Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Science Fiction

This week, a tiny corner of the Internet flipped its lid. And that lid-flipping reminded me of some writing that I did awhile ago about first impressions.

Recently, a documentary has been produced on the subject of geocentrism. I confess: I had to go look that one up. Not many words in the English language give me pause – which I don’t say with hubris; it’s just that in my life, I’ve read a lot, so I’ve banged into arguably the majority of useful English words. Geo-, having to do with earth. -Centric, having to do with perhaps an overemphasis upon.

Geocentrism, as a concept, is at odds with heliocentrism. Heliocentrism has to do with the idea that stuff revolves around the sun. Therefore …

Wait wait wait wait. Geocentrism: a belief that all cosmic stuff revolves around the Earth??

Is this not still 2014? Have not Copernicus, Kepler and what remains of NASA not weighed in on this issue?

For context, we note that this is the year 2014, and yet science has been taking it on the chin lately. There are a bunch of people in positions of policymaking authority who are challenging the scientific method and its recent results (e.g. stuff we’ve had figured out since the seventeenth century) … and whether they’re doing it for political reasons, or at the behest of organized religion, or because they genuinely didn’t pay attention in class all those years ago … well, I bet a lot of my science teachers have been grinding their teeth a lot.

Enter this particular documentarian, or polemicist, or whatever we shall wish to call him. Robert Sungenis is his name, and he funded the making of this film called “The Principle”, whose tagline is “Everything we think we know about our universe … is wrong.”

That tagline smacks of Buzzfeed hyperbole, of course, and that stands to reason, because otherwise who would pay two eyeblinks of attention to a science documentary? I mean really.

But Sungenis had previously published a book called “Galileo Was Wrong, The Church Was Right”, which claimed to “give Scripture its due place and show that science is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Just so we’re clear on who and what we’re dealing with here.

The makers of “The Principle”, backed by Sungenis’ money (which, even before Citizens United, has aphoristically talked), have been accused of a number of procedural no-no’s, not the least of which is “quote mining”. That’s an editing technique: cherry-picking bits of information and assembling them so they appear to support one view, even if in their context those bits of information would support no such view. I wonder where I’ve heard of that happening before …

Statements were allegedly taken from an interview with noted theoretical physicist Laurence Krauss that made him appear to be supporting the idea that everything astronomical revolves around the planet Earth. Krauss issued a statement that put a super lot of distance between himself and “The Principle”. Its tone of recoil was reminiscent of many muskets I have seen at Fourth-of-July parades: sharp and unmistakable.

Krauss’ statement insists that he was featured in the film without permission, and that he concurs with the scientific community’s contention that geocentrism has been debunked. He hoped that people would ignore it; “maybe then it will quickly disappear into the dustbin of history, where it belongs.” A number of other scientists who were in the film also have insisted that they were misled about “The Principle”’s agenda, and that they would never have taken part had they known about it.

One of the producers of “The Principle”, in a publicity statement interview this week, said this about Krauss’ participation: “Lawrence says he has no idea how he ended up in our film. I can tell him how he ended up in our film. He signed a release form, and cashed a check.”

What has gotten me to the keyboard, though, is the similar apparent participation (and subsequent reversal of gear) of the nice lady who contributed a very small amount of narration to the film’s promotional trailer.

Her name is Kate Mulgrew, and she portrayed the captain of the nearly-ill-fated Federation starship Voyager, a decade and a half ago.

She is an actor. Significantly, she is an actor who has participated in “Star Trek”.

When you do that, you become part of a piece of entertainment which, for all its inherent fluffiness (it IS part of American television entertainment), has gotten credit for causing many, many Americans in the last half century to think about science. Several US astronauts have cited their childhood viewing of “Star Trek” as one of the major influences in their lives that caused them to consider science as a profession.

