Tuesday, September 29, 2009

what we think and what we feel

I recently read a blog post that got me thinking a bit more than most of them manage to do. It's The Alice Swanson Ghost Bike: What really happened by Dave Stroup on his why.i.hate.dc blog. Stroup investigated an incident which stirred a bit of local interest lately. In brief, a bicyclist was struck by a truck and killed at a busy intersection near Dupont Circle in DC. A ghost bike was placed to commemorate the death, warn both motorists and bicyclists to be careful, and keep transportation planners mindful of pedestrian and cycling needs. Here's one of many photos of the bike.

{Ghost bike for Alice Swanson; source: Prince Of Petworth}

The DC government has a policy covering unofficial memorials such as this and another policy covering bicycles that appear to be abandoned. Stroup undertook his investigation because they didn't follow either one of them in this case. When they abruptly removed the Swanson ghost bike, a whole lot others suddenly appeared in the same area. These too the government removed. Apparently (as Strop found out) both removals resulted from merchants' pressure on local officials).

It's easy to track down information on all this activity. For example you could do Google searches on the phrase "alice swanson" ghost. Limit this search to blogs only and you'll get a feel for the extent of community concern about the city's actions. Limit the search to news sources and you'll get a feel for the extent of local buzz the story generated.

Stroup's investigation found that the Mayor's Office became nervous about the negative publicity being generated. It began to distance itself from actions of its transportation department tho it seems apparent that it had something to do with the aggressiveness of those actions.

This whole event as it plays out is emotionally charged: Swanson's family and friends are deeply concerned about her death, its commemoration, and the City's response. Bloggers and news media see an instance of callousness on the part of bureaucrats, politicians, and local merchants. And there's extra emotional import because the locale is known to be more than usually full of pedestrians and cyclists and there is high tension between those people, on the one hand, and motorists on the other. The emotional component is the more readily conveyed by the visual imagry associated with this piece of news: all those ghost bikes and mourners.

A few weeks ago an article by Andrew Beaujon in the local City Paper gave a photo gallery of the bunch of bikes that appeared after the first was removed — 22 of them, one for each year of Swanson's short life — and profiled the young man who acquired them (by dumster diving "as well as wailing on Freecycle and Craigslist"): Ghost Bikes Return to Dupont Circle: Alice Swanson Rides Again.

{This is the guy, Legba Carrefour, who put up lots of bikes after the one was taken away; source: washingtoncitypaper.com}

My first thoughts on this ghost bike incident and Stroup's research were pretty straightforward: I noted the rapid collection and dissemination of news and photos about an emotionally-charged event where ethical values of decency and fair play seem to be violated by impersonal forces. I noted the outrage generated by this, particularly in comments made in response to blog posts. I thought about the power of bloggers and local journalists who cover local news. And I thought about the importance of in-depth investigative reporting, in this case by a local blogger.

The next day I came across an image which shares some qualities with the ghost bike photos. Here it is:

A little searching showed me that this pair of photos with their captions appeared as a composite image within hours that AP and AFP put out the individual shots and very quickly gained widespread internet penetration. It also showed that almost everyone reacted as I did. The composite image made me feel that the mainstream news media were showing (yet another) instance of racism in the way the two shots were captioned.

Not surprisingly there was some probing into the circumstances in which the photos were made and captioned. As with the investigative reporting in the ghost bike case, this took place quickly, but in this instance the work was done mainly by journalists. And in this instance, the investigation showed that the immediate conclusion formed by people like myself on seeing the photos and captions was not accurate, or not entirely accurate.

The day following first appearance of the composite image Aaron Kinney wrote an article in Salon — "Looting" or "finding"? — which discussed the rapid dissemination of the composite and said the two captions might not be the product of simple racial bias. A few days later, Tania Ralli of the New York Times wrote up the issue in an article called HURRICANE KATRINA: THE PHOTOGRAPHS; Who's a Looter? In Storm's Aftermath, Pictures Kick Up a Different Kind of Tempest. It's worth while reading this short article in full. The author describes the AP definition of looting and explains that what its photographer had observed met this definition: "He had seen the man in his photograph wade into a grocery store and come out with the sodas and bag." She also quotes the person who gave the caption to the second photo:
The photographer for Getty Images, Mr. Graythen, said in an e-mail message that he had also stuck to what he had seen to write his caption, and had actually given the wording a great deal of thought. Mr. Graythen described seeing the couple near a corner store from an elevated expressway. The door to the shop was open, and things had floated out to the street. He was not able to talk to the couple, "so I had to draw my own conclusions," he said.

In the extreme conditions of New Orleans, Mr. Graythen said, taking necessities like food and water to survive could not be considered stealing. He said that had he seen people coming out of stores with computers and DVD players, he would have considered that looting.

"If you're taking something that runs solely from a wall outlet that requires power from the electric company -- when we are not going to have power for weeks, even months -- that's inexcusable," he said.
Sometime later, a Canadian media issues site, Media Awareness Network, did a page on the matter as a "teachable moment" study guide for classroom instructors in secondary schools: Hurricane Katrina and the "Two-Photo Controversy". It didn't add to information that Kinney and Ralli had given but gave some discussion questions to help people think through the controversy: what do we mean by looting and finding, what difficulties do journalists face in covering dramatic events like Katrina, why do these photos have such impact, how could the captions have been written to help people understand what the photos really show . . . ?

