complicated than the 'iron cage' imagery in some of his writing would suggest. Indeed, the problem he found in bureaucracy was that, because it worked so unbelievably well (I believe, at one point, he called it 'awesome,' but I may be making that up), it became difficult to notice some of the problems that it inflicted. Now, I think we face a different problem. We are so accustomed to bad-mouthing bureaucracy that we find it difficult to remember what it can do for us. Hayes' "In Praise of Red Tape," coming at about the same time as Hot Fuzz, seems to indicate that we may be starting to realize why clipboards and flow charts might do for us after all.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


So, some comments rolled in last night concerning my post last summer on Indietorrents, that very fascinating community of music-file-sharing folks. I described Indietorrents folks as rude and pretentious. The Indietorrents community has replied. Some comments on my comments:

You OBVIOUSLY don't understand a damn thing about us.


I wish you has an acoount so I could bring down the bannation hammer.
So, though I think Indietorrents is fascinating and terrifically important to understanding what's happening to music these days (many good things are happening, mind you), I may have emphasized the 'pretentious' and 'rude' (my terms) elements a bit too much. So, I now turn to my other dear readers, and ask: what's the deal with this response? It's hard not to feel for these folks. They're trying, and that's something. But their concern for distinctions between those in and out of their network (hence the itchy 'bannation' trigger finger here) seems to drive them more than anything else. A very glib, functionalist aproach would tell us that they have been alienated in the past, and now (return of the repressed) take a pleasure in applying the rules of alienation to their own interests. Here's lookin' at you, Indietorrents! You have spirit! And, in today's thin world, that really is something.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"You Lose, Asshole," and other elements of democratic discourse.

I very much enjoy some of the research and theorizing that has addressed the issue of democratic discourse. One of my favorite articles to take on this topic is Michael Schudson's (in)famous "Why Conversation is Not the Soul of Democracy," in which he addresses the widespread assumption in communication research that interpersonal communication can be thought of as a necessary component of democratic functioning. This assumption runs through the work of Dewey, Tarde, Katz & Lazarsfeld (imho), Habermas, and many others. Schudson points out to all of us that democracy isn't just a bunch of people talking. Any reasonable definition of a working democracy today must address factors (e.g. information, news, structural elements, and much else) that cannot be found simply in a bunch of folks talkin' about stuff.

Another really great piece that addresses this larger issue is Carolyn Marvin & Pete Simonson's "Voting Alone" piece, where they examine the role of the body (ever undeniable) in democracy, particularly in the U.S. They remark on the seemingly long-gone tradition of treating elections, for example, as a kind of sociable event in the 19th century U.S. Want a functioning democracy? Put some booze, some sex, and some torch-lit rallies into it. That'll get people going. [yes, of course, Marvin & Peterson are aware that torch-lit rallies are also associated with some non-democratic events as well]

Along come my pals Jen Horner & Mark Brewin, taking on this very issue of embodied democratic politics with their new piece in Critical Studies in Media Communication, entitled "The Salt River Ticket, Democratic Discourse, and Nineteenth Century American Politics". In this article, they describe the tradition whereby citizens in the mid 19th century who voted for the winning candidates handed out what were called Salt River Tickets to those who voted for the losing candidates. What were Salt River Tickets, you ask? They were mock tickets to ride on a fictional steam boat up the Salt River (the place where losers went back then). Here's the copy from the Salt River Ticket Horner & Brewin quote in the beginning of the article:
Free ticket to the Saline Spring
For all 'Wooley Heads,' 'Nigger Thieves,' 'Underground R.R. Directors,' and 'Black Republicans.'
Pass the bearer through to Salt River on the Wooley Horse.
FREMONT, Captain; 'JESSIE,' First Mate; GREELY, Pilot; E. DOUGLASS, Mourner; 'ISMS,' Undertaker.
State rooms reserved for the col'd voters of New York
Reed, Gibbons & Co., will be provisioned on 'Wooley offal' and 'Fusion' Hash during the trip in consideration of their distinguished services during the campaign. Lloyd Garrison and Luc. Mott will lead the party to the storm scow 'Disunion.'