Star Trek” is a lot of things, and as science fiction, one of those things is fanciful. Light-speed travel is something that, according to august scientific minds, only light can do; so the initial premise of the show (warping around the galaxy, rather than just crawling around the solar system) is presently a scientific non-starter. And most of the techno-babble that Spock and Data, and Scotty and Geordi LaForge, and just about every other Trek character ever, spout when faced with a cosmically daunting plot-resolution challenge is – to be charitable – somewhere between intensely theoretical and a writer’s desperate invention. “In this one particular episode,” say the producers, “we have to be able to transport Captain Picard from one ship at warp speed to another ship also at warp speed without lowering the deflector shields (which goes against a rule that’s been in place since we were on NBC in 1967), because otherwise the severance package for Patrick Stewart after we kill off his character will bankrupt the studio outright.”

But “Trek” has invited many people to go look up some actual scientific things. So by no fault of any “Trek” actor’s own, they are part of that show’s legacy, which includes advocacy for and advancement of the study of science. Thanks to the importance that American society puts on entertainers, those “Trek” actors often become more prominent symbols of scientific study than do a lot of actual scientists.

They’re not scientists, though.

One of the things that actors do is portray characters. Someone who plays the part of Jack the Ripper presumably does not espouse the views of Jack the Ripper in real life. (Or if they do, they tend not to get a lot of acting work after that.)  Someone who portrays Gen. George Patton may actually in fact be a screaming pacifist.

Another thing that actors have to do is eat. For that to happen, they need money. And most actors (I hear) have a great deal of experience with poverty, or at least with knowing that they’ll never retire and draw a pension. Every job is finite. Even while you’re working on one project, you’re looking for the next one. Only the most absurdly lucky actors finish a job knowing that they’re set for life. Guaranteed, very few people probably knew who (for example) Nichelle Nichols was, before she spent three TV seasons opening hailing frequencies for Captain Kirk. Now? She’s part of that Trek legacy, and her name gets her in the door – the same door that would slam in the faces of the vast majority of working actors.

So even the terrific actors like Kate Mulgrew, who will forevermore draw residuals from being Captain Janeway, are conditioned to take work whenever they can find it.

And sometimes, I imagine this can get them into tight spots like this.

A website that breathlessly reported Mulgrew’s “Principle” trailer narration said, “To be fair to Kate Mulgrew, she’s not a scientist, and as an actor she’s not required to make sure that her paychecks are coming from factually accurate sources. But you’d hope that she’d be a little more discerning as a former member of the Starfleet Federation. After all, Star Trek did and continues to do so much for the advancement of science and space exploration, and getting involved with a movie that outright denies one of the most fundamental facts about our solar system is upsetting, to say the least.”

On her Facebook page, Mulgrew released a statement disavowing the film. “I am not a geocentrist, nor am I in any way a proponent of geocentrism. More importantly, I do not subscribe to anything Robert Sungenis has written regarding science and history and, had I known of his involvement, would most certainly have avoided this documentary. I was a voice for hire, and a misinformed one, at that. I apologize for any confusion that my voice on this trailer may have caused.”

I’m split on this one.

I’m somewhere between “say it ain’t so, Joe” and “do your homework”. I’m working to find out whether her contribution to this film is anything more than the opening voiceover sentence in the trailer. The Internet Movie Database lists her as “Narrator”, but doesn’t get any more explicit.

The comments that followed Ms. Mulgrew’s Facebook apology post contained an awful lot of (forgivable) blanket-condemnation of the documentary producers and blanket-approval of Ms. Mulgrew. A lot of “Star Trek” fans rose to her defense.

Oh thank God. I felt so betrayed there for a little bit.”

Kate Mulgrew’s part, so far, is that one sentence about everything we know about the universe being wrong, at the very beginning of the trailer. And, again, that sentence could be about anything. All they have to do is fill the narration with vague statements like that, then put any images they want over it. And include commentary by geocentrists making it look like she’s supporting their statements. … Because the only part of the script that she’s going to get is the narration. And since the documentary isn’t out, and all you have to go on is the trailer, those of you who insist on giving her crap about it really have no idea what you’re talking about. You just like kicking people when they’re down. You gotta be mad about something, and this is it.”

