Laughing Last

I’m always amazed by the lack of awareness displayed by officials and executives when speaking with the press. Case in point: this recent interview in UConn’s newspaper The Daily Campus with UConn president Susan Herbst, who displays all the charisma of a Gila monster when asked about closing the satellite campus in Torrington:

Constable: There are those who argue the university set up the Torrington campus for failure, in terms of drawing down its faculty, in terms of drawing down its student enrollment and—

Herbst: Did you go the board meeting?

Constable: I didn’t have the chance to, because—

Herbst: Yeah, I think you need to talk to Sally Reis. Yeah. She’s been managing it, and she explained all that. And we have made tremendous efforts there in marketing all different kinds of apertures and venues. The demand is not there, and we did not set up the place for failure. And it is unfortunate that people use that kind of rhetoric, but I ask you to study the issues before you come here. You know, so, did you talk to Sally?

Constable: I’m merely asking the question.

Constable reiterates this conversation is for the graduation issue and is meant to be a transcribed conversation with Herbst.

Herbst: Yeah, so I would talk to Sally. Stephanie Reitz, did you talk to her about the issue at all?

Constable: Just looking for perspective, is all. So you don’t believe the university set up the Torrington campus for failure?

Herbst: Absolutely not. But I would not— yes.

Constable: That’s all I was asking.

Herbst: Yeah— probably better— yeah— I hope that in the future, you can look at all the university says and does and talk to the right people before you ask that kind of question.

Look at all the university says and does and talk to the right people before you ask that kind of question — I cannot count the number of times I’ve interviewed someone who has said something almost identical to me. Translation: Don’t challenge me, just parrot the official doctrine in our press releases. Rather than use the interview as a chance to confront the opposing narrative and articulate UConn’s argument for closure, Herbst swings for the reporter. I love how Constable throws Herbst a life preserver by stopping the interview to explain it will appear as a word-for-word transcription but Herbst ignores him in favor of tying more cinder blocks around her ankles. I can only imagine what her deputy chief of staff was thinking as he overheard this exchange, no doubt while trying to climb out a nearby window unnoticed:

Constable: The Co-op has been an institution at the university for a very, very long time. There were questions about its ability fiscally sustainable in the long term for some time. Looking at the Storrs Center bookstore location – folks over at the Co-op would say they were forced into it despite the fact that they knew it would put them in a position to make the fiscally unsustainable. Did the university make a decision that ultimately resulted in the Co-op not being able to remain its bookstore?

Herbst: No, and we have communicated a lot on this subject, yeah, we’re done. (Looking at deputy chief of staff Michael Kirk) You have anything to add?

Constable certainly asked loaded questions but, again, Herbst was completely oblivious to the opportunity to counter criticism. The real punchline is that Herbst coauthored a book on how mass media shapes public opinion. I guess if you can’t do, teach; but if you can’t do that either, then go into administration.

Owning Alexander

Colonial Williamsburg has pubbed a new book documenting the experiences and thoughts of black interpreters at CW. What is it like to consciously and willingly portray, five days a week, an African-American in the time of slavery? I can’t imagine the tightrope.

But encountering slavery in any manifestation can be awkward for black or white audiences.

Black guests are sometimes uncomfortable confronting what some consider a humiliating aspect of the past that should be forgotten, not memorialized. “Many people,” said Greg James, “don’t want to be reminded of people beaten, lashed, and currycombed… But would history be true without it?” …

Any person might judge the performance as too harsh a portrayal, or too understated. One minute an interpreter might be viewed as minimizing the cruelty of slavery; the next minute he or she might be viewed as exaggerating it.

Author and CW archaeologist Ywone Edwards-Ingram will lead a discussion of the book, The Art and Soul of African American Interpretation, at CW later today, followed by a signing.

I’m always intrigued by individual reactions to early American history and how, through a mix of celebration and criticism, we each make our separate peace with it, especially the awful parts. How do we integrate history into our worldviews? Which parts do we emphasize, which parts do we blur? So I’d much rather read Edwards-Ingram’s book than, say, another screed from an obnoxious academic telling us how we should feel about history:

Since the turn of the millennium, historians have lambasted the phenomenon of Founders Chic as a fundamental distortion of history. Placing the roles of specific, prominent individuals at the heart of sweeping narratives of the founding era meant that popular histories exaggerated the importance of individuals, at the expense of understanding the contribution of less-celebrated Americans or the role of broader societal and historical processes. Yet much of the reception of Hamilton, the hottest ticket on Broadway, seems to suggest that hagiography is acceptable, so long as it’s done to a catchy song-and-dance routine. It’s as if the only problem with Joseph Ellis, David McCullough and Ron Chernow is that they didn’t write to a hip-hop soundtrack.

