After Watching Another Wretched Survivor Interview

We complain regularly that the news is so negative, yet we continue like lemmings to follow it. The war in Ukraine makes us captive to the horrors journalists regularly present to us. Are news purveyors basically exploiting such people? Or are viewers all condemned to negativity bias, the condition in which negative events and statements impact our brains more powerfully than positive ones? Mainstream news surely caters to this bias.

A couple of years ago, Time magazine wrote this:

More than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report feeling anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result, the survey shows. Yet one in 10 adults checks the news every hour, and fully 20% of Americans report “constantly” monitoring their social media feeds—which often exposes them to the latest news headlines, whether they like it or not.

Well, you may say, the negative response has always been part of being human. As Mel Brooks the 2000-year-old cave dweller would say, “Grab that stone and kill the lion.” Journalists are not lion killers, but writing about the Ukraine horrors—and showing us graphic images—makes them feel in control of events that are beyond control. They seem to think that they are giving us a handle on the indescribable.

Last week CNN’s Anderson Cooper devoted much of one show to interviewing bereaved Ukrainian mothers and family of those who had been tortured or killed. One after the other we heard their tales of woe and worse. I got very upset watching this and finally turned it off. It was another of the many cases of tear-jerking emotional overkill that too often are part of the news now.

As a one-time literature professor, I call this sentimentalism. Which I take to mean emotion called up by manipulation, emotion provoked in excess of the situation. Too much of our news dwells on these poor grief-stricken people and their stories at the expense of generating a true response, which should be sympathy. Their pain is obvious yet news people keep dwelling on it.

What they should be showing—and generating in us—is compassion. Reporters like CNN’s Clarissa Ward are better at that than cold fish like Anderson Cooper or the platitudes of Wolf Blitzer. CNN’s news format is partly to blame, as it makes these horror stories part of almost every troubling evening news report.

Online media often take a similar approach. The Washington Post today ran a story “remembering one person for each week of the pandemic: what brought them joy and what they wanted to do next. And how that was cut short.” A lengthy series of headlines follows about each person, like “Dick burst into song when least expected and liked to watch boxing matches.” One wonders if this approach gives solace to the families, or anyone reading it. It seems like the bland leading the bland just to elicit a response.

Media like Aljazeera and BBC have quite different approaches to covering the war: fewer sentimental heart-rending stories and more educated commentaries, overviews, and reporters who show compassion over the exploitation. More and more I rely on alternatives like them to CNN or Fox or MSNBC. Major media has too many motivations to stay negative.

Music When All Else Fails

I’m lucky enough to have collected and enjoyed some 1,500 records (vinyl LPs) and kept them with me all these years, plus about 1,000 CDs. Most are classical and jazz. Hearing them played back over a good sound system gets you emotionally in tune again. It completes who you are.

I have been living intimately with music all my life. Some of that history is recounted here, but the true story is that I can’t do without it. As a means to counter the fog and depression of war, for me music is unmatched. Everyone needs a break from the violence.

So much TV coverage of the Ukraine war becomes an assault on one’s capability to absorb violence. In our desire to learn more about the war we are surfeited with pictures and accounts that deny the reality of being human. Yet maybe you saw this video of the delightful German guy who came to Ukraine with his piano to play for the refugees.

Or the young girl who sang a song from Disney to refugees in a bomb shelter. It’s a commonplace that music de-stresses people but it is often judged in a political context. In the classical world, think of what Shostakovich went through under Stalin, from popularity to persecution. Or Prokofiev before him. Music under the Nazis was a travesty of art and a triumph of propaganda and kitsch. An estimated 1,500 musicians fled to England and the United States, among them Rudolf Serkin and Arnold Schönberg.

I have a great preponderance of German and Russian music in my collection. Should I give up listening to that as a protest to what Putin is doing in Ukraine (or what the Nazis did)? Of course not. Artworks should always be exempt from politics, even though their authors and practitioners unfortunately are not. Renouncing music, painting and literature for political concerns would be like renouncing our human connection.

In the world of commerce, we have reports of Stolichnaya vodka being poured down the sink. The company is now changing its name to “Stoli,” as if that will fool anybody. Protests only bite when there is a human connection involved.

Culturally, we are now seeing famous Russian conductors under pressure to renounce their homeland or quit music. Tugan Sokhiev “said on Sunday that he would resign from his positions with two orchestras—at the storied Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and in Toulouse, France—after facing intense pressure to condemn President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. . . . ‘I am being asked to choose one cultural tradition over another,’ Mr. Sokhiev said in the statement.”

Artists have often faced dilemmas of this kind: think of Beethoven and his benefactors, or Béla Bártok, the Hungarian genius who fled the Nazis for poverty and exile in the U.S. And there were so many others.

Music is and has always been the highest expression of our common humanity. We need that refuge now more than ever.

Personal Reflections on War and Ukraine

In 1944 I was 10 years old. World War II was raging and I, like some kids, got caught up in following the constant news reports and accounts of the fighting. Movie theaters showed weekly “newsreels” of the battles in the Pacific and Europe. My father’s friend Jack was flying B-24s with supplies for China over the Himalayas. He sent home wonderful photos that I still have of the bases and people of India and elsewhere that supported these missions.

Once again, it’s the civilians who feel the brunt of war. The fighting in Ukraine has focused on the rank and file and their struggle: their street fights, their persistence in the face of Russian atrocities, the million refugee women and children fleeing the violence. The United States homeland was never really at great risk in WW-II. As kids we were fearful, but in the spirit of the time we had immense faith in our military. Years later I explored massive, overgrown 16-inch gun emplacements hidden away on the coast of Rhode Island. The guns were never fired in anger.

Ukrainians are battling Russian tanks with thousands of molotov cocktails. They were also used in Finland in 1939, in Hungary in 1956 and, of course, in WW-II. It’s an old-fashioned and very effective weapon. Flamethrowers and napalm were modern variants used in Vietnam. The U.S. military stopped using them in 1978.

We were never subjected to photos of burned and mutilated corpses in WW-II. Now such images are all too frequently on the internet. It’s an escalation even from what we saw and heard in the Vietnam years. I was teaching and living in New York then, marching in protests, hearing speeches from eminences like Dr. Spock and Norman Mailer. Such protests, we know, did help end the war. But war was still something mostly remote and apart from our daily lives.

The Ukraine disaster has prompted Biden to declare that no U.S. troops will be sent to fight there—a legacy of our involvements in Vietnam and Afghanistan. But social media and the internet now bring the conflict home and may well influence its outcome. Many people see Putin as a madman and comparisons to Hitler abound. Putin’s threats often put Hitler’s bluster to shame.

Since WW-II the U.S. has fought or undertaken and mostly lost numerous foreign interventions. “While the United States engaged in forty-six military interventions from 1948–1991, from 1992–2017 that number increased fourfold to 188.” These interventions have generally failed badly. The media have been relatively kind to various administrations in reporting this. But American geopolitical interference has contributed to the rise of China and, some would argue, the disaster in Ukraine. We are now paying the price for that.

The invasion has pointed up not only the futility of Russia’s strategy but our own. Some old technologies, like molotov cocktails, still work; the old battle plans and interventions do not. This horrendous invasion points up the need for powerful new strategies to avoid conflict. We don’t yet know what they are or how to implement them. And nobody knows the West’s endgame yet except to get Putin out of power.

CNN’s Coverage of Ukraine

For media watchers it’s become almost de rigueur to hate CNN. For someone like me who follows (at a distance) media stories, CNN is by default my major news source. Here in Mexico there are very few other choices for news in English—at least on my cable network: Fox News and Aljazeera are the major alternatives.

CNN’s coverage of the invasion brings to the fore all the good and the irritating things about this news source. For all its faults, CNN still has the reach and the money to provide far and away the best round-the-clock reporting on the Ukraine crisis. Their field reporters are not always sharp and experienced, but most are. The studio analysts are generally worth hearing, with reports from token Republicans and retired generals.

But, my God, the formats they use are deadly, with constant repetitive promos for their people. And they never change. We have been watching the same irksome walk-ons for years of people like Christiane Amanpour, Max Foster, and Becky Anderson. Finally, instead of pricking your interest, they arouse your repugnance. How many times do you want to hear “They can shoot my body but not my dreams.”

Then there are the promos masquerading as soft news. You get corporate CEOs speaking about good causes—meanwhile furthering their company’s PR message. Africa must be filling CNN’s coffers with its constant promotions. It’s become a wholly owned subsidiary of CNN. This stuff is what we used to call infomercials and CNN is chock full of them.

I commented in an earlier post about the network’s so-called talent. They have some fine people, among them Jim Acosta and Jake Tapper (either of whom should take Wolf Blitzer’s place) and Pamela Brown. But Wolfie, like Mike Wallace before him, has stayed on too long. Abby Philips is terrific on empty comments. Anderson Cooper with his awkward delivery is the most overrated anchor in TV. He should stop having babies and take some speech therapy.

After all the Cuomo controversy and then-president Jeff Zucker’s recent demise, the network suffered major losses in viewership. With the Ukraine invasion, however, ratings have greatly improved. Why? Because there is no other place to go for full coverage of the major event of our times. I mock some of their talent but watch CNN at least two hours a day, mostly in the evening.

As I write this, Dana Bash (CNN’s most skillful analyst) is interviewing Sen. Mitt Romney on “State of the Union.” It’s good journalism, and for major news, CNN is still on top. TVNewser points out that

last January was CNN’s most-watched month on record, carried by live coverage of the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol (CNN’s most-watched day in history), as well as the presidential inauguration. The network also finished No. 1 on all of cable television that month, beating MSNBC and even Fox News.

With a corporate shakeup coming, perhaps the network can now turn a new face to the public.

Moving forward, what’s next for CNN when the company falls under the Discovery Channel umbrella later this year? Let’s hear from its soon-to-be largest shareholder, John Malone of Liberty Media.

“I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing,” Malone said in an interview that recently aired on CNBC.

Greene’s Gazpacho and Trump’s Toilets

The New Yorker

Yesterday the media reported endlessly on Greene’s continuing and insufferable stupidity and the ex-president’s propensity to flush documents down White House toilets. Hard to wake up to this stuff.

I still read the latest in politics each morning on the internet. This practice had begun to ruin my day so I’ve endeavored to change it. I try to make phone calls and email friends, walk to the bakery, get on my exercise machine. I’m still caught up with our political follies, but no longer to the point of writing about them or hashing them out with friends. It ain’t worth the angst.

Since most people can’t face the enormity of what’s happening in the U.S., the media’s fallback is to divert us with the folly of our political happenings. Politics and the reporting thereof have become a burlesque.

Yet I’ve spent too many years in politics not to take it seriously. It’s very hard to do that now. I mark all the many appeals for funds I get from Democrats as spam. I no longer follow Democrats Abroad. Most of the received opinions about the current crisis—the likely onset of a new civil war, gerrymandering, court packing, and so on—I find repetitious and half-baked. Or they keep telling us about the persistent Congressional standoffs.

So maybe we shouldn’t blame the media for telling us ad nauseum about the crocodile who finally got the tire removed from its neck. Yesterday I was looking for some freaky “good news stories” to write about, like the one about preventing Alzheimer’s with toothpaste. The idea was to lighten up the pervasive gloom about current events. I eventually tossed out that approach after realizing that such stuff was just clickbait. The media thrives on clickbait.

Since I spent quite a few years studying and teaching literature I tried to get back to reading more. That worked for a while but I always gravitated to the current affairs stuff on Kindle and got too absorbed in that. Interesting but invariably gloomy.

So I looked at the shelves of books that I had just unpacked after my recent move. Music, history, fiction, poetry, and culture were there in abundance. Could they be a passage to my recovery from boredom and disgust? The books looked back at me as if through a scrim of non-recognition, even though I had read them all and absorbed much pleasure from many. But I felt little urge to pick them up and explore them again.

Even so, I will do that with a few because they represent old pleasures and insights that were and are valuable to me. Literature is life rendered, after all, and mostly from a simpler and better time. It has always been a refuge for me, and perhaps it will be so again. In times like this, we need our sanctuaries.

All Greek to Me

Our lives are increasingly controlled by health care gods like the WHO (World Health Organization) and the CDC (you know that one) who spread confusion about all the good virus fighting they are doing. Plain communication seems lost in a welter of political correctness and scientific puffery.

Consider how they use the Greek naming convention. My friend asked why the health care gods had omitted so many Greek letters in naming the new virus variant. “They called out Delta, then skipped over ten letters to get to Omicron.” This got me thinking about why they were compelled to use the 24 Greek letters at all.

The answer is complicated. The WHO was obliged to consider many factors, or so they thought. They settled on Greek names like Alpha, Beta or Gamma “to help the public talk about the variants more easily without reverting to identifying them by the countries in which they were first identified.” That would be “stigmatizing and discriminatory.”

They skipped over Nu and Xi, Nu being too easily confounded with “new” and Xi of course echoing Xi Jinping, a political no-no.

They considered Latinized names, as in biological species, but found that cumbersome. SARS-Covid has more than 100,000 genome sequences, so the researchers got caught up in that, despite the fact that the public doesn’t care about this when talking about the virus. Scientific identifiers, with sets of numbers and letters (as in B.1.617.2 for Delta) will remain for research work.

The question for me is why we have to use Greek at all. How many people read Greek or know its alphabet? The scientists may be comfortable with it; who else is? Why not V1 or V2 to keep it simple? They apparently rejected that because V2 was “the name of a German rocket used during World War II.”

Similarly, a numerical system of “variants of concern,” such as VOC1 and VOC2, was dropped because that “sounded too much like a common swear word.” Can you believe it? Simplicity gives way to political correctness; scientists become censors.

Apparently the custodians of our moral health had big debates about all this, and one can only imagine the fatuity of such discussions. I learned something a long time ago in doing health care communications: if you want to convey important information to people who need it, you must keep it simple and clear.

Happy New Year.

Media Quotes of the Day

  • Chris Cuomo in the Washington Post: “There is no division between politics and media.”
  • Goodman on the Cuomos (6 August 2021): ” What a family. Mario is turning over in his grave.”
  • Jeffrey Toobin (with apologies to Thomas Jefferson) :”Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching.”
  • from Longboards, a Washington Post commenter: “Do you think CNN and MSNBC’s line up is a coincidence? Do you think their cellar ratings are also a mystery? Jeff Toobin, Don Lemon, Anderson Cooper? It’s a clown car.”
  • Jennifer Crumbley, the shooter’s mother: “LOL I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”
  • Megan McArdle in the WaPo: “Overruling ‘Roe’ likely wouldn’t generate the female backlash that feminists expect.”
  • Steve Wolf, firearms expert in the New York Post: “Guns don’t fire themselves. . . . If that scene required [Baldwin] to put the gun to his head and pull the trigger, I’m sure he would have taken a look inside the gun. Wouldn’t you?”
  • CDC Science Brief on Omicron: “Omicron has many concerning spike protein substitutions, some of which are known from other variants to be associated with reduced susceptibility to available monoclonal antibody therapeutics or reduced neutralization by convalescent and vaccinee sera.”

 

Mingus on the Avant-Garde and Tradition

at the Joni Mitchell recording

AllAboutJazz asked me to provide an excerpt from my book Mingus Speaks (2013), so I thought I’d share it with you. Mingus loved to talk about the avant-garde pretenders and how they thumbed their noses at tradition.

 Mingus: Everybody’s got ego and everybody who lives in a human body thinks they’re better than another guy. Even if a guy’s considered to be a nigger in the South and the white man says he’s better, if the guy’s on his own and creating, he says, “Man, I’m better than that guy.” I got a tenor player (I won’t call his name) wanted to be in my band a long time, and he can’t play. But when the people see him, he’s moving like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane at the same time and, man, they clap, and he ain’t played shit. And so I know that he feels, “Hey look, Mingus, I moved the people, you saw that. Why don’t you hire me?”

I try to explain, “Well, I don’t move no people like that, man, that’s not what I’m here to do. I guess I could kick my leg up too, spin my bass,” and he don’t believe me so I do it, do the Dixieland, spin the bass and they clap. I mean that’s showmanship, but this is supposed to be art. I mean the only time they Uncle Tom in classical is when they bow, you know those classic bows, the way they had, man? Especially the women, opera singers, that crazy bow [curtsy] when they get down to their knees? They had some class.

You know, anybody can bullshit, excuse my expression, and most avant-garde people are bullshitting. But Charlie Parker didn’t bullshit. He played beautiful music within those structured chords. He was a composer, man, that was a composer. It’s like Bach. Bach is still the most difficult music written, fugues and all. Stravinsky is nice, but Bach is how buildings got taller. It’s how we got to the moon, through Bach, through that kind of mind that made that music up. That’s the most progressive mind. It didn’t take primitive minds or religious minds to build buildings. They tend to go on luck and feeling and emotion and goof. (They also led us to sell goof.)

. . . One thing I’d like to clear up a little more in case I haven’t is the fact that all those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland, Chicago, Moten swing, all those styles, man, are the same and as important as classical music styles are. The movements—like you remember Moten Swing? Count Basie swing is another swing. And Jimmie Lunceford had another swing. Remember Jimmie’s band? The two-four rock [demonstrates].

Well, man, there should be a school set up where all those styles and movements are exposed to the students, and they find their medium, what is closest to them, and come out with that. I don’t mean copy that, I mean they should be able to copy it and then find themselves, as most composers do in classical music. Find which one they like and that’s where they are, through direction.
You think about it, man, even the guys in jungles, they weren’t just born as a baby and picked up a drum. Their daddy taught them how to play drums, to send messages and all that. “Somebody’s talking something.” They heard it and loved it, went and fooled with it for a while, and daddy would say, “Well, here’s how you do that, son.”

They didn’t just say, “I’m Jesus born here, hand me a drum, baby; lay a flute on me, run me a clarinet next; now I’m gonna play a little bass. Where’s Jascha Heifitz’ violin? I’ll play that for you, better than him. When we get through, hand me Isaac Stern’s.”
Yeah, that’s where the guys are today: “Give me a violin and I’ll play it for you. Jascha played it, I’ll play it too.”

And intelligent people still listen to this crap, man. I don’t want to be fooled anymore: I know when I’m out of tune, and I’ve done it intentionally and watch critics applaud. And that’s when avant-garde has gone too far. I can play wrong notes in a chord if I want to sound wrong and have a clown band like—what’s that guy had a clown band? Shoots guns and all that?—Spike Jones. If you want to say Spike Jones is avant-garde, then we got some avant-garde guys playing, some Spike Joneses.

Goodman: Only he made music.

Mingus: He could do everything, man. I don’t want to be so junglish that I can’t climb a stairway. I got to climb mountains all day long? We’re going to the moon, right? Well, I’m with the guys that wrote music that got us to the moon. Not the guys who dreamed about it. Bach built the buildings, we didn’t get there from primitive drums. In a sense we did, because primitive drums was the faith. Primitive music is the faith—like Indian music—of the man to want to find out how to get there. Bach was the intellectual pencil that figured out mathematically “does this work?” “Yes, this does, now put that aside.” And finally, “does this work with this?”

Bach put all these things together and called them chords. Well, we go with progress and call it scales, and these things have been broken down by Schillinger and a whole lot of other guys. Now if you work in that form and then go back and say, “Man, we don’t need to know this theory,” fine, then I accept that you’re a primitive. But when you come on the bandstand with a guy who may not want to play primitive for a minute, can you play with him? That’s what the question is.

Maybe I can play primitive too but for a minute I want just one chord, a C Major seventh. Now how many guys can play that—and play something on it, improvise something on it clearly? That’s what Bach could do, because that’s the foundation, and then he could put the D-Flat Major seventh against that. Now then you got a building, black and white, concrete and stone, and it can grow taller. Now that’s the way it is, man.

Governor Cuomo will soon be looking for a job. I have some ideas.

Maybe he’ll get another book deal. The last one reputedly brought him a $5 million advance. Or he could practice law in Florida or somewhere. New Yorkers have had enough of him. Maybe he and his brother Chris could reprise their obtuse familial stunts of last March on CNN. The network did nothing to stop them because the boys got good ratings.

Never mind that this was completely inappropriate and violated every rule of journalistic integrity. One CNN staffer, reflecting the views of many, commented: “the fact that Chris Cuomo wasn’t fired over his inappropriate conflict of interest in actively affecting a news story is not only irresponsible of CNN, but also a disgrace to journalism.” By now you should know that Chris helped write Andrew’s recent self-serving mea culpas.

Readers of this blog will perhaps recall that I put down the swaggering younger Cuomo last March:

There is no excuse for Chris Cuomo being on the air, especially after his gigs with brother Andrew and getting special treatment for Covid. His smug, brassy commentary is my nightly invitation to shut him off and, God help me, switch to Tucker Carlson for a change of ego.

Click to see her expression.

Both the brothers ought to be fired from their jobs. But Andy in particular is going to have trouble finding new work after all the mishegoss over his loathsome sexual behavior. Why is it so easy to condone the misbehavior of the powerful, especially in political life? Why is it always the women who have to call this out?

And how does a guy so accustomed to power and the spotlight go out quietly? Well, it may be temperamentally impossible for him to do that.

What a family. Mario is turning over in his grave.

Don’t Take a Laxative Before You Travel

Stating the obvious can make people uncomfortable. Still, why do most travel and expat sites not tell you the obvious things? For instance, with Covid still on the rampage in many places, and with widely varying responses to it, it may not be a good idea to travel at all. You should read “The Travel Industry Is a Total Mess, But Everyone Is Traveling Anyway,” in yesterday’s Intelligencer. Why would anyone voluntarily undergo these wretched experiences?

Travel advice often gets political, especially in the personal comments. Regarding the trials of travel, readers often make it a Covid matter, like this guy rayornot from Las Vegas—in the “Total Mess” piece—who expresses a pretty common feeling:

Headlines say masks are ‘suggested’ indoors again.  To protect the unvaccinated.  I got one message for the unvaccinated: fuckem.  I’m vaccinated, I will show my card and I will get a booster if necessary. But any business (except the grocery store) that puts up a ‘mask required for entry’ sign will be telling me they don’t want my business.  And any politician who supports a mandatory return to masks ain’t gonna get my vote.  Don’t care what party they are.

The greedheads who opened these resorts here should have given tourists an option:  get vaccinated or stay home. . . . Vegas is a perfect example of a digressionary [discretionary] expense: nobody HAS to come here.

And nobody has to travel when conditions are this bad. Yet some travel writers encourage it, and they are not just the industry hacks. Here’s one, with perhaps the dumbest advice of all:

Now is the best time to travel: because you can’t delay life. We all want to make the most of our time here, which is why taking a break or a mini-retirement shouldn’t be put on the backburner. Stop delaying all those things you really want to do and just do them. Make a travel plan and stick with it. Don’t let your travel dreams keep being just dreams—make them goals. Bring them to life.

For those sensitive plants among us, travel can bring personal nightmares to life. One such person named Erin writes about that:

Things will go wrong. You will stress out about making friends, and you’ll wonder how everyone else in the hostel already knows each other. You will rehearse openers and practice them in your head. And maybe you’ll try convince yourself that you don’t need to make any friends—at least then you wouldn’t have to put yourself out there. You wouldn’t have to take the risk. Travel is full of risk.

Without taking too many risks, I managed to make it out and back last month from Oaxaca to Charlottesville to see my kids and grandkids. The trip entailed a whole day of bad food and involved four airports and three flights each way. It was worth it, despite having to deal with the incidental chaos of Mexico City’s airport and the premeditated pain of surviving Atlanta’s. Getting there was not half the fun, as the Cunard ads once advised us.