The trailer I saw was a blatant hack job. You shouldn’t need to apologise, you’re a victim of a fraudster and should have support from your fans. Thank you for clearing it up, I hope you aren’t too badly affected by this.”

[E]veryone makes mistakes and gets reeled in by the worst of people, accidents happen. [T]he fact that you admitted your [sic] wrong and told us you don’t believe in what was said is enough. [L]ive long and prosper[.]”

No need to apologize. You’re an actor. It’s what actors do. If Patrick Stewart narrated Doctor Seuss, that wouldn’t mean he’s promoting a fear of green eggs and ham. Your fans understand. Don’t sweat it.”

Additionally, the follow-up post by the website which had initially posted about Mulgrew’s involvement with the project was entitled “OH THANK GOD: Kate Mulgrew Is Mad About the Geocentric Documentary, Too”.

Some Facebook commenters weren’t quite as starry-eyed though.

I think sometimes people forget that actors, by definition, say things they don’t believe for a living.”

Didn’t you read the words on the page? I get you did this for the money, but still do not claim to be ‘misinformed’ when the words were on the page you were READING!”

Finally, this comment was combination reality check and fanboy defense:

This reminds me of the Congressional committee that had Meryl Streep testify on agricultural matters. She was an expert because she played a farm wife in a movie. Come on, people. You regard Kate Mulgrew as a Voice of Science because she played a starship captain once? And it’s her *duty to you* to do in-depth research on *every* script she’s offered so she doesn’t accidentally *deceive* you?”

Maybe not, but it may represent an added layer of responsibility when you’ve been part of “Star Trek” and you’re considered, rightly or not, a science role model.

Perhaps what this boils down to is our desperate discomfort about finding that one of our first impressions might be mistaken, and/or finding that something or someone we admire isn’t as admirable as we thought (if all that indeed turns out to be so). And, justifiable or not, the feeling of betrayal that we as fans feel about the objects of our fandom.

It’s unnerving when it seems possible — even for a moment — that, to paraphrase the tagline of “The Principle” … everything we know about our favorite actor … is wrong.

April 10, 2014 Posted by | celebrity, entertainment, Famous Persons, film, Internet, media, religion, science, science fiction | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Speed Bump in the Road to Journalism

Crash helmets, please: the latest kerfuffle in Band Alumni World.

We former college band people are a passionate lot – we care about the activity, and the organization, to which we committed so much time and energy and, yes, love. If we didn’t love what we did, and love the organization that we hope other people will also have the opportunity to participate in, then we probably wouldn’t react to certain stimuli so strongly. Swearing is caring, sometimes, I guess.

So, when something happens that gets our attention, and not in a good way – when some decision is made that we think is maybe not the best one, or when something is broadcast or printed that casts what we may perceive as a cloud over the activity, or the organization – we are prone to be less Spock (objectively logical) and more Kirk (emotionally driven). With luck, extending that analogy, we quickly settle into being more McCoy than anyone (a measure of passion, grounded in country-doctor reasoning), but sometimes the warp core containment field goes critical and enough with the Trek references already!

(Speaking of people who can get a bit, um, worked up when you get somebody’s rank insignia wrong…)

This week, in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, a student journalist published a piece on the op-ed page having to do with Old Chapel. This UMass-Amherst building has been widely seen as a visual symbol of the University for many years – it’s one of the original campus structures, and has shown up prominently on many a greeting card, poster, Alumni Fund mailing, and video promotion. For those who know its significance, you almost don’t have to print or broadcast the word “UMass” near it. We get it.

It was also, as has been well-documented, the home of the Minuteman Marching Band for many years, until the University decided it was unfit for human habitation and closed it, in 1998. Other departments, notably the Continuing Education Division and the music department’s Chapel Jazz Ensemble, had also used some of its space; but on any weekday afternoon around 4 o’clock, or many fall Saturdays around 11:30 in the morning, an observer could not help noticing that Chapel was where the marching band worked, stored its stuff, played, … lived.

