Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Future of Communication Theory

So, just a couple of weeks ago, I was at our annual meeting of the Media Ecology Association, this year hosted by Metropolitan University in Denver, Colorado. The convention was held on June 11th to 14th, and it began, following the welcoming remarks, with a plenary session I organized, entitled The Future of Communication Theory.

I also served as the moderator of the session, and since it was videotaped and uploaded to YouTube by our friends at Metropolitan U., I'm pleased to be able to share it with you here on Blog Time Passing.

As you'll see, I'm seated all the way on the right, and proceeding from right to left, the participants are Larry Frey from the University of Colorado, Boulder; Karen Lollar, from Metropolitan University, the convention coordinator and MEA Vice-President; Corey Anton of Grand Valley State University and MEA Immediate Past President; Robert Craig, Professor Emeritus at the University of Colorado, Boulder; and MEA Past President Janet Sternberg.






Some caveats, that due to one of the microphones being faulty, some of the discussion is difficult to hear, so you may need to crank it up to the maximum setting (but don't worry, you can hear me just fine, ha ha). And the discussion does stray from the topic of the future of communication theory, and from the topic of communication theory itself, but it is nonetheless thoughtful, illuminating, and provocative.

At least I thought so. Let me know if you agree...



Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Thunderation!

So, I know what you're going to say, that I've been holding out on you. And it's true. I have. It's been almost four months now that my first book of poetry was published. 

I do have a little bit of an excuse, though. You see, when it first came out, back in March, Amazon took a week or two to make it available through their site, and much longer to get the book cover up there, along with other information. Something about playing hard ball with small presses that don't work directly through Amazon, I'm told. Has to be something, because over on Barnes and Noble's site, it was up there much, much earlier.

So anyway, by the time it all got sorted out, the thrill of fresh publication was gone, I got caught up with other things, and so on and so forth. But enough of that. Better late than never, so let's hear it for:


Thunder at Darwin Station

Published by NeoPoiesis Press, no less! And with the coolest cover. Here, take a look:




And here's some basic info about it:

Thunder at Darwin Station
Lance Strate
NeoPoiesis Press/March 4, 2015
5.5”x8.5” perfect bound, paper/ $14.95/ 82 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9892018-7-2

And hey, blurbs, blurbs, blurbs, gotta have some blurbs. And here they are:

Thunderation! Open up this post-atomic cocktail of poems by Lance Strate and let it shake you up! Thunder at Darwin Station, blends Huxleys with Darwins, evolves with jolts of Joyce and a double DNA dose of Wells and Watsons, spins the reverberations of a blues apocalypse with a green sprig of enlightenment, and delivers you a Galloping Galapagos. Drink up, it will serve you right!
David Ossman author, actor, member of Firesign Theatre

"Rhetorically poignant...witty charm mixed with story-telling prose come to mind when reading this lovely ensemble from New York poet, Lance Strate. I particularly enjoyed the Sixth Thunder."
Alannah Myles, singer, songwriter

a serious entrtainment a theologikul teleologikul ontologikul evolushyunaree whethr by design by who thrust n all our charaktrs th trains endlesslee run like giraffes gazells elegaik rhythmic funkee n elegant langwage heer from th erth n sky watr n fire we all ar sew changing n oftn sew maladaptiv variaysyuns thers not much time 2 wait 4 th train 2 cum in we ar alredee on wun n manee n thers brillyant sharp n profound writing a great reed how far wev cum whats next can we know ourselvs our "specious" specees r we th missing links ths book asks evreething abt thees issews a wundrful xperiens reeding thunder at darwin staysyun
bill bissett, poet, painter, mystic


So, no doubt at this point you are absolutely convinced that this is a must-have, so here's the link to order a copy, and such a bargain too! So go ahead, I'll wait...






Now then, let me take a moment to thank my friends at NeoPoiesis Press, Dale Winslow, Stephen Roxborough, and Erin Badough, and to acknowledge Sheffield Abella for the marvelous cover illustration, and Milo Duffin along with Stephen Roxborough again for the art direction—speaking of which, here's the back, front and spine for you to see:





And you know, I had to do an About the Author blurb, and they insisted on me making it one that was creatively oriented, as opposed to my usual academic fare, so here's what I came up with:

Lance Strate is a native New Yorker, having been born in Manhattan, and moved out to Queens two weeks later, and now working in the Bronx and living in New Jersey, just across the Hudson in SopranoLand. His poetry has been published in Poetica Magazine, KronoScope, Anekaant, ETC, Explorations in Media Ecology, General Semantics Bulletin, and several anthologies, including Candy, and The Medium is the Muse: Channeling Marshall McLuhan. He has a few books of the intellectual sort to his credit, Echoes and Reflections is one, On the Binding Biases of Time is another, and Amazing Ourselves to Death is his most recent. He is Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, and he also teaches in the graduate program in Media and Professional Communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He is often identified as a media ecologist, and quite happy to be known as such, having been the founder and first president of the Media Ecology Association. Lance hopes someday to find the time...

