The Hedgehog’s Array: November 21, 2014

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Noteworthy reads from last week:

“A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” Sabrina Rubin Erdely
“… at UVA, rapes are kept quiet, both by students – who brush off sexual assaults as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture – and by an administration that critics say is less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal.”

“Either One: the Video Game that Tries to Simulate Dementia” Michael Thomsen
“The game casts the player as an employee of a futuristic memory-retrieval company called the Ether Institute of Telepathic Medicine. Your job is to dive into the mind of Jean Thompson, a sixty-nine-year-old woman diagnosed with dementia, and retrieve a series of lost memories.”

“Why It’s So Hard for Millennials to Find a Place to Live and Work” Derek Thompson
“The paradox of the American Dream: The best cities to get ahead are often the most expensive places to live, and the most affordable places to live can be the worst cities to get ahead.”

“Gross Violations” Carol Hay
“Disgust is often used as a tool of persuasion. But are gut feelings ever a reliable guide in questions of right and wrong?”

“What Happened the Last Time Republicans Has a Majority This Huge?” Josh Zeitz
“Since last week, many Republicans have been feeling singularly nostalgic for November 1928, and with good reason. It’s the last time that the party won such commanding majorities in the House of Representatives while also dominating the Senate.”

“The New ‘Normal Barbie’ Comes With an Average Woman’s Proportions—And Cellulite Sticker Accessories” Laura Stampler
“A lot of toys makes kids go into fantasy, but why don’t they show real life is cool?”

“Distribution Isn’t Outdated” James Mumford
“G.K. Chesterton offers a non-statist vision for economic and social change that’s still relevant in the age of the iPhone.”

“Why Independent Bookstores Are More Than Just Places to Buys Books” David Rosenberg
“They’re a meeting place away from the often segregated, homogenous world of social media.”

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A Century of The New Republic

JPNEWREPUBLIC5-master495Let me start on a grumpy note: Although I’ve been responsible for some myself, I’m no fan of magazine anniversaries. Smarmy accounts of past achievements and highlights, the recycling of old hits, the chummy accolades of well-chosen celebrity subscribers. Maybe an obligatory carp or cavil. Tossed together, stirred not shaken, and served up with a black-tie gala event—and there you have it, a gigantic blast of self-congratulation.

Eeyorishness aside, I’m happy to see The New Republic rounding a century. To make it for more than a few years is a feat for any publication these days, and The New Republic has had its share of near-death experiences. But the magazine, in print and online, has arrived at this milestone with at least the appearance of fiscal stability and talk of even bigger things ahead, thanks in no small part to the deep pockets and ambitions of its current owner, Facebook millionaire Chris Hughes. More important, the journal continues to bristle with editorial brilliance and contrariness. Still fundamentally liberal in spirit, though less certain than ever about what liberalism means, the magazine reflects the uncertainty that many Americans feel about the viability of politics, and political ideas, in our fragile democracy.

Much could be said about the The New Republic on this occasion. Let me restrict myself to two concerns. The first is in response to what the New York Times reported on Hughes’s vision of the future of the magazine:

Eyebrows were raised last year when Mr. Hughes, a former organizer for Barack Obama, introduced the redesigned magazine with an editor’s letter that omitted the words “liberal” or “liberalism.” These days, while he says he remains committed to print, he is also ready to jettison “magazine.”

“Twenty years ago, no question, it was a political magazine, full stop,” Mr. Hughes said in a joint interview with Mr. Vidra in New York. “Today, I don’t call it a magazine at all. I think we’re a digital media company.”

Mr. Hughes (who gave up the editor in chief title but remains publisher) and Mr. Vidra dismissed speculation that they wanted to take the magazine in a more lowbrow, BuzzFeed-like direction. But they did say there was room to increase the digital audience to as much as “tens of millions” of unique monthly visitors by focusing on a broader range of topics and on new forms of digital storytelling that “travel well” on the web.

A digital media company that jettisons the “magazine”? Excuse me, but this is the kind of crazy cant you hear in all discussions of the crisis of journalism these days. I won’t get into a long argument here (though this article gets into it nicely), but I maintain there is no current crisis of journalism. Journalism, the craft of covering and reflecting upon all aspects of our changing world, is doing just fine. But there is a crisis of media companies that are trying to to take over, absorb, and manage journalistic organizations and publications.

