Monthly Archives: May 2014

Reading the News Critically

I’m not a fan of former Secretary of Labor (2001-2009) Elaine Chao, but I don’t like snarky put-downs masquerading as news stories, either.

Elaine Chao and then president George Bush

Elaine Chao with president George Bush

Take the front-page article in the New York Times last week by Jason Horowitz about Chao and her husband, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who’s currently up for re-election.

“At Harvard Business School,” it begins, “Elaine L. Chao kept card files on her classmates, then later kept tabs on their careers.”

Fine. Not sure what it means, and “kept tabs” is never explained, but okay.

Sentence #2: “As labor secretary, (Chao) had gold-colored coins minted with her name in bas-relief, and employed a Veep-like staff member who carried around her bag.”

Goodness. Somebody carried her bag when she was a Cabinet member? I wonder if Secretary of State John Kerry ever tells an assistant to carry his briefcase when he shakes hands with, you know, the Pope or Vladimir Putin or Angela Merkel. I bet his career would topple.

New York Times article, May 13, 2014

New York Times article, May 13, 2014

The word Veep in the article refers to the TV comedy show about the Vice President of the United States, portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus as petty, narcissistic, manipulative and incompetent.  Because she’s followed around by silly and obsequious assistants, the NYT’s mention of Chao and her “Veep-like staff member” is meant to be disparaging.  There are no quotes, no sources, no photos to support this contention because hey, this is gossip disguised as news. It’s simply too catty for attribution.

As to the “gold colored coins,” these were given out at a competition among rescue teams at the Mine Safety and Health Administration — an agency Chao directed as Labor Secretary. I doubt she “minted” these souvenirs like a despot starting a new currency. But putting her name in “bas-relief”?  I dunno, maybe it was an act of hubris. If so, let’s see it!  How many taxpayers dollars were spent on the things? Show us the budget!

In fact, the purpose of this piece is not to provide proof of any claims but to show, according to the headline, how Senator Mitch McConnell is “Girding for a Fight” in his reelection campaign and “Enlists His Wife” to help him.

No news there, right?  A lot of politicians ask their spouses to help with campaigns — it would be odd if McConnell didn’t.  And it must be a plus that Chao, “renowned for her strong sense of self,” whatever that means (and “renowned” by whom?), “can recite the names of people who have donated to her husband – and how much they gave, friends say.”

Oh, those friends, how they gossip.  “Those who have encountered Ms. Chao describe her as an unapologetically ambitious operator with an expansive network, a short fuse, and a seemingly inexhaustible drive to get to the top and stay there.”

Chao and McConnell after winning the primary May 21

Chao and McConnell after winning the primary May 21

In the context of the article, this has an accusatory ring, making Chao sound ruthless and Machiavellian. But why?  For someone in politics, isn’t being “an unapologetically ambitious operator” a compliment? And as to “a short fuse,” everybody from Bill Clinton to John McCain is said to have one of those, so it  must be okay for a woman to have one, too, right? (Why, look at Jill Abramson, the first woman editor of the New York Times! Or wait a minute….)

But then we learn the worst. Elaine Chao may attend football games at Louisville, but “she wears dark sunglasses so that she can furtively doze off.”  Whoa, who said that?  Would you call the source reliable?  Is there a source or did the reporter make it up?

At a time when newspapers are dying, and journalistic standards continue to fade into the chaos of Internet voices all shouting at once,  it’s important to recognize “news” stories that replace fact with innuendo and sources with generalities like “those who,” and “friends say.”

Most of the time,  I’m grateful for the New York Times. Regardless of its own management chaos, it’s accurately portrayed as the nation’s newspaper/website of record. But that means you don’t put a hit piece on the front page of the news section.  If you do, you should be called on it.

 

A Thought While Reading ‘The Goldfinch’

I’m not sure The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt deserves the Pulitzer Prize. It’s way too long (771 pages), and the pace mires down way too often.  Early promises aren’t fulfilled, the characters are more adored than developed, and parts of the narrative turn preachy and patronizing.

'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown; $30)

‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown; $30)

Yet I loved the reading of it for the most part. Observations and insights are so rich that I don’t really care what the story is about, especially when it comes to themes about art and the flow of people’s lives around art objects.

Take the narrator’s mother, a self-taught art buff who’s rushing Theo, her 13-year-old son, through an exhibit of Dutch Masters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It’s hard to like this character’s air of false cosmopolitanism (“Oh, drat,” she exclaims at the first sign of rain). But her regard for these paintings is so exuberant and her knowledge so intriguing that (like other people in the museum) I want to sidle up close to hear everything she has to say.

“They really knew how to work this edge, the Dutch painters — ripeness sliding into rot,” she says gaily as they move quickly toward the Rembrandt painting at the heart of the show, The Anatomy Lesson.

Theo has viewed this image on the exhibit poster so many times that he now sees only “the same old corpse with the flayed arm,” but his mother reveals much more as they slow down before it.

The men in the painting are “very naturalistic,” she begins.

'The Anatomy Lesson'

‘The Anatomy Lesson’

“But then — she traced the corpse, midair, with her finger — “the body isn’t painted in a very natural way at all, if you look at it. Weird glow coming off it, do you see? Alien autopsy, almost. See how it lights up the faces of the men looking down at it? Like it’s shining with its own light source? He’s painting it with that radioactive quality because he wants to draw our eye to it — make it jump out at us.”

The novel itself never shows us a picture of anything, but we end up sharing her fascination with the flayed arm because Tartt articulates the mother’s excitement about it so perfectly.

Closeup of the flayed arm in 'The Anatomy Lesson'

Closeup of the flayed arm in ‘The Anatomy Lesson’

“See how (the artist Fabritius) calls attention to it by painting it so big, all out of proportion to the rest of the body? He’s even turned it around so the thumb is on the wrong side, do you see?  Well, he didn’t do that by mistake. The skin is off the hand — we see it immediately, something very wrong — but by reversing the thumb he makes it look even more wrong, it registers subliminally even if we can’t put our finger on it, something really out of order, not right. Very clever trick.”

Okay, a trick (it looks okay to me), but why would the artist do that? we wonder, waiting for Theo to ask this very question. However at that moment, the boy’s attention has wandered to a girl nearby with bright red hair and “golden honeybee brown eyes” –  a girl who is “too thin, all elbows, and in a way almost plain, yet there was something about her too that made my stomach go watery.”

This happens before his mother moves smoothly on to the real gem she wants Theo to see, The Goldfinch of the novel’s title. It’s “a small picture, the smallest in the exhibition,” Theo tells us —

image of 'The Goldfinch'

image of ‘The Goldfinch’

although he’s also inclining his head to get another glimpse of the girl and the grandfatherly man accompanying her –  “and the simplest: a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.”

It doesn’t register at first, but that small looping chain and “twig of an ankle” will return to our memory in a subliminal way for the next 700 pages. As will dozens (I’m still counting) of other references, each looked at first from an odd angle and later more provocatively, causing us to remember and wonder each time we leave the page or screen.

For instance, Tartt knows enough about Amsterdam and Las Vegas to take us to these cities in vivid, visual detail. But she is eloquent about New York City,  particularly when Theo finds his bleak mood reflected in a simple walk down Lexington Ave. Though he bypasses subway stations to “clear my mind” (to further mess up his mind, is what he means), the city is there, as always, it seems,  to mirror anyone’s deepening despair.

“… weaving in and out of crowds I had a strange feeling of being already dead, of moving in a vaster sidewalk grayness than the street or even the city could encompass, my soul disconnected from my body and drifting among other souls in a mist somewhere between past and present, Walk Don’t Walk, individual pedestrians floating up strangely isolated and lonely before my eyes, blank faces plugged into earbuds and staring straight ahead, lips moving silently, and the city noise dampened and deafened, under crushing, granite-colored skies that muffled the noise from the street, garbage and newsprint, concrete and drizzle, a dirty winter grayness weighing like a stone.”

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt

Tartt doesn’t allow many lengthy sentences in The Goldfinch and seems to dismiss stream-of-consciousness as a cheap trick. So this passage is a rare surprise. It’s risky and wordy and malaise-ridden — and for some readers incredibly true.

Again I wouldn’t give a literary award for The Goldfinch, but when the writing is enthralling on every page, you have to say the author deserves a lot of credit.

 

 

 

 

On Language: Tatyana Fazlalizadeh Changes the World

Is it possible to change the language?

Can you convince the world to stop (or to start) using certain words? Or does the culture have to evolve by itself, and take a long time doing it, before old words filter out and new words filter in?

I used to think you could never tell people how to speak or what to say. In the street, for example, you can’t say, “Stop calling me a bitch,” and expect the men following you to apologize and stop using the word. They’re more likely to laugh and use it again, or taunt and heckle, or move closer.  Better to just look down, say nothing and get out of there fast.

Until, that is, something like the image below appears out of nowhere with an unequivocal message, Stop telling WOMEN to smile.

Poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: 'Stop telling WOMEN to smile'

Poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: ‘Stop telling WOMEN to smile’

It’s one of a series of posters by artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh that began showing up on buildings throughout Brooklyn in 2012.  I saw my first in Oakland, California, a month ago, and it took my breath away.  The gaze is unapologetic, direct, powerful and as clear as its challenge-in-print.

Fazlalizadeh has made dozens of these posters by now. The process usually begins, she told The Guardian in a video interview, with a conversation in which she asks women how it feels to walk in the street alone (“uncomfortable and unsafe” is where most of them start). She takes a photo and draws their portrait, pulls a concise statement out of the discussion and creates the poster so fast that she’s out pasting up copies before the ink dries. (She also makes her own paste.)

The women in these posters turn to confront their adversaries directly.  My name is not BABY, Shorty, Sexy, Sweetie, Honey, Pretty, Boo, Sweetheart, Ma, says one. The message is so bold and so true that the paper and the wall behind it tend to disappear.

'My outfit is NOT an invitation'

‘My outfit is NOT an invitation’

You are not ENTITLED to my space, says another.  The words have their own power, but it’s the gaze that nails you.  No, you can’t talk to me for a MINUTE. Without a physical body to threaten or diminish, the poster arrests, shocks, resists and lingers in memory.

We know this because men began trying to reply, in writing and on the posters themselves, almost as soon as Fazlalizadeh began putting them up.

The poster on the left reads: 'WOMEN do not owe you their time or conversation'

The poster on the left reads: ‘WOMEN do not owe you their time or conversation’

“Really,” the exasperated women in these posters seem to say, “do I have to make this message so obvious?” Many of the handwritten responses are angry and combative, but the project hit a new dimension when male feminists picked up on Fazlalizadeh’s subtle humor.

'STOP telling women to smile' 'START giving them reasons to!'

‘STOP telling women to smile. START giving them reasons to!’

This young man to the right takes her point, for example, and suggests a way to have fun with it, too. Soon Fazlalizedah began collecting what might be called DIY poster-selfies from a new and responsive fan base.

Today you can buy posters and t-shirts from Project STWTS to help support Fazlalizedah’s work, and the Internet has already done its job by spreading the word internationally.

But she is still a lone person trying to change the world. Which brings us back to the question: Can you tell people to stop using certain words because it’s just the right thing to do?  I still think the answer in most cases is no.  (Remember the Equal Rights Amendment? We won’t go into that now.)  But there is this:  Every time a person chances upon the unwavering stare and message of one of her posters, Tatyana Fazlalizedah shows us the power of art. And art, as we know, can change the world.

Future posts: More On Language from Pussy Riot to BanBossy.com

You could try co-opting the power of words like “bitch” or “dyke” by embracing them as your own, but when they’re hurled at you in hatred, these words still have the power to hurt and offend.