Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A&M limits freedom of information

In a statement that has been likened to a news story in the Onion, the general counsel for the Texas A&M university system recently stated that according to university policy, A&M professors may not direct students to file public information requests with any of the system’s universities. At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a huge deal—one could argue that the policy is in place to protect sensitive internal information about the university. On closer inspection, however, the policy shows itself to be a serious infringement of academic freedom and students’ learning. Moreover, there is no policy like it at other Texas universities, or possibly at any university in the U.S., according to Hagit Limor, of the Society of Professional Journalists, as quoted here in the Austin-American Statesman.

Public information requests are essential to a journalist’s work, for all kinds of reporting, and universities should both allow and encourage professors to educate students about them. College students are more involved with their university than they are with any other entity; they will have a natural interest in the workings of their school. In towns like Stephenville, TX, where the A&M rule has played out recently, journalism students are more than an hour from a major city and will have even greater reason to investigate their own school as they learn the tools of the trade. Hopefully the negative media coverage of this issue will encourage A&M to look to its peers, revise its policies, and respect freedom of information.

Exploring youtube fame

We are a week into December, and I have just heard about a man and a song that apparently swept the nation this summer and captured the imagination of many thousands of people. This phenomenon is Antoine Dodson, a young black man from Huntsville, Alabama. On July 28th, a local TV station in Huntsville captured Dodson on film in an interview about an intruder who broke into the Dodson home and tried to rape Dodson’s sister. Out of this disturbing content, Dodson’s unique way of expressing himself shines: the almost musical cadence in the way he speaks, the constant motion of his head and limbs as he tells about what happens and then directly addresses the would-be rapist through the camera lens.

Apparently the Dodson interview got passed around on the internet for just a couple of days before the Gregory Brothers made it into a song using the auto tune program and lots of synth. The Bed Intruder song, as it came to be called, launched both Dodson and the Gregory Brothers into the national spotlight.

As I watched the acclaimed “music video” of the bed intruder song for the first time, I felt a mix of guilt and disgust, as it seemed that the song was exploiting the serious subject matter as well as Dodson’s way of talking and flamboyant gestures for entertainment value. I still think this is partly true, but I also recognize that the song, in its own way, honors Dodson’s uniqueness, his resilience, and his personal expression. It does help that it’s very catchy, that half of the iTunes proceeds for the song go to Dodson, and that Dodson has not been dropped back into obscurity and poverty after becoming a sensation. In fact, he has made appearances at various events and award shows, and he has become a celebrity in his own right.

Dodson fans have celebrated that fame, but detractors have also weighed in. Critics complain that Dodson is benefiting from an attempted crime against his sister, and that his rise to fame is nothing more than opportunism. Others have argued that Dodson is reinforcing black stereotypes. My initial guilt after watching the video came from the fact that Dodson and his family live in the projects, that they were captured on film after one member of the family was attacked and nearly raped, and that they were now the subject of a Pop-y, lighthearted, quotable song for the youtube- and Jon Stewart-loving generation. Moreover, I was ashamed at how Dodson’s self expression, his flamboyance and his gestures, had become a source of comedy and entertainment for so many people who knew nothing of his life experience.

Of course, condemning the video, the song, the phenomenon, is also problematic. Who am I to say that Dodson should not be an entertainer, the way that the origin of dance guy is, or Kesha, or Rihanna, or the myriad cute kittens and puppies on youtube are? Saying that people shouldn’t be watching the news clip and the song of Dodson is almost like saying there is something wrong with him, with his lifestyle and background and the way he talks. That’s not how I feel, or, I think, how most viewers feel.

I guess I just hope that youtube fame is not the best thing that ever happens to Antoine Dodson and his family. According to an article by Mike Thomas in the Chicago Sun-Times, Dodson and his family may soon move to Los Angeles and become the subjects of a new reality TV show. I find it hard to believe that this is considered a crowning achievement for many people, but I suppose it makes sense in the context of our celebrity obsessed, voyeuristic pop and media culture. Watching Antoine Dodson talk on local television during an news interview wasn’t enough: now we want to see hours of coverage of Dodson and his family living their “normal” daily life, but with more money and much more fame than they had before. It is, perhaps, the ultimate American Dream.

Veterans Day 2010


Veterans Day. I just heard on the radio that England celebrates Armistice Day today. So did Americans apparently, until Eisenhower signed legislation changing the name of the holiday to Veterans Day in 1954, in order to honor veterans of World War II and the Korean War in addition to WWI veterans. One hundred years ago, November 11, 1910, the Great War was four years away. Fifty years ago today, November 11, 1960, Americans had fought in three major wars, and they were about to launch into another.In the years since then, we’ve had Desert Storm, and now the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan. Sometimes I forget that we are at war, and that scares me.

Of course I remember the protests in 2003, when I was still in college, and Operation Iraqi Freedom and the statue of Saddam Hussein being dragged down. And all that talk about Weapons of Mass Destruction, which never did materialize. I followed the surge in 2007, and the resulting slight improvement in the situation. I’ve listened to excellent radio stories about the Iraq war, most recently on This American Life, and I hear the news reports of suicide bombs and other continuing violence. But I feel very removed from the conflict, insulated by my comfortable life. I’ve suffered no deprivation due to these wars, and I only distantly know one soldier stationed in Afghanistan.

My most intimate experience of war was in the stories that both grandfathers would tell about their experiences in World War II. Both men are gone now, but those stories remain vivid portraits of war for me. Each grandfather had a very different way of approaching the subject—my mother’s father did not talk often about it, and he usually only spoke of it when we asked him. His older brother was killed in the fourth year of the war by sniper fire in Italy, and if that didn’t quell a tendency to romanticize war, then his temperament certainly did. He was a steady, even keeled man with a brilliant mind and an unflinchingly logical, unsentimental approach to all that he did and thought about. At the end of the war, he was among the first Allied troops to enter Germany. Traveling in tanks, my grandfather and his fellow soldiers saw the destruction that the war had caused to both the victors and the defeated, and he gave food to desperate German boys in exchange for their guns.

My father’s father, on the other hand, loved to talk about his life during the war. A pilot, he was stationed in the South Pacific. He was copilot for General Geiger, and he had lots of wonderful stories about living in the tropics, admiring beautiful local women, writing his first book on a typewriter set atop a crate on the airfield (and losing the whole damn thing when they had to evacuate and the propellers blew the pages across the island). For him, the war was an incredible adventure. He was never wounded, fortunately, but he got a terrible case of malaria by the end of the war that nearly finished him off. For the rest of his life, he looked back on the war years as a spectacular adventure, though he also acknowledged the death and destruction, the sadness of war.

What both grandfathers had in common was the way that they minimized their own involvement, and downplayed the significance of their tremendous contribution. They endangered themselves, gave four or five years of their lives in military service, lived far from home, and yet they talked about it as though it was just something they did, one era in their long, rich lives. This may just be humility, but I think it also comes from the universality of that particular wartime experience. Most people fought in different squadrons, under different leaders, at different times in the war, but in World War II, practically everybody fought, or was involved in the massive war effort in some way. A whole generation of men fought, and nobody forgot for even a single day that the country was at war.

In Iraq today, there are about 40,000 American troops. In Afghanistan, 100,000. That’s the population of a smallish American city. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans fight abroad, and then come home and fight the VA for benefits, fight to receive healthcare and counseling for PTSD. They are looked down upon by many Americans and ignored by even more. This veterans day, I honor the two veterans closest to me, my grandfathers. And I honor that small city of Americans fighting today in Afghanistan and in Iraq today. May they return alive and well, and soon.