Jean Erick Joassaint: My Hero

In September of 1985 I arrived at Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, NY a 5’10”, 115 pound string bean. I was a boy, full of spirit and confusion. I’ve always been torn between my capacity for deep and profound love and a penetrating anger that occasionally gets the better of me. I swing between extremes. Oakwood is a Friends school, which is to say that it’s part of the Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers. Oakwood wasn’t my first go around with Friends education. I was very fortunate to attend Moses Brown School in Providence, RI as a 3rd and 4th grader and came to know the genuine spirit of community, peace, and goodwill that’s typical of these sorts of places.

Friends education was always a good place for me. I thrive in communities committed to diversity, art, sharing, and openness. I don’t say that blind to the fact that almost anyone is capable of thriving in such a positive environment. It’s a privilege to be a part of something positive and alive. I bring it up because I often consider the possibility that, under different circumstances, the angry corner of my psyche may have manifested itself more prominently and it may have taken root so deeply that I could have been consumed. I have loving parents and siblings. I have wonderful friends and colleagues, but darkness sometimes consumes the light.

When I arrived at Oakwood, I soon met a man by the name of Jean Erick Joassaint. Erick, as he preferred to be called, was relatively short in stature, but “robust.” He was round to put it bluntly. He spoke English with a thick accent, in his native Haitian idiom. His personality was effervescent, as anyone who ever met him would tell you, and he smiled broadly from ear to ear as often as he drew breath. His presence was enormous in any space he occupied. Erick taught French. He spoke English, French, and Creole, and he was fluent in Latin and Ancient Greek. Until his death in May of 2016, I never really knew how old he was when I spent four years with him in the late-1980s. As it turns out he was born in 1947, the same year as my mother, which made him about 40-years old during that time, younger than I am now.

Erick was my French teacher, my soccer coach, my advisor, and remains the most important person I’ve ever met. It wasn’t the French. It wasn’t the coaching on the field. It wasn’t his help with my grades. Erick saw something of himself in me and took me under his arm. We spent countless hours talking about all the intellectual wonders of the world, and about politics. We talked about love, and sex, and friendships. We laughed so hard our bellies hurt. Erick recognized a kindred intellectual spirit in me, and we were both drawn to each other for our joie de vivre. We’re both the type to walk the Earth perpetually smiling, not as a mask to obscure, but as an expression of our love for this precious gift of life. It was crucial to my own salvation that Erick also saw my anger. He recognized the volcano bubbling just under the surface because he was burdened with his own. He caught me on more than one occasion succumbing to the weakness of my own tortured soul. He’d call out to me when he saw the look on my face, and he’d pull me aside. His face and voice were always enough to draw me back from the edge, and he taught me to put my anger away. I fail at this important act more than I’d care to admit. I still live with it, and wrestle with it, but I understand it thanks to Erick.

Mainly, I learned what principle and courage mean. Erick rarely shared stories about his past with the people around him. To my knowledge, he died having rarely discussed many of the horrors he witnessed. He was intensely private about them, even while being open and charming about all the joys he’d experienced over the years. I was privy to his inner sanctum because he sensed something of himself in me and he trusted me to use my intellect and my energy and my capacity to love with the world. His inscription in my yearbook has been a source of great encouragement throughout the years, even when it’s felt like something of a burden. He wrote, simply:

“You will be a great man.”

I’ve wrestled with what he meant when he wrote that to me. He wasn’t one to flatter or communicate in trivial sentiment. Did he mean that I would be great because I’m good? That I’d be kind to others and spread goodwill? Did he mean that I’d achieve big things? Was he trying to suggest that I’d be important in some way? At various times in my life, I’ve taken his short sentence to mean something different. In the end, it hardly matters. He wrote it and it’s stayed with me as I’ve felt the challenges of life bearing down on me. It’s served as a call to be good, and to achieve, and to take on important things. At this moment, the sentence seems to be more important than ever to me. When I learned of Erick’s death by Facebook, I wept uncontrollably for hours. I still well up thinking about the fact that he’s gone. His photo is the avatar on my Facebook profile as I type this, and stares back at me from the screen of my iPhone every time I turn it on. I still need him so desperately. I always thought I’d meet him again. That’s how things go sometimes.

In this moment, his example seems all the more important to me. Please read from the obituary written about his life, and you may see why.

Jean Erick Joassaint became involved in Haiti’s political community and anti-corruption effort in the late 60s while he was a student at the l’École Normale Supérieure.. He began to rise in popularity in Port-Au-Prince – drawing crowds and becoming a fixture on Jean Dominique’s Radio Haiti-Inter (formerly Radio Haiti). With the increased attention on his activism by local authorities, he was first arrested in Jérémie shortly after delivering a speech on the importance of universal education in Haiti. He was freed thanks to the intervention of the local Catholic Church.
Released on the condition that he would comply with government orders to stop all political activity – Jean Erick Joassaint defied this agreement and promptly resumed his anti-corruption activities again. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested once more and incarcerated at the feared ‘Fort Dimanche’ – a facility referred to as the ‘Dungeon of Death’. Jean Erick’s internment at Fort Dimanche caused many, including his then-fiance Marie Donie Joseph, to believe he was dead. Deprived of sleep, food, and subjected to beatings – Jean Erick never lost hope in justice prevailing. After several weeks with no outside communication he was released – bruised, starved, exhausted, but undeterred.

He was always a tenacious leader and believed that what is right will always prevail, she he continued to advocate for the importance of education and political transparency. Now his work caught the attention of President Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier himself and after several warnings to stop his activities (he did not) he was held for five months at the notorious ‘Casserne Dessalines’ or ‘The Gulag of Haiti’ according to former colleague Jean Dominique.. There he endured violent interrogations, starvation, sleep deprivation. Once telling his daughter that Casserine Dessaline was the worst of all three of his internments – he never elaborated. The extent of the torture he endured will remain buried with him.
Amazed he still lived, his third release prompted his exile to the United States in the late 70s – where he continued his efforts to advocate for education and democracy in Haiti by writing for the Haitian expat newspaper “Haiti Observateur”. From the late 1970s to early 2000s he authored many articles criticizing government corruption in Haiti. During this time he authored four books: L’Ecole en Haiti (1978), Justin Lhérisson: Golimin et les Autres (1986), L’Haïti que j’aime (1992), and Jean-Bertrand Aristide: Le Pouvoir du Ressentiment (2004).

However politics was not Jean Erick’s only passion – after his family, education was one of his greatest loves. He completed his Masters Degree in French Literature and was a post-doctoral candidate in French Philosophy and Literature at the University of Maryland. Continuing his pursuit of education, Jean Erick went on to teach French and Latin for over thirty years at Oakwood Friends School and Berkshire School as the Head of the Foreign Language Department. In 2008 and 2009 he published two French Vocabulary books for high school students.

With decades of education under his belt, Jean Erick retired from teaching life in 2013. He spent his short period of retirement devoted to charity and his family.
Jean Erick survived political imprisonment, torture, immigration, and other obstacles to live a rich life that he never took for granted. Despite the many passions my father had – his greatest love was his family; especially his wife Marie Donie and their children Daniel Erick and Emmanuelle “Manou” Josephe. He is survived by them as well as his sister Jocelyne Joassaint and four brothers Pierre-Marie, Louis Saint-Ange , Jean-Raymond, Jean-Francois Joassaint and their respective families. Jean Erick also leaves behind his grieving in-laws whom he loved and respected as his own.

Erick saw himself in me, and I see myself in Erick. I’ve never been closer to another person, and it strikes me that I’ve ended up in education as a direct result of his example. At the moment, being a “great man” means empowering other people to live their lives fully and happily. It means resisting the forces of destruction bent on oppression, which rob us of our peace of mind, and perhaps our freedom to pursue happiness. Greatness lies in the capacity to build, nourish, and support others and to resist rising tides of oppression. It means tapping into one’s inner strength by turning anger into loving defiance. I don’t know if anything of that makes a person great, but I feel convinced that believing in the greatness of the effort is what makes life worth living.

I miss Erick more than words can express, and I’ll never recover from his passing, but he held up a mirror more than 25 years ago and encouraged me to become what was good and great in him. I’ll do my best.

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In Love and Defiance

It would be inaccurate to call the collective malaise of November 9th a hangover. Much of the United States muddled through the day, fighting a sense of despair a lot more like the aftermath of September 11, 2001 than a long night of drinking. There’s been nothing celebratory about the political atmosphere of 2016, despite the satire of late night television. The stakes have always been astronomically high, and the consequences of the Trump electoral college victory were immediately apparent. Something died on election night.

As with any death, the grieving body politic has engaged in a variety of coping strategies. There’s political in-fighting as fingers are pointed and tempers flare. There are the clinical autopsies of the election as technocrats attempt to parse what went wrong in the polling and in the strategy. There’s a distinct sense of confusion in the news media, who fumbled the coverage of this critical moment in our nation’s history by turning something deadly serious into entertainment. Reality TV meets sports programming. I’m not remotely interested in any of that discourse. I’m interested in characterizing this moment to achieve clarity. Where are we? What are we now faced with? What can we do about it? What is our moral obligation to civil society?

I’d like to make perfectly clear that I admire both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for being gracious in their recognition of the electoral college outcome. It’s their duty to set an example for the American public that we can maintain our composure as we transition from one legally elected government to another. They are custodians of our system, broken as it is, and it’s incumbent upon them to keep our faith alive even when it’s shaken to the core. This was a legal election, at least on its face. I’ll address that momentarily.

Let’s be clear about what just happened. A person who established his political persona by questioning the legitimacy of the sitting president for the better part of eight years will now sit in his chair. A person who used the loudest racial dogwhistle our politics have seen in more than a generation will dismiss our first African-American president in January and proceed to tear down much of his hard fought progress. I’ll ask you to take a look at this image and consider its use as a weapon against a man of great dignity, who has shown respect for the institution of the presidency. Be clear about what it is.

obama-kenya

Barack HUSSEIN Obama, they called him, emphasizing his middle name to cast him as something other than American. His celebration of Kenyan heritage was turned into an internet meme, used to suggest he’s a Muslim, something we may find cause to celebrate if we believe our own American story. Donald Trump rode a political wave of white nationalism to the presidency. He’s George Wallace with a reality TV profile, used to dilute the seriousness of his hateful beliefs. “He tells it like it is,” they say. “He’s just a clown,” they say dismissively.

Clearly, many people failed along the way. The result of this election is a national nightmare and a civil emergency. It’s the outcome of our surrender to a corporate media, a public who have chosen amusement over involvement, and a corrupt political system that feels no urgency to work on behalf of the public. People of all political stripes, including Trump supporters, sense this.

The elected body of the political left has failed us miserably. I won’t litigate policy at the moment, instead emphasizing the tactical and strategic failures that have left us impotent in the face of great moral danger. The right wing has used the letter of the law as an instrument to obstruct and destroy much of the progress we’ve enjoyed over the last century. They’ve had no concern for the spirit of law. They have so little respect for the will of the legally won rights of the American public they use the dark of night to tear at the fabric of the established social contract. Voting rights have been gutted at the state level. The right of a women to choose has been systematically undermined by a series of state and local laws aimed at zoning and building codes. The list is extensive and growing. The sad truth is that they’ve looked us all in the face and laughed at us all the while, knowing that our convictions about fair play would never work. While we demand fair play, they use legal means to subvert the spirit of our social contract. We say, “Hey! Look what they’re doing. That’s not fair,” and they laugh.

Our news media have done little to educate the public about this. Their interest in balance has led them to cover our body politic as though two equal parties are engaged in civic duty, and that all disagreements are simply ideological in nature. They’re not….almost ever. One neutered political party insists on negotiating in good faith, following the rules, while the other sticks in the knife and twists. Why do we allow this to happen?

There have long been committed activists, marching and protesting at every injustice. They scream at the top of their lungs on our behalf, trying to break through the chatter to educate us about our rights and insist on greater action. They have been committed protectors and heroes of civil rights, and most of them have been women and people of color. I should also include the many gay men who suffered great indignity at the hands of the state, fighting for equality under the law and in our cultural family. From the margins of power, they have long shouted a call to action. In many cases they have won. We’re grateful that our society has become fairer and more just over time because suffragettes stood up, because the SCLC took on segregation in the South. We know a lot of their names – Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Harvey Milk, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis. We don’t know nearly enough of their names, and we don’t match their love and commitment to protecting what was won by blood and by ballot.

Make no mistake, the civil emergency we now face is real. The election of Donald Trump isn’t an equal and opposite reaction to eight years of Barack Obama, as the “fair and balanced” news establishment likes to frame things. This is the transition from a civil society, governed by an earnest but flawed host of political figures, to a dangerous and destructive demagogue swept into power by a disaffected mob. Every ugly thing aimed at people of good faith during the Obama presidency is now manifest in the machine of American political power from the Oval Office to the Justice Department to the EPA to the State Department and beyond.

The chipping away of civil rights in state legislatures is now boldly empowered by a government wholly controlled not by Republicans, in any real sense, but dangerous autocrats who will strip out every piece of progress achieved over the last century. They’ve longed to do it, to undo the New Deal legacy and the legacy of the Johnson administration, and they will. They talk about taking their country back, and squashing “PC” culture, which is simply code for empowering white people on the backs of everyone else. They connect their political machine to the political machine of the Brexiters in the United Kingdom, who similarly played on nativist mob energy to wrest control. They will continue through France’s body politic and then to Germany. The rise of global white nationalism is a project with real political momentum. The United States is now the most powerful home of that project, and the people brought in by Trump will use the instrument of government to gut the social contract, crush civil rights, and build a wave of white nationalist political power than spans the Atlantic Ocean. Will we wait until it’s too late to act? Will we treat this as politics as usual?

Every great challenge our society has ever faced has required more than the commitment of a few dedicated activists. It requires more than a few patriots to lead the charge. Every challenge won on the behalf of civil society has required the defiant stand that only a united majority of decent people can guarantee. Electoral politics is only one form of democracy. For most of us, sadly, it’s the only form of democracy we practice. Protest is democratic in the greatest sense. Defiance in the face of great evil is a form of spiritual democracy that allows us to stand on high moral ground. This democracy is participatory in nature. It asks us to wake up to the great crises of our times, if not for the workaday business we do. It asks us to engage in civil disobedience to grab hold of the real power in our numbers. Democracy of this sort can’t be ignored or dismissed. It becomes impossible for those invested in the status quo to point at the crowd and emphasize their piercings and colorful hair, characterizing protest as the act of counter culture oddballs. (I love each and every one of them, by the way.) Everyday people rising to the occasion, both colorful in their individual expression and reserved, bend the long arc of the universe back to justice.

This is such a moment. Please don’t wait until it’s too late, until the damage has been done. History has taught us the terrible cost of such inaction. I will stand. I will march. I will be defiant. I will strike, and I hope you will too. Let us remember the power of the Arab Spring. Remember the great risk assumed by committed Egyptians in Tahrir Square. They agreed, en masse, to shut down the country via general strike. They closed Egypt for business in order to fight for their civil rights and for a free and just society. That fight continues in Egypt, across the region, and indeed around the world. This is our time to fight again. It’s our time to remember that freedoms are not free and they require the people of good will and decency to stand together defiantly as a malevolent tide rises in on our horizon. Recognize that this moment in history is already significant and that your early intervention can make all the difference in the world.

My final word is a call to love. Every great American movement of the last century has been fueled by the marriage between defiance and love. First, we must love our own progress. We must love the recognition of human dignity and equality that characterize our greatest achievements. Solidarity based on that love cannot be broken. It’s the source of great courage and resolve. We must also love the humanity of our opponents. We must never paint them as monsters, but recognize them as human beings lashing out from a place of frailty and fear. Our defiance is an act of self-love. Our non-violent commitment is an act of love for humanity, even in the face of its ugliest manifestations. Make no mistake, though, it is our duty to defy the consequences of the election, even as we recognize its legality. The rule of law must always win out, both in letter AND in spirit. At the moment we are the spirit of the law. We are the champions of that spirit, and it’s our duty to protect it at all costs.

In love and defiance.
Mike Plugh

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Medeta ga no yohoi

For the last several months NHK has been airing one of its very popular “asadora” telenovelas, called Massan. The drama is set in Japan’s Taisho period (1912 – 1926), a time when Japan was adjusting to a newly opened society, and increased contact with foreigners. The story chronicles the efforts of a young man to begin whiskey production in Japan, accompanied by his Scottish wife, who learns to adjust to life in Japan as her husband struggles to endure obstacles to his dream.

One scene in particular caught my attention for its power in communicating the Japanese “soul,” to the extent such a thing actually exists. Explaining Japan to those without life experience in the culture is next to impossible, but we’re fortunate that art provides an occasional entry through its emotive potential. The following clip features a team of sake craftsmen ‘preparing the bran’ as they sing together. The scene transitions into a beautiful exchange between Massan’s wife Rita and the sake house’s chamberlain, who explains the ritual singing and the process of sake-making going on on the premises.

I think it’s a beautiful two minutes…

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To Protect and Tweet

There’s been some discussion recently of the NYPD’s initiative to educate members of the force in the best practices of social media. On more than one occasion, police officers have used their personal social media accounts to share controversial or inappropriate ideas and information. The NYPD also attempted to use its Twitter account to engage the public in a positive way by soliciting followers for stories about experiences with officers, which went completely off course…as one might expect.

The article linked above gives an update about the NYPD social media education, noting:

The training, which is accompanied by a 34-page Twitter manual, advises dad humor, animal rescue photos, and hashtags. It warns against seeming insensitive and fighting with trolls. “Twitter combat is unwinnable and it’s pointless,” Zachary Tumin, a deputy commissioner, told the Journal. So far, police are pleased with the results — they’ve grown their Facebook fans 40 percent and their Twitter following 80 percent since January 1st. There are now more than 40 official NYPD Twitter accounts, and the department says that dozens more are coming.

All of this got me thinking. The authority of the police department is built on more than a legal mandate. The citizenry has to buy into the authority of the police department in order for officers to do their jobs. At the heart of this “buy in” is trust and faith. The social media failures of the NYPD have more to do with a loss of trust and faith than they do with social media protocols. Beyond all that, though, the authority of the police department is built on a fragile set of symbolic tools. Although the police are, in theory, “of us,” as citizens on patrol, they are necessarily distinct from us in their training and the privileges and responsibilities that go along with it.

Police have the unique right to detain, arrest, or even kill other citizens, as circumstances dictate. It’s imperative that the public recognize and respect officers’ right to do so, and so they wear a uniform and a badge. The uniform and the badge are differences that make a difference, symbolically speaking. The uniform and badge distinguish each officer as 1) an authority separate from the typical citizen, and 2) a member of a broader system of authority trusted with the care of the community. The symbolic association is crucial and so officers have very specific protocols for wearing their uniforms and strict guidelines for the use of their badges and weapons.

In turn, the public recognizes the authority vested in the uniform, badge, and weapon and agrees to cooperate and obey commands. Of course, the reality for too many folks is that the uniform, badge, and weapon have become symbols of antagonism, racism, and corruption.

Twitter, and other forms of social media, are biased towards the familiar. They bring celebrities and politicians closers to their fans and constituents. This frequently backfires because celebrities carefully cultivate an image, which can be destroyed in a heartbeat with a single inappropriate posting, or the revealing of private photographs, as in the unfortunate case of Jennifer Lawrence and company. Politicians are similarly afflicted. The closeness of Twitter and other social media is what makes them compelling. Authority is undermined as the previously unreachable and unattainable interface with the public in a way that resembles “rubbing elbows.” This has created a new reality when it comes to fame, but it also poses a dilemma for institutions like the police department.

The struggle for police departments today is the public’s increased exposure to brutality, corruption, and the inherent racism in the system. Every incident involving an officer roughly, brutally, or fatally assaulting a civilian erodes the authority we’ve tacitly agreed upon. Our new windows into corners of the world, far flung and distant, has open our eyes to the experiences of others and the horrors of power. NYPD thinks social media also contains the antidote to this dilemma. Certainly, the old thinking about Public Relations would suggest that damage control must counter negative coverage. Meet the negative with an overwhelming positive to spin reality and you can win the PR war. In fact, the closeness of social media can’t help but undermine further the authority of the police because it’s in the nature of the technology itself. Fuzzy kitties and dad stories will meet stories of brutality on the battlefield of social media, but the content hardly matters as much as the bias of the medium. The public will no longer recognize the uniform and the badge as distinguished marks of authority, whether they feel antagonism or delight. Social media (and really electricity is the lifeblood here) guarantees the elbow-rubbing and the dispelling of old illusions cast in the guise of uniforms and badges.

Tweet away, NYPD….for all the good it will do you.

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A Tale of Two Cities

Well…actually this is two tales of one city…or two tales from one block in one borough of one city…but you get the point.

I routinely walk the length of Fordham University’s campus on the outside, along Fordham Road. As in love as I am with my academic community, I’m equally in love with the very different community that lives and works just outside the fences. I could go on and on about the things I love about the Fordham section of the Bronx and the many people I’ve come to know in my day-to-day dealings around “the office.” This is a small slice of life, and nothing more.

I jumped off the train in front of Fordham’s campus gate and began to walk up the block as I do most days. Not long after my little walk began I spied a woman in a pink t-shirt leading her 6 or 7-year old son by the hand. As I got closer, I could make out the design on the front of her shirt. It was a take on the popular “Thing 1” and “Thing 2” red t-shirts from Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat.” Instead of “Thing 1,” however, the woman’s shirt read, “Bitch 1.”

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I can’t pretend to know why the woman bought the shirt, or why she would wear it proudly with her son in tow. From a distance, it’s easy for me to wonder what kind of lessons the little man might be learning about women and respect and life. Still, I couldn’t help but think of the 1995 KRS-One track “Ah Yeah,” an ode to black militants as were many “conscious” tracks of the mid-90s. KRS-One says, “Black woman you are not a bitch, you’re a goddess.” The woman I saw was not black, but the sentiment still rang true to me regardless of race. “Woman, you are not a bitch, you’re a goddess.” I moved on….

Closer to my building, I approached a man from the rear. He was walking side by side with his 7-year old son, who I would later learn is named Nicholas. The man was wearing a black leather vest with a lot of embroidery work on the back. At the top, the vest read, “Super Stunna,” and below was a logo for the “Stunt Auto Club” of the Bronx. As I caught up to the man, I told him I liked his vest. He stopped walking and talked with me for a few minutes about the auto club. It turns out they do non-profit community work around the Bronx and even did a car show on Fordham’s campus in June. The man, “D,” told me that his son was one of four kids, and that he was taking care of a fifth as if he were his own. He talked about the importance of doing good works, and being involved with his children and his community. 

This isn’t so much a story about the good and the bad of the people I saw on Fordham Road. I don’t assume I know either of them well enough to make informed judgements. It’s a story about how a few moments’ experiences can connect and start a process of thoughtfulness. The mundane moments of life flow and intersect in ways that produce meaning. You just have to observe and participate in life to get the benefit. That’s what living the good life is all about.

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The “Quantum Imaginary”

The term “global imaginary” is associated with Global Studies scholar Manfred B. Steger, who describes the phenomenon in his 2009 book “The Rise of the Global Imaginary and the Persistence of Ideology”:

Let me suggest that there is, indeed, something genuinely new about today’s isms. These shared mental maps that help us navigate our political universe no longer correspond neatly to our familiar mental and geographical spaces built over two centuries on the foundation of sovereign and self-contained nation-state. Instead, ideologies have begun to translate into political programs and agendas of what I call the ‘global imaginary’. What I mean is a shared sense of a thickening world community, bound together by processes of globalization that are daily shrinking our planet. The rising global imaginary finds its articulation not only in the ideological claims of political leaders and business elites who reside in privileged spaces around the world. It also fuels the hopes, disappointments, and demands of migrants who traverse national boundaries in search of their piece of the global promise. In fact, the global imaginary is nobody’s exclusive property. It inhabits class, race, and gender, but belongs to neither. It is an impressive testimony to the messy superimposition of the global village on the conventional nation-state.

Of course, Steger’s idea finds some roots in the work of Benedict Anderson and his notion of Imagined Communities. Anderson relies, in part, on the idea that nations are communities that rely on mediated communication, on mass media, for their coherence rather than geographic proximity. The scale of a nation is too large to rely on face-to-face socialization, and so imagination comes into play. Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism “the global village,” seen in bold above, describes the intensification of relations brought about by electronic communication, where the perception of time and space are transformed, producing a new social arrangement…a new imagination. This is all fairly standard fare in media and globalization circles for the most part. My work involves all of these concepts and then some, but the truth is, I feel as though I’m looking in a rear view mirror, to borrow from another McLuhan wordplay. Electronic technology has been with us for generations now. The evolution of the form has smacked us all in the face, and we’re now seeing an incredibly intense manifestation of electric speed and range today. It’s a very conscious turn of events for the time being, although it’s been with us for a century.

The next “big thing” on the horizon, despite what you may hear about Google cars, robots, and uploaded consciousness, is the turn in quantum communication that’s likely to transform everything we currently know about the transmission of data. In communication scholarship circles, we frequently note the limitation of the transmission view of communication as essentially an engineering perspective, but it’s noteworthy that most communication breakthroughs occur in the solving of problems related to transmission, and later manifest culturally in the ritual forms that shape who we become as a result of our new capabilities. We’re just screwing our heads on about what digital communication means, culturally, but “the future seems to be now” with respect to quantum forms of transmission. If Sputnik ushered in the era of the global theater, as McLuhan argued, what does this quantum turn bring about? I’m going to jump out ahead of this and argue that some form of quantum imaginary will become important to our worldview. Zooming out produced a sense of unity during the global era. It’s argued, for instance, that the environmental movement owes much to the Earthscape photo that showed us, once and for all, that we’re part of a single matrix of air and water and earth. Is the quantum level too obscure to expect the same shift in perception? The fact that we can’t recognize the building blocks may limit the imagination, or perhaps it will make the imagination run wild. After all, it is our human tendency to create impressions of the things we can’t perceive or articulate with our standard senses and language. Will the quantum turn be marked by an inventiveness of language that captures the microscopic level, for better or for worse?

I’m going to keep my eyes on this because it’s what I do and the whole thing is super intriguing. I have more floating around in my noggin’ with respect to the quantum imaginary, but I’ll let it marinate and release it from time to time. Feel free to chime in….

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Let Me Clear My Throat

Recently, I’ve had occasion to teach the first several chapters of Joshua Meyrowitz‘ 1985 book “No Sense of Place.” The premise of the book is that new media produce new situations, if I might take the liberty of boiling an excellent and complicated argument to a blog-friendly little nugget. Our lives are filled with specific situational definitions, or social contexts, in which specific patterns of typical behavior can be observed. Most of the time the relationship between the situational definition and the corresponding pattern of behavior is intuitive and invisible, and so we just go about our business, mainly oblivious to all the little markers of congruent and incongruent behavior.

Take, for instance, a fight. Imagine you happen on a couple of adolescent boys wrestling on the ground. Their faces are red and intense. How is it that we assess the situation to determine whether or not the fight is real or play? Most of us will stand a safe distance from the fight and feel our way through the event, finally deciding something about its nature. “Ahhhh, they’re just messing around,” or, “Wow. Someone’s going to get killed.” Yes, occasionally our assessments prove to be false, but we’re actually pretty good at playing detective in those instances. Why?

The everyday assessment relies purely on intuition and prior experience with both actual and play fights. Unconsciously, we pick up subtle hints about how people communicate verbally or non-verbally during either situation. When we attempt to describe the clues, the game becomes much more difficult, but begins the work of the social scientist, in earnest. That’s the detective game of the trained observer. 

One of the other interesting games is the “paralleling” of social acts between different environments. Identifying the purpose of a particular gesture, allows us to relate it to similar gestures in different situations. The keys to human communication are found in this little game. Meyrowitz offers a few examples that we played with in class. Before opening the front door for a visitor, many people primp their hair and adjust their clothing. This is related to an idealized form of self-presentation required when meeting a guest. Clearing one’s throat prior to making a phone call is similar. The idealized vocal tone and presentation of voice (all you’ve got of yourself on the phone) necessitates the gesture. Meyrowitz is relying on Erving Goffman for this point, as Goffman argues that impression management involves the separation of a front stage and a back stage. The front stage is where our public performances take place, and the back stage is a place for rehearsal and private behaviors. Meyrowitz argues in the book that electronic media have blurred the lines between front and back stages. His concern is primarily television, given the mid-80s date of publication, but I think it’s easy to see how these things play out online, perhaps even more clearly 30 years later.

We promote a great deal of behavior that was once reserved for the backstage. People Instagram their meals, and Facebook their feelings, and Tweet their opinions on religion and politics. Got foot fungus? Show the world. It’s not to say that there are no boundaries between front and back stage. Clearly, the person who shares the photos of their feet risks “unfriendings” and negative feedback. We all live for ‘likes’ and ‘favorites,’ which are positive reinforcements, and react poorly when sanctioned by people in our extended networks. A lot of traditionally back stage behaviors have moved to a middle region, often tweaked before becoming part of our public performance, but a lot of other things must remain hidden. For instance, when posting about religion or politics the risk of sanction is great enough that a bit of “throat clearing” must take place before promoting one’s private opinions to the public performance. When posting a photo of the 50 stitches you received in the back of your head, you parse the multiple images that might be shared, looking for the right angle that reflects the drama you hope to communicate without any unnecessary gore. The back stage must move forward. It’s the nature of our digital media environments, but it would be a mistake to think that traditional behaviors have been completely lost in the process. We just don’t recognize them anymore. All that work you do to edit your status updates and tweets before sharing is just another throat clearing exercise. When you finally post your cleverest of thoughts and discover that you’ve spelled ‘your’ as ‘you’re’ it a bit like having cleared your throat only to sneeze when the other party picks up the phone on the other end.

 

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Mine/11

I was thinking about the anniversary of 9/11 last night with some classmates, and felt overcome with emotion about my memory of that day and the many difficult days after, watching loved ones of the victims hold up photos in the streets. There were so many photos everywhere. The train stations were like living art installations. Mainly, I walk through life trying to forget how I felt in those days and weeks, but it slips back and I welcome it. I find that I need to forget what I witnessed, especially in this world of the recording, but that it’s so important that I don’t forget my personal memory in the face of so many others’ memories and recordings. I’ve posted this in previous anniversaries, but it seems like a thing to do…my own recording….my own shadow of the day….an e-mail that I tried to send as I was in the moment. The e-mail couldn’t ‘send’ as phones and Internet were down all over lower Manhattan, but I have it and ‘send’ it in remembrance…again.

—–Original Message—–

From: Mike Plugh
Sent: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 11:47 AM
To: XXX XXX XXX
Subject: Sad day

As I entered the 23rd street office of this small marketing and promotions firm, my mind was cluttered with the lengthy commute, and the sardine can conditions of the subway car in which I had just spent over an hour.

My bagel was a dollar, and I squinted as I noticed the stingy amount of cream cheese that had been smeared onto it.

I prepared myself for another typical day at the office, turning on my computer and mumbling, “Morning,” to whoever passed my desk.

It was a few moments before 9am, and word rang out in the office that the World Trade Center had been bombed again. A quick correction indicated that a plane had struck one of the two towers. My heart sank, as I called up the photo on the front page of CNN.com. It was a sight that no one could prepare for. It was a horror.

The more frightening part of this tale was the reality that struck, as I made my way down the elevator and onto the corner of 23rd street and 5th avenue. A billowing black smoke poured into the Lower Manhattan sky as passers-by informed me that a second plane had struck the tower. A million disaster films raced through my memory in which Manhattan was destroyed by Hollywood imaginations. A tidal wave, or an alien attack would leave audiences thrilled, and on the edges of their respective seats.

This was no illusion, and there were no thrills, as normal blase’ New Yorkers gaped at the burning landmark of our city, something so easily taken for granted. The terrible scene was a spectacle so awesome that one was inclined to forget the many thousands of lives that must have been lost in the mix. Conjuring that part of the experience was a difficult emotional moment for me, and I can’t help but feel deeply saddened everytime I recall it.

Inside the mood was sullen, as employees scrambled for their cell phones. The land lines had been put out of commission, and it seemed as though everyone knew someone working in the Financial District. Some had family, and others like myself, friends. I still have no word from my best friend Cairo. I can only hope that lateness to work has spared him injury or worse.

The news in our boss’ office carried the saga of plane attacks and bombings. No real word from the president, the mayor, or the governor. Undoubtedly they are all hunkered in some bunker strategizing, while chaos reigns the streets. Many of my co-workers have gone out into those streets, walking their way home, or in caravan to friends’ homes. I may attempt a trip to Brooklyn via Queens and the 59th Street Bridge at some point, an apartment of boxes and half packed items awaiting me and my imminent move scheduled for week’s end.

Another part of me wants to be with my girlfriend Ari, safe in our empty new apartment. That’s a far longer trip, and one I’m not sure is even possible given the state of emergency that exists to this very moment. I’ll be making that decision shortly, but the mundane life that I pantomimed my way through this morning, has been shaken, and that lengthy commute would be a welcome bit of normalcy in this uncertain existence that awaits me from this point forward today.

I can’t seem to get the picture of those towers collapsing out of my head. Icons that I had so closely associated with my everyday are gone, and with them a feeling of security that we all shared until this terrible day.

Where do we go from here? How will our lives change as a result of this terror?

It may sound hackneyed and a bit rah rah, but we’re Americans, and I’m a New Yorker. I’d like to think that we are built tougher than to let this day linger. I’d like to think that those towers will be replaced by something so awesome that words cannot capture it. That’s the way we do things, and I have no reason to believe that anything will be different as the days and months go forward.

The rest of my day in unclear. I don’t know where I’ll end up tonight. I’ll be safe, and I’ll be strong. That’s all I know right now, and I guess when it all boils down to the very basic nature of our lives, that’s all we can really count on day to day anyway.

I’ll call you all when I get this mess figured out, and I love you very much.

Mike.

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The Animal in Man

Warning: This is a critique of the new film “The Wolverine” and it includes spoilers.

In 1982, as an 11-year old, I bought my first X-Men comic. It was issue #161, published in September of that year. Not long after my introduction to the X-Men Chris Claremont and Frank Miller collaborated on the 4-issue limited series, simply called “Wolverine.” That short window at the end of 1982 represented a pivotal time in my love affair with comic books and superheroes. Until I encountered Claremont’s work with X-Men, I’d been a child. I’d fallen in love with the witty, uber-responsible Peter Parker and his web-slinging Spiderman. I knew the campy Batman of Adam West and the colorful and patriotic Wonder Woman of Lynda Carter…the Superman of Christopher Reeve.

X-Men was something altogether different. Yes, there were the colorful costumes made popular in the comic genre when colored ink was first made possible. Yes, there were familiar plot lines of good versus evil. Yes, the arc of the stories still moved towards justice. The key difference in X-Men was the complexity of the characters. They were more nuanced, more flawed, more human. Their powers often prevented them from fitting into mainstream society. Even the most goody-two-shoed of the team, Cyclops, couldn’t live without his special visor, lest he unleash terrible destruction on the ones he loved most. This was his recurring fear. Nightcrawler looked like a demon and was forced into hiding after being hunted, literally with torches and pitchforks. And then there was Wolverine.

When Wolverine was first introduced to the world, in fact, the character was called Weapon X, a Canadian secret agent. It wasn’t long after the character was introduced that Claremont got his hands on him as a member of a new team of X-Men, introduced in 1975. As the story goes, Wolverine was a background character and some discussion was had about eliminating him altogether. As the popularity of the new X-Men grew, so too did interest in the character. It wasn’t until the 1982 limited series, however, that the character began its full realization. In might be said that the Claremont-Miller collaboration made Wolverine, and propelled him onto the comic book stage as a marquee character.

Now, what Claremont knew was that Wolverine was an interesting lead because he represented the struggle between animal and man. The ordered and dutiful life of a secret agent and a superhero, familiar to comic book audiences, could be challenged by the berserker in Wolverine, the animal that could emerge as vicious and unforgiving and brutal. The duality of our humanity in its rawest form came out in the Wolverine story line. It’s worth noting that the Nightcrawler character also played on the duality of his demonic appearance and the deeply Christian character inside the body.

The Claremont-Miller limited series is a masterpiece of storytelling because it’s about good vs. evil on the surface…a hero against a villain…but it’s really about the thin line between man and animal. It’s about the thin line between civilization and chaos, represented in a complex plot line about Japan. It’s a story about duty and honor in conflict with freedom and self-actualization. For the adolescent, in particular, this is a powerful struggle. On the surface, the reader is confronted with beliefs about right and wrong, good and evil, and justice…the old hero story. It’s about overcoming all odds to restore order from chaos. Beneath the surface, the story is about the conflict in all of us. It’s Id vs. Superego. The human capacity for destruction and vengeance and bloodlust is pitted against the thin veneer of control that keeps us from murder when confronted with conflict or injustice. What is that line? When would you cross it? If you won’t, do you long for someone who will on your behalf?

This tension is at the heart of the Frank Miller revival of Batman as the Dark Knight some years later. It’s at the heart of the anti-heroes represented in Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano. What is it you admire in the vigilante? What part of the mob boss satisfies your thirst for order at whatever cost?

When I sat for “The Wolverine” I had some trepidation about whether a big budget superhero film would deal with complexity or fall into the trap of the simpler and less interesting story arc. Would the film follow Claremont’s lead and challenge the audience to love Wolverine despite his brutality? Would the tension between the order of Japanese culture and its historical brutality play as the backdrop for the story? In fact, this is where the film fails at its worst.

“The Wolverine” is a film about a claw-wielding superhero who kills without shedding blood and turns off the animal at the moment it’s no longer needed. He’s troubled and haunted by his past, but he never really broods. He wakes up from vivid nightmares every night, often with claws protracted, but the audience learns to see it as normal, as apparently does Wolverine.

The chief villain in the film is the grandfather patriarch of the Clan Yashida, who Wolverine saved from the atomic blast at Nagasaki. As a prisoner of war, Wolverine witnessed the blast from up close and helped his captor, Yashida, hide in the well in which he was kept prisoner. Despite this intimate relationship with Japan, somehow modern day Wolverine can’t speak a word of Japanese and plays as a sort of gruff Bill Murray from “Lost in Translation” as he fumbles his way around many things Japanese. The Claremont-Miller series wisely makes Wolverine fluent in Japanese and expert in Japanese culture, adding incredible depth and interest in the character and his relationship to the backdrop of the story. They are one in the same. The film relies on Japan as a sort of exotic seasoning to the thrill-fueled spectacle of the superhero story.

There was purpose behind this character point, as Claremont describes in an excellent interview with Sean Howe appearing in “Vulture“:

[T]he samurai culture embodied all the conflicts that made Wolverine what he was. The struggle chronicled in Chushingura, and in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. In this movie, I kept waiting for Logan to start spouting perfect Japanese. He’s been to Japan before, and he’s a warrior. The first thing you do is learn the landscape and the language. In the comic, he spoke Japanese like a native — it had nothing to do with him being brilliant, but with him blending in. It also would have taken him another step away from the traditional superhero.

In fact, the character of Wolverine owes a lot to both of Kurosawa’s ronin films, “Sanjuro” and “Yojimbo.” Those films are masterpieces precisely because they play on the juxtaposition of the unrefined and brutal and the just and heroic. The opportunities to show this complexity in the film were squandered. Wolverine goes so far as to stab an unethical hunter in the hand with his own poisoned arrow, but chooses to walk away when convinced by a persuasive Yukio, who he’d only met for the first time. In that scene there was hope, but too often the rest of the way the audience is spared the true brutality of Wolverine’s wild side. In another scene, he interrogates a corrupt politician, punching him repeatedly in the face. He finally tosses the man out a high rise window, but the man lands safely in a pool below. The Wolverine stabs and slashes, kills and maims, with his claws. He’s confronted by tattooed Yakuza and mercilessly dispatches them, but the carnage is invisible. The audience isn’t asked to pay the price for loving The Wolverine. The audience isn’t forced to deal with the death or the viscera. In fact, his love interest, as a witness, is never forced to confront it either. It’s all too clean.

Now, one can understand that a major motion picture has to pick and choose its battles when it comes to drawing an audience. Blood and guts make Wolverine a different sort of hero for a mainstream audience. He can’t be the equal of Spiderman or Superman in the eyes of a public who’d rather put yellow ribbon bumper stickers on their cars in support of the troops than really understand the death and brutality that keeps veterans up at night. “We support you, but we don’t want to know too much.” That’s the bargain that most folks make with soldiers. Spiderman and Superman make that bargain palatable for us, which is one of the chief points of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight graphic novel. The Batman is a brutal, dirty vigilante that break bones and smashes faces. He’s a terrorist. Superman is a patriot because he lets the public believe in freedom and justice and the American way. Clean, neat, painless.

If we accept the limitations of the blockbuster summer film and forgive the cleanliness of Wolverine’s killing, there’s still plenty of room to mourn. The limited series plays Wolverine against two women, the high society Mariko, daughter of the protagonist Yashida, and the “furio” – wild child – Yukio. Wolverine loves Mariko, from whom he desperately hides the animal. She wouldn’t understand that part of him, and would most certainly reject him if she saw it. He’s the samurai to her, rigid, controlled, honorable. Yukio is an imp. She’s the enabler of Wolverine’s Id. She’s a thrill seeking woman of the streets. She rejects the formality of Japan. She’s poor and she doesn’t much care. Her poverty and her recklessness are her freedom. She uses that to her advantage in tearing Wolverine away from Mariko and for a while he likes it. The conflict between those two, very different sides of Wolverine and of Japan are compelling.