Whereas in the case of the ghost bikes emerging facts supported peoples' immediate conclusions, in this case the investigations contradicted or at least tempered them. This might have led to dissemination of the new facts or a sudden dropping off in dissemination of the composite image but it did not (or not to any perceptible extent).

Despite these three explanations concerning the photos and their captions, the composite image continued to circulate and commenters continued to express outrage at the racism they found in their captions, right up until my sighting this morning. That's a good four years of circulation and comment. You can do a Google search on the terms graythen martin katrina looting to get an idea of this persistence over those years (you could also do phrase searches such as: "Black people loot, white people find" and "looting vs. finding")

What's apparent to me about this isn't at all surprising: people (myself included) tend to follow their emotions and seek reinforcement for beliefs they hold. It's not easy for factually based correctives to counteract (or temper) image-based communications that resonate with the growing numbers of people who see them.

These thoughts led me a step further.

I recently read an article by Michael Bérubé that's been creating quite a stir. Entitled What's the Matter With Cultural Studies?, it contains reflections on the academic subject which he teaches. It's thoughtful and well written, and the controversy it's generating is fun to observe. Nonetheless, what caught my attention is only one aspect of his argument. In discussing a prevalent point of view within cultural studies departments he says there's a tendency among practitioners in the field to jump to conclusions or, put differently, to indiscriminately grab what seems to be evidence which supports one's beliefs. This behavior is a lot like the response to the ghost bike and Katrina "looting vs finding" photos.

Bérubé cites an old essay by Stuart Hall* on the tendency to condemn people who jump to conclusions. Hall wrote that adherents to one political party tend to think the other party is brainwashing voters. It's an arrogant and unjustified point of view, he says. Bérubé quotes him thus:
It is a highly unstable theory about the world which has to assume that vast numbers of ordinary people, mentally equipped in much the same way as you or I, can simply be thoroughly and systematically duped into misrecognizing entirely where their real interests lie. Even less acceptable is the position that, whereas 'they' — the masses — are the dupes of history, 'we' — the privileged — are somehow without a trace of illusion and can see, transitively, right through into the truth, the essence, of a situation.
Bérubé also cites an interesting paper by Ellen Willis** that makes much the same point. He doesn't quote her but I cannot resist. She says:
Reagan did something the left, to its great misfortune, has never understood: with his paean to “morning in America” and call for an “opportunity society” he coopted the yearnings that had been aroused by the `60s movements and stifled by the nonstop pull-up-your-socks lecture of the Carter years. Freedom, as recoded by the Reagan right, meant pursuing unlimited wealth, at least in one’s dreams, and so identifying with the rich, their desire for low taxes, and their aversion to “big government”; it meant embracing America’s mission to make the world safe for democracy; it meant license to express rage. Pleasure in sex might be restricted, but pleasure in aggression was encouraged, including uninhibited bashing of black people, poor people, criminals, deviants, and liberals. The cultural elite, on the other hand, was portrayed as not only immoral and unpatriotic but repressive, what with its guilt-mongering attacks on greed and its allergy to guns and its lectures about bigoted language. Ever since, the right has won elections with some version of this formula. Its success has depended on convincing working-class swing voters not only that liberals are their class enemy, but that their own aspirations for “opportunity” and “ownership” are best expressed by policies that favor the rich.
Like Hall (and Bérubé) Willis says the Democratic left in the US does wrong to 'dismiss as “hallucinatory” people’s embattlement about what moral and cultural norms will govern their everyday lives and intimate relationships.' Writing years before Obama's election campaign, Willis concludes that Democrats should do basically what he subsequently did: adopt a platform based not on perceived practical "interests" but rather on a broad vision of well-being akin to the vision inherent in the Reagan slogans. She says (paraphrasing her), we need a politics that recognizes equality and freedom, class and culture, as ineluctably linked.

As is certainly apparent from what I've written here so far, I reacted as many others have done in response to the emotion charged images of both ghost bikes and "looting vs finding" photos. I did a little searching and found my first reaction to be supported in the one instance but not (very much if at all) in the other. I connected this little exercise with warnings I happened to encounter about jumping to conclusions.

It particularly interested me that these warnings were more about the mistake people (including myself) make in condemning others for what seems to us to be their instances of unwarranted jumping to conclusions. It's pretty much universal to base lots of the decisions we make on our emotional responses, on intangibles and intuitions, and not on our carefully-reasoned practical "best" interests. It's arrogant and self-defeating to dismiss large groups of people — say political opponents — for acting this way. Better to seek to understand the underlying causes of of the emotion, intangibilities, and intuitions.

That's my primary conclusion from this little thought process, but I'm also grateful to citizen journalists like Dave Stroup who take time and expend resources to uncover and report facts. I'm just as grateful to the (dwindling number of) reporters and professional investigators who do the same. And I'm pleased to live in a time when information flows so freely and widely even though much of what's distributed is misleading and correctives take a bit of searching to uncover.

*"The Toad in the Garden: Thatcherism Among the Theorists" by Stuart Hall in Marxism and the interpretation of culture By Cary Nelson, Lawrence Grossberg (University of Illinois Press, 1988)


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