Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Bring a Hankie for These Blog Posts

That's a big hankie. My picture from 2010--was it really 6 years ago? Mount Mercy College had just become Mount Mercy University. And today, I'm pretty proud of my MMU writing students. Keep your blogs going, students ....

OK, that headline is a bit tongue in cheek, but still …

There are several writing classes that I teach at Mount Mercy University were I require students to maintain personal, public blogs. It’s partly because these are classes that attempt to teach professional writing skills, and professional writers need to be used to the idea that their writing is public performance. Of course, the downside of blogging is that it doesn’t teach another key point—that if you are a professional writer, you have a right to be paid for your work, but that’s a rant for another place and time, especially since I’m writing this as a blog post for free.

The blog assignment also serves to introduce students to the genre of blog writing. Doing multiple types of writing in different voices and genres is something media pros must be comfortable with—and, these days, students have to get used to thinking about their personal online “face” or media “brand”  to the world, too.

Anyway, I’ve given this assignment for several years. Many semesters, it feels like students resist and resent the blog assignment. It seems to be that something  different happened this semester.

I don’t’ know if the students who started personal blogs plan to continue them, although I hope they do. I check the blogs on a two-week rotation, and I just finished a two-week cycle.

And, well, wow. There is lots of good writing here. Writing that shows my students have the chops to be media communication pros if they keep at it. And writing that stands on its own, that’s just good to read.

Here are some examples of what was a very good recent cycle of blog writing:
  • If had fairy dust: “Race: The Factor.” A half Black, half White student writes movingly about her racial identity and what it means. “Almost any time I meet someone, I get the famous question ‘Well what are you?’” I suppose homo sapiens is really the correct answer. To quote the font of all knowledge (Wikipedia): “Homo sapiens is the binomial nomenclature for the only extant human species.” And in biological terms, it wasn’t all that long ago that all of us emigrated from Africa, a fact we sometimes seem to want to forget. Anyway, please read this post. It helped me as a middle-aged White man see the world a little bit through a different lens.
  • My life, My life, My life: “#JusticeforDanky.”  “Danky” is the nickname for an African American young man who was shot by police in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. My student writes movingly on what this case means and how she honestly feels about it. It’s a sad situation that is still unfolding, and I join her in hoping it doesn’t tear our town apart.

Well, there you have two posts on the rather heavy topic of race in America. I’ve been hoping for a sports theme for the next Fall Faculty Series, but maybe race needs more attention now in a semester-long conversation.

And, as they say in only the best quality “as seen on TV” ads: But wait, there’s more. Race wasn’t the only topic that prompted deep thoughts and good writing on recent student blog posts:
  • IowaMatt: “Transcending Baseball.” I’m not personally a baseball fan, but I like his insight into the World Series this year from the point of view of a Cubs fan. Sure, he’s happy—but he’s thinking we all need uplifting, and I think he’s right.
  • Courtney K. Snodgrass, Most days, I write: “The First Novel.” May she get to revising it so we can experience her finished product. Anyway, what does it really take to be a writer? It’s something this blogger considers.
  • One of These Snow Days: “True Heroism.” This student makes me want to see a Mel Gibson movie, which is no small feat. Then again, given that my daddy served in the ETO in WWII, I guess I’m a sucker for a WWII story.
  • Life As Kaylee Rae: “I Am Who I Am Because …” She has a positive take on small-town Iowa life, and I would want her to explore the downside, too, but if you ever wondered why people love “fly over” country, this is a good post to read. It’s only Iowa, it’s not Heaven, but there is much to love about Iowa life.

That seems like a high note to end on. There were other good blog posts in this cycle, too—interesting reviews of recent Netflix series, a track athlete’s rumination on the end of the season, a food review that made me a little hungry—but you’ll have to click the links and see what you think.

And it only seems appropriate that I promote my own blogs here, too. Check out some fall photos on my bike blog, or see my wrap-up of the 2016 Fall Faculty Series at MMU on my general blog.

I do hope that my students keep writing. They have worthwhile things to say.Check out their posts and leave them some comments--show them someone is reading!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Trump v Hamilton—Who Looks ‘Overrated?’

Anybody who knows me knows I’m not a fan of Donald Trump.

In fact, the president-elect has made almost uniformly abysmal choices for his new administration so far, and I’m not expecting a great four years. It took President Bush 8 years to bring the U.S. economy to the brink of collapse—I’m just hoping Trump isn’t such a “great” leader he can pull that trick off before mid-term elections, but I’m not betting.

Here’s hoping that there are no wars started during President Trump’s term.

So it may come as a surprise that I partly agree with The Donald, in that I think the cast of “Hamilton” went over a line. When Mike Pence, the vice-president-elect, attended the theater Friday night, he was a patron, a member of the audience. The play should speak for itself, and any statement a cast member or cast members wants to make should have been saved for another time—a public note to Pence thanking him for coming and expressing the fears that many Americans have, for example.

Still, the statement that was read in the theater after the play was a pretty tame affair. “We hope this show has inspired you to work on behalf of all of us.” As rude behavior goes, this was about as mild and polite as behavior can be. And it happened after the show was over, so it didn’t spoil anything for Mike Pence.

Indeed, Pence himself has been pretty mild about the kerfuffle. Not so Pence’s boss, the soon to be POTUS. He soon began unleashing his inner Tweets: “Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!”

OK, I also found what the cast did mildly irritating, possibly bordering on rude, but “harassed?”

Trump was not done—in subsequent Tweets he said the theater must be a “safe and special place.” How, again, was it not safe or special? And then Trump started to give his thumbnail review, saying “Hamilton” is “overrated.” He also stated, in a Tweet that was deleted, that the cast didn’t memorize it’s lines (because Brandon Victor Dixon read the statement?).

The whole sequence of Tweets is disturbing on multiple levels. One is that I’m blogging about it, pretty much in the same news cycle when Trump settled a fraud lawsuit for $25 million (the next president of the U.S. is a shoddy, shady business person who runs fraudulent enterprises) and the other weekend dustup was the reaction to Sen. John McCain saying that torture can’t be authorized by President Trump because it’s not legal, while Pence says, however, it can.

Trump U and torture are much worse and more dangerous than being booed by a Broadway audience.

A POTUS has to recognize that many people, Broadway actors included, are going to say all kinds of things—some true, some less true, some fair, many unfair—about him or her. And that’s OK. It’s the nature of the beast. Besides freedom of speech, the First Amendment specifies we can “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Sadly, I think, given the mercurial character of the new POTUS, there will be a lot of grievances in the next four years.

When a president or president-elect wants to answer back, he or she can use the bully pulpit to make a point loudly and clearly. But Trump didn’t just call out the cast of “Hamilton,” he demanded an apology. Future POTUS, you can’t do that. Well, you can, but it makes you look churlish and small. And it makes you look like you oppose the people’s right to discuss you and your administration in open and often rough terms.

And didn’t someone send Trump the memo about what a VP is for? A VP is supposed to be the attack dog, and the POTUS is nice cop, in a normal administration. Yes, yes, I know, whatever the Trump administration will be, it certainly will be abnormal.

A CNN writer said that the “Hamilton” controversy is Trump’s “dead cat.” That is, it is a diversion from other issues. Maybe it is.

But in any case, Trump’s White House staff has a tough job: Find and hide the smart phone from the the crazy man with the orange hair—the petulant toddler who also has nuclear codes. Man. It’ll be a long four years.

That is, unless Trump manages to get himself impeached before then. Maybe he’s up to that. Communicating like a president? At that, Trump certainly is already overrated.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

So Trump Enters the Big Show

Wikimedia.com, from
flckr user Gage Skidmore.
Hillary Clinton.
Compare the speeches: Clearly the one who was more presidential got the most votes.

But sadly, she didn’t win. Hillary Clinton delivered a good concession speech. She offered to aid President-elect Trump. And she avoided much of the bitter rancor that has lit up the social media universe in the wake of Tuesday’s Trump victory.

I applaud her for that. I understand the fear, anger and frustration of the many who are worried about fundamental human rights and healthcare as the Republicans are champing at the bit to repeal the Affordable Care Act and name near Neanderthals to the federal bench, and I share the sense that difficult times are ahead.

But I won’t raise my middle finger at America nor declare the electorate fatally mentally challenged. I think we—the collective we, I voted for Hillary—are in for a boatload of buyer’s remorse soon. But Clinton is right. Trump now gets to enter the world stage for the biggest act of his Reality TV career.

