Book Review: Sylvie Tissot’s Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End

The South End of Boston was one of my first introductions to “the gayborhood.” When I initially moved to that city to pursue my Ph.D., it was in the South End that I first made gay friends and where I went home with folks I’d met at the bars. I took to the gayborhood, and, although I could not afford to live there, it drew me in. While it took me a bit longer to become familiar with the processes we call “gentrification,” I could tell it was a neighborhood deeply divided by inequality and undergoing transition.

The transformation of that section of Boston is the topic of Sylvie Tissot’s Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End (all citations after this refer to the ePub edition read in Apple iBooks). In it, she offers a nuanced approach to the operations of culture and power that upends, to a degree, the “gays and artists” narrative that so often predominates in discussions of gentrification. While lesbians and gay men may have played a significant role, it was much more highly circumscribed by upper-middle class propriety, to match the area’s crown mouldings, in ways that that were foreign to the sexual exploration in the queer theory I was reading and living in the gayborhood.

This book [studies] the way in which a space has been rehabilitated and appropriated by a group of inhabitants much wealthier than those who initially occupied it—without reducing gentrification to the contemporary logics of capitalism or to the repressive impulses of a privileged group. (p. 497)

To be sure, the logics of capitalism and repressive impulses are present. But the political contestations of space taking place here operate by a variety of different logics. Central to Tissot’s approach is an analysis of the ways that “diversity” is used in these contests. This is one area where the “gay-friendliness” of the region is highlighted. It is a “diverse neighborhood” because of the prominence of it’s gay population. But, again, it is a homosexuality that is linked to a heteronormative upper-middle class propriety. These class-based values are expressed in ways ranging from opposite-sex couples only being allowed at the annual South End Historical Society ball to historic “preservation” becoming a central value in promoting the architecture of the neighborhood. In Tissot’s telling “normal” upper-middle class gays who can keep up their homes with the prevailing architectural norms are welcomed; others, much less so.

Contra the traditional narrative of “gays and artists” moving in to downtrodden neighborhoods, Tissot traces the gentrification of the South End to an early influx of heterosexual members of the professional-managerial class in the 1970s. (The artists came in the 2000s, in a developer-driven effort to create a “SoHo-style” feel in one of the last parts of the South End to transition, Washington Street.) We might think of these folks as the progenitors of contemporary upper-middle class urban liberals, devoted to a consumer-based diversity and cultural omnivorousness, but also to a market-based set of economic values that eschew public ownership even as it engages with a privatized form of civic engagement.

Battles over space and its use varied over time, but this privatizing propriety remains constant. Early on, the presence of bars and boarding houses were issues of contention, but by the end of the study, the presence of a dog park becomes a hot item of debate. Central to all of them are the ways that these upper-middle class professionals are able to lay claim to and re-organize space for their own purposes. Being able to do so includes being able to control who has access to spaces and how they will be used. (The discussion of dogs and the cultural politics of dog parks was particularly engaging.)

The meaning and deployment of “diversity” are central to these politics. As I have noted, the presence of a sizable and public gay and lesbian population is a “selling point” for the neighborhood. However, the African American, Asian American and Latino residents of the South End are often erased, particularly if they are poor and working class. Historically, the privatizing impulses that have led people to purchase and refurbish the neighborhood’s architecture have also led them to be hostile to public housing or public assistance for housing. Tissot’s discussion of the relations between the upper-middle class professionals and residents of the Villa Victoria housing project is illustrative; the presence and activities of those residents are understood as things to be managed and controlled.

The neo-liberal logic of diversity is an economic one, and only those who can afford to belong are included under its rubric. Being able to afford this diversity includes being able to dine at the ever-expanding choice of restaurants in the neighborhood, and Tissot demonstrates how these privatizing impulses are also used to fundraise for “public” neighborhood projects within these spaces. Anyone who has worked on a college campus will recognize this “eat your way around the world” form of “diversity,” but here it is also related to “philanthropic” “community service.” It is, centrally, a consumptive form of diversity, especially suited to the post-modern omnivore. It also excludes the neighborhood’s largely Latino public housing residents, many of whom are likely working in these kitchens.

Good Neighbors is an engaging and interesting read. I particularly took to it because it returned me to a beloved neighborhood. It also changed the way I look at that neighborhood, and about processes of gentrification. I recognize myself and my friends in the culinary cultural omnivore. I also recognize the ways that middle-class propriety can exert subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) exclusionary pressures that aren’t necessarily linked to the ability to afford living in a certain neighborhood. This study brought these cultural politics to the fore in a highly engaging manner. Highly recommended.

