More on UMSU and GoSA

We love to jerk our knees, and the Internet has made it easier than ever. I myself did something of the kind in the last few weeks when I wrote a strongly worded public letter to the University of Manitoba Student’s Union over the supposed closure of the Gallery of Student Art. It came to light just a few hours later that there had been a miscommunication and a premature announcement, and the gallery was not actually closing. This is fortunate but of course it made me look like rather an asshole.

I look back on the letter, as I do on most writings of a similar kind, with a feeling of disgust and regret. Not because I do not believe the things I said—much of what I said is applicable even though the gallery is not closing. But it was ill-timed and poorly researched and I am not really in a position to speak authoritatively on the gallery, with which I have never been affiliated. In short, it was irresponsible, driven more by blind rage than any sober assessment of the facts, and designed more to loudly make my opinion known than to change anything. UMSU may be scum, but to some extent so am I.

Much as The Last Psychiatrist predicts, a fast news cycle has led to “intelligent” people reacting to meaningless stories with half-assed outrage that can easily be contained. I am not going to get involved in the GoSA, nor in UMSU. I wrote that letter in an hour before I brushed my teeth. The only thing that happened as a result of the letter was that a shitload of people visited the site, an UMSU rep sent me a noncommittal invitation to speak with him in person, and another UMSU person tried to add me on Facebook. I declined both (word to the wise: if you’ve never met me, don’t add me on Facebook and definitely don’t try to arrange a meeting) and for a short while disappeared off the Internet in embarrassment. That was the end of it.

I say this not so much to explain my actions as to provide a window on a certain pattern of behaviour in the Internet era. Something happens and is reported on by the regular media. Shortly thereafter thinkpiece sites like Slate and Salon get ahold of the story and their articles start to circulate on Facebook and Twitter. Then comics, memes, and image macros get made on bottom-feeding sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy and are circulated even farther because it takes less effort to read them. A certain type of person—you know who you are—posts their “thoughts” on the matter. Nothing happens. Then the cycle repeats with something totally unrelated and within a week the event that had absorbed all our capacity for thinking about political and social issues is totally forgotten. All the shouting and nothing ever changes—because it was never about change and always about shouting.

The problem is that most of us don’t know a goddamn thing. We’re only interested in making our opinions known, in branding ourselves as a certain kind of person. Nothing is important per se, it’s only important insofar as my opinion on it brands me as caring or responsible or iconoclastic.

This is why I am so embarrassed about my letter: our knee-jerk branding responses do not help anything and frequently cause a lot of harm. I don’t know anything about the structure of UMSU, the budget of GoSA, or arts funding in general, though I have a vague notion that artists ought to have a public place on campus to display their work. But I have publicly held forth on the subject and forced two organizations to respond to my stupid and ill-informed comments.

An open letter to UMSU and the University of Manitoba student body, re: the closure of the Gallery of Student Art

Update, 5:40 PM: After some exchanges with a few people connected, it has come to light that the situation is more complicated than it appeared at first. The gallery is not closing, but operating on a reduced budget. The announcement that it was closing was a mistake on the part of GoSA staff (I will post their email as soon as I have their permission).

Budget cuts are an unfortunate part of life, so I cannot oppose them on principle the way I would oppose the closing of GoSA or any other thriving arts organization on campus. The cuts may or may not be fairly and intelligently made—it would take someone with more knowledge of the inner workings of UMSU and GoSA to say that. Therefore, assuming the gallery does stay open during the year, I retract the portions of the letter that relate to the gallery’s closure.

Hopefully this can be an object lesson to all of us on the hazards of making announcements (or writing open letters) in haste. Ideally, it will also serve as a warning to exercise extreme caution in making cuts to arts organizations.

Update, 8:40PM: The GoSA coordinator has declined to give permission to reproduce her communication here (which seems odd, given that it says essentially the same thing as the recent Facebook announcement). At present the gallery’s future is not clear beyond the fact that the plan is to keep it open.


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Inspired to vomit: Music, education, and Mr. Holland’s Opus

Mr Holland’s Opus is a bad film. It is a miserable, overlong, poorly structured specimen of the “inspirational teacher” genre of movies (mercilessly parodied in School of Rock and Here Comes The Boom) in which a charismatic teacher uses unconventional methods to inspire apathetic students to apply themselves. It is pornography for the worst kind of educators, and like all pornography it profoundly distorts the things it claims to illustrate.

Dead Poets Society, Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, The Emperor’s Club. Starting high school in 2007, I was taught mostly by people born in the 1980s who had grown up on this glurge. I had many teachers who were “inspirational” in the cinematic sense, not a few of them so inspirational that they never got round to teaching us anything.

