James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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Posts Tagged ‘George Orwell’

Why I tweet

Posted by James McPherson on February 25, 2015

Drawing by Stuart McMillen

Drawing by Stuart McMillen

The title above is of course a variation on the title of one of my favorite essays, George Orwell‘s “Why I Write.” Joan Didion liked the title, too, borrowing it for one of her works.

“There’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space,” Didion wrote in a sentence that might have characterized social media at least as well as anything Orwell came up with. That is, assuming there’s any longer such a thing as “private space” — which brings us back to Orwell all over again.

Orwell’s best-known work is 1984, a book that may have killed him. Like many other great (and countless not-so-great) writers, Orwell “had always thrived on self-inflicted adversity,” and his death at age 46 came not via evil government agents, but via illness aggravated by trying to beat deadlines.

Orwell might also have argued that he was far from alone in his appreciation of adversity; as pointed out today in a Washington Post piece about an Orwell review of Mein Kampf, Hitler knew “that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene… they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.” Considering the number of mindless Americans and ignorant politicians who now apparently favor getting involved in another ground war, Orwell obviously had a keen understanding of people.

At least since the 1985 arrival of Neil Postman‘s Amusing Ourselves to Death, one cannot meaningfully discuss 1984 without considering another dystopian view, that of Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World. Postman, in the forward to his book (a forward so brilliant that it has been illustrated via a Stuart McMillen comic and a YouTube video), compares the two worlds.

He notes that in Brave New World “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think,” and that the sheer amount of information would become so great that “we would be reduced to passivity and egoism” while “the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” It may seem incredible that Huxley was writing before the arrival of television. At least as impressive is the fact that Postman wrote his book warning about “a trivial culture” before the arrival of the Internet or smart phones.

Few things exemplify this trivial culture better than the social media with which many of us spend much of our time. After I finish this blog post, I’ll post links to it on both Facebook and Twitter, where it will compete for attention with information about lying “news” anchors, war in the Middle East, Congressional inaction, vaccines, various health scares, funny cat videos and countless other messages.

I’ll post links on those social media sites despite the fact that I have regularly denigrated “anti-social media,” especially Twitter (also here, here, here, here and here). I have proclaimed that I would avoid Twitter, and for five years or so I did. But this past weekend — in what may prove to be the dumbest Sunday decision since the Seahawks failed to give Marshawn Lynch the ball at the end of the Super Bowl — I began tweeting at @JimBMcPherson.

“Why?” Three reasons: First, much of the news is being reported (and sometimes misreported) via various media organizations first via Twitter, so it relates to my job to my job as a journalism professor. Second, I found when I was making contacts for a recent off-campus study program that some media professionals probably would have been easier to reach via Twitter than they were through other means.

And finally; as I’ve managed to demonstrate here on my blog and on Facebook, I’m an egocentric fool who often thinks his thoughts about media and politics worth sharing. In that, I am like Orwell, who offered as his first reason for writing:

Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

Orwell offered three other reasons; I also agree with those (and will let you read them for yourself) before noting in his final paragraph, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy.” Perhaps so, though he adds, in conclusion:

One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

My own writing may be driven primarily by ego. But for better or worse, what I write — even in 140 characters — rarely lacks a political purpose.

Posted in History, Media literacy, Personal, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments »

Blogosphere and loathing in academia: To blog or not to blog

Posted by James McPherson on April 20, 2009

I created this blog it to try to reach students in a new way while learning some new technological skills and sharing information about two subjects in which I have some expertise. This Wednesday will be the one-year anniversary of the day I started blogging. It also may be my last day.

The blog has proven to be a valuable method for saving Internet links and ideas that I use in teaching and other writing, and to help students (and at least a few professionals) access some useful tools. I’ve been able to share a lot of information and some skills achieved through this experiment that I, and therefore my students, might not otherwise have picked up. An unexpected side benefit is that it actually seemed to boost my credibility–my “cool factor,” as one student put it–with some of those students.

All in all, my year of blogging has been a great experience–interesting, useful and usually fun. I would recommend it to about any teacher, in any academic discipline (though posting weekly might be more rational than my almost-daily approach).

But I’ve decided to step away from regular blogging, and this seems like a logical time. Tomorrow I’ll offer more details about why I’m quitting–or at least cutting back considerably–and Wednesday I’ll offer a list of my previous favorites, in case you want to check out any you’ve missed. Today I’ll note some of the things I’ve most appreciated about doing this.

Though I’ve tried to make the vast majority of my posts about media and politics rather than about me, please forgive this departure into the personal. Feel free to skip this post (and tomorrow’s), but if you’re a fellow academic or media professional interested in some of the reasons you may or may not want to actively participate in the blogosphere, you may want to read on.

