Narrative control

Master of her domain? (Roberto Dell’Olivo)

Tennis player Naomi Osaka has withdrawn from the French Open after saying that she would not participate in mandatory press conferences. Osaka considers the conferences to be bad for her mental health and focus, causing her “huge waves of anxiety.”

I don’t think many athletes like doing media, but in most cases, like this one, they are contractually bound. It is then part of their job if not part of any competition. In most ways this seems to me to be a pissing match between a star athlete and the tournament about who needs the other most and I don’t care who wins. What I find more interesting is what’s being said about the contretemps in the press.

In general the media response has been quite supportive of Osaka, though she has certainly had her critics. I found a few articles written in Osaka’s defence noteworthy though for how they characterize what is going on.

Cate Young concludes by finding the whole thing a little old fashioned in 2021. “In a landscape where most public figures have a direct line of access to their fans and supporters, the traditional media conference is nothing more than an outdated formality. If sports media wants to prove its necessity, it needs to demonstrate that it can do something an athlete with an Instagram account can’t.” For his part, Chris Jones congratulates Osaka on being part of “a huge transfer of power from fusty, historically patriarchal institutions, be they Broadway Leagues, awards committees, movie studios or governing bodies of sports, to individuals, especially those who have allied themselves with the struggles of their fans.”

Jemele Hill, continuing the theme of how progressive all this is, puts Osaka in the company of other Black athletes, particularly NBA players. She mentions Kyrie Irving as one such, as he had been fined for not speaking to the media, saying that he wanted “to perform in a secure and protected space.”

The nagging suspicion that leagues and reporters alike fundamentally misunderstand athletes of color makes these athletes still more determined to cultivate their own image with fans. That’s why so many prominent athletes — including the NBA stars Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant — have opted to launch their own media companies. With their massive social-media followings, they can take their message directly to the public. Many of them don’t need press conferences to promote or build their brands, and the establishment is having trouble adjusting to the new normal, in which it can’t make players do what it wants simply because that’s the way things have always been done.

The issues that Osaka has raised aren’t going away. These days athletes would much rather tell their own stories than let reporters do it for them. Not long ago, players couldn’t win any power struggles against the media, much less their own league. Now they can.

Does this sound familiar? A celebrity with a (real or imagined) grievance at how they are being treated by the mainstream or established media leverages their fame to take their message and brand directly “to the people” by way of “their massive social-media followings.” In doing so they hope to establish “a secure and protected space” and control the narrative around their brand.

Yes, it’s the Trump playbook. Remember that Trump just wanted to be treated fairly. He just wanted to protect himself. He would still appear on Fox News, just as Osaka clarified that she was OK “with all the cool journalists.” If one is forced to deal with the press, it’s best if they’re the tame variety.

Three points stand out from these interpretations of the Osaka affair.

In the first place, both Young and Hill make this into a pissing match not between an athlete and her sport’s governing bodies but between a celebrity and the media. Why? What did the media do wrong in attending these admittedly silly dog-and-pony shows? Are they responsible for Osaka’s anxiety? Aren’t they just doing their job? A job, I might add, that few of them enjoy any more than the athletes.

The second thing I find remarkable is that Young, Jones, and Hill represent the mainstream media. Jones is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Hill was writing in The Atlantic, which is about as traditional or establishment as you can get. That is, they are going out of their way to slam their own side while championing Twitter. At what point does this denigration of the media stop?

Finally I want to express my concern at the way a widespread anger at and distrust of the media has become cover for those in positions of wealth and power who want to take control of the way they’re presented. To ask the obvious question: Who wouldn’t “much rather tell their own stories than let reporters do it for them”? How brave is Osaka in ditching press conferences for social media platforms where, as Jones puts it, “she can control the conversation without risk to herself”?

Everyone wants that kind of control. But who has that privilege? Only the most powerful. Billionaires. Those with “massive social-media followings.” Celebrities who own their own media companies.