So, anyway, I do want to acknowledge that this cycle of ten poems originally appeared on my poetry blog over on the old MySpace social networking site, which all vanished into thin air a few years ago, and the book is dedicated to our old MySpace poetry community.

Anyway, NeoPoiesis Press was born out of that community as well, and you can see my book's page on their website by clicking here.

And, for more information about Thunder at Darwin Station, please visit www.neopoiesispress.com or contact Dale Winslow at info at neopoiesispress.com.

And if you're interested in ordering a signed copy, just let me know, although I imagine marking it up in that way might depreciate its resale value on eBay...



Thursday, June 18, 2015

Oliver With a Twist

So, to continue where I left off with my previous post, A Net Gain for Oliver, back in February I was contacted by a French journalist, Fabienne Faur, a lifestyle writer for Agence France-Presse, which describes itself as follows:


Agence France-Presse is the world's oldest newswire with journalists in 165 countries. We publish worldwide in English, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Arabic. AFP delivers the news to thousands of media outlets worldwide from newspapers to magazines, radio and TV stations and online services. It reaches an audience of more than one billion people daily.

He explained that he was working on a story about John Oliver as an Englishman who has been successful in the United States as a comedian and host of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, and wanted my views on Oliver, on how why Americans seem to love the English sense of humor, on what Oliver is doing on his show, how it relates to what journalists are or are not doing, and to the work of other comedians and entertainers in the US.






Here now is my response:


There is a long history of successful English comics in the United States. Among the names that come to mind are the film genius of Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel playing against his American straight man Oliver Hardy, the brilliant character comedy of Peter Sellers, and the amazing ensemble known as Monty Python, and more recently Sacha Baron Cohen, to name a few.

There are several different things Americans love about English humor. First, we love the accent. You can say just about anything in an English accent, and it automatically puts a smile on an American's face. And there is something about the British accent that makes silly talk sound much funnier to us than it does back in England. For example, the Monty Python program featured a great deal of topical humor and national references that were completely lost on American audiences, but what we found funny was the way they talked, their mannerisms and expressions, and the fact that we had no idea what they were talking about made it even funnier, and also is the reason why their comedy did not become dated here the way that it did over in England. So John Oliver just has to open his mouth and already he sounds funny to us. Add to that the cultural differences, particularly the English reserve, tendency towards formality, restraint, and politeness, and those differences come across as comedic to an American audience. And English humor often incorporates violations or challenges to their politeness, restraint, and formality, which Americans can readily identify with. Additionally, American culture is decidedly anti-elitist, and we equate English accents with elitism, that's why our movie villains typically have English accents, so we love it when an English actor is the butt of a joke, utilizes self-deprecating humor, or generates humor by acting in a foolish manner.

Of course, there are some differences when a Cockney accent is in play, which often is associated with putting down the upper class or otherwise acting the fool. And there is a lower class connection as well, when you consider Benny Hill, for example, which relates to the American view of Europeans in general. Based on the Puritan roots of American culture, we see ourselves as more innocent and moral, whereas Europeans are viewed as more seductive, sexually active, risqué. This works well for Oliver in that his program on HBO is able to include language and nudity that other channels, such as Comedy Central, do not allow.

Another advantage that English comedians have is their education. Humor correlates quite strongly with intelligence, and while there is a powerful strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture, associated with our anti-elitism, we can appreciate intellectual humor and educated references, and the English excel at that kind of comedy in the same way that we excel in humor based on popular culture. Liberals especially appreciate intelligent comedy, and John Oliver's appeal is very much to the liberal side of the political spectrum. You could say that, in contrast to Jon Stewart who criticizes journalists and politicians, Oliver's approach is to educate his audience, albeit in a highly entertaining fashion. And again, his English accent serves him well, automatically conferring on him a degree of authority that an American doing the same kind of program would have to earn over time.

There is no question that Oliver is following Jon Stewart's lead, and Stewart was not the first to do parody and satire of television news, but Stewart did open up new territory and take things to the next level, in providing critical commentary on television news, and the absurdities of newscasters and politicians. Both Stewart and Oliver are doing the job that the press ought to be doing, acting as a fourth estate and holding politicians, corporations, and the new media themselves accountable for their actions and statements, pointing out their contradictions and hypocrisies, and in their own way upholding the Enlightenment ideal of rational discourse. Stewart created the opening, and Oliver has made a significant contribution by expanding it even further.

