A good article on Grammarly this week describes how young writers might identify and develop their personal style. It's good advice for both formal and casual writing. And it will help you develop good habits and hone your skills as you write for various projects in your life. Take a look at the article here, and get writing!
I teach both composition and creative writing, and while I stress formulaic patterns for students to practice until they get pretty good, eventually they will identify their own personal writing style. With a large enough sample size, in fact, each person's specific idiosyncrasies can be scientifically proven (take a look at the book I reviewed by Ben Blatt for more info). I know I have several stylistic techniques I rely on. I like mixing really long sentences with really short ones. Even fragments. Like that one, and this one. I also like to start sentences with "And" because it can emphasis. I also employ quite a bit of sarcasm, depending on what I'm writing about. And I use dashes when commas or parentheses don't fit my mood that day. But I'm only aware of those personal touches because I've been writing for so long. Young writers may not have developed that sense of themselves yet.
A good article on Grammarly this week describes how young writers might identify and develop their personal style. It's good advice for both formal and casual writing. And it will help you develop good habits and hone your skills as you write for various projects in your life. Take a look at the article here, and get writing!
Like most English teachers, I spend countless hours reading student papers and making grammatical edits. I do it so much that my brain seems to see in auto-pilot those odd sentence constructions or misplaced punctuation marks and automatically guide my red pen-grasping hand toward the page without much of a thought. But every so often, something will pop up that makes me do a double take.
A student recently wrote the word "awhile" on a paper, and I startled at the odd little word and tried to remember the last time I had seen it in print. I commonly write "a while" as two words, so this form made me reconsider the distinction between these two uses.
"A while" as two words can be replaced in a sentence by a unit of time since it's a noun phrase. For example: "It has been a while since I used that word." I could just as easily say, "It has been five years since I used that word." Therefore, the phrase "a while" is correct.
"Awhile" as one word is an adverb used for description and literally meaning "for a period of time." For example: "She went to the park to play awhile." Awhile is describing the verb "play." Since we could substitute, "She went to the park to play for a period of time," this sentence is correct. I can't say, "It has been for a period of time since I used that word."
I think this is tricky because when we speak, we don't notice the distinction. But perhaps this tip will help you when putting these options into print.
It's not often that I have to investigate a grammar rule, but it's a good reminder that even your teachers can be, if not completely stumped, at least mildly confused by English grammar just as everyone else is from time to time.
I don't usually watch awards shows--the self-congratulation pretty much sickens me. But I did see the final winners list from last night's Emmys. What we can tell from a cursory examination is how un-democratic television has become in recent years. The trend toward premium and streaming services is continuing at full speed. This seems to be at odds with celebrities' constant drum of equality and broad arts access and funding. Here's the breakdown:
There were 22 main categories awarded last night, with 130 total nominees. Of those, 55 nominees were from national networks and basic cable; this means 75 came from premium channels like HBO or streaming services like Netflix. Fifteen of the Emmy winners came from those additional fee providers, while only seven came from basic networks. Clearly, among nominees and winners, there is an imbalance that tilts heavily in favor of the least accessible television options.
There are still large sections of the country who only have access to limited television programming or choose not to purchase additional service providers. For many of the shows' honorees, one can only imagine how few viewers those programs actually receive in relation to the total viewers across the country.
For those actors, writers, directors, producers, and other celebrities in Hollywood who repeatedly speak of representing all people or telling underrepresented people's stories, putting work on channels or services fewer people actually watch seems a contradiction in the democratizing force of television. After all, how come none of last night's nominees were from PBS? If reaching all Americans with art and culture is so important, why exclude so many of them from viewing?
I'm all for premium services and streaming, and I purchase some of them myself. I do believe that most of the best content today does appear through them. However, we must realize that Hollywood's real incentives are clear: they choose to put money in their own pockets rather than share their art with the rest of the country. And then they give each other awards for doing so.
Jean Twenge is a smart lady. Listen to what she says.
Tuesday night's newest episode of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, "Year of the Scab," offers a great lesson in economics amid the backdrop of professional football. It was 1987, a year many football fans would like to forget. But for people interested in how unionizing is a form of discrimination and an affront to free association should definitely check it out.
I remember as an eight-year-old watching my beloved Denver Broncos play on Monday Night Football against our most hated rival, the L.A. Raiders. But John Elway and all of my favorite players weren't on the field that night. Instead, there were guys no one had ever heard of, and would likely never be heard from again. They were strike-breakers, or scabs. And they were professional football players for a few moments in time.
When the NFL players union was displeased with their bargaining agreement, especially regarding access to free-agency, they went on strike, refusing to play on Sundays. This infuriated many fans around the country, some of whom returned their season tickets and refused to watch the inferior players attempting to play a game reserved for the best of the best. But the strike turned out to backfire on the players. They lost their battle against owners and, when some replacement players turned out to be enjoyable to watch, they struggled to regain the fans' faith.
There is certainly nothing wrong with forming unions--people are free to try to bargain for better working conditions. The problem occurs when union members infringe upon the rights of the employer to continue their business practice by hiring replacement employees. What is so fascinating about the ESPN documentary is how it shows the union athletes invoking violence against not only the team management and the replacement players, but even the fans. But for anyone with a knowledge of history and economics, this is not a surprise.
Economist Murrary Rothbard has written of the real history of unions:
Union history in America is filled with romanticized and overblown stories about violent strikes: the Pullman strike, the Homestead strike, and so on. Since labor historians have almost all been biased in favor of unions, they strongly imply that almost all the violence was committed by the employer’s guards, wantonly beating up strikers or union organizers. The facts are quite the opposite. Almost all the violence was committed by union goon squads against the property of the employer, and in particular, against the replacement workers, invariably smeared and dehumanized with the ugly word “scabs.” (Talk about demeaning language!) The reason unions are to blame is inherent in the situation. Employers don’t want violence; all they want is peace and quiet, the unhampered and peaceful production and shipment of goods. Violence is disruptive, and is bound to injure the profits of the company. But the victory of unions depends on making it impossible for the company to continue in production, and therefore they must zero in on their direct competitors, the workers who are replacing them (Making Economic Sense 137).
Employees always have the right to negotiate, and they also have the freedom to quit if they are unhappy. Employers should also have the right to keep their business functioning by hiring new labor. The people that benefit most are those that are able to obtain a new job and an acceptable wage (one presumably higher than other employment options available to them). In 1987, the strike allowed hundreds of players who never got to live their lifelong goal of playing on an NFL field to have that chance. It's a shame those men had to face discrimination and violence.
A good lesson for life: If you don't want to work, don't be surprised when there are people waiting to take your place who are happy for the opportunity to earn a living or pursue a dream. Be sure to watch "Year of the Scab" on ESPN re-runs or OnDemand, and learn a valuable lesson of economics and freedom of work. Here's an extended clip...
It's been 16 years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and with each anniversary that passes, I fear that young people today will continue to become further removed from that fateful day. Today's college students are likely too young to remember, and many high schoolers were not even born by 2001. To them, it's not a part of their world, and it's becoming just another footnote in history, an entry on a timeline of things older generations believed were important.
But I remember.
I was just 22 years old, having ventured alone into the unknown and far from my Indiana home, and I was in charge of my first class of fifth graders in south Florida. We had only been in session a month, and I was still getting my legs under me--which takes a while, as any new teacher will tell you. We were doing a math lesson on that morning when our school counselor popped her head into my classroom to drop off some paperwork on one of my students. As she was leaving, she said, "I think something weird has happened in Washington D.C. A big fire maybe?" I didn't think much of it, and we continued our lesson.
My kids had the first lunch slot in the school, 10:50 am, so after our math, I took the kids down to the cafeteria. When I returned, I flipped on our classroom television to check the news. And the towers were gone. I usually made a quick peanut butter sandwich during my break, but not that day. I just sat and watched. Footage looped endlessly, each plane piercing the buildings, fireballs spewing forth. Deaths replayed again and again. The crumbling of earth and concrete and glass and all of the most terrible things of your imagination in a cloud that enveloped the city, and a nation.
I quickly started wondering what I should do with my class the rest of the day. Should I let them watch the tv coverage? Should we discuss what's happening? Is this a history lesson playing itself in real time? I decided against it. If I had high schoolers, maybe. But not my fifth graders.
So we worked. The kids went through the rest of the day oblivious, and I held on to the worst secret I've ever had. We laughed and read and talked and studied, just like we had every day previous. We stuck to the routine. On a day that was the complete opposite of routine.
Maybe that's the lesson. When the world seems to be crumbling around you, stay focused on the task at hand. At least that's what I decided we would do that day.
They would learn of the events later that afternoon, like everyone would, when they went home and turned on their own televisions and sat with their families and asked each other questions. Will we have school tomorrow? What if there's another attack?
Why would anyone kill innocent civilians on purpose?
No one knew. No one knew how our lives would change from that day forward. And no one knew that all these years later, we would still be dealing with its aftermath. And it was the not knowing that brought us together.
So that's what I did on a beautiful Tuesday morning 16 years ago.
I hope young people don't wander through this life blind and deaf to how our culture has changed. I hope they realize that our connections to one another are defined by moments, sometimes tragic ones. And that those moments shape our collective human experience for many years to come. I hope tragedies won't be the only events that bring people together. And I hope as kids get older and school calendars fly by like confetti in the wind that even if they don't remember, they don't forget.
This brand new video from Vox is pretty cool for how it addresses a real problem students, and the public in general, have in dealing with artistic production. How do we know if something's good? Why do artists obscure their intentions and meanings? If something is easy to make, does it make it less valuable or important? I try to guide students toward deciphering these questions when I teach various literary movements, particularly modernism. But analyzing painting raises the same problems, and perhaps in a more obvious way. Though I am far from an expert in visual art, this video is helpful for anyone who's ever been turned off by a seeming lack of beauty or artistry in literature/music/art or any other piece of creativity. Perhaps the message has more to do with you as the viewer than it does the art itself. This may not make you love this style, but maybe it will help it make a little more sense.
HuffPost Comedy started a new twitter hashtag this week that is right up every English Champion's alley. Take a look at the clever twist some participants have put on some classic literary titles.
Jane Eyre BNB, The Great Gatsbae, Sense and Sensitivity Training, Tinder is the Night, Meh Expectations, and The Instagram of Dorian Gray are a few of my favorites. But one tweeter's entry--The Organic, Locally Sourced, Non-GMO Grapes of Wrath--may be the best of them all. Follow the link and join in the game. And don't forget to actually read some of those great books this month.
I have a lot of athletes in my classes, and I'm always showing them how academics are related to athletics. There is no better example of how discipline, preparation, and intelligence lead to success than the New England Patriots. Last night, priming us for the beginning of the NFL season this week, NBC aired "Do Your Job--Part 2," a follow-up to the original episode that appeared after the 2014 season and the Patriots' amazing last second victory in the Super Bowl over the Seahawks. Part 2 analyzes last year's equally amazing comeback win against the Falcons, overcoming a 25-point deficit to prevail in overtime.
What is worth watching in this show is how much the coaches and players pay attention to details. They look for any advantage that may help, and they work really, really hard. When doing uphill wind sprints early in the year, Belichick says, "Put your work in the bank, so you'll have it later when it matters the most." Sure enough, when it was crunch time in the Super Bowl, it was the Falcons who got tired, not the Pats. Yes, the Pats have the greatest quarterback in football history, but they've won their titles with a rotating cast over the years and very few superstars. Instead, they win by studying and preparing, and then studying and preparing some more.
If you want to be great not only on the field or court, you have to use your brain as much as your body. You can't just show up and be the best. The same is true in the classroom. To gain skills and be ready for the ultimate tests that life will throw at you, the work you put into studying and preparation will make the difference. Are you working as hard in your classes as you do at your sport? The show will re-air on Wednesday on NFL Network, or check OnDemand. Enjoy!
An interesting case developed this week at the University of Rochester in New York. A freshman student has already been sent home after it was discovered that she misrepresented herself on her application forms. The student stated during her admission process that she had been home-schooled through high school and provided the adequate documentation proving her credentials. However, the student had actually attended a private school during those years. Therefore, it was determined that the student was hiding something, perhaps some sort of grievance with her former school, by completely fabricating a story about her secondary education experience.
Big question #1: how incompetent is this school that it didn't do a thorough enough examination of the student to catch this deceit in the first place. Pretty lax admissions standards over there at Rochester, eh?
But what makes this story interesting is how the student was found out. Upon getting accepted to the university, she (of course!) felt the need to go post on social media how excited she was to begin school at Rochester. However, someone affiliated with school saw the post and was confused by it. The student in question had never asked the school for any documentation or letters of reference to be sent to Rochester, nor had she ever mentioned to anyone before that she was even applying to that school. Rochester was then contacted about the deceit, and the student was expelled.
Big question #2: who is the busybody from this school trolling the internet and butting into people's lives to rat them out?
I wish was there was more information available about this incident. What exactly was the student covering up? What kind of high school did she go to? What other details about her situation could clarify this for us? One has to wonder if this were a student from a low-performing school in a high-poverty district, was from a single-parent household, had an immigrant background, did volunteer work with the elderly, was a math genius, and only fudged her transcript because she was embarrassed about a minor problem at school, if Rochester would've viewed her deceitfulness as ingenuity and a brave step toward improving her future.
Big question #3: why in the world would this student tell the world about the fraud she just got away with?
Because she couldn't help it. This is our culture. We have to tell the world every single thing about our lives, all the time. Even when we do something stupid, like breaking school policies, we somehow have developed this narcissistic burning desire to show the world how clever we are. So allow me to let social media users in on a little secret that no one else is brave enough to tell you. We don't care about seeing the 4,000th photo of your baby. We don't care about your puppy or your cat. We don't want to see yet another selfie of you at the gym. And even though getting into college is an valuable part of your development, if it's really that important, just call people on the phone and give them the good news...you know, like a human being. Just live your life. If people want to see something or hear about something, they will ask you personally. Otherwise, the world doesn't need an open window into your daily existence, especially when you are lying and cheating.
Here's the lesson, folks: when you break the rules and happen to get away with it, don't blab about it on social media.
I must give credit where credit is due, though the following should be the norm on any college campus, not a news-worthy exception. The Chancellor of UC Berkeley, Carol Christ, circulated this announcement to kick off the school year. I hope she sticks by her principles here and the faculty and students support this initiative regarding free speech on campus, though at a place like Berkeley, I won't hold my breath. Here's what she said:
"This fall, the issue of free speech will once more engage our community in powerful and complex ways. Events in Charlottesville, with their racism, bigotry, violence and mayhem, make the issue of free speech even more tense. The law is very clear; public institutions like UC Berkeley must permit speakers invited in accordance with campus policies to speak, without discrimination in regard to point of view. The United States has the strongest free speech protections of any liberal democracy; the First Amendment protects even speech that most of us would find hateful, abhorrent and odious, and the courts have consistently upheld these protections.
"But the most powerful argument for free speech is not one of legal constraint — that we’re required to allow it — but of value. The public expression of many sharply divergent points of view is fundamental both to our democracy and to our mission as a university. The philosophical justification underlying free speech, most powerfully articulated by John Stuart Mill in his book, On Liberty, rests on two basic assumptions. The first is that truth is of such power that it will always ultimately prevail; any abridgement of argument therefore compromises the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. The second is an extreme skepticism about the right of any authority to determine which opinions are noxious or abhorrent. Once you embark on the path to censorship, you make your own speech vulnerable to it.
"Berkeley, as you know, is the home of the Free Speech Movement, where students on the right and students on the left united to fight for the right to advocate political views on campus. Particularly now, it is critical that the Berkeley community come together once again to protect this right. It is who we are.
Nonetheless, defending the right of free speech for those whose ideas we find offensive is not easy. It often conflicts with the values we hold as a community — tolerance, inclusion, reason and diversity. Some constitutionally-protected speech attacks the very identity of particular groups of individuals in ways that are deeply hurtful. However, the right response is not the heckler’s veto, or what some call platform denial. Call toxic speech out for what it is, don’t shout it down, for in shouting it down, you collude in the narrative that universities are not open to all speech. Respond to hate speech with more speech.
"We all desire safe space, where we can be ourselves and find support for our identities. You have the right at Berkeley to expect the university to keep you physically safe. But we would be providing students with a less valuable education, preparing them less well for the world after graduation, if we tried to shelter them from ideas that many find wrong, even dangerous. We must show that we can choose what to listen to, that we can cultivate our own arguments and that we can develop inner resilience, which is the surest form of safe space. These are not easy tasks, and we will offer support services for those who desire them.
"This September, Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos have both been invited by student groups to speak at Berkeley. The university has the responsibility to provide safety and security for its community and guests, and we will invest the necessary resources to achieve that goal. If you choose to protest, do so peacefully. That is your right, and we will defend it with vigor. We will not tolerate violence, and we will hold anyone accountable who engages in it.
"We will have many opportunities this year to come together as a Berkeley community over the issue of free speech; it will be a free speech year. We have already planned a student panel, a faculty panel and several book talks. Bridge USA and the Center for New Media will hold a day-long conference on October 5; PEN, the international writers’ organization, will hold a free speech convening in Berkeley on October 23. We are planning a series in which people with sharply divergent points of view will meet for a moderated discussion. Free speech is our legacy, and we have the power once more to shape this narrative."
A new school year is upon us, and while everyone is already fretting about grades, how mean their professors are, and if buying the textbook for that Intro. to Sociology will be worth it, I want to offer some social life advice. It can be very easy to form ourselves into ready-made social groups, becoming instant friends with those who share daily interests and proximity. We usually, especially as freshmen, hang out most with our dormmates. If we play a sport, our teammates quickly become our best friends. If we participate in music or some other campus activity, we cling to those other participants. It's easy to get locked into forming tight-knit social groups with those who are already most like you, or who are simply the most accessible.
But I want to challenge you this year to branch out. Make friends with people who are from completely different backgrounds and enjoy completely different activities.
I was an athlete in college, and I did spend countless hours with my fellow basketball players. They were certainly my friends, but we made a concerted effort to go as a group to support other teams and athletes. I would never watch certain sports on television, but when your friends are on the field or the court, it becomes a great time. We would sit together at volleyball or baseball or soccer games and cheer our brains out for our fellow competitors. And they usually did the same for us. We basketball players were a tight-knit group, but we extended that group the best we could.
And I personally enjoyed having friends who were not athletes at all. Some of my best friends, by the end of my four years, were those from the music and drama departments, as well as from other majors like religion or philosophy. I enjoyed going to their recitals and plays. I enjoyed getting into deep discussions. I enjoyed learning new things from them and not thinking about sports or my own major all the time. And I had just as much (or more) fun with them as I did my teammates or those I saw every day in my major classes.
Be open to new friendships this year. There are really cool people all over the place, but you have to be willing to meet them and hang out. Invite someone to lunch, chat with someone in a hallway, sit by someone different in class. College is about learning to become a person. Start out by getting to know as many other persons as possible. Have a great school year!
In honor of tomorrow's fight between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor, check out this funny clip from SNL this week. It is a bit strange how easy it is for mainstream media like SNL to be racist toward Irish people. I'm triggered and demand a safe space! Anyway, Mayweather is a massive favorite at -550 in Vegas, and McGregor might be in big trouble, but it will still be a heckuva show. Enjoy the fight!
Two great articles on Inc.com appeared recently, here and here, that all young people should read. They both give advice on what it takes to be successful as a writer, whether you want to be a famous fiction writer on bestseller lists or someone who writes articles for blogs, magazines, or other publications.
Colleges don't do a very good job of helping students who want to use their writing talents navigate the real world. Learning to write and learning to make a living writing are two very different things, and the author of these two pieces does a great job offering practical advice that will help anyone. Even if you have no interest in writing as a career, the principles about discipline and production are applicable to any industry.
There are many ways to become a published author, but make sure you're ready for what that really means. Take a look at the articles, and get yourself on the right track.
After a hiatus from feature films, director Steven Soderbergh is back with a fun, redneck Ocean's Eleven-style caper that is full of great performances and is just what is needed to buoy a lackluster summer film season.
Proud West Virginians, the Logan brothers, Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver), have a cursed family history and just can't seem to get ahead. Jimmy has lost his mining job and his wife, while Clyde is missing an arm (or a hand, to be more precise) and runs a local bar. Their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) is a scantily clad hairdresser who thinks she's the voice of reason but turns out to be plenty game for her brothers' hijinks. When the Logans decide to change their fortune by robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway on race day, they enlist the help of the Bang brothers, led by in-car-cer-a-ted explosives artist Joe (Daniel Craig), along with other town (and prison) acquaintances. Jimmy needs the money to be closer to his young daughter, who is moving to another city, and if the Logans can pull off their scheme, they just might be able to save the family name.
The machinations of how the heist goes down are way too complicated to discuss here, but just know that there's a prison fire, a stolen Ford Mustang, a tetanus shot, a children's beauty pageant, some prosthetic appendages, a few bags of gummy bears, and Dwight Yoakam are all involved. Just as in Soderbergh's Ocean's franchise, we ultimately don't really care about how complicated the plot gets or how exactly each step precisely falls into place. We care about the characters, and we want to hang out with them for two hours, no matter what they might be doing. The film does seem to lose momentum toward the end, as it's difficult to tell if the last twenty minutes are the third act or an extended denouement. And there is some doubt about what may happen to this crew after the credits roll. The ambiguity of the final minutes could be very smart or very lazy, but it's fun nonetheless.
There isn't a single misstep in casting, as each star gets a chance to shine. It's fun seeing James Bond in a striped jump suit with a southern accent. And when he begins writing chemistry equations on an underground wall, I nearly lost it. Adam Driver continues to grow as an actor and is perhaps my favorite person in the film. His deliberate drawl and sincere face provide an instant sympathetic connection, even though you know there's probably just a hint of crazy behind those eyes. And Seth MacFarlane and Hillary Swank have cameos that wink at the audience just the right amount.
I'm always a little uncomfortable when watching a film that explores stereotypes of the South. After all, the characters in the film must simultaneously be the most intelligent and most moronic people one can imagine. We must laugh at their stupidity, while also believing their ingenuity. That's a high-wire act Soderbergh and his cast are able to pull off because the ride is so enjoyable. In lesser hands, the film could've been an uncreative gag poking fun at people who don't usually have a voice to defend themselves.
All in all, Logan Lucky is an enjoyable romp with enough twists to keep you on the edge of your seat, enough clever dialogue to keep you laughing, and enough heart to keep you caring about these characters. It's a great way to bring the summer to a close.
I just discovered the PhD Comics twitter feed this week, which takes a funny look at the life of academia. Here's a sample of what it feels like the last weekend before a new semester. Enjoy!
A great economics article appeared yesterday over at Mises.org that every young person should check out. The brilliantly titled piece, "I Just Got Price-Gouged and I'm Still Smiling" is about how prices fluctuate based on consumer demand in varying situations. When resources are limited (as all resources are), it's impossible to have enough information to determine a sense of ultimate value. Therefore, the pricing mechanism serves to tell us what is available at that time and place and lets the consumer decide to what extent he/she wants or needs that product. When prices go up, we are receiving information about that resource--that supplies are getting low or demand is increasing. When prices go down, the inverse set of information is usually true. We then decide how much we would like to spend or invest based on those circumstances. If I'm desperate, I might pay more. If I can do without, my lack of purchase allows someone else the opportunity to buy that they wouldn't otherwise have had. This is how prices work.
Sometimes, we may feel that producers (retailers or whoever is selling something) are charging too much for a particular item. Our assumption that it's "too much" shows our incomplete information regarding the availability of the resource. We can complain all we want, but it doesn't change the reality that resources are limited and can only be distributed efficiently is prices are able to adjust. (Among MANY other reasons, this pricing problem is essentially why socialism can never be a legitimate economic system.)
The author of the article gives an excellent example of how an umbrella vendor charges more during a rainstorm on the streets of New York. It appears as if he is taking advantage of walkers who don't want to get wet by hiking up his price. However upset this may make us, economic logic tells us this is exactly what he should do. It makes perfect sense based on the availability of the given resource, in this case the number of umbrellas he has to sell.
Only the retailer and the consumer can make the decision on what the price can be and if a purchase will be made. They are the only ones with a clear sense of their own marginal utility. A third party should never be involved as it distorts the economic transaction because of the inherent lack of information the additional party is working with. This is why free people making their own decisions on what they want and what they are willing to spend is the only way to distribute resources efficiently. When a third party gets involved (usually government), prices tend to either skyrocket because of administrative bloat or supplies vanish because of inefficient allocation. The people who truly want or need that particular resource are usually harmed, while those with endless money or political connections (those least affected by market volatility) are the only ones who can benefit.
The article does a great job of taking a fairly complex idea and demonstrating its easy-to-understand applicability in the real world. For those out there seeking extra credit, check out Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek's famous essay, "The Use of Knowledge in Society," for more info.
I've been following the series The History of Comedy on CNN, and last night's episode was about political humor. It didn't take long for me to notice something very strange happening in the broadcast. What should have been a down-the-middle examination of how it is healthy in a free democracy to mock those in power and how using humor can be a more effective method of communication than candidate commercials, policy speeches, or news reports, quickly became an agenda-driven exhibition of political bias.
Shakespeare used the fool/jester/clown character to be the one voice that could speak honestly to and about the king. While that character was often played for laughs, it always served a vital role as a reflection of both the leader's consciousness and the audience's.
