30 November 2013

Made In America

This is not really a post against Radio Lab.  Well it is, but it's also a post against all entertainments like Radio Lab.  I suppose I would include any and all podcasts/radio programs that pretend to a "scientific" exploration of phenomena.  I suppose I'd also include all news programs ("news" programs) like 60 Minutes and similar programs.

I would not begin to include shows like Rachel Maddow or the Daily Show or Fox and Friends or the O'Reilly Factor and so on.  That is to say, these shows are not "news" and barely informative...or, rather, they exist as misinformation primarily.

That is to say, you can't trust anyone, even yourself, so why "tune in" to any of these things?

I can't answer that.

I can say that I have spent my radio/podcast listening time primarily in the world of literature and philosophy where I don't even begin to believe there is a "truth" to find in any of them.  I know I'm just going to get another person's opinion/perspective and that I will find it commensurate with my own or I will not.  I look for those programs that will give me a little of both so as not to alienate me and still encourage my "thinking again" about my current opinions on such and such a poem, novel, author, idea, etc.

In some way I am seeking to expand my intelligence at least at the same rate as I expand my waistline and number of gray hairs (though this is offset by hair-loss).

That is to say, I want to encounter more art, more literature, more expression so as to give my own "self" a larger framework to "be" in.  I firmly believe the human mind is an extremely powerful analogizing engine.  It can be limited and constrained or it can be a rebel of sorts.  In short, our minds can be conventional or than can be rebellious: lawful minds or outlaw minds.

I seek to be an outlaw in my thinking.  This is not to say I seek to be an outlaw in how I live materially. That is, I don't seek to be seen as a criminal.

Art, as I understand it, might best be seen to operate most "usefully" (I'm not sure what other word fits--I don't mean pragmatically though) as a rebellion.  One does not need to be rebellious or to feel their art is rebellious to BE rebellious.  Some minds are out of step with their times, constricted by convention and so they see things from the outside (outlaws stand outside of conventional rules and restrictions which in the main are established by power structures and are wholly arbitrary but for the service of power).

What I get frustrated with is the media program that offers "understanding" of incredibly complex issues.  Even if I agree that a program has interesting content, I will always be dissatisfied with how that content is framed and contained...limited by a program's parameters and its ideas of success.

There is a Radio Lab "style" and "format" just as there is the Ira Glass approved style of program wherein young "story-tellers" present "life" in just such a way.  They SOUND so right, so generous...that might be the right word.  They sound so GENEROUS in their presentation.  Look at how we presented this...it entertained you and perhaps opened a window on another world, another culture, another class, anything "other."

But it's all "mediate."  Which is to say, it's all offered through a filter and contained in a format that begins and ends in a particular way (the Ira Glass way for example).

Radio programs MUST pick and choose what they share with you.  That is, editing is, I think, the ultimate stamp of "voice" or perspective on these shows.  You and I can never know what is left out; we can never know if that question and that answer were really offered in that context.  We cannot know if that particular bit of music actually worked to change the tone of the way that particular bit tape conveyed meaning.

We are really dealing with a medium ripe for manipulation performed to, upon, for, the most manipulable of beings.

Every single thing in our mediated world is working towards that one goal, manipulating approval, acceptance, agreement.  At the very least, a radio program, television program, podcast, video game, etc., wants you to return to it or stay with it.  If you are entertained, you will return.  If you are entertained you will agree.

Very few of us know how to freely disagree.  That is to say, we agree with an ideological stance and care less about particulars and we disagree with positions in opposition.  We seem to act upon, think upon, ideology.  If we disagree with a person, assertion, law, book, song, movie, picture, value, etc., it is likely a "gut" disagreement based upon an ingrained (trained) ideology.  It is a kind of simplification. We have some folks who will argue that it serves an evolutionary development--we NEED to be decisive in fight or flight moments and so we must create easy templates of actionable categories.

I am one to believe this: that it makes sense that from day one our particular environments serve to train our minds and bodies to act and think in particular ways to ensure the best hope for success in those environments.   This does not serve us well when our environments collide with other, often institutional, environments for which our decisive ways to act are entirely at variance with an often more powerful institutional environment.