I recently updated an earlier post I’d made about the way celebrities seek to control their public image, in particular through their dealings with biographers — which may be said to be the ultimate example of controlling one’s narrative. I’ve made it clear what I think of this. I’m left to wonder if Young sees a difference between a press conference and an Instagram post, or if Hill considers it a good thing that athletes (or powerful people more generally) can now crush the media and control their image and narrative. Does she feel the same about Bill Cosby or Donald Trump doing this as she does about Kyrie Irving and Naomi Osaka?

I have as many misgivings about the media as the next person, but I’ll take the side of professional journalists asking questions, even the same ones, however many times, over that of celebrities looking to cultivate their brand on social media. The wealthiest and most privileged among us are in no need of a safe space. Journalism, as the old saw has it, is writing stuff that someone doesn’t want you to write. Everything else is advertising. I’m afraid that if this sort of thinking is allowed to continue then advertising is all we’re going to have left.

Cryptoscepticism

Looks bright and shiny. But what is it?

A recent news report out of the UK had the police raiding a property in the Midlands with suspiciously high energy usage. They figured it was a grow-op. Instead, it turned out to be a bitcoin mine.

I’ve never given a lot of thought to cryptocurrencies, but this piqued my interest. There are a lot of primers and basic introductions to the subject online so I tried to get somewhat up to speed. I was not entirely successful. I still don’t know what, exactly, a blockchain is, or what bitcoin mining involves. Yes, the former is a ledger and the second refers to the process of validating transactions (which is what I believe takes so much energy), but that doesn’t help a lot.

As with anything involving a lot of tech, a lot of money, and a lot of secrecy, I am suspicious of all of this. “Cutting out the middleman” and facilitating faster financial transactions may be of some value, but they don’t seem like really pressing needs for anyone. Meanwhile, avoiding any oversight is the kind of thing mostly bad actors want to take advantage of.

We know a lot of sketchy businesses exploit the crypto part of cryptocurrency, as it keeps shady dealings hidden in dark markets. Throw in the energy consumption (with cryptomining generating some 22 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, which is as much as some small countries), and illicit cryptomining (through “permissionless blockchains”) and I’m not sure why governments aren’t cracking down more.

But as I said, it’s a subject I know little about. Given that this is where things are heading I’m going to try to learn more. Not to invest in bitcoins but to better understand what’s going on.

Can we just get rid of the Nobel Prize?

Reports have recently surfaced that Bill Gates befriended the notorious Jeffrey Epstein in the hopes of being given an award somewhere down the line. And not just any award. According to an ex-staffer at the Gates Foundation “He [Gates] thought that Jeffrey would be able to help him, that he would know the right people or some kind of way to massage things, so he could get the Nobel Peace Prize.”

I think a story like this just underlines how silly the business of such awards is. They are subjective, and what’s more based on whatever the whims of a handful of not very knowledgeable or well-informed individuals happens to be feeling at the moment. Of course Barack Obama had done absolutely nothing to deserve a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 except replace George W. Bush as president, but that was enough at that particular historical moment.

But the Nobel name, for no good reason whatsoever, continues to have enough cachet to make people like Bill Gates, who should know better, want to pursue it. I gave up long ago trying to find any rhyme or reason to the Nobel Prize in Literature. But why should there be any rhyme or reason? The handful of members of the Swedish Academy who do the picking might as well be throwing darts at a wall as naming some writer whose work they will in most cases be entirely unfamiliar with. Bob Dylan one year. Kazuo Ishiguro the next.

I don’t understand why anyone still buys into this, or into prize culture in general. Such awards are in no way, and never have been, meant to provide any kind of objective or even rational assessment of achievement. They continue only as a way of credentialing celebrity or the professionally well-connected and as an exercise in branding. Bill Gates should have just been allowed to buy a Nobel Prize for a billion dollars, and the money given to charity.

The high price of living (somewhere)

In recent years there’s been a lot of discussion about the affordability of homes in Canada, and whether we are experiencing a real estate bubble. A lot depends on location, as always when talking about buying a house. But the numbers on the ground where I live are concerning.

In March 2020 the average resale price of a home where I live was $590,176. A year later, March 2021, the price had risen to $744,775. A 26.2% increase in one year, which is a record-setting pace. The average house was appreciating in value over $10,000 a month. That makes for a very fluid marketplace. I was recently informed by a real estate agent that one local home had sold for more than $300,000 over asking. I do not live in Toronto or Vancouver, by the way.

I don’t know if this is a bubble, but it is a run-up that has to stop at some point. I don’t see how such inflation is sustainable. But will there be a collapse, or just a freeze or gentle deflating? And who is buying all these million-dollar homes anyway?

Canadian dirt

According to BookNet’s annual market overview of Canadian book sales the bestselling work of fiction in Canada in 2020 was Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt: A Novel. American Dirt, and I’m cutting and pasting here because I haven’t read it, is “about the ordeal of a Mexican woman who had to leave behind her life and escape as an undocumented immigrant to the United States with her son.”

American Dirt was Cummins’s fourth book and third novel. Her previous books seem to have been well received, but I don’t think they were that well known. I’d never heard of her. With American Dirt that would change. Or really, and this is worth taking note of, before American Dirt was published that would change. Cummins was paid a seven-figure advance after a bidding war. Blurbs were then acquired from a line-up of all-stars, including Stephen King and John Grisham. There was a massive publicity campaign. Oprah announced its selection for the re-launch of her book club, again before it was published. From Wikipedia: “American Dirt debuted on the New York Times best sellers list as #1 on the list for the week of February 9, 2020. In an unusual decision, the New York Times ran separate reviews of the book both in the daily paper and in the weekly book review section, as well as publishing an excerpt.”

In short, American Dirt was a certified hit before it was even published. And the system wasn’t done yet. One of the earliest negative reviews was spiked . . . for being negative. The whole rollout was typical of the sort of manufactured blockbusterdom that makes one feel more than a little cynical about how the publishing world works. In Revolutions I commented in passing that “the ‘propaganda model’ of the media and intellectual life generally can, and I think should, be extended to cultural matters. Critical consensus and submission to conventional wisdom is manufactured in much the same way: that is, with the carrot and stick of capital.” The manufacture of consent applies just as much to the book review section of the New York Times as it does to their op-ed pages on American foreign policy. For some reason I’ve encountered a lot of passive and not-so-passive resistance to this idea. Because people, even literary types, don’t think that novels matter? Because, as good lefties, they don’t think they’re so easily manipulated?  I’m not sure.

Then came a backlash. Cummins was accused of appropriating an ethnic voice not her own. That’s the kind of year 2020 was. A petition was passed around asking Oprah to reconsider her endorsement. Ms. Winfrey declined.

So what lessons can we learn from the BookNet numbers?

(1) Make no mistake: American Dirt won the lottery before the draw was held. Pre-publication hype (bought and paid for) is still real, as is the Oprah effect.

(2) There is such a thing as bad publicity, I’m sure, but for Cummins it was all good. The controversy that blew up over American Dirt was in February, and seems not to have hurt sales.

(3) The bestselling novel in Canada in 2020 is based very much on a story torn from U.S. headlines. Meanwhile, the bestselling work of non-fiction in 2020, and the overall bestselling book in Canada, was Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land. For all the cries we hear about the need for Canadians to tell our own stories, just remember where the audience is for that.

Ranking some social media anti-Semitism

Recently there have been a number of high-profile cases of people getting in trouble for making what have been labeled anti-Semitic social media posts. Are they really, though? Or are they just wingnut crazy? Or totally innocent? Let’s take a look.