What I find to be one of the most interesting things about what he does is the way he identifies himself, and especially his use of the first person plural pronouns, us and we. Sometimes he talks about "us" as including himself as an American, and sometimes he presents himself as English. The way that he moves back and forth between the two is something I haven't seen before, but it makes sense because if he were to criticize American society without including himself, that might come across as elitist, and alienate his audience. Of course, there's also the reality that Britain has become, in some ways, a part of greater America, along with Canada and Australia, at least as far as our shared media environment is concerned.

The quote that M. Faur picked out was just a couple of sentences from all that, which is par for the course, of course, of course.  






 




So anyway, recall that the FCC ruling in favor on net neutrality was delivered on February 26th, and John Oliver was credited as having a major impact on the issue, so while that was not the original focus of the piece, who took on greater importance in the aftermath of that decision. And depending on the outlet that picked up the story, they placed greater or lesser emphasis on that connection. For example, in the Panamanian paper, El Siglo, the Spanish language version of the article ran under the headline, El "efecto" John Oliver, pone a reír y pensar a EEUU. The story is dated March 2nd, and my quote reads as follows:


"Hay un efecto 'John Oliver' que impacta en la vida real", tituló recientemente la revista Time. "Jon Stewart había llevado muy lejos la crítica de la información en la televisión y a los hombres políticos", comenta Lance Strate, profesor de comunicación de la Fordham University en Nueva York. "Oliver lo amplificó aún más".


At the same time, A French language outlet, RTL, had the headline as, Neutralité du net: John Oliver salué après la décision américaine, and my quote looked like this:


"Jon Stewart avait porté très haut la critique de l'information à la télévision et des hommes politiques", dit Lance Strate, professeur de communication de la Fordham University à New York, "Oliver l'a encore amplifiée". Les deux humoristes "font le travail que la presse devrait faire, en dénonçant les contradictions et l'hypocrisie des politiques, du monde des affaires et des nouveaux médias", dit-il.


But you probably want the English language version, which appeared first, I believe, in Business Insider, the headline reading, John Oliver, the British comedian spurring America to action. So let's take a look, shall we? Here goes:
Washington (AFP) - John Oliver may have been ruled out of the running to replace Jon Stewart but the British comedian's role in helping sway the debate over "net neutrality" has cemented his status as The Daily Show host's spiritual heir.

Oliver was the first name on most people's lips last month when Stewart sent his legions of fans into mourning after announcing he was stepping down from the satirical Comedy Central show after nearly two decades as host.

The prospect of the 37-year-old Birmingham native sliding into Stewart's chair receded, however, when HBO swiftly announced it was renewing his own show, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, for two more years.

Yet Oliver's role in galvanizing American opinion over the once-arcane concept of access to the Internet was in the best traditions of Stewart, a master of using biting humor to unravel complex questions of the day.

So far, we're on pretty familiar ground. Now the story shifts to the FCC ruling on net neutrality:

Oliver's 13-minute segment on "net neutrality" last year, in which he exhorted viewers to deluge the US Federal Communications Commission forum with objections, is widely credited with crashing the FCC's comments page.

Within 24 hours of Oliver's rallying cry, more than 45,000 comments on net neutrality had been posted on the FCC forum, according to the Washington Post.

Fast forward to last Thursday, and the FCC acquiesced, approving landmark rules to prevent broadband providers from separating online traffic into two unequal lanes, which would allow them to charge fees for better access.

Many people gave credit to Oliver.

"The democratic support for this decision relied heavily on citing the millions of citizen comments submitted via the FCC's website, and those comments were overwhelmingly inspired, directly and indirectly, by Oliver's advocacy," Aram Sinnreich, a professor of journalism at Rutgers University, told AFP.

Oliver, whose show just kicked off its second season, gained massive popularity in 2013 when he stood in for Stewart to guest host The Daily Show while the Comedy Central comedian took a leave of absence to make a movie.

"I'll do anything for him, whether it's hosting this show or disposing of a body," Oliver said.

At this point, we have a new section entitled, "The 'John Oliver effect'":

HBO came to Oliver with the 30-minute show, which has only grown in success since.

Stationed at a desk, wearing a standard suit and tie plus dark-rimmed glasses, Oliver has pilloried, in a series of clear, well-documented and wonderfully funny arguments, vitamins, the militarization of American police, FIFA soccer corruption and the bikini-clad women of Sports Illustrated magazine.

Time magazine recently ran an article titled: "How the 'John Oliver Effect' Is Having a Real-Life Impact."

It credits Oliver, in part or whole, with a list of accomplishments including increased donations to an association of women engineers, a proposed bill in the US state of Washington to allow online video comments on new legislation, and Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement that he will enact major limitations on a controversial confiscation law.

Okay, what about my little quote, you are no doubt wondering by now. Well, get ready, here it comes:

"Stewart created the opening, and Oliver has made a significant contribution by expanding it even further," said Lance Strate, a communication and media studies professor at Fordham University in New York.

"Both Stewart and Oliver are doing the job that the press ought to be doing, acting as a fourth estate and holding politicians, corporations and the new media themselves accountable for their actions and statements," he said.

And that's it for me, but here's the rest of the story:

Furthermore, said Paul Booth, a professor of media and cinema studies at DePaul University in Chicago, "many Americans do love the English sense of humor."

"Oliver definitely embodies some of the best traits of British humor—he's sly, witty, charming, able to poke fun at himself, a bit awkward," he said.

Cambridge-educated, Oliver began his career in Britain before hopping the pond to audition in 2006 for The Daily Show, becoming its "British correspondent."

Married to an American, Oliver claims to love reality TV and hate massages.

"The idea is horrifying to me that a stranger would physically force you to relax," he recently told Vanity Fair magazine.

In summarizing his take on humor, he said: "If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring. Apple could put the entire text of Mein Kampf inside the iTunes user agreement, and you'd just go agree, agree, agree—what?—agree, agree."

The English language version of the story also appeared in Lebanon, in The Daily Star, and in quite a few other places that I wasn't able to keep track of. So it was pretty cool to wind up with a multilingual quote on the subject, for which I can only say merci beaucoup, muchas gracias, and thank you very much!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Net Gain for Oliver

So, in my last post, On Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, I noted that among the names mentioned as a possible successor to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show was John Oliver, who had previously been a frequent "correspondent" on the show (referred to as "Senior British Correspondent"), and actually taken over as guest host for eight weeks during the summer of 2013, as Stewart took time off to direct his feature film, Rosewater.

Of course, Oliver has been hosting his own variation on The
Daily Show since April of 2014, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, on HBO. Whether he was contractually unavailable to take over Stewart's Comedy Central program, or simply preferred the deal he had with HBO (or in a more unlikely scenario, was not given the option of taking over The Daily Show), I don't know, and I suppose it doesn't matter much in the long run.

And I think it important to add that Oliver is an accomplished comedian, with a long career doing stand-up, and some significant appearances on television sitcoms, including the fan favorite show, Community. Like Jon Stewart, he is not a journalist, but like Jon Stewart, his comedy news program has served as an important form of social criticism, and media criticism. I think it a reasonable assumption that he has read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, because one of the segments on his HBO program is called "And Now This," a formulaic saying once commonplace in broadcast news that Postman pointed to as encapsulating many of the problems that occur when television tries to deal with serious subjects. Paradoxically, both Oliver and Stewart validate Postman's criticism by simultaneously turning news into entertainment while critiquing the process.

By the way, I follow up on Postman's 80s critique in my book, Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited. But you knew that...






So, while Oliver's lack of journalistic background is sometimes apparent, for example when he went to Russia and interviewed Edward Snowden this past April, more often than not he has provided some very powerful critiques. One of them was on a subject near and dear to my heart—net neutrality. It hasn't been something I've gone very deeply into here on Blog Time Passing, but it has come up in some of my previous posts, for example going back to 2007, my first year of blogging, Net Neutrality, or Not, also on a related issue in 2010, All Foxed Up, or Time(Warn'er) for Cable Neutrality, Tell Old Pharaoh to Let My Channels Go!, and ABC You Later, Cablevision!, as well as just a little more than a year ago, Purge the Merge!, followed up last July by Purge the Merge! Part 2 (and happily, the merge in question was indeed purged!).

And just in case you're not familiar with the issue, or even if you are, let me share some of the YouTube videos I've used in teaching about new media at Fordham University over the past decade to help explain the subject to students. First is this straightforward presentation uploaded back in 2006, when net neutrality first became a major issue:






For a more dramatic, exciting, and, yes, amusing (and note the inclusion of a Jon Stewart segment on the subject) video, this winner of a 2007 Webby People's Voice Award also serves as an interesting example of what can be done on YouTube:







And one more from the early days, just a talking head this time, but the head belongs to Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World-Wide Web. And as someone who did not try to commercialize the web, but rather made it publicly available to serve the greater good, he was able to speak with a great deal of moral authority:







So, now,  these three videos, and many others like them, make their point all well and fine, but if I may employ a baseball metaphor, all three represent base hits, while John Oliver's segment on the subject, appearing in June of 2014, knocked the ball out of the part, a grand slam by any measure:






It's a great segment, and it had an immediate impact, as related in this segment from a few days after Oliver took on the Federal Communications Commission:





Note how they acknowledge the blurring of the boundaries between comedy and serious discourse in their discussion, and pretty much celebrate it. Now let's fast forward to November of 2014, as President Obama comes out in favor of net neutrality, and the following CNN segments give Oliver, along with Stewart and Colbert, due credit:





And on February 26th of this year, the FCC finally, finally ruled in favor of net neutrality, a development that Oliver did not fail to take note of, along with the immediate backlash that ensued:







So, as far as net neutrality is concerned, a victory for sure, but the issue is far from settled, as lobbyists for the cable and phone companies that provide internet service continue to try to influence Congress to pass legislation that would undermine or eliminate net neutrality. Clearly, the price of maintaining an even online playing field is eternal vigilance, and we best remember that we won't have John Oliver watching out for us forever.

Returning to the amusing and amazing ourselves to death argument, having more access to the internet is not necessarily a good thing, but in this case, net neutrality does protect sources of serious discourse, which otherwise would not be able to compete with the slick, entertaining content provided by the companies that could afford to pay for an internet fast lane, like, ummmm, HBO, and Comedy Central.

  Paradoxes abound! Anyway, I have more to say about John Oliver, but let me save it for another time, and conclude this post by noting that this is a victory for the concept of fair play, an ideal that once meant a great deal to us, that perhaps has faded a bit, but clearly is capable of being reinvigorated. It would be best if we could just begin with the value of fairness, but if we can't, at least we can arrive at it indirectly through our current obsession with play. 

And let me be clear that the problem is not play in and of itself, play is central to education, and playfulness is the key to creativity. The challenge is in finding a balance between work and play. All play and no work makes Jack an ax murderer after all (reference to the Stanley Kubrick film, The Shining, in case you didn't get it).  And the bottom line that we need to keep in mind is that it takes some serious work if we want to keep things fair!


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

On Jon Stewart and The Daily Show

So, I wrote another op-ed for the Jewish Standard that was published on April 10th, entitled Thank You, Jon Stewart, and the subtitle given to the piece was, "Why most of us trust him, and why we’ll miss him," and it proved to be my most popular and controversial piece yet. So how could I not share it here on Blog Time Passing? You can, of course, click on the link above to see it over on their site, or just continue reading it here:


The most trusted man in America.

The reality of Jon Stewart’s February 10 announcement that after 17 years he would be leaving as host of The Daily Show on the Comedy Central cable network did not quite hit home until the March 30 announcement that his successor would be South African comedian Trevor Noah.



Noah, who has some Jewish ancestry, in turn was quickly the subject of controversy surrounding some offensive tweets he made in the past, tweets that some consider anti-Semitic, not to mention misogynistic, and perhaps worst of all, simply not at all funny.


But more significant is the fact that Jon Stewart’s replacement is, for all intents and purposes, a nobody. A Noah-body. And this should come as no surprise, despite all the speculation about who might succeed him, with suggestions as varied as Daily Show alumni such as John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, and John Hodgman, and comics Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, her former co-star Alec Baldwin, and even MSNBC political commentator Rachel Maddow and disgraced NBC news anchor Brian Williams.


The simple truth is that Jon Stewart would be a hard act to follow. Close to impossible, really, no matter how big the name and reputation. No established star in his or her right mind would risk the inevitable judgments about having failed to live up to Stewart’s legacy, so the only alternative was to find someone with nothing to lose to serve as the sacrificial lamb. Only time will tell whether Noah will be able to survive the flood of comparisons that surely will come his way.

But the big question is how did a nice Jewish boy, born in New York City and raised in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, grow up to become the most trusted man in America? “The most trusted man in America” is a citation that previously was bestowed upon the longtime CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite. That Jon Stewart seems to have inherited the title would no doubt strike the comedian, born Jon Stewart Leibowitz, as both an honor and a disturbing commentary on the state of journalism today. It is consistent with Neil Postman’s observation, three decades ago, that the television medium requires entertaining content, and that journalists on television news shows cannot help but become entertainers. By the 1990s, it became a commonplace to note that most young people got their news from the late night monologues of Jay Leno and David Letterman.

What set Jon Stewart apart from Leno, Letterman, and other talk show hosts, including his predecessor on the Daily Show, Craig Kilborn, was the depth of Stewart’s humor, his intelligence, and the incisiveness of his critique of the news media, and the subjects they report on, especially politics. If the fourth estate is supposed to fulfill the function of the watchdogs of society, Stewart provided the answer to the question of who watches the watchmen, and he has done so with dogged determination.