An example from Radio Lab of a complex simplification of human activity

"Cut and Run"

Here is the show description:

Legions of athletes, sports gurus, and scientists have tried to figure out why Kenyans dominate long-distance running. In this short, we stumble across a surprising, and sort of terrifying, explanation. 
At the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City, Kipchoge Keino overcame a gall bladder infection to win gold in the 1500 meter race. Since then, one particular group of Kenyans - the Kalenjin - has produced an astonishing number of great long-distance runners. Gregory Warner - NPR's East Africa correspondent - takes Jad and Robert down a rabbit hole of theories about what exactly is going on in Kalenjin country.  
David Epstein and John Manners help Greg untangle a web of potential factors - from something in the cornmeal to simple economics. And, after talking to a young Kalenjin runner named Elly Kipgogei, Greg discovers a somewhat disturbing explanation for Kalenjin running prowess that actually makes him want to get on the treadmill and push himself just a little harder. 
So, because we live in a particular society, in a particular moment in time, with particular value systems (some of which are provided dominance by the sheer wealth and power of the society which "believes" is said values), we must FRAME our thinking in a particular way.

In this show we begin with sports and racing and the Olympics.  Already we have begun to frame our expectations of how we should think about it.  The show's NPR East Africa correspondent wants the success of the Kenyan in 1968 to be about the "triumph of the human spirit"--perhaps there are those o my age among you who will remember the ABC Wide World of Sports and its balancing of triumph with the "agony of defeat"?  That is we glory in the battle.

Then the program moves into genetics--body types determine certain inherent capabilities--this "worries" the hosts...and perhaps puts one in mind of Jimmy the Greek's comments on air that black athletes dominate due to their being bred for those qualities as slaves...which would assume, I'd guess, that black Africans would not be dominant athletes UNLESS they were bred that way--"Made in America" has a whole new connotation, eh?

On the show, the Kenyan has long legs and thin ankles, nearly a prerequisite for success in distance races.  Seems something indisputable that a physical characteristic unique to particular tribes, peoples, regions, will affect a talent or skill based on the physical performance.

Then, and this is more interesting and more controversial, the show pivots to pain endurance as a very large factor in the success of these particular runners.  Namely, they must, as children, endure initiation rites into manhood/womanhood that includes what the West terms "genital mutilation."  That is the boys and girls both undergo a ritual of circumcision that must be extremely painful and during which they may not "flinch"--no reaction is permitted...if a boy or girl reacts to the pain in any way they are considered shamed and they become outcasts.  And what is worse, they are restricted as procreators--they will not get to procreate with the best and strongest (stoical) among them.

The show then posits that this is a kind of selection (what we fear to call "breeding") for pain endurance.  And that this is what gives Kenyan runners another decided edge...if they can mentally train themselves to endure that pain then they can overcome any adversity.  In this scenario, the 1968 success of the Kenyan "Kip" Keino is a foregone conclusion.

The conclusion the show wants to come to is that a genetic strength like longer thinner ankles is "unfair" in sports, but that a social convention, like pain endurance due to circumcision rituals IS fair.

That is to say, while we cannot choose our ankle type, we can choose to put our children through ritual circumcision.  And that "choice" creates fairness in competition.

Of course, we can choose our ankle type--we just have to copulate and procreate with a person who has the "right' kind of ankle!  Sure it'll take hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, but I think that's the idea behind selection.  However, we cannot guarantee that our simplistic breeding will yield what we contend is our goal...nature, we are told, can offer a chaos of "wrinkles" to the best laid plans of mice and men and they will, as often as not, "gang aft agly."

So, what did I learn from this show?  Well, I might contend I learned nothing of value to me.  But I also might say I learned to partially understand ideas about selection and breeding and partially understand ideas about social conventions, and cultural breeding...that is to say, I learned to misunderstand.

I might also contend that, with the right training, I might be able to hear bias and cultural assumptions in the very framework of this program, in the very words used to describe these athletes, these runners, these people, these tribes, this country, this region, etc.  I might learn more about the assumptions of Radio Lab than anything else--and by extension the culture within which Radio Lab has become a success.

Breeding Success

In the comments at the Radio Lab page for this particular "short" I found this:

On the other hand, we here in Kenya are horrified by the limitless leeway and endless coddling afforded American and western children in general, so that they any manner trivial eventuality traumatizes them and lands them on the therapist's couch. 
Further, the application of epithets like "torture" and "child abuse" to proud traditions here (such as circumcision) is ridiculous and we reject it as hysterical. This kind of sneering attitude towards Africans (as well as other non-white people) has been familiar to us for the last 500 years, more or less, and does not shock us. We understand it very well. It is manner in which modern, educated westerners act-out the age-old instinct to colonize and dominate that is so deeply embedded in western culture and which, appearances notwithstanding, has never abated. 
Nov. 13 2013 11:04 PM

I have to say that this makes sense to me.  Or, rather, this comment has merit.

While I was listening I thought about a Utopian novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman called Herland.  In Herland there are no men but by a process (miraculous as all "evolutionary" processes seem to be) called parthogenesis women give birth to more female offspring.  The society is then dominated by the "feminine."  Though because there are no men, what we might call masculine characteristics are indeed present but Gilman's novel offers this labeling as an error--that traits we define as masculine or feminine are only also conventions of the dominant gender.

But why I'm linking these thoughts (or why my brain did, I suppose, with me only coming along for the ride in order to explain the analogy to myself and now to you), is that the creation of the society of Herland was INTENTIONAL and self-conscious.  That is to say, faced with a catastrophe that wiped out all of the men in the area (I forget why, war perhaps), the women had the opportunity, after the miracle that sustained their tribe's existence potential, to design and fortify traits that would lead to an ideal society (dangerous ideas, I know).  That is, Gilman proposes a eugenics that was at first accidental but that became an intention.

With knowledge of what is ideal and the opportunity to create it they do so.  In the above comment, circumcision as ritual, as tradition, is offered as a convention of choice that serves to fortify traits the community believes are of real and sustaining value to the group's existence over time.  In this novel-cum-polemic Gilman understands the concept of accretion: that time is the creator of a sustainable eugenics.  That the humans create institutions that must be replicated with values that must be constantly affirmed as good.  But time is not moral while institutions decidedly are.  The question in all these cases seems a case of "encoded" moralities.

Further, the commenter makes an indisputable point about Western hubris and condescension towards non-Western (non-White and likely non-Christian) peoples.

I would argue that this seems in itself an inherited trait.  White, Northern and Western Christians believe very strongly that they are chosen by a god to be the rightful and final creature of heaven.  That is to say that progress is Christian.  That progress is European and White--that this is now American and White.  That the method of progress is technical and material.  That the morality of such conforms to those advances and that any negative consequences of those material and technical advances to "others" are inconsequential or "incidental" and perhaps even necessary in the grand (White Christian) scheme.  That, finally, progress IS the fulfillment of White Christian on Earth.  (Are these Steven Pinker's "better angels"?)

I suppose that finally I tend to experience most, if not all, of these media presentations of the ways to understand the vicissitudes of life as framed in this way.


  1. Interesting piece Doug. I heard that piece about the Kenyan runners also. It bothered me at the time but I didn't take the time to think through as to why. It is a habit of cultures to criticise what they don't understand or want to understand about other cultures.
    I have to think on your outlaw concept.
    Television is spectacle. You can't truly get news from it anymore.

  2. It strikes me that we continually just seek quick answers about really irrelevant "mysteries." But this is the way a culture immersed in the answering branch of learning must proceed.

    The problem with much of the practice of the scientific method to things like these particular runners abilities is that we cannot "replicate" the supposed answer. We will wait on the generation that stops the circumcision ritual and that no longer values the training in stoicism as a way to manage future adversities to see if this "soft" generation begins to fail as competitive runners. But even then we can only speculate.

  3. this is a thought-provoking post. i've been thinking lately that we all live in our own constructs. what we believe, understand, decide, attune to, is all constructed within our minds by culture and, in smaller part, by heredity. to me, the strongest line/conclusion in your post is: "...that from day one our particular environments serve to train our minds and bodies to act and think in particular ways to ensure the best hope for success in those environments."

    I find truth in that statement.

  4. I think though what this begs is that we actually attempt to construct those environments for our children once we become aware that our sense of self WAS constructed by our situation. Unfortunately, we are "trained" so as to accept that environment as the ground of all truth.

    This is the argument for education--well, a certain kind of education--not our school system education.

    But the truth is, the majority of us will never "wake up" out of our constructs. And we stone or crucify or ostracize and condemn any who come at things crooked.

  5. And those who do wake up often find the light too bright or the reality too, uh, real. Getting a package deal to run back into the cave has become a primary occupation in our world today. See Cipher of The Matrix.

    The Kenyan story (does KIPP exist in Kenya?) works very well to illustrate your meditation, Doug. I had called the KIPP-notizing process "cultural sterilization" in the past--perhaps psychological circumcision would be more appropriate.

    Ah, the framing. See Goffman's Frame Analysis for an entertaining foray into phil. of social science.

    More outlaws!