So, if you were a supporter of the Democrats, you would have done the following with this ticket:
a) find out who won the elction
b) get really freakin' drunk (Horner & Brewin don't theorize this as a necessary component, but it's easy to imagine it playing a major role)
c) pick up a bunch of Salt River tickets
d) hand these tickets out to the supporters of the Republicans
e) laugh your ass off

After an exhaustive analysis of Salt River Tickets as an example of Bakhtinian carnivalesque, Horner & Brewin conclude that "The ticket established a bond between winner and loser at the same moment it articulated the tensions that the election had introduced within the world of white masculinity" (p. 15). Horner & Brewin maintain a rather complete ambivalence here. I may be getting what they're saying wrong, but I think they admire the degree to which people got fired up about politics with these Salt River Tickets, while also realizing that these things were hardly some kind of 'democracy potion' that helped achieve any of the goals that we associate with democracy. Forms of political communication like the Salt River Ticket, they argue "can serve as useful corrective to the ponderous, guarded style of communication of established media channels and major political parties" (p. 15). They compare this to the blogs of today, noting that we see the same kind of "shrill character," "self-congratulation, disdain for compromise, and narrow-minded worldview" (p. 16) in blogs that could be found in the Salt River Tickets. This seems entirely right. Blogs are used to rehearse already-developed rivalries, to satirize (often with the kind of body-talk and inversion [i.e. fart jokes] that made Rabelais such a big deal), to spew vitriol, and to voice tensions.

Horner & Brewin see how this fits into democracy, and in this their work represents its own corrective to the tendency in communication research to focus too much on 'eat your spinach' journalism, or public sphere theory. Salt River Tickets did not create democracy. But the passions they stirred remain something to consider.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Moral Panic and the City: Steve Macek is makin' 'em hurt!

I grew up in the far west suburbs of Chicago, IL, in a city called Geneva. Geneva was (and remains) a rather idyllic little berg, about 35 miles straight west of the big city. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I recall how Chicago looked from Geneva. Chicago seemed like a terrible place, full of drugs, crime, AIDS, and scary people.

Why might a dorky kid from the 'burbs get this understanding of the city? Steve Macek tells us exactly what time it is with his most excellent book on this very topic. The book in question is called Urban Nightmares: The Media, The Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City. In this book, Macek shows us how the right wing in the U.S. did the ideological equivalent of turning straw into gold. The story works like this: because of a very large number of structural reasons (deindustrialization, changing ethnic face of the inner city, the expansion of the drug trade, the failures of public housing, and what we could generally call 'continued class warfare'), the inner cities in the late 20th century were facing some tough times. The right wing in the 70s and 80s took quick action, not to solve these terrible problems, but to sculpt a narrative whereby this urban catastrophe could be made out to seem like the active choice of the victims. Violent crime as a result of the drug trade? That's because inner city folk have chosen not to educate themselves. High infant mortality in the inner city? That's because the people in the inner city actively choose unhealthy ways of living. High divorce rates amongst the working class in the inner city? That's because the working class has chosen to ignore the family values that could save them. And so on.

Sometimes a book's quality can be gauged in part by considering how much pain the author must have withstood. Macek demonstrates real Herculean powers by reading, and explaining, the ideas of many of the most prominent conservative thinkers who stoked the flames of this moral panic concerning the city. He shows us the arguments of Gertrude Himmelfarb, Dinesh D'Souza, Myron Magnet, William Bennet, Charles Murray, Edward Banfield, Lawrence Mead, and others. Macek is most thorough. He demonstrates where these ideas come from (tellingly, many of them get tremendous support from right-wing think tanks), and contextualizes them in the all-too-real problems that the big cities face in the U.S. He uses the notion of 'moral panic' to explain this. The idea of a moral panic comes from Stuart Hall and Stanley Cohen, who examined moral panics in the UK. The idea was originally developed to explain how (in Cohen's words):
A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or...resorted to.

Macek does an expert job of applying this to the moral panic concerning the city. Succumbing to a right wing push, the media images about the city for years involved images of cities that fell in line with the moral panic frame of what cities had become. Magazines and newspapers reported about U.S. cities as if they were populated entirely by evil, thieving monsters. Movies made cities look like hell incarnate. And, of course, television shows (especially including the news) ratcheted up the drama even more. This could have been construed as responsible reporting, of course. If there were problems in the inner city (and, of course, there were, and are still today), then we should know about them. But the images in the media didn't just call attention to problems. With few exceptions, media outlets made the problems of the cities appear to be the result of moral decay, individual choice, utter depravity, or some kind of creeping spirit of evil. Mentions of structural problems, political processes, or anything else that pulled the emphasis away from the right-wing approach were few and far between.

One of my favorite chapters here involves how movies in the 80s and 90s cast a particularly grim light on the city. Macek provides a high level of detail to show us how movies like Seven, Mimic, and Grand Canyon portrayed the city as the kind of place you wouldn't want to go, on account of the evil, evil things that lurk there. Here I think he misses one thing. What's that one thing? It's the movie Adventures in Babysitting, starring a young Elizabeth Shue. This movie was about a babysitter and the kids she is watching over having to go into the big city (Chicago, incidentally), where (by the laws of stupid screwball comedies of the late 80s), these suburbanites get caught up in the things the movies made synonymous with the big city: organized crime, random street crime, and violent non-white people with knives and guns. Good lord is that a bad movie.