The depressing truth, to me, is that I think Trump treated the campaign as a Reality TV show. He Tweeted and said provocative, outrageous, misogynist, bigoted things and then denied them—just to draw attention, like a compelling but slightly evil camper on “Survivor.” He never carried much of a narrative thread—that is, he never had a coherent policy position that allowed his voters to support something of substance. And the Trump Reality TV campaign worked. American went for the “as-seen-on-TV” candidate.

The odd thing, of course, is that in fact the plurality of votes when to Hillary Clinton. More Americans chose her than chose Donald Trump, but under our odd, anachronistic electoral system, Trump won.

Trump was right. The system is rigged. And the media were part of it. He was just wrong—it was the Reality TV star who benefitted from the biases and unfairness built into the system.

Now Trump gets to try to govern. I doubt he has any idea what he’s in for. The Republicans have two years before mid-term elections to not mess it up, and I don’t have high hopes.

“I will be president for all Americans,” Trump said. After that hopeful line, the Trump victory speech was pretty terrible. He said the uniting line, his best line, in the first few seconds, but then the speech became rather like the most boring of Academy Awards acceptance speech. “I’d like to thank, Rudy Giuliani, who was always lurking in the background of my campaign like some vampire.” I may be slightly paraphrasing.
Same site, same user, Donald Trump.

The Trump speech was a missed opportunity. He gets lost in the thanks and didn’t do much to calm the fears of the national that he now will lead. There was no articulate or memorable line from the new boss of the free world. I guess I should just be glad he managed to stay on script, even if it was a bland, poor script.

Anyway, other random media-related thoughts sparked by this improbable election:
  • The walled garden is a thing. Our First Amendment was written to foster the “marketplace of ideas,” but that, sadly, is now closed and America has moved into gated idea suburbs, where we echo only the like-minded. I recognize that cutting off people from your Facebook feed who irritate you is OK—Facebook is your own personal place to be in contact with who you want; it’s a cocktail party where you don’t’ have to say in an unpleasant conversation—but the immediate instinct of some Clinton voters to shut off all contact with anybody who voted for Trump still bugs me. And many of us experience ideas and news through links that are posted on our badly named Facebook “news” feed. We, the liberals of this cold new world, are almost as bad as the conservatives in wanting to shut out the other. It’s official now. The Marketplace of Ideas is an empty Main Street with tumbleweeds, and we’re all off in our own, competing, realities. Truth doesn’t grapple with Falsehood. They both stay at their own private barbecues, no strangers invited.

  • The news media isn’t much of a thing. It’s always irritated me that we tended to misuse the word “media,” an elegant Latin plural, as a singular word anyway—and yes, I know that I did it in this point. That was deliberate. There never was one mainstream media, and with the alt-right nuts now firmly in control of the top of our politics, a reality-based media almost seems passé. I don’t mean to write as if that’s a good reality—in fact, I think it’s the great tragedy of our times—but it doesn’t matter much, anymore, what facts “The New York Times” or “Washington Post” or “The Gazette” reports. We’re in a post-news, post-fact world. I don’t want to give up on journalism or journalists, and I hope we find a niche that works, but I think the harsh reality is just a lesson from this election.

  • Our democracy isn’t a democracy. One person’s vote is not equal to the vote of any other person. The system, as Trump charges, is indeed rigged; he was just dishonest about who benefited from the rigging. The GOP engineered a Gerrymander takeover of Congress in the last two Census cycles. Since Citizens United put government up for sale, voters sensed there was something wrong and wanted to toss a brick through the window. But, handing the reigns of undisputed power to the party that carefully crafted the building to its advantage doesn’t seem to me like it will lead to meaningful reform. The people have spoken, but their voices were inarticulate, muted and warped.
And, in this year of magical thinking, I’m not sure of the way forward.

Trump won’t deliver on many of his empty campaign promises, because they were fantasies from the Trump TV show to begin with. Mexico won’t pay for a wall. The wall itself won’t mean much if it is built—in 2,000 miles, there will be some weak points, and airplanes and boats will bypass it entirely. Clinton may be endlessly investigated, but she never came close to an indictable crime in many, heavily investigated, decades of public service. She won’t be locked up. American manufacturing jobs are part of a global economy that doesn’t care who POTUS is, and those jobs won’t come flowing back because The Donald orders it to be so. The rural, uneducated white voters who handed the keys of the White House to a New York billionaire are, I think, in for years of disappointments.

