Friday, February 8, 2013
Thursday, April 26, 2012
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Professor Worth Weller
12 September 2011
How I (Briefly) Learned to Hate English
I like to think that I have always loved reading, and in fact I’m certain I knew how to read by age five. Not just the “See Spot Run” stories popular as first grade readers at the time, but complex, book-length nature tales written by Thornton Burgess, such as Old Mother West Wind, or, The Adventures of Paddy the Beaver. To this day, our favorite pastime for my wife and me, next to hiking and walking the dogs, is reading. Anything: fiction, non-fiction, Steven King, Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Peter Matthiesen, Paul Theroux, Jon Krakauer. Reading is something we do every night, the last thing before we turn out the lights. But something happened along the way.
By the time I was in the seventh or eighth grade, I had moved on from nature stories to sea faring accounts such as the classic going-to-sea-as-a-young-man memoir written by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. Two Years Before the Mast. This was, of course, before I had become aware of the mysterious s-word, “sex.” So when Hawaii, by James Michener, came out in 1959, I was smitten. Weighing in at 937 pages, the novel, night after night for months, transported me away from what was fast becoming a turbulent home life to an ocean-going tale of far-flung places with beautiful mountains and bare-breasted, dark skinned women. Talk about sweet dreams.
At this time I had a seventh or eighth grade English teacher who was one of those classic matrons that haunt our worst school nightmares. A spinster, she was tall, and rather solidly built. I can remember that she wore glasses. To this day I firmly believe she carried a red pen perpetually behind her ear. She ruled the class with an iron hand, and when we weren’t busy standing at the chalk board diagramming sentences, she had us busy at our desks, heads bowed, silently reading the typical junior high dead-white-men reading selections.
Always a teacher’s pet, I thought one day I would impress her by showing how superior my own “reading list” was to that of the approved curriculum at South Miami’s Ponce de Leon Junior High School. I very clearly remember walking up to her after class – she was standing, or actually looming above me – and announcing proudly that I was half-way through Michener’s new novel, Hawaii. Her response? “I can’t believe your parents let you read trash like that.” Talk about stunned.
I’m not one to place too much emphasis on so-called childhood trauma and how it may or may have not altered the rest of one’s life, but I’d like to point out that it was not until mid-way through college that I returned to English and literature as a serious pursuit of life-long learning, not to mention a career option. In fact, I got a C in my freshman English Composition class at Duke, and my first college essay was returned to me with a “D” and the comment written in red-ink, “Why did you chose such a trite topic as this?”
Fortunately, Duke has a world class English department with a rich tradition of graduating novelists such as William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice and Lie Down I Darkness. Even more importantly I was able to take classes taught by such southern literary luminaries as Reynolds Price, author of A Long and Happy Life. I also attended department sponsored poetry readings by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, who was being hounded by the authorities for his revolutionary free-form epic poem “Howl” and for his anti-Vietnam War protests, and by James Dickey, a poet and novelist best known for the film version of his novel, Deliverance. By the time I graduated, my love for all things English had been fully restored.
So, I can’t say that after a very satisfying career as a journalist and now as a Continuing Lecturer of English at the college level, I can blame my junior high English teacher for anything other than a few years’ lapse of love and respect for the writing profession. What I can say is “I are an English teacher,” and ‘dern happy about it!
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
11 October 2011
Reading The Rogue
It was often said that if you were of a certain age you would always remember where you were the day President Kennedy was shot. Or Martin Luther King. Years later the icon became John Lennon, and of course mostly recently, 9/11 – everyone remembers where they were when they first heard about the Twin Towers. For me, the new icon is Sarah Palin. I was watching CNN on a screen in the Philadelphia Airport after a summer trip to the Jersey Shore, and I was suddenly startled at what so-called super-patriot John McCain had just done to the country, putting a small-town know-nothing within a potential heart beat of the nuclear trigger. I was equally as amazed that another waiting passenger, in the row of seats in front of me, got up in a different kind of disgust, muttering, “That damned liberal media, they won’t even give her a chance.” I knew right away we were in for a long, snarky political season.
Three years later, after a blazing meteoric rise and a flash-bang disappearance just last week, pundits are still fascinated with Palin, as am I. Beyond a certain amount of frankly voyeuristic curiosity, as a former journalist I also have an interest in why and how she gained and maintained, long after her natural shelf-life, such national prominence. Most other know-nothings in the world do not get a national platform so long after their brief moment of fame (although Joe the Plumber is indeed back in the news). But Palin – failed Vice-Presidential candidate, half-term governor, and ex-wannabe GOP Presidential candidate -- has lingered with us much like the smell throughout your house after you have had bacon for breakfast or fish for supper. Thus it is that the blog of Joe McGinnis has particular fascination for me.
McGinnis, long-known as a rather sardonic and unconventional journalist ever since the publication of his 1968 bestseller about the marketing of Richard Nixon, The Selling of the President, returned to national prominence a year ago when he moved next door to Palin to begin writing his newest best-seller, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin. His blog (Figure 1 below) chronicles what happened next. And it wasn’t pretty.
Figure 1 – the Joe McGinnis blog.
