Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

20 JULY, 2012

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator


How the economics of the Internet are exploited to change public perception.

I like to believe the role of public media — of good public media, at least — is to frame for people what matters in the world and why. E. B. White, ever the idealist, famously said that the role of the writer should be “to lift people up, not lower them down” because “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” But the currencies of what’s essentially a question of motive change dramatically when public media become big business, and the kind of life they inform and shape can become a gross and dangerous aberration of reality, of what really matters from a humanistic perspective. Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator (public library) by Ryan Holiday lives somewhere between The Influencing Machine, The Filter Bubble, and The Information Diet, exploring precisely what happens when these motives become business motives and not motives of civic responsibility. And Holiday should know — former media strategist for clients of Dov Charney’s notoriety and current marketing director of American Apparel, the college-dropout-turned-communications-mastermind has been, as he puts it, “paid to deceive” on behalf of world-famous authors, musicians, movie moguls, and politicians alike.

Holiday proudly professes:

Usually, it is a simple hustle. Someone pays me, I manufacture a story for them, and we trade it up the chain — from a tiny blog to Gawker to a website of a local news network to the Huffington Post to the major newspapers to cable news and back again, until the unreal becomes real. Sometimes I start by planting a story. Sometimes I put out a press release or ask a friend to break a story on their blog. Sometimes I ‘leak’ a document. Sometimes I fabricate a document and leak that. Really, it can be anything, from vandalizing a Wikipedia page to producing an expensive viral video. However the play starts, the end is the same: The economics of the Internet are exploited to change public perception — and sell product.

If it sounds appalling and revolting and like the end of the free press, it’s because it is — but lest we forget, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator is also a product, and if selling it requires a calculated maneuver of scandalization, then it’s both fair game and meta-commentary on the very system within which Holiday plays.

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19 JULY, 2012

Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren: A Hopeful Vision for Post-Occupy Humanity circa 1930


“The love of money as a possession — as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life — will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity.”

Modern macroeconomics traces many of its central tenets to the work of British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946). Besides his seminal work on understanding the causes of business cycles and developing strategies for countering recessions and depressions, Keynes was also a champion of humanism and a sociocultural optimist at heart. Nowhere does this shine more brightly, and with more prescience, than in his 1930 essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (free PDF), in which Keynes sets out to “to disembarrass [himself] of short views and take wings into the future” by envisioning culture and society 100 years later, or in the near-present. His insights are, in retrospect, bittersweet — at once standing in stark contrast with the realities of the Occupy era and presenting a poignant reminder that our future is, indeed, still our choice.

Keynes speaks of “technological unemployment,” driven by the emergence of new technologies that displace human labor through more efficient modalities, which engenders the same sort of disillusionment and a general lack of purpose tragically common today:

To those who sweat for their daily bread leisure is a longed-for sweet — until they get it.

He offers this poetic illustration:

There is the traditional epitaph written for herself by the old charwoman:–

Don’t mourn for me, friends, don’t weep for me never,
For I’m going to do nothing for ever and ever.

This was her heaven. Like others who look forward to leisure, she conceived how nice it would be to spend her time listening-in-for there was another couplet which occurred in her poem:–

With psalms and sweet music the heavens’ll be ringing,
But I shall have nothing to do with the singing.

Yet it will only be for those who have to do with the singing that life will be tolerable and how few of us can sing!

Keynes goes on to reach into the heart of the economy of purpose, in which the existential value of finding your purpose and doing what you love far exceeds the economic value of making money, and the challenge of defining success through joy rather than through materiality:

Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes to-day in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard — those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me — those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties — to solve the problem which has been set them.

Turning his gaze to the shifting value-system behind money-making, he presages the words of Jimi Hendrix:

There are changes in other spheres too which we must expect to come. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession — as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life — will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

Keynes envisions a value shift from the “useful” to the “good”:

We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.

He concludes by proposing four factors that would make this vision a reality, which ring all the more presciently true today, and circles right back to the essential lubricant, purpose:

The pace at which we can reach our destination of economic bliss will be governed by four things — our power to control population, our determination to avoid wars and civil dissensions, our willingness to entrust to science the direction of those matters which are properly the concern of science, and the rate of accumulation as fixed by the margin between our production and our consumption; of which the last will easily look after itself, given the first three.

Meanwhile there will be no harm in making mild preparations for our destiny, in encouraging, and experimenting in, the arts of life as well as the activities of purpose.

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16 JULY, 2012

Green Card Stories: A Visual Catalog of Immigrants’ Triumphs and Tribulations


Poignant portrait of a system caught between hope and despair.

Having spent a good portion of my adult life wrangling the nine circles of my very own immigration hell, I feel a profound personal investment in the immigration debates that have swelled to particularly prodigious proportions around this year’s election. Green Card Stories (public library) tells the heartening, and often dramatic, tales of fifty immigrants who recently attained their American residency or citizenship, accompanied by powerful profiles by journalist Saundra Amrhein and evocative portraits by documentary photographer Ariana Lindquist. Created in collaboration with acclaimed immigration lawyers and scholars Laura Danielson and Stephen Yale-Loehr, the project is in some ways a beautiful celebration of the triumph of hope embedded in the promise of the American Dream, and in others a poignant glimpse of a brutal system of struggle that can, if allowed to, eat away at one’s deepest sense of dignity.

At its heart, however, the project aims straight for the bigoted misconceptions that immigrants are somehow less hard-working and passionate and full of potential than “real Americans,” revealing instead the remarkable kaleidoscope of human life and purpose in those who have come to share their gifts with America. Humble yet proud, the voices in these stories — of artists, of scientists, of entrepreneurs, of dancers — bespeak a simple truth about place and personhood: Who you are and what you have to contribute to society cannot, nor should it, ever be reduced to or measured by a few legal checkboxes, a set of biometric data, and a passport.

Saah Quigee escaped Liberia with bodily and emotional scars from torture and beatings at the hands of rebel and government forces during his native country’s civil war. On a student visa, he moved to the United States and obtained a master’s degree at Cornell University. He and his family now live in New York, where Saah, a U.S. citizen, is a supervisor at Cornell’s Africana studies library.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

When Rino Nakasone first saw Michael Jackson on TV at her home in Okinawa, Japan, she was transfixed. An avid dancer, she studied his moves until she could imitate him perfectly. In 1999, she moved to California to chase her dream of becoming a professional dancer. Rino has since performed with Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera and Janet Jackson.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Thupten Lama was a Tibetan teacher living for decades in exile in India. When mobs attacked his home there because of his religious beliefs, he moved to Minnesota, where he obtained political asylum. Today, Thupten Lama holds Buddhism classes for Americans as a newly naturalized U.S. citizen.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Nelly Boyette made an odd pair with husband, Jeff. She was an undocumented immigrant from Peru with a mind for business. He was a Florida native who worked hard and carried a radio with a bumper sticker advising foreigners to speak English. After the two met at a flea market where they both worked and fell in love, they didn’t realize the uphill battle they faced convincing immigration authorities that their relationship was real.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

For years Charles Nyaga dreamed of moving to the United States from Kenya for graduate school. His dreams seemed to come true when he won the diversity lottery and appeared close to getting a green card while pursuing a divinity degree near Atlanta. But after immigration officials failed to process his application in time, his faith would be put to the test during a decade-long court battle that nearly ended in detention and deportation.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Farah Bala was raised by a single mother in India, where divorce was taboo. She immersed herself in the world of theater, began acting in school plays, and eventually won a scholarship to study theater at Sarah Lawrence College in New York in 2001. Farah has gone on to become a critically acclaimed actor and drama therapy instructor.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Randolph Sealey, brought up in a Brooklyn public housing high-rise apartment, felt just as American as his classmates when he learned he was an undocumented immigrant. His dreams of becoming a doctor seemed dashed. As he studied on private scholarships, his family took a risky gamble and turned him into immigration authorities. A judge cancelled his deportation and he was granted permanent residence; today he is an orthopedic surgeon in Connecticut.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Susan Delvalle was steeped in a business management career in Curaçao, a Caribbean island in the Dutch Antilles. But her love of the arts intersected with her business background. The two merged in New York, where she grew enamored with El Museo del Barrio and helped spearhead a major fundraising campaign that led to an overhaul of the museum near East Harlem, establishing her as a key player along New York’s Museum Mile.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Soumaya Khalifa, born in Egypt, longed to share the rich complexities of her Muslim religion and background with fellow Americans of different faiths. But she never imagined her first experience doing so would be after the horrific events of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Today her Islamic Speakers Bureau reaches thousands of people, focusing on education and debunking negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

With its cross-section of magnificent diversity within a lump-sum “minority,” Green Card Stories is part Gay In America, part Created Equal, part something else entirely. Find out more about it on the project site.


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