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The Reification of the Student Evaluation Score

Something I’ve been thinking a fair amount about recently is the use of student evaluation scores as a tool in faculty evaluation. There are a variety of reasons for this, which I won’t go into at this point, but one thing I’ve come to find particularly interesting, and important, is the reification of them. I think it’s worth exploring that process in order to better understand the use of these tools and what they don’t actually tell us.

I started re-visiting the concept of “reification” when I read Adorno’s “Free Time” for a guest lecture I gave in a colleague’s class earlier this semester, and it re-surfaced, as I said, in thinking about student evaluation scores. While it has a deep history in the critical theoretical tradition represented by Adorno, it’s not a term folks are likely to hear much in everyday life, so it’s worthwhile to provide an idea of what I’m talking about before moving forward. I like to refer to “reification” as “thingification.” I suppose I get this from Adorno himself:

“For all reification is a forgetting: objects become purely thing-like the moment they are retained for us without the continued presence of their other aspects: when something of them has been forgotten.”

In this piece, I’m going to discuss the process of forgetting that turns student evaluation scores into “things” that have “objective meaning.” There are two specific issues I will focus on here. The first is the issue of innumeracy, or mathematical illiteracy. There is a certain irony that the fetishization of numerical scores would involve the inappropriate an illegitimate use of them, but the second issue, managerial expedience, goes some way toward explaining it.

In most of the schools I have worked at, student evaluations of teaching have a similar format. There are a series of Likert-scale questions asking about various aspects of the course, where students are given a statement and asked to respond with “Strongly Agree, Agree, No Opinion, Disagree, Strongly Disagree.” Each of those options has a corresponding numerical value. Scores for each question are obtained by taking the “mean” score for each question, and then by averaging all of these mean scores to arrive at a final score, which is supposedly a measure of teaching effectiveness. Generally, these evaluations also contain a section where students may write out longer comments, but it is the numerical scores generated from the Likert-scale questions that are given the most weight institutionally.

The production of these scores brings us to the issue of innumeracy, and to the reifying activity of forgetting. It is in this process that the technical limitations of Likert-scale questions are erased in order to produce “objective” measures of teaching effectiveness. Only forgetting allows us to do so, though.

To explain those technical limitations, I’ll turn it over to a Professor of Statistics to describe the issues involved with Likert-Scales and “levels of measurement.”

Effectiveness ratings are what statisticians call an “ordinal categorical” variable: The ratings fall in categories with a natural order (7 is better than 6 is better than … is better than 1), but the numbers 1, 2, …, 7 are really labels of categories, not quantities of anything. We could replace the numbers with descriptive words and no information would be lost: The ratings might as well be “not at all effective”, “slightly effective,” “somewhat effective,” “moderately effective,” “rather effective,” “very effective,” and “extremely effective.”

Does it make sense to take the average of “slightly effective” and “very effective” ratings given by two students? If so, is the result the same as two “moderately effective” scores? Relying on average evaluation scores does just that: It equates the effectiveness of an instructor who receives two ratings of 4 and the effectiveness of an instructor who receives a 2 and a 6, since both instructors have an average rating of 4. Are they really equivalent?

They are not, as this joke shows: Three statisticians go hunting. They spot a deer. The first statistician shoots; the shot passes a yard to the left of the deer. The second shoots; the shot passes a yard to the right of the deer. The third one yells, “we got it!”

Even though the average location of the two misses is a hit, the deer is quite unscathed: Two things can be equal on average, yet otherwise utterly dissimilar. Averages alone are not adequate summaries of evaluation scores.

I like to think of it this way, if we are using ordinal measures like this to measure the temperature, our scores would be, Hot, Warm, Moderate, Cool, and Cold. What is the “average” score of Hot (5), Warm (4), Warm (4), Moderate (3), and Cold (1)? Using the numbers usually assigned, we would arrive at a score of 3.4. However, the numbers we are using have no numerical value. Only by erasing this fact can we even try to create an average of them, and then treat that average as though it is numerically meaningful. This problem is compounded when we average several of these scores to create an overall effectiveness score, and then combine those scores to compare individuals to group averages. These scores are the product of multiplicative meaninglessness.