However, the fool doesn't pick and choose which type of king to poke fun at. The king is always to be poked fun at. But that is not what most comedians (and in the case of CNN, the news organizations that document and support their messages) do. They claim to be equal opportunity offenders, that they want to expose all political hypocrisy, that they don't pick sides. But, as it turns out, these comedians are some of the biggest hypocrites of all.
After watching for a while, I hit rewind on my DVR and started over from the beginning. I grabbed a pen and paper and began to keep some statistics. Here is what I discovered.
There were approximately 23 straightforward jokes or insults aimed at Republicans (or conservatives), approximately 6 aimed at Democrats (or liberals), and approximately 6 aimed at both groups simultaneously. There were also 6 clear incidents of comedians speaking with fear and sadness about the election of Donald Trump. No such incidents were shown regarding the 2008 election of Barack Obama. The vast majority of Saturday NIght Live clips were about Republican politicians, with clips of Democrats Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Bernie Sanders barely registering as insults or jokes. In fact, one SNL sketch showing Larry David playing Sanders was actually a joke about David and his sit-com Curb Your Enthusiasm, rather than Sanders himself.
In the SNL era, there have been 22 years of Republican presidents and 20 years of Democrat presidents, an amazing balance and a testament to America's ideological diversity. Therefore, for all those comedians claiming they are willing to criticize any party in power, we should see roughly similar numbers of jokes and insults about each party. One interviewee said, "Good comedy is about mocking the status quo." By definition, the status quo has been in both political camps fairly evenly in recent history. However, the amount of ridicule is nowhere near even.
One comedian, Bill Maher, is shown as a stalwart of speaking truth to power. Fellow comic Marc Maron describes how Maher is excellent at skewering both sides, and Maher himself says on camera, "My job is to hold politicians' feet to the fire no matter who is in power." So, how did CNN portray this even-handed comedian? Maher is shown making 5 jokes about Republicans, 0 jokes about Democrats, and 0 jokes about politicians in general. The one reference he makes to Hillary Clinton is actually a point of praise, not an insult. And he is the bulldog of independent political comedy? By the way, let's not forget that Maher personally donated $1 million to the 2012 Obama campaign? Are we to honestly believe that he "holds all politicians' feet the fire"? Funny, I don't remember the Fool being a Beverly Hills-living, millionaire donor to King Lear's campaign against the French.
I was stunned to see that throughout the full hour of the show, not a single jab was taken at Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, both of whom were in office for 8 years and created mountains of material for criticism. Instead, Clinton is shown looking cool and playing saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show, and Obama is funny and collected on Between Two Ferns and at the White House Correspondence Dinner.
It's amazing how oblivious both these comedians and CNN are to their own partisanship. I'm not surprised that comedians lack so much diversity that they all have the same political views. What surprises me more is that no producer or editor at CNN, when making this episode, bothered to say, "Gee, we sure have a lot of clips ripping on one side of the political spectrum. Since we are a news network that seeks credibility for non-partisanship, maybe we should seek out comedians with different political views and find jokes that criticize all politicians evenly." But that would take a bit too much self-awareness for these Hollywood-seeking suck-ups.
I like when comedians satirize, or outright castigate, politicians or certain agenda-driven groups. And I don't want these comedians portrayed in this documentary to stop what they're doing. I just hope they would be a bit more open-minded in their social criticism--to see that all politicians should be held to account, that all of them are worthy of mocking, and that it's okay to be funny about people you happen to agree with. Don't worry, no one's going to take away your precious lefty card. If you really believe in free speech--and comedy--broaden your horizons a bit and make fun of everybody. Trust me, your career, and your reputation as a legitimate social critic, will only go up. And in this time when we could all use more laughs, stop looking at only half of society for your material.
This week, I was able to see two excellent films on a big screen, which I had never been able to do before. An art house theater presented 1976's Taxi Driver, and our large chain theaters in town showed 1992's Reservoir Dogs. Because of my age, I had only seen these films on DVD, but I had seen the former probably 5-7 times overall and the latter around 20 times over the years. But seeing them on a full screen with fellow viewers was an excellent and uncomfortable experience. The language and the blood and the psychological implications of these classics can be hard to take in, but the cinematic energy, through expanded and intensified image and sound that simply cannot be replicated on a home television, is powerfully palpable and an experience not to be missed.
As I grow older, and hopefully wiser, I find myself more understanding and empathetic toward characters like Travis Bickle. For many, his name is synonymous with sociopathy--he's a loose cannon who wants to take vengeance on everything he sees. While this is true, to a degree, he is also a man who simply has a hard time fitting in and understanding his place in New York City specifically and the world in general. He's a war veteran with stunted social skills and insomnia who doesn't understand why the world is as filthy as it is, all the while participating in some of it himself. Is it surprising that he's frustrated? He's a man torn between what he would like to do and the bounded structures of his cultural environment. It's an excellent clash of id and superego, and what ego emerges at the end is one in which Scorsese and Schrader brilliantly identify: we are all balancing on an edge, and the line between hero and villain can not only be blurry, but sometimes indistinguishable. For Bickle, violence is a method for reigning terror and for providing salvation. And the media that report such violence can never, ever provide the entire context. There's hardly anything more true than that.
For the colorful characters of Reservoir Dogs, violence is a learned behavior, shaped by media portrayals of iconic and supercool fantasy. The gangsters riff on their favorite shows and actors from the 1970s, and they model their personas on memories of Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, and Tony Baretta. They look tough and they talk tough, all the while pretending to be someone else--just like their beloved actors. Tarantino shows us what's it's like to be a child of an era of television and film when morals shifted, anti-heroes ruled, and being a professional badass seemed like a legitimate career goal. What I think is brilliant about the conclusion of Reservoir Dogs is that no one makes it. They are all punished, either by one another or by the police, for their actions. And Mr. Orange is a sacrificial hero who helps bring down the criminals. It's as if Tarantino gives us a delicious and decadent desert while delicately mixing in a medicine we don't realize we've taken. "This is what happens," he might be saying, "when you try to live your life like a TV character." And though we have to endure a lot to get there (police torture, buckets of blood, Madonna songs, and a bazillion f-words), the journey is well worth it, for me at least. And Mr. Pink's opening rant about restaurant tipping is one of the most brilliant expositions on economics and socio-politics you will ever see on film.
As I reported a few months ago after seeing The Silence of the Lambs on the big screen for the first time, seek out opportunities to see movies as they were originally intended, on huge screens with the volume cranked and with a crowd. While I love watching films in the privacy of my own home as much as anybody, there really is no substitute for the theatrical experience.
The exciting new series on Discovery Channel, Manhunt: Unabomber is a fictionalized account of the FBI's search and capture of domestic terrorist Ted Kaczynski back in the mid-1990s. What's fascinating about the show is its development of the still-in-its-infancy form of detective work, forensic linguistics. Kaczynski (played by the exquisitely eerie Paul Bettany) was not only a mad bomber with a doctorate in mathematics; he was also a confident writer who begged for his ideas to be published, thinking his "revolutionary" insights could impact the world. His writing is eventually what got him caught by lead FBI profiler Jim Fitzgerald, portrayed on the show by Sam Worthington.
Episode 3, which aired last night, is particularly delightful for those of us who study language, as close reading and intricate dissections of words, phrases, idioms, and accent markers become key points of investigation in the case. We can tell a lot about an author based on his writing fingerprint. And Kaczynski's writing landed him eight life sentences in prison.
The show is a great reminder that studying English or other areas related to literacy and linguistics have incredibly valuable applications in the world beyond academia. Being a good reader and student of language may actually lead you to catching bad guys and saving lives. Sounds like a pretty good reason to be an English major to me. Check out the link above for cool stuff from the show, or catch up on the first three episodes of Manhunt: Unabomber on OnDemand.
Do you know the end of this poetic verse? This is perhaps the most widely known line from one of the best poets of the 19th century, Alfred Tennyson, whose 208th birthday was yesterday. "...Than never to have loved at all" is an insightful ending to that sentence, though for anyone who has gone through a difficult break-up, its accuracy may yet be debatable. Tennyson is the ninth most quoted author in the history of the English language, which is quite an impressive feat. "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers," from his poem "Locksley Hall" is one of my favorites. Here's a collection of many of his most famous thoughts to start your week.
There's an interesting point/counterpoint over at Inside Higher Ed this week regarding today's students and their level of work ethic. Senator Ben Sasse wrote a piece in the New York Times about the need for young people to have work experience, which was then rebutted by op-ed writer John Warner, who believes that young people already work hard and doesn't want to hear "kids these days" complaints about this generation of students.
They both make fine points, while each having some flaws in their arguments (namely that they mostly think their own anecdotal experience is applicable to all), but let's look at this topic another way. I'm not sure it's "work" (meaning employment) that is the real problem; rather, it's class "work" (meaning study time) that is the real issue. Sasse thinks parents have coddled their kids, so they no longer know what kind of effort it takes to succeed. Warner thinks students are already too overworked and stressed to devote adequate time to their studies. So let's do the math.
There are 168 hours in a week. Let's say the typical student takes 15 credit hours; that leaves 153 hours outside of class. Let's also assume a student has a fairly rigorous job that requires 30 hours per week. That brings us to 123 hours. (I'm not calculating athletes' schedules, as depending on the playing level, that could vary widely. Therefore, equating to a student job with the hours devoted above seems appropriate here.) Let's also say the student sleeps 8 hours per night (which no college kid ever does, but let's be generous). We are now at 67 hours. Let's devote 30 minutes for two meals a day, which seems fair. That leaves us with 60 hours.
Now let's work in some study time. Let's be VERY generous and assume a student studies for 3 hours every night of the week. That brings us to 39 hours left. Let's even say that every week, there are projects and other larger assignments that take up an additional hour per night, on average. (By the way, I've NEVER met a college student who actually studies this much.) That lands us at 32 hours per week of free time.
Students can use this however they wish. They can go to concerts, plays, or other productions on campus. They can join academic clubs. They can volunteer to help others. And, of course, they could study more.
But what do they actually do? They drink. A lot. They party. They have steady boyfriends/girlfriends. They play video games. In essence, they socialize. These "overworked and stressed" students somehow always find plenty of time to do things that are not related to gaining more intelligence and preparing for their working future.
Countless times in my many years as a professor, I have talked to a student who is struggling in my class. I'll say, "So what are doing to try to raise your grade?" They'll say, "I just don't have time." So I'll say, "Did you eat yesterday?" Yes. "Did you sleep yesterday?" Yes. "Did you hang out with your friends yesterday?" Yes. Did you talk to your boyfriend/girlfriend/parents yesterday?" Yes. And I'll say, "It sounds like you had lots of extra time. Maybe you should devote that time to working on your assignments or visiting a tutor instead." That usually makes them a bit more aware of how they could use their time more effectively and get better grades. If not, there's not much else I can do for them.
So is Sasse or Warner correct? Well, they both are to a certain degree, and they're both missing some key points of analysis. The majority of students today do understand hard work, either in their athletics or their employment. However, those domains have visible incentives that students value, playing time and winning when it comes to sports, and a decent paycheck when it comes to their jobs. Their education and academic skill development is harder to put their finger on. And that is where the "work ethic" slips.
Because they don't see the immediate effect of reading Shakespeare or thinking through a complex philosophical argument or exploring historical events or studying the solar system or anything not directly related to their major (or even things within their major for that matter), they don't put forth the effort we professors would like.
The truth is in the math. Students have PLENTY of time to do the academic work we expect. The problem is getting them to use it wisely.
South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker and pretty smart dudes, and they constantly put important intellectual concepts into their filthy satirical cartoons. One area they understand quite well is free market economics. This brand new video from the Wisecrack YouTube channel shows how (as Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, and F.A. Hayek told us many years ago) subjective value is the driving force in all economic interactions. Have a laugh and get smarter today with a dose of SP. Enjoy!
Writer/Director Christopher Nolan's newest film, the WWII epic Dunkirk, is a masterwork and by far the best film to hit theaters in the last three years. It will win countless awards in the coming months and may go down as the best war film of all time. Dunkirk is actually so good that I saw it twice over the weekend just to make sure my first reaction was accurate. In fact, it's even better upon repeat viewing.
It is the late spring of 1940, and British and French forces have been pushed to the ocean by Nazi invasion from the east. Unable to halt the German conquest of mainland Europe, the Allies are perilously waiting on the beach for evacuation across the English Channel back to Britain. England needs its soldiers to return in order to make a final stand to protect their homeland, but with German fighter planes obliterating rescue ships and bombing the exposed beach, the soldiers' escape grows more desperate by the hour.
Unlike traditional war films, such as Saving Private Ryan for example, the story of Dunkirk is not of soldiers attempting to complete a mission, ever moving forward. Rather, this is a film about waiting and retreating. It is not the valiant venture into battle; it is the ominous dread of what could be on the way. The Dunkirk beach is a Purgatory, and we are unsure who will achieve salvation. Nolan's choice in showing this side of war, in which scared boys are just trying to get home, is an important perspective for helping us understand that for every act of heroism, there is also the reality of fear and helplessness.
In true Nolan style, he chooses to show us the conflict with non-linear narrative and multiple subjective points of view. We are able to watch these men from the land, the sea, and the air, as well as over the course of several days, one full day, and one hour of battle time. (This isn't a spoiler, but for those who may be confused when watching, just keep in mind that the British fighter pilots have the only perspective in the present. Everything they see has already taken place hours or even days earlier.) This disjointed technique reminds us that everyone has their own interpretation of traumatic events, and some go through them at various intervals or for various durations. No one's participation in war is identical to another's.
Nolan employs limited dialogue and minimal character background. We never fully know who these men are, which emphasizes how they could represent thousands of others, their anonymity indicative of just one point in time in a war that involved millions and spanned much of the globe. While we follow several main characters--a Navy commander (Kenneth Branagh), a pilot (Tom Hardy), a civilian boat captain (Mark Rylance), and a young Army private (Fionn Whitehead)--the story is the event itself. And how it is visualized is our real connection. Nolan uses brilliant cinematography and production design to capture both the enormous scope of the outside locations along with the claustrophobia of cockpits and boat hulls. His reliance upon actual effects, instead of CGI, perfectly heightens the realism of what we see and intensity of what we feel. This is a film that deserves to be seen on the largest and loudest screen possible.
Nolan is often accused of focusing on spectacle and trickery more than worthwhile storytelling, and some criticism is valid. I was mostly disinterested by Inception, overwhelmed by implausibility with parts of the Batman trilogy, and mostly bored and annoyed at Interstellar. But Nolan's choices are just right here. And while some may find his methods obtrusive or pretentious, choosing cool over coherence, Dunkirk benefits from his singular style. And I definitely applaud his ability here to, uncharacteristically, keep a big film under the two-hour mark.
The lesson of Dunkirk is that "survival isn't fair." There are innocent people that perish and dishonorable people that make it out alive. But also that anyone can be a hero. We all can and should answer the call to be useful, and the image of civilian sailors forging into danger is one of the most moving scenes one will see on film.
Like the Battle of Bunker Hill or the Battle of Maldon, we speak of what happened on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, not in remembrance of victory. Rather, such conflicts are historical reminders of what value can be gleaned from defeat, how honor and bravery can shine through the darkest of times. As one soldier, feeling a failure upon returning to England, says, "All we did was survive." A grateful civilian replies, "That's enough." In war, as in life, sometimes victory comes not just from winning, but in the fighting itself. And living to inspire others is often the ultimate feat of humanity.
(P.S. This is the first film on English Champion to receive an A+ rating.)
Dr. Spivey is a college English professor and lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.