Well, life goes on, even if it feels like it has careened into a scary place. Yet, if the shoe were on the other foot, if Clinton’s electoral fortunes reflected her plurality because her voters had been spread out more in the states like Iowa that gets its votes magnified, I think we Clinton supporters would be rightly indignant at Trump supporters who were too quick to grab their muskets or claim it’s the end of America.

Remember when the scandal was that Trump would only accept the election results if he won? He won. He accepts the results.

So does Hillary Clinton.

We can cry, scream, rend our garments, gird our loins for the long fight, etc. But, Clinton liberals, the vote has happened. If we would have expected DJT to concede had he lost, we should be a bit consistent and accept, unhappily, that he won.

And yes, I would reform the system so that he wouldn’t’ win again under the same circumstances—we do need boatloads of election reform—but Trump’s win was “clean” in the sense that it did fit the twisted, insane rules we live under.

No, I don’t mean we have to sing “Kumbaya” or forget our deep divisions or not be on alert for the tragic coming attempts to take away fundamental rights form the vulnerable among us.

But calm down. If need be—and I think need will be—we can beat him in a landslide next time.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Did Media Fail Us? Were We Listening?

Near Bowman Woods School in my very conservative area of CR. Saw a number of these and no Trump signs on a Saturday bike ride.

There has been a lot of hand wringing about the political discourse this fall. The Gazette had a front-page story today which noted that whoever wins Tuesday, tough times are still going to be with us.

While I think The Gazette reported the story well, it was another example of false media equivalency. That is, while Hillary Clinton may not be the “perfect” candidate, the slime and goo that clog politics this year didn’t ooze from the dark side of the Clinton political machine.

It’s Trump and his minions—the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats aren’t all on his side. Just almost all of them.

Clinton plays hardball like an old school politician. Trump tosses gasoline and throws a match and burns the whole facade down—which some people enjoy, but, frankly, his “straight talk” has done and continues to do damage. He has normalized racial hatred and violence in a way that should give any thoughtful person pause.

I would hate to see what that The Donald would do with the bully pulpit. May we never find out.

Still, my political rant is over. Another aspect of this political season I don’t like is the mutual war of words between the Clinton supporters and Trump supporters. While the candidates are far from even, I think the rhetorical nuclear war of words—calling, for example, all Trump supporters woman haters or white supremacist—hasn’t been all on one side.

Sure, I’m partisan. I desperately want Hillary to win. But I know many Trump voters are most concerned with Supreme Court justice choices. And while their concern for a particular constitutional interpretation that would overthrow Roe v Wade is not something I agree with—I understand it's neither woman-hating (the most ardent abortion opponents, in my experience, are women) nor racist.

Many Trump voters aren’t deliberately voting for a fascist, they are voting for what they see as a constitutional conservative.

I get that. And I wish some on the left would tune down their own rhetoric. You can’t persuade voters in the middle by shouting at them or failing to engage with their concerns.

On a bike ride this Saturday, I took an informal “sign poll” in my neighborhood. I expected a Trump landslide because in recent weeks I’ve seen many more Trump signs than Clinton signs on my bicycle rides.

But, I was in for a surprise. I saw many Republican signs for down ballot races, but zero Trumps. I know that was an accident of my route on this particular morning—I know there are many Trump banners in my area—but it was encouraging to me to see Clinton-Kane signage instead.

Signs above and below. Above is a Democrat running for Iowa House, below are two Republicans running for statehouse posts. Neither yard featured signs for federal races, particularly the presidential contest--and that was not unusual on my ride.

I hope that’s a sign. Maybe Iowa isn’t as crazy as the polls suggest. I do want Hillary to win, because she is the only competent adult running in any party this fall. And I have some hope she would try to unite the country post election.

Donald? The world won’t end if he wins, but his damage to American democracy would be profound. The stock market would crash, there would be a big victory party in the Kremlin and the next four years would be a dangerous roller coaster ride that we just hope will end without any use of nukes.

I’d rather have a competent president who can’t do anything because of Republican obstructionists in Congress than a Republican president who can’t do anything because he can’t—he doesn’t understand the job, his role, how politics works, and he won’t listen to smart people because he’s “smarter” than them all.

Sigh. I don’t want a conservative Supreme Court, but if I did, I still don’t think it would be enough. I still could not vote for The Donald.

But, for the record, I don’t want to traduce or write off all of those who could.