To be sure, on the conservative side of the political spectrum, Stewart is not quite as well trusted as he is among liberal viewers. His political leanings are well known. As much as he has tried to be fair and balanced in his skewering of politicians and the media personalities who cover and comment on them, he could not help but direct a significant portion of ire and irony at Fox News, whose often blatant attempts at propaganda have made it all too easy a target. No doubt, given our current political polarization, we would be hard pressed to name someone who is equally trusted by those on the left and the right of the political spectrum, so it is enough to say that Stewart has gained the confidence of America’s moderates and centrists. And we also might recall that Cronkite was denounced as too liberal in his day, especially after coming out against the Vietnam War in 1968.

We might also recall that Cronkite was considered seriously as a potential Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 1972, and was urged to run for president in 1980. So it should not come as a great surprise that following his resignation from the Daily Show, there have been calls for Jon Stewart to run for the Democratic presidential nomination for 2016, as the only viable alternative to Hillary Clinton. The calls have come from a variety of sources, including longtime television critic and biographer Marvin Kitman, who notes, “Now I realize Jon will have to talk to his mother in Teaneck first. But I’m hoping he will put his country ahead of the cheap overnight thrill of making just another movie. Or a better chicken soup.”



Stewart run for president? Why not? After all, his friend and colleague Stephen Colbert did it in 2007. And the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear that they co-hosted at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2010, which was attended by more than 200,000 people, demonstrated the strength of his popular and populist appeal, and the foundational values on which his comedy was built. The A Moment of Sincerity address that he gave at the close of the event was as good as any campaign speech made by any candidate now out on the stump. Toward its end, he declared, “We know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey. But we do it anyway, together.”


Whether he actually runs for office, in a serious campaign along the lines of the one run by United States Senator Al Franken, a Saturday Night Live alumnus, or as a form of satire, as Colbert did, remains to be seen. But what is quite clear is that Jon Stewart was able to transform the Daily Show from just another low budget television vehicle for sophomoric humor into a significant source of news and opinion, commentary and criticism, and entertainment and education, and in doing so, transform himself from just another comedian to a worthy successor to the man who took us from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the moon and beyond.

And is there any doubt that the secret to Jon Stewart’s success is the fact that his humor has been built on a foundation and rooted in a tradition of social justice, ethical conduct, and compassion for our fellow human beings? His values, the values of his upbringing, shine through his 17 years on The Daily Show. They make clear the fact that he is much more than a comedian—that he is nothing less than a mensch.


Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Medium is the Muse Launch

So, last summer NeoPoiesis Press published an anthology of creative work co-edited by yours truly and Adeena Karasick, entitled The Medium is the Muse.  Remember?


Oracle of the electronic age, Marshall McLuhan believed artists could wake us and offer new windows into the world. This diverse collection brings together twenty-nine poets, writers, and artists who channel McLuhan as both medium and muse. Like McLuhan's work, this volume will delight, divert, provoke, incite and inspire readers to channel McLuhan in their own imagination and creative endeavors. 

Featuring work from: Lillian Allen, Michelle Rae Anderson, Mary Ann Allison, Marleen Barr, David Bateman, Arthur Asa Berger, bill bissett, Tony Burgess, Jerry Harp, Adeena Karasick, William Marshe, John G. McDaid, Jill McGinn, Elizabeth McLuhan, Peter C. Montgomery, Dean Motter, Alexandra Oliver, John Oughton, Si Philbrook, B.W. Powe, Robert Priest, Stephen Roxborough, Lance Strate, Steve Szewczok, Andrea Thompson, Toshio Ushiroguchi-Pigott, John Watts, Dale Winslow, Tom Wolfe


So, last fall we had a bit of a book launch for the volume at a symposium held by the Institute of General Semantics in New York City. This took place on October 25, 2014, and consisted for five readings from contributors, beginning with my introduction:





I followed by reading an except from one of my pieces in the book:




Next came Mary Ann Allison's poetry reading:





This was followed by Marleen Barr reading the short story she wrote for the anthology:



And now, hold on  to your hats for Stephen Roxborough's rather wild rendition of his poem from the book:



And to top it all off, my co-editor performed two of her poems from The Medium is the Muse:






Since you no doubt now want to order a copy, if you haven't got one already, or if you have, now realize a few extra copies would make for the perfect gift, here's a quick and direct link to Amazon:








And once more, here's some more basic information on the book:

paperback: ISBN 978-0-9855577-5-1
144 pages, list price $16.95, 5.5”x8.5” perfect bound, paper

hardcover: ISBN 978-0-9892018-5-8
144 pages, list price $24.95, 5.5”x8.5” hardcover


The volume includes a series of illustrations by acclaimed comics creator Dean Motter, and a couple by popular culture maven Arthur Asa Berger, and the following Contents:


Introduction

The medium is...
Lance Strate

brush up on yr mcluhan / start dewing it now th medium
bill bissett

Ping-Pong
Tom Wolfe

Man Made Whole Again
Tom Wolfe

All the Information in the Sun
Robert Priest

Short Sound Play
Robert Priest

Micro-Poems
Robert Priest

It Came One Day
Elizabeth McLuhan

Self Reflection
Elizabeth McLuhan

To Sit
Elizabeth McLuhan

Chop Gently
Elizabeth McLuhan

The Purple Rose of Brooklyn Or, Meeting Marshall McLuhan (With a Little Help From Mayan Apocalypse Planet X/Nibiru)
Marleen Barr

McLuhan Kaleidoscope
Mary Ann Allison

Flash in the Pan
John McDaid

Start
Tony Burgess

dear marshall i know you
Stephen Roxborough

Marshalling McLuhan
Lillian Allen

Life
Peter Montgomery

Messy Necessity
Adeena Karasick

In My Blogal Village, Print is Hot
Adeena Karasick

Your Leaky Day
Adeena Karasick

Reader
BW Powe

Technogenie
BW Powe

(lang-gwij)?
William Marshe

Constitution of Silence
Steve Szewczok

we, the real mad poets
Jill McGinn

Late Summer Twilight
Jerry Harp

Pegged to Invisible Consequences
John Oughton

McLuhan’s Bride
David Bateman

The Mechanical Bride’s Consolation
Michelle Anderson

Curriculum Vitae
Alexandra Oliver

M.F.M.: Media Friend Marshall
Toshio Ushiroguchi-Pigott

I Wouldn't Have Seen It If I Hadn't Believed It: A Probe Poem
Andrea Thompson

Dear Mr. Mössbauer, are you online?
Dale Winslow

Silent Resonance
Dale Winslow

It Was Never a Flower to Begin With
Dale Winslow

facebook
Si Philbrook

mY parts
John Watts

Prose
Lance Strate

Centenary
Lance Strate

Biographies
Acknowledgments


And there you have it, hope you enjoyed the readings, and hope you liked (or will like) the book!




Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock

In the spirit of catching up with the last few months' activities, the March 6th issue of the Jewish Standard included another one of my op-eds, one I wrote regarding the  recent passing of actor Leonard Nimoy, best known for his portrayal of Mr. Spock on the Star Trek television series and motion pictures. Appearing under the title of Live Long and Prosper, with "Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock" as the subtitle, the piece goes like this:


The death of Leonard Nimoy on Friday, February 27, at 83, marked the passing of an American icon—indeed, a star of global renown, and a Jewish hero as well.




Nimoy’s accomplishments were many. He was an author, poet, musician, photographer, philanthropist, educator, and director, and of course an actor who played many roles on stage and screen. But he is best known for his role as Mr. Spock on Star Trek, the television series that first aired in 1966. It is a role he reprised in the various sequels, spinoffs, and remakes that appeared after the original series went off the air in 1969.

Nimoy was a Boston native, fluent in Yiddish, whose parents were Orthodox Jews who escaped from the Soviet Union. As he related in various interviews, his background informed his portrayal of the sole alien being on the Starship Enterprise. Spock hailed from the planet Vulcan but was also half-human, making him an alien on Vulcan as well. His status reflects that of immigrants and their children, first-generation Americans who, like Nimoy, grow up in a household, community, and culture that still has one foot in the old world.

As a child attending Orthodox services, Nimoy observed the Cohenim delivering the priestly benediction, and as an adult he appropriated their hand gesture when he introduced the Vulcan salute. The greeting that he added to the salute, “live long and prosper,” echoes the sentiment of the benediction, as well as the simple greeting “shalom” (further echoed in the ritual response, “peace and long life”). There is certainly cause for pride in this small Jewish contribution to global popular culture, but does this mean that Star Trek incorporates Jewish undertones, as Haaretz writer Nathan Abrams insisted in an article published the day after Nimoy’s death? Certainly, Jewish fans can take pleasure in the fact that Nimoy and co-star William Shatner are Jewish. So were several of the series’ writers, and we can assume that they all brought some elements of a Jewish sensibility to the program.