The genre, and Mr. Holland’s Opus in particular, is sentimental trash, but that’s not my main reason for criticizing it. It’s simply too easy to say that Mr Holland’s Opus is bad because it is cheesy bullshit, and if that was all I had to say it would be hardly worth writing about. This movie fails in a very special way, through its egregious abuse of a subject near and dear to my heart. Ultimately its flaws are spiritual, and they shed some light on why the inspirational teacher movie is such a malicious force in popular culture. Continue reading

Do you actually know what the word “trope” means?: A response to Quinn Richert

The Manitoban has published its last issue of the year. Thus ends my term as its science and technology editor, as well as my overall tenure with the paper. In a way, this is relieving: it frees me to devote more time to music with the hope of making a career of it. But it’s also a little frustrating because this final issue contains an editorial by my colleague Quinn Richert that I will not get a chance to respond to within the paper’s pages. So instead, I’ll do it at greater length and with hopefully greater coherence in this space.

Richert says that he is uncertain of what “objectivity” as it applies to newswriting actually means. Articles that deliberately and overtly stake out a position belong in our “Comment” section, whereas supposedly “objective” articles fall under the purview of our news staff, of which he is the head. But, he says, in looking back at articles he and others have placed in the News section, it’s not clear that they are free of bias—even if they don’t state anything false or mislead anyone, there is clearly an agenda at play behind them. I will go so far as to add that the same thing can be said about the mainstream non-student press—that is, this is not a problem unique to us because we are amateurs, but a structural issue inherent in the business of newswriting.

He also points out some cases of writing that overtly takes a position, but a position that presumably any reasonable person would assent to—surely this is not biased. Richert goes on to give an example of ways a journalist’s opinions can inadvertently influence newswriting, and how a malicious person could do the same deliberately.

He cites Chris Hedges arguing that “the creed of objectivity” is bad for the news, but ultimately disagrees with Hedges. “True objectivity,” Richert says, “attempts to make up for the fact that the reader couldn’t be there to witness a story’s unfolding.” The journalist should relay information as prosaically as possible, giving just the facts. “Just tell them what happened. That’s news.” Continue reading

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Apostasy squared: “New Atheism” considered harmful

Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience posts this list of recommended reading for atheists. The list, which prominently features Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, with a little Russell thrown in and Dennett conspicuously absent, is supposed to give readers “a basic handle on the intellectual foundations of atheism”. This is the New Atheism, the strange mixture of half-understood science, naive philosophy, and adolescent rage beloved of fourteen-year-old boys and others who might as well be. It evolved gradually over the last forty to fifty years and has recently been taking the world by storm. I date the New Atheism’s ascendancy from 2006, when Dawkins’s The God Delusion was published and became an instant bestseller. The rise of the Internet (particularly blogs and social media) is also crucial because it allowed fans of the New Atheism to organize—which was difficult in the past due to geographic spreading and the fact that many of these people are not very well-adjusted socially.

The central figures of this movement are Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, neuroscientist Sam Harris, the Tufts philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett, and the late political writer Christopher Hitchens. Each one brings his own distinctive style to the table. Dawkins began as a pretty good popular science writer with a chip on his shoulder about religion. It wasn’t until The God Delusion that he went full-blown cultural critic. God only knows (excuse the expression) if he’s done anything scientific in recent years. As far as I know he’s currently a full-time atheist.

Harris combines a mild-mannered demeanour with moments of bugfuck insanity, particularly when the subject turns to Islam and conflicts in the Middle East. This is a topic to which we’ll return. Hitchens was a drunken cryptofascist asshole who appears to have been roped into the movement largely by accident; most of his writing is about politics and touches religion only obliquely.

By far the most tolerable of the four is Daniel Dennett. This is probably because he’s the only one who has an agenda more sophisticated than the grown-up equivalent of telling the younger kids there ain’t no Santa Claus (Dennett has confessed to playing along on one occasion when he was mistaken for the jolly old elf). His book Consciousness Explained is an enlightening read about consciousness and the self. He is probably the least-read of the four; his books require a little more heavy lifting and he is less prone to sloganeering.

I’ve been a bit glib in the above summary. Partly this is my own frustration coming out, partly it’s a transparent attempt to bate the New Atheist fans into responding, but mostly it’s affectionate prodding. Although I would not consider myself a New Atheist (and I’m skeptical of the term “atheist” in general), I did at one time and I understand the thought process that leads people into this movement. I get why people pick up Richard Dawkins and fall in love with him, and I feel a certain amount of kinship with them. This is tempered by a desire to kick them in the ass until they read a goddamn book1, which would solve a lot of their problems. Continue reading