I’m not sure when I initially became aware of Hamilton but my first reaction was, It’s like The Wiz but for early America! Mrs. Kuhl and I, both being history buffs living 60 miles outside of Manhattan, agreed to go see it, only to be stymied by the then $600 tickets (they’re now going for $1,000). At this point we’ll probably have to wait for the movie but my feelings for Hamilton haven’t changed. In either case, black artists took something that is white as hell — The Wizard of Oz, the years of the early Republic — and interpreted it through their own experiences. It’s an ownership of something that, in its original version, conspicuously excluded people like them. It’s their separate peace.

But to academics like Ken Owen at The Junto, there’s a right way and a wrong way to interpreting Hamilton, and liking the play is definitely wrong:

Hamilton appears to use history more as a comfort blanket than as a serious means to enhance popular understanding of the American Revolution. That is something I find particularly concerning, because Hamilton (and its race-conscious casting) has often been held up as an example of how to modernize Broadway, or how to shift popular discussion of the American Revolution in a more progressive direction. At almost every turn, however, the historical philosophies underpinning Hamilton prioritize the Founders Chic model. … Insofar as it does raise progressive questions, it does so in only the most muted way—and in a way that allows a casual observer to retreat to the same comforting, comfortable narratives they would find on the shelves of a Barnes and Noble.

Meow! There you have it: “progressive direction,” “progressive questions.” For all his complaints preceding this graf, Kitty Owen’s real grudge is that Hamilton doesn’t fulfill his political ends. To the academic left (which, let’s face it, is all of academia outside an MBA program), the correct perspective toward art is a Soviet one where singing and dancing is permissible as long as the rest is social realism. Later in the comments, when a reader notes that as art Hamilton encourages viewers to ask questions about history, Owens replies, “Are they getting people to ask the right questions, though?” The dummies in the mezzanine can’t be trusted to arrive at their own conclusions, Owens believes; the proper responses are the ones dictated by snobs like him.

Still, Owens’s opinions aren’t nearly as stupid as Lyra Monteiro’s, who whined that regardless of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the casting, “It’s still white history.” This is the same cretinism that would segregate black history to 28 days a year. Black and brown Americans own Alexander Hamilton just as much as I own Martin Luther King, Jr. because all of us live today in a world molded by those men. There’s no black history, there’s no white history — there’s only American history and how we as Americans individually come to terms with it.

Lest this post devolve into complete fist-shaking, Owens says one thing I do agree with, which is, “it is dishonest of [popular] authors to pretend that their work isn’t reliant on a broader community of [academic] scholars.” He’s right. I don’t hate academics; in fact, I’m thankful to them. I just wish many of them would drop their egotistical claims to being the sole proprietors of our stories.

Schemes of the Blackest Dye

Next Thursday I’ll be a panelist at the Fairfield Museum for a discussion of espionage in Connecticut during the Rev War. I’ll be joined by UConn’s Rachel Smith, who dissects the show TURN at her blog, TURN to a Historian, and Black Rock historian Robert Foley.

From Nathan Hale to the Culper spy ring to conspiracies big and small, Connecticut and the coast of Long Island seethed with skulduggery in large part because only about two-thirds of the population felt the red, white, and blue — the rest still pledged fidelity to the House of Hanover. Smedley and friends once caught some Loyalists on the Sound who, upon interrogation, confessed a “Scheme of the blackest dye”:

John McKey of Norwalk later testified that on April 15, a Charles McNeill of Redding approached him saying that a colonel in the British army had in his possession lieutenant’s commissions for each of them. The British were galvanizing the loyalists into a fifth column to be called the Royal Americans. Their first job was to construct an intelligence network that would relay information about Continental troops to the British.

Plots! Treachery! Whaleboat battles! Next Thursday, April 7, at the museum. It’s free! modestly priced!

Domo Arigato Mister Paychecko

Maria points the way.
CC BY Havelbaude, remixed by DJ Jax K

A few weeks ago I received the news that my role at my bread-and-butter freelance gig has been automated. The job — which is a mishmash of coding, editing, and technical writing — has increasingly been my work focus over the past five years, and yet by the end of 2016 it will be performed by computers overseen, presumably, by interns.

Recently while ruminating over robot apocalypses — and I’ll give you one guess why — I questioned the assumption that AIs would necessarily want to kill humans. After all, we haven’t shared the Earth with another intelligent species for about 40,000 years so we shouldn’t assume that two of them couldn’t coexist. Then I recalled that any program is only as smart as its programmers, which is why computers are great for playing chess and winning trivia game shows but immediately out themselves as Nazi nymphos the moment a single degree of emotional intelligence is required. Anything crafted by the hands of shaved chimpanzees will naturally be obsessed with murder and fucking.

I’ve worked in the Internet since 1997 and while I will miss the gig’s sweet, sweet income, I’ve found that layoffs/contract expirations can be blessings in disguise. There’s always the possibility that the automation will be less promising than expected and the work will still require a human touch (again: it’s only going to be as good as its architects), but I choose to believe this is the kick in the pants I need to get back to neglected ideas and projects, primarily long-form nonfiction. Like it or not, the robots are shoving me into a brighter future.

Secondhand Adventures in Book Clubbing

"I found the descriptions of the horse to be, frankly, astonishingly beautiful, and yet disturbingly arousing."
“I found the descriptions of the horse to be, frankly, astonishingly beautiful and yet disturbingly arousing.”

Mrs. Kuhl and her friends have a book club. After a rather calamitous go at Emma Donoghue’s Room and at a loss for a title that would please all tastes, I suggested they read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The book had incidentally been selected for the One Book One Town program run by our library, which culminated in a presentation by Ronson at the local university last night. Mrs. Kuhl liked the book but one thing kept irritating her: Ronson’s claims of a uniform Twitter.

I identified both with Justine and also with the people who tore her apart. And I thought: We’re punishing Justine, gleefully punishing Justine, with this thing that we are the most terrified might happen to us.

At the presentation, Ronson repeatedly used the words “we” and “us” to describe the bullies who attacked Justine Sacco. During the Q&A portion, Mrs. Kuhl was the first to ask Ronson a question: What percentage of Twitter shamed Sacco? Ronson said he didn’t know, then continued to throw blame on everyone in the room, including himself.

Mrs. Kuhl’s question would be easy to answer if we had access to Twitter’s big data: simply set time parameters around the date (21 December 2013) and divide the number of tweeps using @JustineSacco or the #HasJustineLanded hashtag by the total number of users active that day. But as Twitter is cagey with its proprietary info, the best we can do is guess. The month before, Twitter said it had 232 million “monthly active users” (out of a total of 651 million accounts — the difference being a “dark pool” of inactive or barely active users); and there were an estimated 100,000 tweets about Sacco. If every one of those tweets had a unique author (and they probably didn’t), then only 0.0431 percent of active Twitter tweeted about her. That’s not “we” or “us.” That’s a very small, very specific group of somebody else.

Ronson also cited the fact that #HasJustineLanded was trending worldwide as proof of the monolithic nature of the shaming but Twitter’s bar for trending can be very low, sometimes as low as 500 or 600 tweets. Their algorithm for trending has more to do with time of day and the frequency over a short span rather than overall volume.

Twitter is not a homogeneous experience. A good example of this is black Twitter, something I rarely witness without trending hashtags (like when #Blackish was trending the morning of February 25th). Mrs. Kuhl, because of her love of all things Patriots, has some insight into that world via the Venn overlap of white and black Pats fans, but I never see it. I know it exists — and yet there is an entire universe of conversation happening out there that goes completely over my head.

That said, just because it’s a small clique doing the cyberbullying doesn’t mitigate the serious effects it can have, from losing a job to contributing to depression and even suicide. I’m glad for Ronson’s spotlight on the issue but his argument would be better served if he stopped using the collective “us” and started asking questions about the specific behavior or traits that lead to bullying. After all, when a bullet-ridden corpse is discovered in an alley, psychiatrists don’t throw up their hands and sermonize about how we’re all murderers.

State of Decay

Living in the Constitution State means never lacking material for a blog post, even if it’s just another list of metrics ranking how many cartoon stink lines radiate off Connecticut. Weekly, if not daily, some new measure is announced showcasing our slow-motion slide into the sea. GE moving to Boston? That’s so January news. These are from February alone:

  • The latest estimate of the state’s budget deficit is $266 million, ten times what it was estimated to be last month. Our deficit for fiscal year 2016–2017 is projected to be $900 million (Connecticut Post).
  • Likewise, the city of Hartford projects a $32 million deficit in the upcoming fiscal year (HartfordBusiness.com).
  • And while we’re talking about Hartford: After measuring 35 indices (unemployment, foreclosure rates, number of coffeeshops), Hartford is ranked the worst of the 50 state capitals to live in, worse than Trenton, New Jersey (and if you’ve never been to Trenton then good, you’re winning at life). Hartford has the lowest median household income, the highest unemployment rate, the highest percentage of residents below the poverty level, and the second least affordable housing. On the plus side, Hartford residents have the lowest debt as percentage of median income — presumably because everybody is already broke and out of work (WalletHub).
  • Only 39 percent of Connecticut residents have confidence in the state government, the third lowest in the nation (Gallup).
  • “[Connecticut] state employees earn an average of 25 to 46 percent more than their private sector counterparts.” We also have the second-most expensive retiree health-care benefits in the country (CT Viewpoints).
  • And finally this is from late January but too noteworthy to ignore: An audit of the State Comptroller and other offices found they’ve been breaking Connecticut law by not using GAAP standards. As a result, they’ve been underreporting obligations and liabilities and overreporting contributions and capital gains (Yankee Institute).

Mrs. Kuhl tells me to stop posting and tweeting bad news about the state; after all we own a house here, so if I want to move away then I have to convince a buyer that Connecticut is just aces. I respond that the first step to recovery is admitting the problem exists.