McGinnis’s blog itself is not a work of art. In fact, it’s quite plain and offers only a few images to disrupt its fairly conventional flow of text. One can count on one image per posting, but nothing with an artistic or design flair. A traditional row of tabbed menu items across the top (including one that gives his bio), plus the common column on the right of quotes, archives, occasional ads, connect buttons to Facebook and Twitter, and favorite links, put his blog squarely in the mediocre mainstream of the blogosphere.
What makes this blog stand out though is its content. Not only does he pull no punches, but as the veteran journalist that he is, he also backs up everything he says.
McGinnis is no ordinary journalist, however, and he has long been criticized for this. Of course, so were Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson, and even Bob Woodward before he became so “lame-stream,” to steal a phrase from Ms. Palin. For example, in this week’s latest post, yet another in a running battle with the Washington Post whose media blogger Eric Wemple has been trying (and failing) to take McGinnis to task for the common practice of using anonymous sources, one practically invented ironically enough by Mr. Woodward, McGinnis fires back, ”And if I ever did, it sure as hell wouldn’t be under your umbrella.” This caustic comment is a response to a quote from Woodward obtained by Wemple to the effect Woodward didn’t invent the “umbrella” McGinnis seems to be “hiding” under.
Profane language aside, McGinnis’s snarky and combative style, heavily illustrated by his new Palin book, pervades his blog, much to the reader’s delight. Catch this, for example: “I’ve also been following MSM (Mainstream Media) coverage – or lack thereof – of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. Never has corporate control of mainstream media been more evident.” Or this: “There’s a guy named Howie Kurtz who spent a long time at the Washington Post sucking up to people in power.” (For you readers who aren’t media buffs, Howard Kurtz is the once highly regarded ultimate Washington insider and former print media writer who now blogs for the Daily Beast.) These words, spoken as truth to power, illustrate that McGinnis is not afraid to hold the powerful accountable. Profane or not, his words are fun to read – who doesn’t like to tweak the beast? And they are informative.
Writing both as a platform for his book and as a public policy forum, he continues in his hallmark snarky style. In a blog post dated just yesterday, he describes the media (which has provided largely negative coverage about his book) this way: “Mainstream media is worse than ‘lamestream.’ It is ‘no stream,’ trying to dam the flow of information about legitimate social protest taking place right here on the streets we live on, while focusing on turmoil in the Middle East in an attempt to distract us. Sarah Palin was a big part of the circus of distraction for which MSM has been beating the drums.” To this he adds, “Let’s wish her well on her long, hard reentry into the real world. And let’s do what we can to support ‘Occupy Wall Street’ because it’s those people–not Sarah–that truly have our interests, not corporate interests, in their hearts.” In other words, McGinnis revels in wrapping policy observations with personal and corporate attacks.
That this stylistic approach works well with readers is reflected in the popularity of the book he is blogging about. The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, is on this week’s New York Times Bestsellers list of hardcover nonfiction, right next to new biographies of Michael Moore, Ernest Hemingway, George Harrison and Cary Grant.
On the other hand, McGinnis’s style can get a little overbearing and defensive at times, even downright “whiney.” Many of his blog posts come in the form of justification against charges leveled at him by the mainstream media, and one wonders if he is only amplifying those charges. After being charged by the Post’s Wemple of hiding under Woodward’s so-called umbrella of using anonymous sources for his books, McGinnis fires back, “I didn’t hide from the death threats I got last summer for living next to Sarah Palin on Lake Lucille.” Oh, big brave Joe!
McGinnis’s blog can also be a bit irritating, especially to me who teaches ethics in a photography class, because he uses a lot of photos from other people without attribution. Using material taken from the Internet without properly citing it is considered a form of plagiarism. For example, the lovely and very well composed picture of Palin (see Figure 2 below) that accompanies his Oct. 9, 2011 post, “Fallout from Sarah’s cop-out,” does not mention the photographer or the web site from which it came. McGinnis is getting careless, and as a practicing journalist he should certainly know better.
Figure 2 – photo of Sarah Palin appearing in The Rogue Blog without proper attribution.
That said, McGinnis does do a good job of backing up and attributing his many claims and counter claims. As can be seen in Figure 3 below, he provides many hyperlinks in his commentary to take readers directly to his sources of information, where they can decide for themselves if he is playing fair with his accusations. Every item in red is a link that provides the details, from news or related sources, about the accusation he levels. This is a fairly common practice by bloggers, but some, like conservative Michelle Malkin, send many of their links in a circle, back to their own blog posts in a transparent effort, much like the global warming deniers, to create a political echo-chamber. McGinnis doesn’t need to do this to justify his claims, as the evidence is amply available elsewhere.
Figure 3 – examples of hyperlinks in the McGinnis blog.
Another facet to his blog that makes this a good read is his ability to stay up with current events. Throughout the writing and publication process of his book he made a running commentary of events both local to the book and national in scope, and since its publication he has posted many links to positive reviews and rebuttals to negative reviews. Naturally he was all over Palin’s surprise announcement a week ago that she would not run for President after an endless summer strip-tease acts of speculation. He has made ten new, lengthy and topical posts in the week since then. This frequency is the very definition of blog currency.
So alI in all, despite some irritating lapses of judgment, an annoying defensive tone at times, and a plain vanilla wrapper, the McGinnis blog provides a good, regular read because of its provocative tone, the author’s ability to back his claims, the freshness and frequency of his posts, and most of all, his fervent desire to speak truth to power.