When any home is spoken of, its inhabitants take notice. If someone comments on my house (or appears to) in a way that I think is accurate, or positive, or constructive, I am probably glad to hear those comments. If someone comments (or appears to) in a way which is not those happy things, my ears do perk up. Hey – that’s MY house you’re talking about. You don’t like that porch? I do. Get your own house.

And oh, if someone suggests that I don’t take care of my house well enough … oh dear. Kirk here.

Anyway, back to the Collegian column. It was a rather long piece, and its author clearly wondered whether the Old Chapel, which hasn’t been renovated or even touched up beyond its bell-tower chimes since it closed 14 years ago, was “an empty symbol of a University that would rather demolish its past than save it, in its quest for a more prestigious future”.

This, to me, is a perfectly valid question – especially in light of the recent move of UMass’ football program into what used to be called Division I-A. That’s an issue for another time; but it, too, is symbolic of a philosophy which may be focused very much on future financial opportunities, to the possible detriment of other elements that make a state university campus more than just a cash cow, a PR device, or a Commonwealth revenue machine.

The piece was perhaps a shade long. It had the potential, as one commenter noted with snark, to seem like a high-school essay that wanted to use lots of long words in order to impress. [Come to think of it, this very blog post might strike you as just exactly that!] As with any piece, this one aspired to deep thoughts on weighty matters, and trust me, I perused far less enjoyable pieces in the Collegian while I was a UMass student.

Also, notably: it was written by a college student.

Before you go off all offended at THAT:

I have had the great pleasure, in various contexts, of working with some very fine people who happened to be ages 18 to 22. Many came from the UMass band, or other bands I’ve been able to work with. As is the case with all of us, no matter what age, they were very wise in some moments, and very silly in others. Every generation looks at the up-and-coming generation and thinks, “they don’t yet have all the perspective they need.” (If you look carefully, you’ll find a nicely pithy line in George Parks’ drum major textbook about high school drum majors with all of 17 years of life experience thinking they know more about what’s good for their band than their band directors do!) Frankly, when I think of what I didn’t know at age 23, I’m relieved that I got into teaching at age 33. And when I think of what I didn’t know then … sometimes I shudder. More in embarrassment than in remembrance of mortal peril, but still. How young was I?…

So by no means am I taking shots at this, or any, collegiate journalist. One of her functions on the staff of the Collegian is to help produce a newspaper that reports events, addresses issues, and expresses opinions – and her other function is to learn how to do it. At the same time.

College papers are full of relatively young adults who are amassing the experience they’ll need in order to do journalism for a living. As with any occupation, very few people are born knowing how to be writers, editors, and great journalists. There are ideas and skills and tactics and techniques to be learned, and no one starts out as a Great Purveyor of Words, or a Master News Analyst. Cronkite was a cub reporter once. And trust me, you don’t want to read most of the stuff that my 13-year-old self wrote for the Daily Double summer camp paper. You just don’t.

Again, back to this article. I only found out about it because it went somewhat viral amongst my Facebook community, many of whom are UMass band alumni. To read some (not all, but some) of their assessments, I wondered if perhaps this writer had suggested knocking Chapel clean over. So I gently clicked the link and began to read.

Halfway through, I spotted the single sentence (!) which had lit the fuse on this little powder keg. It was this:

Though the building had been loved by the band and used by many departments, I felt that somehow they didn’t truly appreciate what they had, nor do the students who pass by the Chapel’s stone facade every day.”


I can’t speak for today’s students; but as a band alum, I could imagine a few possible reactions.

First, if you were a band alum from the 1960s, or ’70s, or ’80s, or ’90s, and you loved the place – maybe it wasn’t in great shape but it was where you and your band lived – then it’s conceivable that this phrase might seem like an uninformed slap at YOU and your friends. How do YOU know whether I didn’t appreciate it? You weren’t there then. (In this case, the writer hadn’t yet been born. Oh, ouch.)