The crux of the crisis is this: The hardy captains of these great media combines generally have a poor understanding of, or at least a low regard for, journalism. Yeah, yeah, they say they respect the ethic and hard work of the journalists, but the truth is they find journalistic content a little hard to peddle—at least compared to zippy, frothy gossip about celebrities or deeply human human-interest stories, or lists of my five hundred favorite peanut butter recipes.

If you want a brief primer on the difference between what media companies do and what journalism does, just look at The New Republic. Most of what it publishes in print, and a fair amount of what it publishes online, is substantial journalism; but a great deal of what it fills its website with is fluff. It’s not difficult to guess which is harder to produce and which we’d see more of if The New Republic jettisons the magazine.

We’re not just talking platforms here, but platforms matter. They variously demonstrate a commitment to varying degrees of quality, excellence, and depth. The New Republic’s commitments to the highest standard of journalism are tethered to its magazine. Jettison the magazine, and the brand will decline into, at best, mediocrity.

My other concern is related to the liberalism that owner Hughes feels reluctant to mention. I am hopeful that The New Republic‘s current and brilliant editor, Frank Foer, will continue to make his own deep interest in the history and debates of American liberalism a central focus of his journal. If liberalism is to find new vigor and direction in this country, while resisting either simplistic leftism or accommodationist neoliberalism, I count on The New Republic to help lead the way.

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Portrait of the Artist as Algorithm

pianist_glowimages_FLATAuthor and photo-historian David King has become something of a cottage industry, publishing books that draw on his massive collection of Soviet-era photographs, posters, and ephemera. In his 1997 book The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia, King examined the commonplace practice of rewriting history by removing from official photographs inconvenient apparatchiks who had outlived their usefulness. It was a crude method, but effective. By airbrushing, clipping, or cropping out obsolete Bolsheviks—Trotsky, for example, was completely removed from the photographic archives—the dictator was able to revise history, direct public perceptions, and control people’s memories to an astonishing degree.

The urge to rewrite history has by no means been confined to the past. Croatian pianist Dejan Lazić would also like to airbrush the past, but this time his own. We generally think of artists as living to express themselves and to leave indelible records of their existence—but Lazić would apparently prefer to be forgotten.

Or forgotten in part: In 2010 Lazić played a recital at the Kennedy Center that was reviewed by Anne Midgette of the Washington Post. The review, while unflattering, was hardly career-ending. Lazić’s primary offense seems to have been that he allowed ego rather than musicianship to take center stage. The pianist would probably have moved on if Google’s implacable algorithms didn’t keep this review in the top five search results for his name.

In September, Lazić requested that the Washington Post remove the review from its website, citing May’s European Union “Right to Be Forgotten” ruling. After letters to the editor and an October interview with the Post, Lazić remained unsatisfied. This month, Lazić posted on his website a long explanation of his behavior, insisting that his case has nothing to do with sour grapes over a bad review, but rather with a “web data hierarchy run by some major corporations that needs to be questioned and investigated.” He went on to say that he would rather not contact said “hierarchy” (Google EU) himself and ask that the review be expunged because he believes in free speech. What Lazić really wants Google to do is remove the review by itself.

Lazić’s case suggests what might be called the ethics of editing. Editing oneself is preferable—even imperative—if we are to make it through the day. If Lazić had chosen to ignore Midgette’s review, his carefully tended public persona as a composer, pianist, and arranger would have filled in the gap left by the critic’s momentary assessment. Instead, Lazić has taken the position of trying to edit the Internet editors, those many gatekeepers, curators, and mediators of the media who keep the digital current flowing. By citing the “Right to Be Forgotten” ruling, he has called on a notoriously elusive and difficult-to-enforce law that aims to determine exactly how Internet information is, in the EU Court’s wording, “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, excessive.” Does Lazić really want to relegate himself to the status of “data subject” and be ruled by a law that gives him the right to be forgotten? It’s difficult to imagine an outcome less in keeping with the artistic spirit.

Lazić’s quest is essentially quixotic. As Chad Wellmon has pointed out on The Infernal Machine, algorithms don’t communicate. They compute. It is true that some Internet outlets have brought on human beings to edit the algorithms in an attempt to corral millions of data points by means of norms, practices, and expertise (and Lazić would probably like to meet those particular apparatchiks). If Lazić succeeds in persuading the Washington Post to remove the review or if a brace of EU attorneys do so, the result is uncomfortably close to that achieved by Stalin and his team of photo doctors. Surely, it would be preferable to be remembered for playing in a past recital, no matter how questionably, than to be utterly eliminated from memory banks of potential concert promoters?

Lazic’s willing embrace of the right to be forgotten is, in other words, a voluntarily abdication of the right to self-determination. The EU Court specifies that its ruling focuses on data protection and that the “right to be forgotten” is not absolute; it does not trump fundamental rights such as freedom of expression or freedom of the media. The Court further asserts that the right to have one’s data erased is not unlimited and must be considered on a case-by-case basis. All of this jurisprudential circumspection may sound comforting, but our modern-day airbrushing of history is all the more worrisome because, in our digital age, we may all become complicit in our own obsolescence.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

 

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The Hedgehog’s Array: November 14, 2014

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Noteworthy reads from last week:

“Why Read New Books?” Tim Parks
“Hasn’t it all been done before? Perhaps better than anyone today could ever do it? If so, why read contemporary novels, especially when so many of the classics are available at knockdown prices and for the most part absolutely free as e-books?”

“Reason and the Republic of Opinion,” Leon Wieseltier
“We need not be a nation of intellectuals, but we must not be a nation of idiots. The task is not to intellectualize humanity. It is to humanize intellectuality. To this end, the cultural reputation of reason needs to be revised.”

“Big Bang Berlin,” Nick Paumgarten
“The division of the city, a function of a global struggle over territory and ideas, had a host of not only unintended but also widely unobserved local repercussions.”

“China, America and Our Warming Planet,” John Kerry
“Our Historic Agreement With China on Climate Change”

“The Challenge of Teaching Science in Rural America,” Alexandra Ossola
“With fewer students per school and limited funding to match, rural school districts have been behind in STEM education.”

“Why Students Have No Idea What College Actually Costs,” Danielle Paquette
“Confusion between a college’s sticker price—the advertised price for fees, board and tuition—and the net price—what students pay after receiving aid—can separate the country’s brightest students from better futures.”

“Can Mesh Networks and Offline Wireless Move from Protest Tools to News?” Susan E. McGregor
“Perhaps one day soon it will be possible to stop by a newsstand to pick up localized digital edition of a newspaper or magazine, and know that even in a crisis, a lack of Internet doesn’t mean total isolation.”

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Honoring a Vet: Ensign Leland Lafroy Davis

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Freeing a PBY-5A Catalina from frozen waters in the Aleutian Islands; photo from World War II Database, www.ww2db.com

The World War II Aleutian Islands campaign (June 1942–August 1943) pitted the U.S. Navy against the Japanese on a remote chain of rugged islands in the Alaska Territory. These snow-clogged islands were considered strategically important and the push to wrest control of them from the entrenched Japanese took more than a year. Brian Garfield chronicled this “forgotten battle” vividly in his 1969 book The Thousand-Mile War. A small section of that book details the actions of my uncle Leland Lafroy Davis.

Navy Ensign Davis and his crew flew as part of a squadron of PBY-5A Catalinas, a plane known awkwardly as a flying boat because it could land on water. Hardly fighter planes, the Catalinas were designed to transport men and equipment; they nevertheless proved to be valuable assets in the siege of Kiska Harbor. In Garfield’s words, the Catalinas looked like “a brood of huge chicks” as they went into action supplying fuel, oil, parts, ammunition, and bombs to the men on the ground and in the air.

On June 10, 1942, Ensign Davis sighted a Japanese super-submarine off Tanaga and sent down bombs and depth-charges. It was a great start to the squadron’s first day of action, but Davis merely damaged the sub, which turned out to be an I-boat sent to pick up the pilot of a downed Japanese Zero. Returning to base, Davis and the other pilots heard their orders for the next day: Attack Kiska Harbor with everything they had regardless of the weather.

As Garfield points out, the Catalina was never designed for intensive attack runs. It was big and slow and easily sighted from the ground. It was poorly-armored, had primitive bombsights, and “maneuvered like a hippopotamus.” Still, the squadron had its orders.

The next day, following the First Air Force’s bombing attack on Kiska Harbor, the Catalinas set off. Heavily loaded and with poor visibility, the planes began to show the strain of carrying bombs and flying low in arctic temperatures. The crews heard the brittle airframes crack and pop and they watched warily as the wings flapped like a bird’s.

After his first bombing run, Ensign Davis returned with a damaged plane to reload and refuel. He also brought back a dead crewman. Ready to go, he flew back out and joined the blitz, which would continue for the next three days. From the ground, the Japanese kept up a steady steam of fire, watching the low hanging clouds for lumbering Catalinas to descend, easy targets. American crews on the ground and in the air worked for as long as seventy-two hours straight to keep up the siege. “Before long,” writes Garfield, “the patrol wing’s crew had their own name for Kiska, ‘PBY Elimination Center.’”

During one of the raids, Ensign Davis encountered machine gun fire and flak that almost destroyed his plane. He made it back to base, landed on the water, and watched his plane sink in the bay. He found another plane and his crew went out again. Davis and his crew crippled an enemy sub and attempted a dive-bomb attack on a flak crew at Kiska Harbor. The strain of the dive was too much for the plane and Davis and his crew crashed with a loss of all hands on June 14, 1942. Ensign Davis, along with the others, was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Navy Cross.

In 2002, my aunt—Davis’s sister—received a phone call that she thought was a prank. A genealogist was calling to say that Davis’s remains had been found. It seems a Canadian biologist was studying marine rats near Kiska Volcano when he discovered an inflatable life vest, a parachute, two parachute packs, leather boots, a sweater and fragments of boots. In 2003, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command excavated the crash site, unearthing aircraft debris and the remains of seven servicemen. Ensign Davis and his crew crashed not in Kiska Harbor as his family had been told but rather on land.

Today, Elwin Alford, Albert J. Gyorfi, John H. Hathaway, Dee Hall, Robert F. Keller, Robert A. Smith, and Leland L. Davis are interred at Arlington National Cemetery, under a common marker that notes “Aircraft Accident—Alaska, June 14, 1942.”

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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Feeding the Homeless, and Other Crimes

Chaplin's Tramp eats his boot in The Gold Rush. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Chaplin’s Tramp eats his boot in The Gold Rush. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

A ninety-year-old man is confronted by the police for feeding the homeless: Is this one of Charlie Chaplin’s more obvious satirical scenes, or maybe something from a political cartoon? It’s real life, and has happened—twice nowin Florida, where Arnold Abbott was arrested for distributing food to the homeless outdoors. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, feeding the homeless is not technically illegal, but feeding them outdoors is being regulated to the point where it might as well be:

Abbott and two local pastors were arrested Sunday and charged with violating a new ordinance passed last month that restricts charitable groups from passing out food to homeless people in public. They face a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.

It’s the fifth ordinance passed in Fort Lauderdale in the past six months that sets restrictions on the city’s homeless. In enacting the laws, Fort Lauderdale commissioners have cited “public health and safety,” saying the feeding restriction will protect the homeless population from potential illnesses. Opponents call the regulations “homeless hate laws.”

One of the ordinances allows authorities to seize a homeless person’s belongings and store them until the person agrees to pay a fee; another bans a homeless person from camping in public.

There is, however, a silver lining here: If you are homeless, Fort Lauderdale will pay for your one-way ticket out of town. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: November 7, 2014

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Noteworthy reads from last week:

“New Outside Groups Prove Worth to Conservative Donors” Nicholas Confessore
“The election was not only a major victory for the Republican Party, but a life-or-death moment for the super PACs and political nonprofit groups that helped the party defeat Democrats across the country.”

“Good Ol’ Future Boys: Interstellar and Sci-Fi’s Obsession with Americana” Phil Hoad
“Front and centre of these future visions, iconic American topography and its culture – the cosy homesteads, hypnotic crop plains, traveling fairs – almost feel as if they exist out of time.”

“The Salinger Riddle” Ross Posnock
“With their enthusiastic assumption that the novel you love was written by a lovable person—that art and life are continuous—Holden’s words point to the promise of intimacy that is often said to result from the unique bond Salinger establishes with his readers.”

“Urban Onshoring: The Movement to Bring Tech Jobs Back to America” Issie Lapowsky
“Carter remembers being told that she was one of the ‘bright ones’ and that, as such, she should leave the Bronx as soon as she could.”

“Who has the Authority to Write Theology?” Stephen H. Webb
“Just as ecclesial traditions have lost their hold over the faithful, forcing churches to compete for members, universities and their publishing agents have lost control over theology.”

“Darkness at Noon Prayers: Inside the Islamic Police State” Jamie Dettmer
“Stalin, Castro, Pol Pot came before. The techniques of totalitarianism are not unique to ISIS. But here’s the scariest thing about them. They work.”

“Meet the Ghost-Sign Hunters” Nick Gadd
“Enthusiasts travel miles to photograph faded hand-painted adverts for products and business that no longer exist – symbols of defiance against the city’s relentless progress”

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