Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Attitudes and Mannerisms

I read a New York Times article this afternoon that gave me pause. It also made me pleased that I wasn’t standing at that moment in a war zone, although I would have been pleased about that in any case.

It was about Blackwater, the company which was sub-contracted to provide protection to US government personnel at the beginning of our government’s foray into Iraq, eleven years ago. It was about an investigation into Blackwater’s activity in Iraq, specifically whether it had done some things badly, as well as whether it had done some bad things it shouldn’t have done at all, and on top of which whether the company’s personnel had taken a literal and metaphorical oath of loyalty to someone or some company that might put them into conflict with the people they were protecting.

And it was all very unnerving. In part, because guys holding automatic weapons can be unnerving even if they don’t actively mean to be. And guys holding automatic weapons who appear to be beholden to a company and not the government personnel they’re supposed to be protecting can be very unnerving.

It can also be even more unnerving when other government people come to investigate them, to see if reports of them doing bad things are true … and the guy in charge of the guys holding the automatic weapons basically tells the investigators to scram, but not before telling them that he “could kill them at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it”.

Unnerving, comma, very very.

From the Times article:

The next day, the two men [Richter and Thomas, the government inspectors] met with Daniel Carroll, Blackwater’s project manager in Iraq, to discuss the investigation, including a complaint over food quality and sanitary conditions at a cafeteria in Blackwater’s compound. Mr. Carroll barked that Mr. Richter could not tell him what to do about his cafeteria, Mr. Richter’s report said. The Blackwater official went on to threaten the agent and say he would not face any consequences, according to Mr. Richter’s later account.

Mr. Carroll said that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq, Mr. Richter wrote in a memo to senior State Department officials in Washington. He noted that Mr. Carroll had formerly served with Navy SEAL Team 6, an elite unit.

Mr. Carroll’s statement was made in a low, even tone of voice, his head was slightly lowered; his eyes were fixed on mine, Mr. Richter stated in his memo. “I took Mr. Carroll’s threat seriously. We were in a combat zone where things can happen quite unexpectedly, especially when issues involve potentially negative impacts on a lucrative security contract.

He added that he was especially alarmed because Mr. Carroll was Blackwater’s leader in Iraq, and organizations take on the attitudes and mannerisms of their leader.”

Great heavens. Sounds like dialogue from a movie scene – the sort of scene that features a frowning Benedict Cumberbatch using that low, even tone of voice, and having that slightly lowered head and those fixed eyes. (I have no idea why that analogy should come to me.)

I have observed this phenomenon, the effect of attitudes and mannerisms equal to or greater than that of mere words.

Not in any situations involving automatic weapons, you understand; no indeed. Rather, happily, I’ve observed the truth of that last sentence in far more positive ways than negative.

I’ve seen groups – musical ensembles and others – whose way of operating clearly drew encouragement and inspiration and direction from their leadership.

That can cut both ways.

You may read that last sentence in the context of a performing ensemble which makes sloppy-sounding music and in which not everyone wears all their uniform parts correctly, or at all – and its director looks and acts the part, as well.

Or you may read it in the context of one of the world’s elite soccer teams, which meets an upstart’s challenge, plays well, and wins an important single-elimination-round match – after which many of its coaches and players strive valiantly to console the losing team’s seemingly inconsolable, openly weeping star player.

The members of each of those groups may have tended toward those behaviors anyway, to start with … but, one would suspect, their coaches or teachers or leaders or mentors will have encouraged – indeed, modeled – them, consistently.

As my grandmother used to say, “It ain’t off the ground they licked it.”

I once heard a saying: technology isn’t good or bad – it’s what you do with it. It’s the direction toward which you take it. And in this case, as the great Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser has said, “you will move in the direction of your attitude – positive or negative”.

I take all this as a healthy reminder, as I head into the summer drum major clinic teaching season, that a teacher is on stage every moment (except, perhaps, after the students have been properly room-checked and lights are out and we’re all on our isolated staff floor and giggling like idiots at some silly joke because we’re a little tuckered out from the day’s exertions but we don’t want to go to bed yet ourselves even though we really, really, really should).

And a sizable majority of what we show the people in our organizations comes from what we do and how we do it – not so much from what we say, although how we say it matters too.

I’m thankful to have been brought up in organizations whose leadership took me in what I would consider a very positive direction.

Such as, but not limited to: the summer arts program that will celebrate its 45th anniversary at the end of this week, with a staff reunion that will doubtless feature a whole lot of people remembering a whole lot of accomplishments and friendship and fun. And there’s a reason why the atmosphere of the place, at the very least in the 1980s when I was a camper and then a counselor, was so supportive of our efforts and our camaraderie, and it wasn’t a mystical haze of good luck; it was Priscilla Dewey.

Such as, but not limited to: the college marching ensemble which – on its way to winning a Sudler Award and participating in Presidential inaugurations and national band competitions and a Macy*s Thanksgiving Day Parade – has turned out a great many of the finest people I know, as professionals and people, whether they’re my lifelong friends or people that I still admire from afar, having never actually met (and the kind of people who would gather to accomplish things like this). It wasn’t an accident; it was (in great measure) George Parks.

Such as, but not limited to: … … well hi Mom! And Dad. (And my grandmother, she of the Killer Quote.)

Because it could all tip the wrong way. Matters could become at least sloppy and at worst truly awful, unless we pay attention and work on pointing people the right way, consciously and attentively.

Take a deep breath … look around to see who needs your help … treat people well … and the curriculum may not take care of itself but it’ll have a much stronger foundation on which to stand.

And far less unnerving.

July 7, 2014 Posted by | CRCAP, current events, DMA, education, GNP, news, Starred Thoughts, teachers, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deeply-Held Beliefs

I’m about to make a point that I’ve made before, here.

I’m of the Christian faith.

There are days when talking about it isn’t the most comfortable thing.

But not, at least for me, because I feel like we Christians are persecuted (those who feel this way may wish to check their psychological projection at the door), or because there’s a “War On Christmas!!” or whatever the latest foolish attention-getting cable-television shouter is claiming.

It’s because I feel like I have to apologize for people who brandish the term “Christian” like a weapon; the people who use the term to make themselves feel superior to other people; the people who use the term to knock down other people and their particular other religious affiliations.

In the ferocious online denouement of the US Supreme Court’s ruling in the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby case Monday, there were myriad articles published, saying all kinds of things that people could either agree with or not, could try to refute or not. One article, though, included one sentence that got me at least as worked up as the substance of the ruling had.

With just a trace of politically-left-leaning snark, its author wrote:

The owners of a chain of stores called Hobby Lobby don’t like Obamacare. In particular, they really don’t like the part that requires insurance companies to cover contraceptives. Normally, people who don’t like a law petition the government to change that law. That’s how a nation of laws works.

But these men are Christians. The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Christian business owners are special. Their deeply-held religious belief that some particular form of contraception is immoral carries more weight than the force of law, five conservative Christian justices ruled.

The article went on to talk about what the author nicknamed “a la carte law-abiding”. I dutifully read it to the end, but I was still mulling over that early section.

First he referred to “Christians”. No modifier adjective. Then he referred to conservative Christians, a term that attempts to distinguish between all Christians and the ones that have gotten particularly involved in American politics over the last thirty or more years – at least as far back as the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s.

I think this distinction is inadequate. I know plenty of conservative Christians who are wholly admirable people – I work with quite a number of them on a regular basis. I know plenty of liberal Christians (admittedly, my own self, for openers), and they’re fine people too. May I be blunt? None of them remotely approach the hypocrisy that I have observed in the people who bloviate on the teevee and the radio and the Internet, and who get involved in politics – to such a degree and in such a way that I’ve wondered, “and the opinions you’re espousing, and the recommendations you’re making for how everyone ought to behave, and in fact the way you yourself behave toward other people (and peoples!) … they follow the teachings of Jesus how, exactly?” Have you even read his work? It’s great. I highly recommend it.

After awhile, the mass media came up with the term “evangelical Christians” to try to get a semantic handle on the folks who seem to be passionately to the political right, while making sure to affiliate themselves with the Church – sort of the religious version of wrapping themselves in the flag. My religion, right or wrong.” –But always right.

But here, I tap the brakes gently. The church at which I get to be musical has a committee that until recently was called “Membership and Evangelism.” The Webster’s Dictionary faith-specific definition of evangelism is “the winning or revival of personal commitments to Christ”. The Oxford Dictionary suggests “the spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness.”

Neither of those definitions addresses how public this ought to be. Recently I thought perhaps it might be useful to coin a term that attempts to more precisely describe this particular brand of folk. Pushy Christians? Push-copalians, perhaps.

No. No, you’re allowed to be enthusiastic. A while back I researched the term “enthusiasm” and discovered that it does have grounding in matters of worship. I do value my personal space … but I won’t begrudge you the opportunity to be fired up about what you believe.

The ones that I do have the issue with are the ones who make themselves feel good and righteous by labeling themselves Christians, and then espouse policies that don’t do unto others as they would have others do unto them.

(In the ’70s, there was a wonderful t-shirt design that said, “Do Unto Others – Then Split”. It was meant as a joke.)

I take issue with the people who call themselves Christians, and then behave as if “my religion is better than yours, which makes me better than you; and the reason my religion is better than yours is because it’s my religion.”

I take issue with the ones who let you know loudly and very publicly that they consider themselves followers of Christ, thus revealing that they really didn’t understand Matthew 6:5-8, in which Jesus himself suggests:

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

And I take issue with the people who imply or insist that their denomination is better than mine; who imply that their faith is stronger than mine; and, pursuant to the recent Supreme Court decision, who insist that their religious beliefs entitle them to special favors – or the ability to circumvent the law, where they see it as necessary.

Comedian John Fugelsang has called them CHINOs – “Christians in name only”.

I think they need to be called what they are: Selfish Christians.

They’re the people who so often cause me to be reticent to even float the term “Christian” in conversations outside of my church, because they have cheapened it … they’ve tarnished the brand, so to speak … and in a few cases, they’ve poisoned it almost beyond reclamation, in both matters of style and substance.

To them, I would love to say, that’s great. You say you’ve got deeply-held beliefs, as if by merely saying so, your beliefs are more deeply-held than mine, or anyone else’s. How do you know that? (Oh, sorry, yes. You just do.)

Well guess what. I’d rather deal with people whose faith gets the shakes … like most of the people I know … including the fine pastor I work for (he said so in a sermon this spring, I heard him!) … than deal with people who Know What They Know No Matter What.

As I’ve said before, in the direction of these people who make it that much more challenging to attract new members to my church (and, not crucially but still effectively, to attract them to church choir)

Thanks a heap.

July 2, 2014 Posted by | current events, religion | Leave a comment

Full Disclosure

I have a question.

It is not a political question.

It is a media and media-control question.

There may be moments in my explanation of this question that may strike you as political statements, but I’m trying hard to steer clear of that minefield.

I am a former journalism major, and a current observer of what makes journalism tick. I am also fascinated by all the fun new technology toys that are out there … and trying to be equally mindful of what those techno-toys can do when we’re not looking. For (or to) journalism, and anything else.

This morning, the United States Supreme Court ruled on what has become known as the “Hobby Lobby case”.

The official blog of the US Supreme Court its very own self summarizes this case’s question thus: “Whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb et seq., which provides that the government ‘shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion’ unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest, allows a for-profit corporation to deny its employees the health coverage of contraceptives to which the employees are otherwise entitled by federal law, based on the religious objections of the corporation’s owners.”

The utterly predictable 5-4 ruling’s answer to that question was, yes, a corporation can issue that denial.

There will be plenty of opinions thrown out there starting ’round about now, about whether this is a victory or a defeat or a slippery slope or whatever. I will not contribute to those opinions here now.

Instead I will take note of my Facebook addiction, and of the creation by the Facebook people of a wonderful new sidebar called “TRENDING”. Every time a critical mass of people are following a news story or a celebrity happening, I am given the opportunity to follow it myself.

Helpful, or insidious? Keeping FB people up-to-date, or encouraging them to drive up the click counts on certain websites? The answer to these questions is a resounding yes. Yes to all. I’m not naïve.

In theory, if a subject is TRENDING, that must mean that enough people are looking at posts about that subject. A completely trusting person would presume that Facebook figures this out simply by counting posts and listing the top ten subjects according to that count.

Not being entirely trusting of anything these days, I tend to wonder what algorithms calculate these TRENDING subjects, and if there are any people who have the ability and opportunity to tweak these subjects, hypothetically. And, following this line of wonderment, exactly who those people might be, hypothetically. And what agendas they might possess. Hypothetically.

So, again, Facebook addict that I am, I clicked on “US Supreme Court”. Purely as an experiment, this activity was; since the tiny summary that followed that clickable term provided adequate spoilers about the result of the Court’s “Hobby Lobby” verdict.

Promptly, my screen filled up with posts, or links to stories, about the decision. I scrolled through them a bit, and about a dozen posts into my scrolling, I paused. And went back to the top of the results page. And began to count.

After the initial New York Times article link (straight journalism; I checked), it took me eight more posts to find a link that wasn’t authored by, or affiliated with, or linked to, politicians or think-tanks or media outlets or commentators on one particular side of the debate. In this case, that side was the side that thought the decision was marvelous, and a victory for religious freedom, and that sort of thing. If I were being political, I would note that those politicians were all Republicans, and most of those commentators did a lot of work for Rupert Murdoch. But, again, I’m not being political. I promise.

Here’s the thing: Facebook, or at least its algorithms, know me fairly well at this point. If they’re paying attention to my posts, and the links I click, and probably other online behaviors I’m not even considering at the moment … then they know that I happen not to be a Republican, and that I can’t watch Fox News for more than about 15 seconds without having to go do something else. Yeah, I lean to the left a bit; what of it?

(In the journalism business, that last sentence was what is known as “on-background” detail. This is full disclosure; to let you know.)

So: if Facebook knows me that well, why haven’t they flooded my TRENDING results page with posts from my left-leaner friends, and from left-wing think-tanks, and the Rachel Maddow show, and every leftist commie pinko website from here to the ends of the Internet? I’m much more likely to click through those links to read onward, yes?

The results of my counting noted that ten of the first 12 posts were on that right-wing side of things. And thirty-six of the first forty. In the world of research, that is what is known as a strong to very-strong correlation result. Six out of ten would be considered strong enough to consider. Nine out of ten is almost laughably unlikely if the survey is truly untainted.

In the last couple of days, Facebook and its algorithmic calculations have taken it on the chin, PR-wise – and in terms of users’ trust. It has been revealed that a study was undertaken whose tactic was to subtly skew the posts that appeared on many people’s Facebook news feeds, either toward negative-emotion-driven posts or positive-, ostensibly to see whether those FB users would then respond by posting more-negatively or -positively themselves. The upshot of the researchers’ study: are emotions contagious?

[The implications of this study are worth noting; just in another separate post, is all.]

The fact that they hadn’t told any of the people didn’t engender a feeling of trust in Facebook, regardless of whether the study activity technically held to FB’s current Terms of Usage. (Legitimate research studies involve alerting people to the fact that they’re involved in a study, even if the people aren’t told much else about the study.) The fact that the study was partly provided for by the US Army Research Grant Office got a lot of people’s attention, too.

So, that unintentional but definitely curious confluence of events caused me to pause this morning, and wonder:

Is there someone in charge of deciding what subjects are TRENDING? Is there something affecting what content appears in the TRENDING results page? If the deciding element is a human, I know that he or she has opinions; because just about everyone does, at least people who care about this subject or that. And if it’s a human, it’s not a random one; it’s a human for whom that decision-making is their job. So someone else is funding that job. Don’t misunderstand: corporations aren’t people … but they are made up of people. Which gets me back to my question: is there someONE in charge of deciding what subjects are worthy of my attention, … and which ones aren’t?

I don’t care who it is; I don’t care what their agenda may be (well, that’s not really true, but within this particular journalism and communications media analysis context, it’s not my top thing). I’d just like to know about it.

Full disclosure, and all that.

As long as my data is being mined … in this case it’s fair to want someone else’s data mined, too.

I’d like to know.

Wouldn’t you?

= = = =

UPDATE (June 30, 2014, 7:55pm):

Full disclosure: sometimes I do most, but not all, of my homework.

What I described as “the official blog of the US Supreme Court” is, in fact, not the official blog. It’s an online resource that tracks a lot of details about a lot of Court cases; but it’s not the official arm of the SCOTUS.

On top of which, I managed to link poorly. The linkie linkie! is now fixed.

Editorial License regrets the errors. Oi! Errors, plural! Thirty lashes with a wet noodle, and if I’m late, start without me!

June 30, 2014 Posted by | journalism, Facebook, Internet, media, news, social media, technology, current events | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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