Archive for History

  • Rob Spectre
  • 23
  • Dec
  • 09

Of the many institutions that failed us during this decade of American decline, none took the face-first diver into a freshly laid steamer like journalism.  The once critical Fourth Estate has not suffered post-modernity well, and its decay only accelerated as humanity turned the corner of another millennium of civilization.  The sensationalism and spectacle for which it was derided during the celebrity trials and presidential impeachment of the Nineties became the only way to sell newspapers and 30 second spots.  The news business became one OJ trial after another where headlines read like car dealership billboards, stories bloated with corporate spin and the street-savvy, careful  insight of the American journalist was replaced by the doe-eyed, photogenics of the beauty-pageant runnerup communications major fresh from community college.

How the media handled the medium can bear much of the blame.  Information technology made the business of distributing information so cheap and easy, the role of the international conglomerate as gatekeeper became obsolete.  A middling deal attorney could become a tech business kingmaker with a ten dollar hosting plan, open source blogging software and a clever domain name.  Two Dutch kids with a Twitter account developed the “news wire service  for the 21st century” out of their dorm.  Even your humble author was able to cobble together a few friends, sneak some work out of a graphic designer and get a platform reaching tens of thousands for less than $500.  Where the audiences flocked in the Nineties to websites that generated compelling content, more came after the turn of the century to those that served as platforms for users to create their own.  The concept of the “broadcast network” – a medium that delivered content to audiences numbering in million -  now applied to several hundred companies instead of a dozen.  Anyone could “go viral” with a piece of reporting and reach millions and expect to get picked up by one of the traditional outlets within a few days. While information distribution became effortless, verifying it became an impossible game of whack-a-mole.

With the lower barrier of entry came competition, generating a demand entirely new to the consumers of news: flavor.  Discussions around water coolers and dinner tables was less about what the news was than where those in the discussion had received.  “Oh, I heard that on NPR/CNN/MSNBC/Fox and Friends/Hannity/Olbermann/Beck/Maddow/HuffPo/TPM/RCP” became the standard response to the news scoop of the day.  Running on half the budget of the pioneer of 24-hour news, the success of Fox News at the beginning of the decade spawned the overt marketing of bias in the reporting of news.  The taglines read “fair and balanced” and “a fuller spectrum,” but the marketing message always spoke differently.  Suddenly it was less about being the leading news source and more being the leading news source with a particular demographic.  This decade marked the final victory of advertising over the newsroom; where the stories were all the same, but all packaged differently.

Accessibility was not the only culprit of journalism’s decline.  The technology for traditional broadcasting was changing as well.  High definition television, followed quickly by full high definition, completely changed the appearance of news anchors.  Looking good enough for television went from a twenty minute session with a skilled makeup artist to a two hundred grand investment in a leading plastic surgeon.  Walter Cronkite would not survive the age of HD – old, experience reporters were out, and young, telegenic talking heads were in.  Kelly O’Donnell could no longer hide her pack-a-day habit with foundation and Andrea Mitchell only looks slightly less decayed than her ancient husband.  The Dan Rathers gave way to the Katie Courics – the harsh realities of broadcasting at near-real resolution made faces more important than the brains behind them.

And once bias became a selling point and the finest minds took a backseat to the fairest skinned, the product began to show it.  We opened the decade with the colossal failure of the 2000 election, where premature announcements plunged the entire country into unprecedented month-long uncertainty over whom its next leader would be.  The next year those same Americans would spend the fretful morning hearing the conspiracy theories of every two-star crackpot in every producer’s rolodex while watching planes crash into the World Trade Center over and over and over – no more informed than at the beginning of the crisis but a shitload more scared.

The breaking news rush to speculation became such an expected consequence of this new era of journalism that an entirely new class of celebrity was born.  “Famous for being famous” was now something one could be in America.  No longer did an American have to produce a record or write a book or win a championship or campaign for public office or land an airplane in a river to become famous.  Now all one who wanted to be famous had to do was do something really stupid.

Celebrity was now attainable through news coverage alone.  One could now have another eight kids without the ability to care for them and get a reality show development deal.  One could hide his son in the attic, launch a balloon, call the TV station and become a Top Ten story of the year.  Even just getting naked on your MySpace page could get one at least to the C-list in this new America.  And if one was just hot and rich, one could get an invitation to the Oscars every year.

For the enormous advances of technology and process that made news something you found out about in minutes instead of days, American journalism retreated to its yellow beginnings.  The news business, where it still remained, became less about the story and more about the lead-in.

This decade will not be written in history as the one where American journalism died, but it will be marked as were it started dying – the twilight of the most important instrument of democracy.

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  • Rob Spectre
  • 16
  • Dec
  • 09

We greeted this century as a screaming bastard greets the doctor there to catch him as he is unceremoniously ejected from a diseased womb.  Disoriented, ungrateful and angry without cause, we shrieked at it as it embraced us, blinking like we were using our eyes for the first time.  Going hoarse after only a few minutes of sucking oxygen, we may have slowly cried ourselves out of the panic of those first few moments, but we never stopped being shit scared.

We entered this decade afraid.  Fearful that the magnificent machines we had made would fail us once the clock struck midnight.  Fearful that the strange, evil, brown men with the funny beards would detonate our liberty statues and our golden gates.  Fearful our gods were going to ride down from our heavens on their pale horses and judge us before we were ready.  But, perhaps most of all, fearful that this date which had so permeated our cultures high and popular, that had wormed its way into the titles of our song and film, the plots of our stories and plays, had been the end all and be all of the nebulously forecast thing we called future might not be.earth

We had done our level best not to get this far.  We spent so much of the first half of the century trying to kill one another off, we spent all of the last half quite nearly assured we would.  For every revolting way we devised to kill ourselves in greater number, we’d devise an equally despicable mechanic for justifying it.  Inhuman philosophy was synchronously developed with inhuman technology, insulating the consciences of staring at the buttons that could kill us all with game theories and defense conditions and survival scenarios.  We not only made the machine gun, we invented the mass production to spit one out for every man, woman and child.  We not only made the tank, we cleared the schools and rectories to get enough hands to build them.  We not only made the nuclear bomb, we devised the nationalism that could justify their use.

It was for good reason we feared the year 2000.  We never, ever expected to get there.

But whether through disaster or design, civilization survived a century at war, living to see the date that had served for decades as the setting for the post-apocalypse fictions we wrote and read to try to grapple with the gravity of our age.  By then, we each had stacks of bad films and worse comic books with “2000″ in big block letters on the front.  It was the milestone that meant cars could fly and men could travel through time.  It was the milestone that either meant global peace or complete catastrophe.  It was the milestone that promised lasers and jetpacks, warp speeds and teleporters, a single world government and a colony on the moon.

It was supposed to be the future.  The future we were never supposed to see.

Is it little wonder then that we have completely fucked up the 21st century so far?  Though scared fuck stupid and directionless, we were riding a relative period of calm and prosperity.  The industrialized nations were generating unprecedented wealth.  Their governments were shockingly running well and mostly in the black.  The developing nations to which those governments sent their checks were between genocides at the moment, suffering as all the poor do but quietly and without mass graves.  Humans were coming around to the idea that they were destroying the planet they were living on and were beginning to stop doing it so much.

Socially, economically, politically – we were set up for success.  We in America in particular had all the grounds for another grand decade.  It was like we had just figured post-modernity out. Like we found the rhythm that could make our complex machine go.

Having our shit figured out was so 20th century.  We entered this decade afraid and now after failing for ten straight years we are leaving it near-petrified.  In this (d)N0t series, I’ll be exploring this decade of fail, ten long years of humanity screwing the pooch in every conceivable way.  From blowing our fortune to shit-canning our health to sacrificing our privacy to obliterating our security to surrendering our liberty and finally acquiescing our sanity, these next two weeks will be a gonzo exploration of these past years and how we fucked every single one of them up.

And if we’re not all reaching for the nighty-night Kool-aid by the end, we’ll talk about the next ten and how we pull civilization back from the brink in front of us and fight this future of which we are so afraid.

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  • Hala V. Furst
  • 11
  • Nov
  • 09

It is 6pm in Bristol, and the restaurant is dead. “Where the fuck is everyone?” shouts the cook, bellowing all the way from the back of the kitchen up into the front of the bar. All of five feet tall, what she lacks in size she more than makes up for in volume, and a lexicon of swear words that would make a sailor blush.

Leaning over the counter to instruct the dishwasher on the best way to dig through a clamboil, she keeps up a steady commentary. “You gotta crack it open, Dave. You gotta crack it open, peel off the skin. Swish it, Dave, swish it to get the sand out. When was the last time you ate a fucking clamboil, buddy? Jesus Christ!”

She turns her attention on me, asking how school is going. They always ask how school is going, the women at the restaurant. I’ve promised her I’ll do her Will, once I pass the bar. She doesn’t have much in this world, but she has the restaurant, and she has its goodwill, and more importantly its liquor license, and she wants her two kids to split it. She wants that, and to make sure her son-of-a-bitch husband gets nothing.  From the bits and pieces I’ve collected listening in on three years of family gossip, he deserves it. He deserves worse.

This woman has not lived the life she imagined, but, like the food she sends out every night, she’s taken something ordinary, at times something worse than ordinary, and made it special. Plain pork loin gets marinated in some secret alchemy and becomes the most delicious Portuguese blademeat. Boring cod fish meets soblada and manages to transport people who haven’t seen the Azores in years back to their childhoods.

She’s told me that the bar used to be 5 people deep on a weeknight, full of cops and firemen, all the guys from the neighborhood who came in to drink for free with her father-in-law, the original owner. But those days have been gone for a while, and on this Wednesday night, exactly no one is in the restaurant but one regular, who sits at the bar every night, steadily working her way through a magnum of house chardonnay.

She’s convinced we’ve been cursed tonight by her sister, another waitress, who was stupid enough to sweep some dirt out of the restaurant and onto the street.  Their mother once told her doing that would sweep the luck away.  I’m beginning to believe her.

So at 7pm, when I see her walk resolutely through the small dining room to the front door with a broom and a dustpan, I know what she’s going to do. She opens the door and steadily sweeps leaves inside, carefully, thoroughly, willing the luck to return. She picks up the leaves one by one, throws them in the garbage, gives me a wink and says, “Now we’ll see what happens.”

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  • Robert Taylor
  • 05
  • Aug
  • 09

It all started in Manila. When the US easily defeated a weaker Spanish fleet in the Caribbean during the Spanish-American War, the US shrugged off the modest and prudent restraints of a constitutional republic and embraced the heavy burdens of empire. Victory over Spain allowed the US to conquer Spains’ former colonies (Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam) and stretched its imperial guns to the shores of the Philippines.

Imposing our will on the Philippines was no easy task, and the US Army wiped out 200,000 Filipinos who dared to resist foreign occupation. President McKinley, proud of “Christianizing” the already Catholic Filipinos, put on an emperor’s crown as he saw the Stars and Stripes fly on foreign soil, and the American Empire was born.

A couple decades later, the Japanese began dabbling in their own imperial slaughter, razing their way through the Asian mainland in a fury. US hegemony in the Pacific was soon threatened by the Japanese Empire, and the US responded provocatively with an oil embargo, selling boatloads of weapons to China, and encircling the island. The Japanese, sick of being bullied and provoked by the US, bombed Pearl Harbor (yet another US colony, not even a state at the time).

The rest, as they say, is history. The world witnessed a war that left continents in ashes, cities destroyed, millions dead and wounded, and massive ethnic cleansing. 64 years ago, WW2 finally came to a close when the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, then three days later dropped another on Nagasaki.

Anniversaries are a time for reflection, and this haunting one is no exception. Yes, these acts were war crimes and in a just world, FDR and Truman would be scorned and hated for what they sanctioned. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were terrible, but not much is mentioned about the firebombing of Tokyo and the incineration of over 100 Japanese civilian cities under their watch.

More than examining the horrors that occurred on August 6th and 9th, 1945, the nuking of Japan should be a reminder to the entire world of the dangers of nuclear war. The Cold War is over, and the thought of nuclear war has somewhat faded from the American mind, but the threat is not entirely hidden. There are still nine countries (US, Russia, Israel, England, France, Pakistan, India, North Korea) that have a combined 27,000 operational nuclear weapons that could destroy plenty of Earths.

The threat of nuclear war is even more dangerous now considering that the ones dropped on Japan were 115-ton bombs, which are slingshots with rocks compared to the nukes that the US and Russia now possess. In a matter of 15 minutes, the US and Russia could conceivably launch 100,000 Hiroshimas.

President Obama deserves some credit for publicly embracing the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, talking with Russia about nuclear disarmament, and initiating talks in the Senate about finally signing the long overdue Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (which would effectively ban the production of nuclear material for weapons). Despite these positive signs, the Obama Administration will still spend $6 billion this year researching new ways to incinerate the world.

The anniversary of the atomic bombings of Japan may be in the past, but they serve as a constant reminder of the incredibly destructive power of modern warfare.

Please check out Robert’s Examiner blog here.

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  • Hala V. Furst
  • 04
  • Jul
  • 09

“Buddy! Buddy! Buddy!” shouted the crowd, as former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci, newly freed from prison,  walked on by. The Bristol 4th of July Parade was going strong in its 224th year.

Photo: J. Stephen Conn

Photo: J. Stephen Conn

Bristol, my current home town, prides itself on the longest continuous 4th of July Parade in the United States. The festivities start a full week before the holiday, and continue night and day until the arrival of the Fourth. People stay up the night of the 3rd to drink and scope out seating for the parade, which is more of a right of passage than an actual parade-watching necessity. Every night of the past week I’ve gone to sleep to the noise of Black Cats and drunken revelry in anticipation of the big day.

As we watched Senators Whitehouse and Reed shuffle by along side hometown heroes like Ms. Fourth of July and Bristol Fire Department, I realized what small lives my neighbors live.  They put their lawns through the paces and construct elaborate lawn decorations just waiting for this day. The day that for any other municipality exists only as an obligatory beach or pool day exists in the minds of Bristolians as the apex of their year.

But the nation needs towns like Bristol, towns that exist only to celebrate the patriotic nostalgia that the rest of us only entertain on high American holidays. We need there to be somewhere in this country where civic pride reigns supreme and the military exercises always continue.  We need someone to commit to believing in the romanticism of America when we can’t muster the strength. We need someone to stand on this wall. Bristol stands ready.

So to Bristol I raise a glass of morning patriotism in the from of a Bloody Mary.  I cheers them through the fog of cannon fire and the smell of gun powder. I laugh at the costumes and I yelp at the sight of military personnel, fresh from battle, still a thousand miles away from home.  I raise my glass to the tri-corner hats, and the hokey costumes, and the fife and drum players from Woonsocket, because they remind me that no matter how dark our national nightmare, we were once an idea, an idea that is perhaps only fully realized in the fleeting morning hours of a small town parade.

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