Despite their meaninglessness, we can see that these scores have been imbued with meaning. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, one of the basic assumptions of symbolic interactionist sociology is that, “people act toward objects based on the meaning they have for them.” However, in this case, that meaning comes from the process of erasing the history and technical limitations of ordinal-level data, a process aided by widespread, even insitutionalized, innumeracy.

In Paulos’s classic formulation, innumeracy is a form of mathematical illiteracy, and that is what’s working here. There is a basic technical incompetence involved in transforming these responses into scores by simply taking an average, and then averaging the averages. But no one seems to notice. They have either forgotten or never understood the limitations of these data and what these data are actually capable and incapable of measuring. Procedures and policies are established to produce and utilize these scores. Technical incompetence becomes institutional practice as we collectively agree to pretend these scores are valid.

And that’s where the issue of managerial expedience comes into play. The scores themselves become tools that managers can use in the performance of their duties. It is far easier to use simple numerical scores than to engage in an in-depth review of the various forms of assessment necessary to adequately evaluate faculty performance. Not only is it easier, it is far less time-consuming, which becomes important as the number of faculty increase. Note, I didn’t say the number of full-time faculty. The adjunctification of the academic labor force has resulted in a greater number of instructional faculty to be evaluated.

Even aside from evaluating individual faculty, these scores are used by administrators to study groups of faculty, to compare individuals to their departmental or college colleagues, to measure year-to-year “improvements,” and the like. These scores become objective things, independent of the history of their creation and its limitations. They take on a life of their own as tools used in the managerial enterprise. Managerial expedience leads to the institutionalization of innumeracy, but that is only possible due to the reification of these scores, to their thingification through the erasure of what they actually are.

This raises a more significant question: In the era of the managerial-corporate academy, how do we interrupt and resist these processes? Remembering is a necessary feature of de-thingifying these scores, and de-legitimizing their illegitimate use, but I’m not completely sure the management class cares about its own incompetence in such matters. That’s a problem for another, and every, day.

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Thinking Aloud: Sociological Solidarity(?) and the Crises in Higher Education

I spent yesterday attending the annual Pennsylvania Sociological Society meetings, which were held in Edinboro this year. One of the things I particularly appreciate about having a state-level society like this, as small as it is, is the ability to connect with other working academic sociologists. It provides a sense of connection to the people working within the profession that the national organization does not. Additionally, because we share a political context—which influences things like our institutional funding streams and working conditions—these state-based connections are vital to professional engagement.

The current crises in higher education were hanging over these meetings. While these were an explicit part of the post-lunch plenary session, there were other ways in which their presence was felt, be it in the off-handed comments during research presentations or side conversations at lunch. An issue that arose for me during these conversations, and this is also related to a session a colleague and I are organizing for the Eastern Sociological Society conference, is the necessity for labor solidarity among sociologists, and among academics more broadly. I’m going to use this post as an opportunity to sketch out some initial and tentative thoughts about some of the crises affecting higher education and the various impediments to developing such solidarity, which might be useful in resisting the tendencies contributing to these crises.

A good starting point for thinking about these issues is the institutional settings in which we work. While we labor under very different organizational arrangements, we are shaped by a shared socio-political context. For example, I work within a department of “social sciences,” not sociology. Indeed, there is no major in sociology where I teach. The courses I teach tend to be general education requirements for students who will be transferring to other institutions, or topics courses that serve primarily to support career programs like social work or criminal justice. Thus, there are certain curricular job requirements that folks who have majors/programs will have to perform that are not part of my work portfolio. However, as the only tenure-line sociologist on my campus, there are a number of administrative tasks that fall to me alone, whereas folks working in departments with multiple full-time faculty may be able to divide that labor among more people. A mutual understanding of these working conditions is necessary for the development of labor solidarity across those different settings.

We also need to comprehend how those differing conditions are often expressions of the same macro-level forces and tendencies. While we work in different organizational contexts, with varying levels of autonomy and different proportions of teaching/research/service responsibility, we face similar pressures associated with increasingly corporatized systems of managerial control. This expresses itself in a variety of ways that we all encounter, including the use of “objective” measures of “productivity” for evaluation (many of which seem to be more along the lines of universalized and context-less customer-satisfaction surveys than evaluations of instructional quality) or the replacement of benefits-eligible full-time employees with a workforce largely comprised of low-wage no-benefit part-time temporary workers. Concomitant to the replacement of tenure lines with “adjunct” employees is an assault on the security that tenure supposedly provides, ranging from the implementation of increasingly stringent post-tenure review to the complete elimination of tenure itself. All of these forces produce a less secure workforce whose labor is more tightly controlled through the use of ideological and technocratic metrics that are often inaccurately measured or inappropriately applied.

Additionally, these measures of “productivity” are increasingly economic, ranging from university funding through the acquisition of grants to the employability of program graduates. New pressures are placed on programs and departments to prove their economic value to the institution. In an age of retrenchment in public higher education, this produces competition between and within departments, and between colleges and universities. Resistive solidarity is made more difficult due to the competitive struggle for survival.

In addition to these relatively widespread conditions surrounding academic labor, there are specific concerns facing those of us in the social sciences and humanities. Some of these are related to the issues of economic sustainability I just mentioned. The utility of a higher education degree is increasingly measured in terms of the employment training it provides. The academy is under pressure to produce problem-solving resources instead of critically-engaged citizens.

One reaction to this has been to defend the liberal arts approach to higher education on such employability grounds. Within this framework, it’s not necessarily the particular major and specific information learned from that course of study that matter. Instead, the critical thinking, research, and communication skills that such studies build are defended by pointing to their workplace utility in an information economy. What gets lost in this approach, though, is the notion of citizenship.

I primarily teach Introductory Sociology, and my basic approach in that is one of citizenship education. For most of my students, this will be their only organized exposure to sociology. I want them to gain some kind of understanding of the power of sociology as a tool for engaged citizenship. The ability to evaluate competing political claims is a vital skill for citizens in a mass mediated infotainment context. The ability to place those claims in a broader context, to understand the sedimentary forces of history and the contextual nature of human social action are indispensable for engagement in the public sphere. We want a citizenry with an active sociological imagination.

As we all labor to help our students develop their own sociological imaginations, we often need to be better about applying our own imaginations to the places where we work. While the increasing reliance on adjunct faculty may free up some researchers to pursue their work by covering course releases, it also undermines systems of tenure and workplace security for all academic laborers. We may be willing to critique the idea of meritocracy in American society, but heaven forbid we question it in the academy. However, we must. It is no more true here than elsewhere. There are structures of inequality from both within and outside the academy that influence who gets hired, who gets good student evaluations, who gets tenure, and who hustles from school to school trying to make ends meet. We need to be better about analyzing these structures, and understanding how they divide us as laborers. (And how other distinctions in the academy divide us from other people in our workplaces, from the librarians to the janitorial staff to the folks working in food services.)

That’s one of the reasons I’m so appreciative of state-level societies. There is less competitive workplace pressure at these meetings than there is in the regional or national conferences, and these labor issues are more central as topics of conversation. However, the PSS largely reflects the PASSHE system. As I noted at the plenary yesterday, there is a marked absence of community college and adjunct faculty at the meetings. I should also add that there is a shortage of sociologists from the more “elite” educational institutions in the Commonwealth. There are structures in place that influence which conferences we attend and which professional networks we create.

We need to think about those things with a renewed vigor. As the liberal arts face assault from those who want us only to train employees, as we see movement toward greater privatization of the services provided in the academy, as we experience the increased insecurity and greater demands of the arrangements, we need a greater involvement with each other. We need to do a better job of building mutual spaces where the competitive pressures of professional advancement aren’t driving our conversations. We need to think more about collective resistance to an increasingly anti-education educational management class.

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What Charles Pierce Said

No, Jeb(!) you’re brother did not keep us safe.

Alternatively, what Lily Allen said to his brother applies equally to Jeb(!):


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Wisconsin and the Assault on Citizenship

A year or so ago, I was sitting in a session with an overly earnest consultant from the AACU. There came a point when employer surveys entered the discussion. The skills desired by employers were the same as those offered by a “liberal education,” thus making the case for a liberal education an economic one. One of the nuances missing in the discussion, though, was the fact that employers want problem-solving resources, not critically engaged citizens.

I did not raise that point in the conversation, and I’m sure the distinction would have been lost, or its significance downplayed, had I done so. However, it’s part of the same set of concerns involved with the Wisconsin legislature’s actions this session. Of course, the attack on tenure taking place this week, alongside massive budget cuts, are on everyone’s mind. However, it’s worth recalling that earlier in the session, Governor Walker basically proposed jettisoning the Wisconsin Idea of an academy engaged in the life of society. In Walker’s desires, and those of the Koch brothers financing him, it would be re-written to focus on the employment needs of the state.

Problem-solving resources, not critically engaged citizens.

These attacks are not new, nor are they surprising. The assault on tenure is part of the same process as the adjunctification of the labor force. This involves the replacement of full-time (salaried) faculty (with benefits) protected by tenure with (underpaid) contingent faculty (with no benefits), lacking any job security and dependent on student evaluations and administrative goodwill for their employment. Creating fewer people with “just cause” protections means a more insecure and inexpensive faculty.

It’s interesting that the Wisconsin stuff is happening at the same time as the Temple University hearing on adjunct unionization. It displays the worst ideals of management ideology. I think the heart of that ideology can be found in the term “human resources.” In that tiny little term, humans are reduced to things to be used in pursuit of organizational goals, things that happen to be human. Organizations want to use fewer expensive things, and if those things are expensive, they better pay for themselves (by grants and the like). And, like good things, they’d best not think too much or be too independent.

I’m not sure what the answers are, and we all need to think more about them. Two things come to mind, though. First, attack the idea that employment and economic activity is the sole rationale for education. It is true that people are looking for credentials that will be useful on the labor mark. However, as Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson has demonstrated, textual analysis is a useful skill taught in our college classrooms, as skill he obviously lacks.

The other thing deals with the employment side of academic labor:  we must expand the “just cause” protections of tenure. That’s obviously one of the things that is being attacked, not only in teaching, but also in research. It’s about controlling the research and teaching agendas, such that we are building problem-solving resources, not critically engaged citizens.

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Class Bigotry and Marriage Politics

So, a pizza joint in Indiana rushed in to say, “We’d love to discriminate against gay folks!” and the shit hit the fan. What I’m particularly interested in, here, is not just the backlash, but the class-based aspects of it. It’s not enough to call these folks bigots, as they are, but in many comment sections two themes come to the fore. First, such folks are accused of being small-town rednecks. In other words, class-based insults become primary weapons. The second aspect is the oft-heard, “I don’t know any gays so tacky as to serve pizza at weddings.”

These are both based in class-bigotry, which is endemic in the cultural politics of LGBTQ life.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the “redneck” insult. Instead, I’d like to focus on the idea that gay folks are hip and stylish, and that we’re too “classy” for pizza. All of this is bigotry.

First, one of the key stereotypes of gay and lesbian folks is that we are economically privileged. This comes from two sources, really. The first is a media and political movement that focuses on putting affluent (white) gay men and lesbians into public positions. The spokespeople, and spokescouples, of the movement are almost always economically privileged. This presents an image problem, where working-class and poor LGBTQ folks are simply erased.

The second source of that stereotyping is marketing “data.” Consistently, gay marketeers put out information about the “economically privileged” status of gay and lesbian consumers. The problem, though, is that this data is selective. It’s not about gay and lesbian populations, but a subset of privileged gay and lesbian consumers. These are not the same thing, despite the best efforts of marketers (and anti-gay bigots) to conflate them.

These efforts create stereotypes in the minds of both (privileged) LGBTQ activists and community members and the rest of the public. These spokescouples and the “Say Yes to the Dress” folks become the public face of where gay life intersects with the wedding-industrial complex. Stylish, well-off gay folks do their best Martha Stewart imitations, and working-class gay folks become invisible. Not only are they invisible, they become less than.

“I don’t know of any gay folks tacky enough to serve pizza at a wedding reception” is class bigotry, pure and simple.

Stop it.

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White Supremacist Socialization

By now, we’ve all seen or read about the white supremacist fraternity at the University of Oklahoma. Yes, I called the fraternity white supremacist, and not just the members who’ve been identified. Here’s why I’m willing to label the whole group as such, and it comes from one of the apologies:

“I know everyone wants to know why or how this happened. I admit it likely was fueled by alcohol consumed at the house before the bus trip, but that’s not an excuse. Yes, the song was taught to us, but that too doesn’t work as an explanation. [emphasis mine]

Let’s take a look at the highlighted part. Parker Rice is acknowledging that he was, as a new member of the fraternity, taught to sing this song. He was socialized to participate in white supremacist rituals. This actually does work as an explanation. The University of Oklahoma chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, in 2015, is still training its new members to participate in exclusionary, white supremacist activities.

I care not about any apologies. They are public relations documents prepared by lawyers and bearing little relation to reality. ΣΑΕ at OU was actively racist. The video and “apology” confirm that.

John Stewart is in classically good form on this, although his larger take is the conservative media’s reaction. Of course, it’s the usual denial that racism exists. Or, and this is the fun part, blame hip hop for racist whites. But, derpified white supremacists gonna be derpified white supremacists.

[Yeah, I know it’s been a long time…whatever.]

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It’s Friday

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Tentatively Thinking Aloud About Some Great TV Shows I Adore and Despise

I’m getting ready to re-watch last night’s season premier of Justified. I got hooked watching the show after the first season had already aired. I was visiting a friend in the Finger Lakes region of New York for a couple days, and she and her partner introduced me to the show. I was hooked. After my road trip, I managed to pull a marathon of the first season.  From then on, I’ve been completely taken by the show, with multiple watches of each episode standard.

This isn’t about Justified, though. Instead, it’s an initial inquiry into questions about what kinds of deviance/crime/evil we find appealing in televisual (in particular) entertainment. I started thinking about this issue earlier this fall. I pulled a marathon viewing session of The Wire after seeing this video with members of the cast. I am a HUGE fan of The Wire, and re-watching it brought up so many thoughts about the show, both as sociological exploration and cultural masterpiece.

At the same time, my sister was doing a marathon re-watch of Breaking Bad. I had done a similar marathon the previous summer. Here’s the thing that got me thinking, though: while I recognize both as exceptional televisual entertainment. They both have amazing acting, writing, and production/editing, at the same time providing intense intellectual fodder on a variety of sociological and psychological levels.  However, while The Wire leaves me exhilarated, Breaking Bad leaves me in depressed despair. I can’t re-watch Breaking Bad because I know what kind of mood it will put me in.

I hated every single character in the program. We might call them “complex” but I thought they were all terrible, selfish pieces of shit. At the same time, the characters in The Wire could be seen as terrible, selfish pieces of shit. But, I see them as complex characters.

I’m not sure what to think of that. It’s not that Breaking Bad is necessarily more violent than The Wire, and it’s not as though The Wire lacks egomaniacal sociopaths. But, there’s something in one I find enticingly watchable, while the other is utterly repulsive. Perhaps it’s the difference between a sociological and psychological exploration. Whatever it is, I have no desire to revisit BB, but I know I’ll go back to The Wire.

A similar thing occurred while starting to watch House of Cards (again, my sister got me started). I made it through several episodes before the cynicism of the characters made it unwatchable for me. I have a special contempt for striving, cynical elites (which is almost all of them), so this tapped into those feelings. Again, though, I could recognize the high quality acting and production/editing, but I found no characters worthy of caring about. Indeed, I wished ill on them all…but not enough to care if it happened.

This is an initial exploration. I’m putting together an Honors seminar on mass media and popular culture this semester, so such audience concerns (and I am an audience member, after all) will be a significant feature of my thinking for the next few months.  I’ve got a lot of thoughts just wandering around, none of them actually connecting to each other. I’m curious about those aesthetic decisions, though. Looking at the three main crime dramas I’ve discussed here, each has “complex” characters, all capable of doing intense evil while caring deeply about other people (and even animals). All include a lot of violence, which is generally a big turn-off for me. All provide a hell of a lot of opportunity for analysis. But, I find some of those opportunities enticing, even seductive, while one repulses intensely.

For now, though, back to Harlan:

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On the useless theater of the State of the Union

I hate SOTU night, almost as much as I hate the Correspondents Dinner. Two posts perfectly exemplify why. First, Charles Pierce:

It’s an Event for the sake of being an Event, the White House Correspondents Dinner in Founding Father drag. Worse, it’s just another television extravaganza. It has more in common with the Super Bowl than with anything else, beginning with the fact that the SOTU (Make it stop!) Pregame Show began at about seven o’clock this morning, and that the Postgame analysis will go on well into the whiskey hours of the early morning. The State Of The Union and its attendant ballyhoo is now the clearest evidence we have that American self-government, and the politics that are at its heart, has become an ongoing piece of audience-participation performance art that has very little to do with the actual power in the country, and whose wielding it, and for what purposes.

Next, Alex Pereene:

Political speechwriting is an exercise in the proper arrangement of cliches and platitudes, with a bit of “messaging” of policy ideas to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Speeches like the one the president will deliver tonight are designed to deliver pleasant inanities (The State of the Union is Strong) and sell certain carefully audience-tested proposals as vaguely (or misleadingly) as possible. The State of the Union is less written than it is designed, structured and organized around applause prompts and camera cues.



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