After spending a few days at a Poynter Institute workshop and talking to some other professors and journalists about the idea, I wrote my first blog post (a prediction of success for Barack Obama and potential problems for John McCain) last April. But I’ve decided that one year (and more than 300 posts) is enough. And though I’ve been thinking about it for some time (and mentioned it in passing here a couple of weeks ago), my decision caught even my wife by surprise.

By the way, if you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed that I never use her name. She actually appreciates a level of anonymity on the Web and elsewhere, as difficult as that may be to believe in this viral, egocentric, Twitterific, in-your-Facebook, screw-YouTube, blogtastic culture.

Like me, my wife has mixed emotions about my decision to step away from the biosphere… er, blogosphere (and no, the two are not synonymous). She’s happy that I’ll be a bit less compulsive about doing this (and of course will believe it when she sees it), but a bit disappointed that I won’t be sharing my ideas (most of which she likes) so regularly. At least I think that was the mixture of her emotions, and not the other way around–that she’s glad not to feel obligated to read so much of what I write, but unhappy that I may have more free time with her.

Her surprise at my decision came because she knew that I wasn’t bored with or burned out from blogging. In fact,  in some respects it energizes me. I feel more connected with the professional worlds of media and politics, and in some ways more connected with my students.

I’m not stopping because I dislike the writing. Like George Orwell and many others, I knew early in life that I would be a writer, and I love to write in varied ways. My published works include a couple of books, several book chapters, and articles in academic journals, newspapers and magazines. As-yet-unpublished works include a book of short fiction and a partially finished novel.

I love how words work, what Orwell called “pleasure in the impact of one sound on another.” I amuse myself, if not others, with a creative headline or turn of phrase (I hope you didn’t need to read the first five words of today’s headline out loud to get it), giving proof to Orwell’s statement, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.”

Though I’d been warned about “trolls” and other crazies who might find me, and some did, but I’ve never worried much about criticism and frankly I’ve greatly enjoyed most of my interactions with people here (and on other people’s blogs). I take pride in the fact that even when I know I’ll offend people, I try to do it in a thoughtful way that encourages dialogue rather than closing it off. I try to do the same elsewhere, as well: At least one conservative blogger has me linked as the one liberal alternative on his site, as a result of our online discussions.

Via this blog I’ve “met” students who have never taken one of my classes, and have engaged in “discussions” with a number of professional journalists as well as with other bloggers. I’ve been enriched by all those who comment, and am especially grateful for the regulars such as Gabrielle, Luis, Zelda, Grady and Mike (at least two of whom disagree with me more often than they agree).

A few people have been very offended, of course. Blatantly stupid or offensive remarks have come from both conservatives and liberals. At least one parent of a college student has suggested that I be fired from my job as a professor–but the reaction he received from other readers who came to my defense was one of the highlights of my blogging experience.

The professional and student connections I made quickly helped me overcome some fears that blogging might somehow detract from my teaching. I don’t personally know many other faculty bloggers, and though there are some out there this is not a well-tested pedagogical approach.

I did have someone ask me how this might affect my future promotion possibilities, especially since my opinions often run counter to those of many  administrators, donors, students and parents associated with the institution where I teach. My wife chuckled at that question (which she wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t even considered), remembering what she used to call my “continuing efforts to avoid tenure.”

After all, since long before I started blogging I’ve been writing strong opinions in local newspapers, participating in political panel discussions, and joining political protests. More recently, I wore a black armband daily for several weeks to protest and mourn the Iraq War.

Along with a variety of media history artifacts, my office is decorated with items such as a large “No War” yard sign, a poster showing the 1963 March on Washington, a large 48-star American flag, a poster of a controversial Artis Lane lithograph of the Statue of Liberty, a stuffed “George W. Bush pants-on-fire doll,” and a framed copy of the 1979 “H-bomb” issue of the Progressive that led to what should have been a key First Amendment case. (I say “should have been,” because by the time the case was decided, as I’ve noted in both my first and second books, the mainstream media had mostly  given up engaging in the sorts of activities that the First Amendment was designed to protect.)

I do think that the fact that I have been tenured and promoted, and that this blog has actually been mentioned in the university’s alumni magazine, speaks well for the administration and the values of my institution–which a couple of years ago granted me one of its highest teaching awards. Yet most of my students disagree with me politically (further reflecting the idiocy of the “indoctrination” arguments made by David Horowitz and others like him), and those who disagree with me most strenuously tend to be among the students I tend to like most (yes, like parents, teachers have their favorites, and like parents we try to hide it).

I also am not ceasing blogging because I’m in danger of running out of ideas. I typically have parts of more than a dozen drafts under way. Some entries I quickly write and posted on one sitting. Others (including this one) I work on half a dozen times over a space of days or weeks before posting. Some I never finished, and they were eventually discarded or just forgotten in my “drafts” bin. Others I went back to after extended periods of thought or after an event suddenly makes them seem more timely.

So there are some of the reasons why I have reservations about stepping away from this year-long educational exercise. Tomorrow’s post will explain why it is time to do so.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy, Personal, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »