I blame Facebook

I blame Facebook. I blame Twitter. I blame the internet.

On Facebook, a news article saying Hillary Clinton murdered fifty people looks exactly the same as a news article saying unemployment is down to 4.9%. It looks exactly the same as a post advertising belly-fat pills.

I blame cheap graphic design and easy publishing.

I blame WordPress. Tumblr, Snapchat, YouTube and Instagram.

These are places where you can say anything you want, and no one will stop you. No one will flag your post as utter bullshit, even if it is, obviously, utter bullshit.

These channels have automated computer monitoring algorithms that will block copyrighted material but have no concept of common sense. They’ll publish anything that doesn’t explicitly violate the law.

Before, you could guage the quality of information indirectly, by using its packaging as an indicator. If an online news article looked like a 1997 GeoCities page, then you could be pretty sure it was garbage. If a piece of news came from an outlet you had never heard of, or it was surrounded by ads for penis enlargements, then you could probably ignore it.

Not anymore. Now, even the craziest ideas come packaged neatly, with attractive fonts and slick layouts. And they come to us via channels – Facebook, Twitter, and others – that treat all information equally; every item in your feed looks the same, counts the same, has the same packaging. How can you tell what’s credible?

Worse: what keeps you from selecting information that reinforces what you want to believe?

This election shows, among other things, that the devastation of the old media establishment is complete. Anyone can be a publisher now, and that means everyone can choose to be informed by whatever ‘news’ outlet best suits their preconceptions – and  prey on their worst fears – about the world.

In 2004 I started blogging. It was a new world, and us early bloggers knew it. Everyone had a megaphone, so anyone could get heard. And there seemed to be a lot of promise. The democratization of news. Citizen media. Fact-checking the gatekeepers. We believed a more informed populace would result, one in which we’d see real coverage of local issues big media couldn’t be bothered with. New perspectives on the old conversations.

Remember Rathergate? Jason Blair? We rooted for these takedowns of the long-suspected biases and misdeeds of the established press, because we thought it would make us better.

But in this election – and, horrifyingly, probably in every election going forward – the complete breakdown in the line between ‘real’ news and fake news has led to a catastrophe.

We used to bemoan the gatekeepers, the editors and news anchors in their corner offices, deciding what did and didn’t make the front page. And we were right. But we were wrong, too.

Because now, instead of the gatekeepers, we have the con artists, the liars, the snake-oilers, flim-flams, and hucksters at our gates. People without qualifications or conviction, without qualms or boundaries.

So yeah, I blame Facebook. I blame them for doing nothing, for pretending they don’t have a responsibility – as perhaps the largest news distribution channel in the world – to ensure our news isn’t laced with toxic lies and propaganda. It has coddled the rise of every form of extremism currently tearing our world apart.

I blame them for pretending their only job, as arbiter of most of the information the world consumes, is to make sure I don’t see boobs in my news feed.

And ultimately, I blame us. For taking the immense potential the Internet presented us, more than twenty years ago, and handing it over to our basest elements. For not finding a way of preserving, if not the old gatekeepers, at least some level of gatekeeping – of sanity – in the system.

I believe in freedom of speech. But I also believe in speaking out against indecency, insanity, and lies. Not only speaking out, but actively trying to limit the spread of vitriolic ideas. Facebook is not obligated to distribute everything we post. Twitter is not a first amendment right.

Of course, the lies and hate will always find a way of reaching those who want to hear them. But we don’t have to make it so easy. Let the con men build their own megaphone, find their own soap box.

But of course, the internet is built for us, by us. Is us. And we have turned over the soap box for precisely that reason: so it can tell us what we want to hear.

 

Simmer

What is a storm? Xylem or phloem?

When lighting moves closer and we turn to go and

the lake says, no, don’t leave me I’m always

abandoned, I always remain on my own,

remanded, planted where nothing can grow.

The night is short and the clouds are low,

and where could I shelter? Nothing is right.

The water is crossed and recrossed with each thundering strike,

of a poem, of rifts in the fabric of time,

of words that unite, and recoil,

and sink to the bottom to sit in the soil,

and boil.

My Nice Honeymoon

Yes, my darling, I remember it.

I remember you were pregnant, not even showing yet, with our first child. And we stood in front of the blinding blue sea on the Promenade des Anglais and took a picture. You wore your hair differently then. You were so beautiful.

That boulevard – I can remember so well; we strolled along under the heat and in the breeze off the water – is where hundreds of people were injured and killed yesterday by an Islamist terror attack. A truck barreled through a crowd that had gathered there to celebrate Bastille Day.

I didn’t want to tell you last night, when you came home late.

I find myself sharply turning off the radio in the car, more and more often. I don’t want the kids to hear. I cut it off in the middle of the words ‘murdered’, or ‘massacre’, or ‘bloody’, though I could probably stop it earlier. Maybe some part of me wants them to know.

I don’t know what kind of world we’re living in. I am losing track. Was Orlando bigger, or smaller? How many killed in Brussels? Paris? Turkey? Santa Monica? London? Madrid? New York City?

I’m missing a few in there, I know it. I just can’t remember them all.

When we were in Nice I don’t think we could’ve imagined a truck barreling down the street at us. It was too pretty. The old hotels too picturesque. We were looking for crepes.

But I can imagine it now. I can see it, because I looked at the photographs and watched the videos. I feel obligated. I feel repulsed. I watched the video yesterday while you were out – while I was baking bread – and nearly vomited.

There was a body splayed out with its leg twisted nearly backwards. There were pools of blood so full and red and shiny they struck me, for a moment, as fake.

Am I growing older? Were we so young when we were there? It was just eight years ago. The world has turned so violent since then. Maybe it was just as violent before. Maybe we didn’t realize it.

But where will our children go on their honeymoons? What seaside city will be safe? Vernazza, in Cinqueterre? We went there too. It’s smaller, more isolated, with narrower streets. I don’t remember just how narrow. I think a truck would probably still fit.

Anyway. They’re awake now, playing around upstairs in their pyjamas. They’ll make their way down any minute, asking for breakfast and to watch TV. I should make sure it’s not on a news channel. I should run out to the car and tune the radio to jazz. No, wait, the jazz station cuts in with news announcements on the hour.

I still feel safe, oddly. Because St. Paul is a small city in the middle of a huge country, and nothing ever happens here. Except it’s stupid to feel safe. Because plenty of things happen here, and because we are not so small (bigger than Nice, anyway). And violence seems to be going viral in a way that doesn’t discriminate between small and large, tolerant or intolerant, religion, politics, gender or age.

I am foolish to feel safe. But we have to make the kids feel safe, and I don’t think I could tell them one thing, while always feeling another. It’s nonsense, this world we are living in, but I will show them that picture. The one of us smiling into the sun, just married, and young. I’ll show them that picture and tell them about our honeymoon in Nice, and I’ll leave out the horrors of yesterday.

And I’ll  tell them about our trips to Cinqueterre, and Rome, and Venice, and Paris, and everywhere else we’ve been, or want to go. And I’ll leave out the bad parts; the horrors of yesterday and tomorrow and next year, which I don’t know how to stop or explain.

I know they’re going to keep coming, these acts of violence. And I don’t feel safe anymore. But our children are so young, their weddings so far off. Surely they will be able to honeymoon anywhere in the world they please.

Surely by then they’ll be able to turn the radio back on, listen to jazz, and not have to keep their fingers on the volume knob.

 

 

 

 

I’m not dead right now, because I’m white

Philando Castile is dead because he was black.

And my anger, sadness, and frustration is mixed with shame. Because it wasn’t until a black man, a former high school classmate of mine, was murdered in his car less than a mile from my home, that I finally woke up.

Philando Castile, shot dead by a police officer at the corner of Larpenteur and Fry, in the sleepy not-quite-a-city of Falcon Heights, should be alive today, and would be alive today, if he had been white.

I know, because just a few weeks ago, my own kids (white) were returning from a baseball game, in the car with a friend of ours (white), when he was stopped for having a broken tail light. Everyone got out of that one unscathed, without so much as a traffic ticket, and the kids came home with a roll of police-badge stickers, much to their delight.

Obviously, the details of the situation were different, but it’s not about the specifics of the stop – whether Philando Castile complied with orders or reached for his wallet when he shouldn’t have. And it’s not just about the officer who shot him – whether he was racist or crazy or on drugs.

If we focus on the details, we miss the larger picture: we are living in a system where any of us can be murdered by a police officer, for no reason that can be legitimized by logic or circumstance. And the only thing keeping me from being one of those people whose lives are unjustly taken, is the accident of the color of my skin: white.

My parents immigrated to this country from Argentina in the early 80s, a time when that nation was  in the middle of brutal military dictatorship. The narrative I internalized about that period always struck me as paranoid and slightly delusional.

To hear my dad tell it, the city of Buenos Aires, where he lived, was crawling with police and plainclothes para-military operatives, and you could be picked up at any time, for any reason, with little chance of ever seeing your family again. This was especially true, he always told me, if you were Jewish (he is, I am), a political activist, or a leftist.

My dad tells this story: when he was in his twenties, he was getting into his car, fumbling his keys in the lock, when he made eye contact with a hulking, scowling man standing on the curb in a dark suit. The man’s cold glare paralyzed and unnerved him. He didn’t know what to do.

“It’s ok,” my dad apologized nervously, “it’s my car.”

With that, he says, and nothing else, the man swooped in, grabbed him by the arm, stuffed him into an umarked car and drove him away. He survived the ordeal, and immediately resolved to escape Argentina. He was suddenly willing to do almost anything, sacrifice everything, to live in a place where he and his family could be free from that kind of oppression.

Fast forward 40 years. Here, in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I was born and raised, I am incredibly fortunate not to live in the same kind of police state my dad escaped from. Because never in all my life has it occurred to me that, during an encounter with an officer of the law or an agent of the government, my well-being could be put at risk simply by uttering a wrong word or making an unexpected movement, or for the color of my skin … or for being Jewish.

When I’m stopped by police for a traffic offense – which I have been, many times – it just doesn’t cross my mind that this could be an interaction in which my life is at risk. I know exactly what will happen: I will act calm, I will cooperate, get my ticket or my warning, and be on my way home. And that’s exactly what happens. Every time.

But the truth is, black people don’t live in the same reality as I do. What, for me, is a place of freedom from oppression, for them, is exactly the type of brutal, arbitrary, unjust police state my parents struggled so hard to get away from.

If you are black in this country, the story my dad tells – the one that sounds ridiculous, improbable, fantastical – is a reality you must accept and live within every day. If you look at a police officer the wrong way, you may get arrested, you may get shot. If you make an unexpected movement or say the wrong thing, you may get arrested, or you may get shot.

It sounds so ridiculous to write down! How is that even possible? In the United States of America?

But it’s true. You may get shot, sitting in your own car, legally carrying a firearm, with your girlfriend and daughter mere inches away. And afterward, your girlfriend will be screamed at, made to put her hands in the air, handcuffed, and put in the back of a police car.

Let me ask you a question: if you were Jewish, politically active, or leftist in late 1970s Argentina, what would you do? Would you give up everything and escape to a better place?

And another question: if you are black in current-day America, what should you do? Should you give up everything and escape to a better place, somewhere where your children’s futures don’t include the risk of being gunned down by an agent of the police state?

And here’s one I’m asking myself: if, today, in the United States, simply being Jewish meant that I, and my children, had a much higher chance of being killed by a police officer without any provocation, what would I do to protect myself and my family?

I can tell you: I think I would try to get out. If I were black today, I might seriously consider trying to move my family to a different country.

But I know that’s not the right choice. Instead, it’s the country that needs to move in a different direction. It’s our country that needs to wake up to the reality of police murders (no, I won’t call them “officer-involved shootings”) of black men and women.

So tonight, I’ll be walking with hundreds, hopefully thousands, of others to the governor’s mansion in St. Paul, adding my voice to the chorus of others insisting this has to stop.

I know I’m too late, I know it’s too little, but Philando Castile should not be dead tonight, and I am alive tonight because I’m white, so I’m compelled to speak out.

This country offered hope to my parents and millions of others who have faced oppression. It must face its own demon of systemic oppression if it wants to continue being held up by people worldwide as a symbol of freedom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stumbling

Easter when
he rose
he couldn’t see
his toes
you know the way
that goes?

Again
he rose
to feel
the ground,
spongy wet
and sucking
at his feet,
slurping sloshing,
sweet.

A marsh.
A cross.
The cattails bent
from heavy snows,
and moss,
and mud.
He rose because
he could.

To cross
a marsh
as if he could
by miracle.
Walking
on the ground,
soaking cold
and marshalling
his breath.
Snapping sinking
death.

He rose
because he rose.
You know the way
that goes.