In the film, Mariko and Yukio grow up together. Yashida, the father in the comic, is the grandfather in the film. Mariko’s film father is a heartless and cruel heir to the grandfather’s crime syndicate. He’s essentially dimensionless. He confuses the plot and does very little to add depth to the other characters. Mariko is well educated and traditionally formal in many respects. Yukio is her opposite in appearance, with red hair and thigh high boots, but the film neuters one of the most important parts of the Claremont story. Yukio is adopted to the Yashida family, plucked from the streets and from poverty, as a playmate for Mariko. They’re sisters. There’s no conflict for Wolverine. One is a love interest, the other a companion and bodyguard. The animal isn’t coaxed because we never really see the animal. The missing blood and viscera and rage are measured and controlled and largely invisible. Mariko’s horror never materialized because Wolverine is simply acting as any hero would in pursuit of a damsel in distress. Yukio is similarly neutered. There is no imp. There is no Id. She’s the sister and companion to Mariko, and like Wolverine, only resorts to violence of the “Bam,” “Pow” kind as justice dictates. She doesn’t spend her days and nights playing chicken with trains or jumping off buildings for the thrill…for the escape from Japanese order. She wears both red hair and a kimono.

Instead of Claremont and Miller’s complexity, we’re asked to accept Wolverine as a “cheekier” version of our other blockbuster heroes. The naughty Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr., gets to be a flashy, billionaire playboy but his alcoholism is a minor blip of a plot point in the sequel to the excellent Iron Man debut. It’s a small obstacle to overcome, rather than a potentially debilitating character flaw that adds a human dimension to the man under the armor. “The Wolverine” similarly ends up a film about a guy lost in Japan, chasing the tormenters of his love interest, aided by her adopted sister, and foiled by a dying old man with super armor and his one dimensional venom-spitting vixen. It’s a film about those things, rather than about the animal in man or the tension between order and chaos, duty and freedom.

The scholar of myth, Joseph Campbell, critiques our attachment to the surface of stories. We often get wrapped up in the specifics of the stories we learn about Christ, or Ahab, or Luke Skywalker and forget that the reason they hold so much meaning for so many is because they challenge us to experience fundamental truths about humanity that are beyond our capacity to understand or define. The eternal truths of our myths give us something to work on during this short journey through space. Great story tellers like Claremont and Miller challenge their audience to confront these things, understanding that it’s the complexity that drives our passions. It’s the challenge of the story that makes us fall in love, that makes us live deeply. Stripping away the challenge seems like the common wisdom of most pop culture producers in a commercial environment where maximizing audiences is part of the market picture. Don’t offend. Paradoxically, the opposite is true. I doubt they’ll ever figure that out though.

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Reading is Such a Bohr

[Niehls Bohr] meant to teach us, as have other wise people, that it is better to have access to more than one profound truth. To be able to hold comfortably in one’s mind the validity and usefulness of two contradictory truths is the source of tolerance, openness, and, most important, a sense of humor, which is the greatest enemy of fanaticism. -Neil Postman (The End of Education)

I recently had occasion to assign to my students of Media and Popular Culture a selection from Neil Postman’s “The End of Education,” in which the above quote is featured. The selection, an Introduction and Chapter One, is something I consider both profound and empowering for students, and yet there seemed to be something missing in the class discussion. Now, I’m not oblivious to the type of game that students play in order to get by at universities (or other types of schools), and I expect there’s a healthy mix of students who didn’t read, didn’t read closely, read but only because they had to write a response, and of course read and enjoyed, but don’t feel comfortable speaking up in class.

The thing that was missing, beyond the aforementioned obstacles to meaningful discourse, was outside-the-book-research. For all the powers of information access we enjoy, not a single student could tell me who Niehls Bohr was, and when pressed not a single student had bothered to simply Google the name. I’ve taught Academic Reading to students in the (not too distant) past, and have always made a point, when discussing critical reading, to teach the methods. I’ve taught about previewing, skimming and scanning, writing in the margins and note-taking, and the supplemental use of web searches in finding deeper appreciation for the subject matter, including the background of the author and any references of the sort described here.

Is it that my students weren’t sufficiently trained and/or familiar with the type of reading experience I’ve mentioned? Perhaps. Were they just lazy? Maybe. I suspect that both of those things are true to some degree, but I also suspect that the problem lies at the heart of our education system. These students, you see, come from a culture of schooling that emphasizes testing and a fact-based relationship with the subject matter that favors textbooks and memorization. They’re more concerned with “what they have to know” rather than having a transformational experience through the subject matter. The outcome of the journey is accreditation and vocation. There’s nothing wrong with getting your passport stamped or rounding oneself into a desirable hire, but I suspect that the number of requirements in the system, and the culture of testing, is to blame for the perceived lack of interest in using information tools to enhance the experience of learning.

To return to the quote at the start of this post, the sentiment expressed seems to be among the top percentile of important lessons that an education can bring in a world of close-lived tensions and volatility. In an environment where selective exposure is a real issue, holding comfortably in one’s mind the validity and usefulness of two contradictory truths is a life skill worth pursuing. When exposed to that sentiment, and asked to deal with it in public, my students held back…at least at first. (They do a great job when brought out of the shell.) When distracted by the 1000+ things that they’re distracted with in life and online, how does one punctuate important truths in a way that makes schooling meaningful again? The first step is, of course, to encourage the value of reading. The second is to teach the methodologies associated with question-making and critical reading, which include the positive enhancement of reading possible through information technology. This is a current point of discussion in journalism schools, but overlaps in 1000s of important ways in discussions of schooling as well.

For the record, Niehls Bohr was a physicist and philosopher famous for modeling the atom, among other things, and for his humanitarian work in protecting European Jews from the rise of Nazism. Bohr was a philosophical father of complementarity (which informs the Postman quote further) and designed a Coat of Arms to be placed on his grave featuring the taijitsu, or yin and yang, to illustrate his commitment to a particular scientific and worldview.

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