That said, Urban Nightmares is the best book I've ever read about media depictions of the city. Bravo, Steve. Keep hurtin' Bill Bennett.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Fredric Wertham, Take Two

So, it's been a long time since I have blogged. There is no sufficient excuse, and I will simply get back to business...

During my absence from the blogosphere, I have developed a list of things to discuss, and it will be my pleasure during the near future to let you all in on these things.

At the very top of the list of stuff I wanna talk about is a recent book by Bart Beaty, entitled
Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture. It's a pretty decent book, and it goes like this: For years, Fredric Wertham has been reviled as the psychiatrist whose expert opinion (expressed in his famous book, 1954's Seduction of the Innocent) concerning comic books and their effects on youth directly or indirectly resulted in the comic book industry's creation of the Comic Book Code, which was for years one of the most stringent censorship regimes imposed on the popular media in the U.S. The drama basically goes like this:
A) In the 1930s, comic books are invented/developed. They quickly prove popular (even during the Great Depression), attracting a large audience of moppet-like children to the adventures of Superman, Batman, and others.
B) Very quickly, a concern about the aesthetic standing of comic books prompts numerous commentators to express indignation that our youth so excitedly consume such drivel as the comic books. It should be noted that the 1940s witnessed a particular growth in the 'crime comic' genre, and genres dedicated to horror, lampoon, and war were not far behind. Significantly, the comics occasionally involved themes of graphic violence and sexuality.
C) Fredric Wertham, an established psychiatrist famous for his work as an expert psychiatric witness in criminal trials, for popular books and articles concerning psychiatric roots of crime, and for his saintly concern for the psychiatric well-being of the poor, enters the debate, supposedly blaming juvenile delinquency on comics.
D) The link between juvenile delinquency and comics is taken up by a Congressional subcommittee, headed by Robert Hendrickson, but more closely associated with Estes Kefauver, a U.S. Senator from Tennessee closely associated with investigations of organized crime, and with the wearing of coonskin caps. Wertham testifies at this subcommittee, as do numerous other figures of interest.
E) This Kefauver subcommittee ultimately recommends no legislation, but successfully prompts the comic book industry to engage in self-regulation, which took the form of the Comic Book Code.
F) Every comic book fan for years blames Fredric Wertham for the Comic Book Code, and the damage it did to creative comic book artistry.

Okay. So that's the received history. What does Beaty do with this? Quite a lot, really. Mostly, Beaty concerns himself with showing the reader how Wertham was never the kind of censorious fool he has been made out to be. To a great extent, Beaty does a great job. His weapon? That great tool of the historian: context. Beaty spends the first few chapters here showing the intellectual backdrop of Wertham's world, and emphasizing how Wertham differed from the New York Intellectuals of the mid-20th century. I think Beaty is at his best here, showing how the New York Intellectuals in many ways missed out on some of the important issues that Wertham pioneered. In particular, Wertham's concern for race and justice in the U.S. places him in stark relief against the relative ignorance (or worse) of the New York Intellectuals. Beaty's analysis here is fresh and well-supported. It's also consistent with his goal of rehabilitating the legend of Fredric Wertham.

I may as well focus on a point of disagreement between myself and Beaty. In his efforts to demonstrate the intellectual refinement and broad-mindedness of Wertham, I think Beaty goes a bit too far. For instance, Beaty observes that Wertham "never argued" that there was a causal link between comic books and juvenil
e delinquency. Beaty is correct to point out that Wertham hedged his bets quite a bit concerning this link. But the assertion was still quite clear in Wertham's writing. At the Kefauver hearings, Wertham stated that "if it were my teach children delinquency...I would have to enlist the crime comic books industry." In Seduction of the Innocent, he claimed that "our researchers have proved that there is a significant correlation between crime-comics reading and the more serious forms of juvenile delinquency." Certainly Wertham emphasized the whole environment of the child, and Beaty is right to link this to the 'social psychiatry' that Wertham practiced. Certainly Wertham's goals were not censorious, and his values were admirable. But I still don't think this gets Wertham off the hook. As an expert who testified to Congress about the link between comic books and juvenile delinquency, he was naive to think that he could dictate (or even suggest) policy. He simply didn't realize his place in the drama that was unfolding, and he (I think foolishly) presumed that his expert opinion would be treated with more respect. For failing to understand the stakes in the game, I think Wertham deserves a small bit of criticism. His idealism remains an inspiration, but his understanding of the role of the expert in such a debate makes him deserve at least some small share of the blame for the Comic Book Code.

That said, I still think Beaty's book is quite excellent.
Go buy it now.

I will take up another one of Beaty's theses regarding Wertham--the idea that Wertham's ideas and methods have been sandbagged out of the field of communication--sometime in the near future. It just feels good to be blogging again.