But let’s be clear that Star Trek was created by Gene Roddenberry, who was not Jewish, and who included characters from a variety of different backgrounds—Scottish, Irish, French, Italian, Russian, Japanese, and African—but never one who was identifiably Jewish. Indeed, the only characters with any real Jewish identity in the Star Trek universe appeared in a few of the many original novels published under license from Paramount Pictures. No doubt this is not because of any bias or prejudice on Roddenberry’s part, but rather because he associated Jewishness with religion, rather than nationality. His vision of the future was one in which science and progress reigned supreme, and any seemingly supernatural phenomena would inevitably be revealed to be a product of a highly advanced science, or biological evolution.

The conspicuous absence of any Jewish characters from Roddenberry’s melting-pot future can lead viewers to search for them in disguised, symbolic form, to look for what Sigmund Freud referred to as the return of the repressed. And the obvious form for a crypto-Judaic character to take would be that of an alien being. Indeed, while Shatner had the kind of looks that allowed him to pass as a WASP from Iowa, Nimoy’s features gave him what was considered at the time to be a relatively interchangeable “ethnic” appearance, so that earlier in his career he played Spanish, Mexican, and Native American characters. And certainly there are Jewish elements incorporated into Nimoy’s man from Vulcan, and into other aspects of Star Trek. Consider the episode called “Patterns of Force,” in which an alien planet patterns itself after Earth’s Nazi Germany, and is trying to wipe out their neighboring planet, called Zeon (an obvious reference to Zion).

But I want to suggest that Abrams and others are wrong about Spock being implicitly Jewish. It perhaps is revealing that Abrams mistakenly refers to the character as “Dr.” Spock, a mistake not uncommon among those not very familiar with the series. Nimoy’s character usually is referred to as “Mr.” Spock, in keeping with naval tradition about first officers, and occasionally by his rank, which was at various times commander, captain, and ambassador. Dr. Spock was, of course, Benjamin Spock, the famous pediatrician whose bestselling book, Baby and Child Care, served as a bible to the parents in the postwar era. Like Roddenbery, Dr. Spock was not Jewish. The name Spock is Dutch, originally spelled Spaak.




Spock’s home planet, Vulcan is named for the Roman god of fires and forges, and Vulcans are revealed to be related to another alien race, the warlike Romulans, named for the founder of Rome. Vulcan philosophy, which venerates logic above all else, represents a view that is very much in keeping with Athens rather than Jerusalem. Vulcans revere Surak as the founder of their philosophy. Surak has little in common with Moses but quite a bit with Socrates, with some Gandhi thrown in for good measure. So while Spock’s home planet is depicted as having the kind of hot, dessert-like climate that we associate with the Middle East, the stronger connection is to the European side of the Mediterranean.

Abrams associates Vulcan intellectualism with the people of the book, but the aliens do not seek a balance between faith and reason, in the fashion of Maimonides, but rather enforce a strict discipline, suppressing all emotion, in a way that is very much in keeping with another branch of ancient Greek philosophy, Zeno’s Stoicism. Moreover, suppression of emotions often is linked to dehumanization, as a means of forcing individuals to adapt to mechanization and industrialism, yielding a technological being well suited to being a cog in a machine, rather than a mensch, a real, well rounded human being. We may therefore identify with Spock’s struggles, and admire his superior physical and mental abilities, but it is his human side that is the most Jewish part of him.

Following a long tradition in western culture, Roddenberry used orientalism to convey a sense of the alien, and this includes Jewish as well as Arabic, Persian, and Chinese elements. With his raised eyebrows, Spock bears a certain similarity to Ming the Merciless, the alien villain from the old Flash Gordon serials. But it was not until long after Roddenberry’s death in 1991 that a Jewish film director, J. J. Abrams, who was recruited to reboot the series, invokes the destruction of the Temple and subsequent diaspora by having the planet Vulcan destroyed by Romulans. In that 2009 film, called simply Star Trek, time travel is used to generate an alternate timeline, and Leonard Nimoy makes a cameo appearance as the original, now-elderly Spock, while Zachary Quinto takes on the main role as the new Spock. (Quinto is of Italian ancestry, and Italians and Jews often have been cast interchangeably in film and television.) Nimoy’s final film appearance was in the 2013 sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, also directed by Abrams.

 

As a science fiction fan, I can appreciate Star Trek in all of its iterations, and I can enjoy it as a form of American entertainment and popular culture without exaggerating its Jewish undertones. And as a Jewish-American, I can feel pride and affection toward Leonard Nimoy, as a landsman, as the producer and star of the TV movie about a Holocaust survivor, Never Forget, as the author of the photography book Shekhinawith its erotic Kabbalistic theme, and as the originator of the Vulcan salute and the saying “Live long and prosper.”