Marjorie Taylor Greene

In a rambling 2018 Facebook post Taylor Greene mused aloud/online over whether wildfires in California had been caused by a laser beam directed from space. It’s hard to tell from her post who she thought actually directed this laser, but the utility company Pacific Gas & Electric seems to be the main culprit. Since a later investigation held that PG&E powerlines had led to the wildfires this wasn’t too far off the mark, at least as far as culpability goes. However, Taylor Greene went on to draw attention to what she found to be the suspicious connection between PG&E and the investment firm Rothschild, Inc. (she names a man who was on the board of both corporations).

The media jumped all over this and Taylor Greene’s rant would go on to be universally referred to as the “Jewish space laser” post. This is because the Rothschilds have often been linked to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. That said, Taylor Greene herself never called the laser a Jewish space laser and reading her post I’m not sure what role she thought the Rothschilds were playing in all of this. Is “Rothschild” a dog whistle? I’m sure it is. And was the post crazy? Absolutely. But the anti-Semitism, while legible, seems kind of tangential to her (insane) theories.

Gina Carano

Former MMA fighter and actress Gina Carano was fired from the TV show The Mandalorian after posting the following on her Instagram account:

Jews were beaten in the streets, not by Nazi soldiers but by their neighbors . . . even by children. Because history is edited, most people today don’t realize that to get to the point where Nazi soldiers could easily round up thousands of Jews, the government first made their own neighbors hate them simply for being Jews. How is that any different from hating someone for their political views.

What Carano is doing here (it might not be obvious) is comparing the plight of conservatives in the U.S. today to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. Crazy? I think we have to again say yes, though what Carano is saying isn’t quite as bonkers as the space laser. Anti-Semitic? That’s a harder one. Lucasfilm stated that Carano’s “social media posts denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities are abhorrent and unacceptable.” I don’t see where she’s doing this. She’s really stretching to claim victim status but is identifying, at least to some extent, with Jews. You could say that her post was insensitive, but I don’t think it’s all that anti-Semitic.

Nathan J. Robinson

Robinson is, or was, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper and found himself in trouble when objections were made to a pair of linked tweets he’d posted about the miserliness of COVID relief in the U.S. budget as compared to the amount of money being given to Israel to buy missiles. In his tweets he said the following:

(1) “Did you know that the US Congress is not actually allowed to authorize any new spending unless a portion of it is directed toward buying weapons for Israel? It’s the law.” (2) “or if not actually the written law then so ingrained in political custom as to functionally be indistinguishable from law.”

Despite the fact that the part of the post where he says “It’s the law” was clearly meant as sarcastic, and immediately flagged as such, his bosses took objection to what they saw as the spreading of “fake news” and fired him for singling out Israel for criticism.

The response to Robinson’s post is typical of the way criticism of Israel is often targeted as being anti-Semitic. Is what he said anti-Semitic though? Or even anti-Israel? It mainly seems to be a criticism of American budgetary priorities. I don’t see where he’s blaming Israel for taking the money. But I guess if you were so inclined you could see it as critical of Israel too, in so far as it implies that the U.S. should be spending its money on other things. On the anti-Semitism charge though I just don’t see it.

So . . . the person who posted the craziest and probably the only legitimately anti-Semitic comments on social media faced no consequences or blowback (at least from her own party), and is still a sitting member of Congress, while the other two individuals were fired from their jobs. Is there a lesson in that? If so, it may be one representative of the Trump era: If you’re going to say something really dumb, you should always go big. Social media doesn’t handle nuance well, and rarely seeks to engage us in close reading. It’s there to trigger instant likes and dislikes, retweets and knee-jerk reactions. The medium might not be the message, but both are getting toxic in mutually reinforcing ways.

American carnage

The farewell party.

With the inauguration of Joe Biden as president the tumultuous Trump years have come to an end.

As a book reviewer I can testify to the truly awesome amount of ink that has been spilled trying to describe, explain, and understand the last four years. And over the course of the next year I’m sure much more will be added to the pile, including post mortems on the 2020 election, the COVID-19 debacle, and the final, fiery attack on the Capitol by an angry mob. I look forward to what will be said.

What kind of a snap judgment can be made now, however? Many are debating whether Trump will be considered the worst president in U.S. history. The prior point, arrived at more easily, is that he was the worst person to ever be president (including the slaveholders, per David Frum). To this I would agree. There has simply never been someone so mendacious and corrupt, or as lazy, ignorant, and vicious to hold the office. Defenders may point to such generic accomplishments as tax “reform” and flooding the judiciary with “conservative” judges — developments bound to happen under any Republican administration, and with which Trump seems to have been uninvolved. Trump’s own interests in being president were restricted to obsessively following his own media coverage, grift, and using the shield of the office to keep himself out of jail.

In a way, America was lucky he was such an incompetent buffoon. Someone with all of Trump’s bad qualities, matched with intelligence and charm, might have signaled the end of the American experiment in government. One hopes, without much confidence, that something will have been learned, just as lessons will be taken from the COVID disaster, which we were lucky was not even more deadly. How many such bullets can be dodged?

One discouraging conclusion to draw from the Trump years is that institutions will not preserve any part of the existing order. The center did not hold for four years in the U.S., with the Republican party caving completely to Trump and his manifold outrages during that time. Peace, order, and good government (those Canadian virtues) are hanging on everywhere by a slender thread.

Will Trump be back? I doubt it, given his age, health, and the miserable note his presidency ended on. But stranger things have happened. Of greater concern is the fact that Trump was just a symptom, or at most a catalyzing agent, of a deeper rot. And the conditions that gave rise to him are not going away. In fact, they are almost certainly going to get worse. The anger and hate that Trump both stoked and embodied is the product of various trends — political polarization, growing inequality, social media — that I can’t see getting better anytime soon. Trump may be on his way, but someone else is bound to come along who will harness that anger. This is not the end, but the beginning.

Lockdown 2: The sequel

Today, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 outbreak, my hometown and province is entering its second emergency lockdown.

I don’t see how the response to the pandemic in this country can be seen as anything less than a chaotic disaster (to borrow the language former president Obama used to describe the Trump administration’s response in the U.S.). We are in a much worse situation than we were when all this started. A year’s worth of sacrifice has been wasted.

The medical response hasn’t been bad. Vaccines were developed faster than most experts thought likely. The vaccine rollout hasn’t been very impressive thus far, but I’m hoping we can get up to speed soon. Reports that some snowbirds were flying to their winter homes in Florida just to get vaccinated are damning if true.

The political and economic response, however, has been catastrophic, and will only lead to even worse results before things start getting better. The bill to pay from all of this, as I’ve previously warned, is going to be huge.

We need to look ahead. Experts have been warning of pandemics for decades. We should consider ourselves lucky that COVID-19, for all the people it has killed, is not itself a particularly deadly disease. The survival rate is very high. That can’t be counted on next time. And there will be a next time. We need to learn from the mistakes that have been made.

We might begin with studying why some countries have been so successful in dealing with COVID-19 where others have failed so completely. Why were we unable to implement effective measures to test, track, and trace? Is there something about neoliberal attitudes toward government that has frustrated our taking effective action? Lessons must be learned.

Media gardening

Over at the Canadian Notes & Queries website you can read my review of Richard Stursberg’s The Tangled Garden. This is a book about the impact that the new digital giants (or FAANGs, to use the acronym) are having on Canadian news media. In brief, that impact has been catastrophic, leaving nothing but “losses as far as the eye can see.”

I share many of Stursberg’s concerns, as well as his more dismal conclusions. In my review I’m left to wonder how many people even care. It makes me think of the current state of the CBC. I believe in the CBC’s mission, and think they have some good people working there, but whenever I watch their local or national news programs or go to their website I end up feeling that they’re just not doing it right. And given how badly they’re faring in terms of their ratings and market share I’m not alone. I think the CBC does well in Quebec, and CBC Radio still has a lot of listeners, but they just don’t seem to have any clear identity as a broadcaster, sliding from paternalistic to aggrieved and back again.

Still, I want them to succeed. I do think Canada needs them.