Or, if you weren’t there then – if you were a band alum who marched with UMass but never knew Chapel as a “home”, only a symbol and a source of alumni tales and service organization trivia – then it’s conceivable that you might read this phrase with less affront but a moment of concern for those who did remember it very fondly and concretely.

Or perhaps, if you were a recent band alum or a current band member, this phrase might or might not have caught your eye at all.

Band alumni have utilized the comment section beneath the column’s online text, with varying degrees of passion and reason. They’re all human beings, so it was inevitable that all degrees of the passion spectrum might be represented there. And the Internet is the kind of technology that allows us, practically encourages us, to respond to something in the heat of the moment – often seeming to encourage us to do so without stopping, taking a deep breath, or observing a waiting period. (You think guns are the only dangerous weapons we have?) Our urge to Rise To The Defense – justified or not – has gotten less and less temperate as time has gone on. I sometimes read political blog comment sections … and always regret it.

And, of course, columns and comments that may not have been purposefully incendiary (the piece’s writer has since said as much, and I tend to believe her) … may be interpreted as entirely that, anyway.

So, the column got a little flame activity. “How dare you,” or words to that effect.

And then the commenters took a little flaming of their own. “Wasn’t our band’s nickname The Power and CLASS of New England?,” or words to that effect.

To the point that I don’t know how many people discerned that the writer was actually very admiring of, and concerned for, this building which – *gasp* – we band alums are very admiring of, and concerned for.

It’s possible that the writer didn’t do quite enough research, or didn’t truly grasp the significance of some of the years’ worth of chalkboard graffiti that she spotted inside Chapel, or that the offending line was a relatively toss-off remark. Chalk it up to a relatively nascent journalism career, one which will benefit from learning experiences like this.

It’s possible that the band alum commenters, in their perfectly understandable zeal to let the writer know that they indeed did care very much for the building, got a bit more verbally aggressive than was probably necessary. Chalk it up to afternoons spent sitting on the couch in the front locker room with people who would become lifelong friends.

It’s possible that the people who rather nastily told the band alum commenters to pipe down – because the memories of Old Chapel aren’t, the article about Chapel’s symbolism and deterioration wasn’t, the whole University atmosphere isn’t, all about you, all about the #$#@* band … also succumbed to the need to instantly put in its place a group of people that is very close-knit, clearly has strong connections to each other and their school, and whose activity was big and loud and colorful and did kinda rudely wake people up in Southwest on game days (hee, hee, hee). Chalk that up to some need they had to satisfy, some itch they had to scratch, that band alums can’t do anything about, certainly not now that we’re, y’know, graduated ‘n’ stuff.

In all of this, I haven’t gone the Starred Thought route. Our late, great director amassed a bunch of really wise sayings, and some of them could be flung at this situation. I avoid going there partly because someone else already has; and partly because … well … in spite of the fact that I just committed more than two thousand words to it, ultimately this is just not that big of a deal. Some may recall other less recent moments that have been bigger, more momentous, less “blurb-in-the-local-paper” and more “about-to-have-genuine-impact-on-many-people”.

[Side note about perspective: sadly, far more passionate online ink has been spilled while defending the honor of flippin’ Honey Boo Boo than in the defense of generations of UMass band alumni this week. Perhaps in a small way, we can stand on this slightly wobbly bit of principle: ain’t we got some sense of proportion?]

So okay: it may be seen as presumptuous for me to assume the role of omniscient overlord who Knows What Is Best For People … hey, I read that “didn’t truly appreciate” phrase and got at least a little twinge of “–excuse me!”, same as you. But in this case, I have the luxury of working from the point of view of both a UMass marching band alum and a former journalism major. It’s still always better to express ourselves in a way that’s classy “without a K” … and deep breaths are never, ever bad for you. And there are larger issues to deal with, and bigger offenses being conveyed upon people all over the world, that do tend to slap a little perspective on us.

As the ’80s beer commercial lizard said to his fellow lizard: “Let it go, Louie.”

December 6, 2012 Posted by | band, Facebook, Internet, journalism, marching band, news, social media, technology, UMMB, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment