discuss, debate, decide

Aaron Barlow's blog

The “O”s Have It?

We’ve been through the “e” craze (ecommerce, etexts) and the “i” craze (ipod). Now look for the “o” craze—if Obama wins this election.

Looking back at the debates, and we will hear of “oPoise.” The White House Press Corps will be producing “oNews.”

Oh rily? Yabetcha!

If It Walks Like a Duck, It's No Maveric

This is getting to be depressing. Maybe it's time to go back to Mali, to Tombouctou—for the next month, at least, until after election day. After all, it's not too hot there right now, and the Niger River is still high enough for the riverboat to make its way from Mopti to Gao, a leisurely trip with not a lot to do but watch for Tuarags over the sand dunes along the riverbank. There, perhaps, Sarah Palin's dishonest, deceitful, and decadent (yes, decadent) head wouldn't be haunting my waking hours.

A Loosing Battle

OK, all of us create typos, misplace punctuation (or omit it), and spell certain works idiosyncratically. Let's face it: the "rules" of English do little to assist us and much to maintain confusion. Still, we shouldn't abet the loss of specificity and function (let alone meaning) of written English. Especially not if we work for The New York Times. Especially not if we are op-ed columnists. Especially not if we have considerable writing skills of our own and access to the best editorial apparatus in the country.

With Apologies to Percy Shelley

I met a traveler from Manhattan Island
Who said: "Those vast towers of steel and stone
Stand in the street. Near them on the ground,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Finance, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level streets stretch far away.


Maybe it’s simply a case that the rich don’t get it. Never have, never will. Well, the born rich, at least. People like David Frum, whose father made millions in real estate and whose mother was successful in journalism, now Frum’s own field. People who, as Jim Hightower once described George Bush 41, were born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple.

Palin As Sit-Com

Aaron's excellent commentary got overlooked in the flurry of posts this morning, originally submitted 2008-09-03 01:36:54 -bumping, cho

My disdain for a certain class of American conservatism comes simply from the fact that they talk their talk, but rarely walk their walk. They make claims, for example, about being good Christians, but conveniently ignore the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. They talk a good anti-drug line, but aren’t averse to smoking the occasional jay or doing up a little meth. They talk about the importance of family, but cheat on their own.

"A Star Is Born"?

One small pleasure of mine is careless language. “A canary in a minefield,” “a hard road to hoe,” and “to all intensive purposes” can always make me chuckle, no matter how often I hear them. In addition, I love the dying metaphor, described by George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language”:

A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.

The sloppiness of dying-metaphor use was illustrated yesterday by The New York Times columnist William Kristol in the very title of his op-ed “A Star Is Born."


The headline of an article in today’s New York Times by Motoko Rich, “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?,” may be missing a question more important than the one it asks—more important, at least, to educators. That is, can online reading be merged with more traditional reading forms and methods to develop a new (and more culturally and technologically appropriate) form of reading? Fortunately, the piece does finally address the question.

Babbling to Babel

I was standing on the sidewalk, had a noise in my head.
There were loudspeakers babbling, but nothing was said. – Richard Farina

See, here’s what “they” don’t get: It’s not that we of the great unwashed are unruly, rude, and unlettered—but that “they,” the people who (in their own minds) have earned the right to speak to us, do nothing but babble.

It's a Joke?

If there is irony in the cover to this week’s The New Yorker, it’s not in the drawing itself. The incongruity lies in seeing the cartoon on the cover of that particular magazine.

If there is satire in the cover this week’s The New Yorker, it is towards the magazine itself. Certainly, it makes no supporter or detractor of the Obamas look ridiculous.

Seeding On Top of the Unseen

There's an article in today's The New York Times that has me seeing red. It's entitled "Restless Pioneers, Seeding Brooklyn" and was written by Donald G. McNeil, Jr.

Now, before I get to just what so upset me on reading the piece, I should point out that my store and cafe, Shakespeare's Sister, is often credited for "starting it all" in Cobble Hill, with being the first upscale hangout in what is now one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. And I have lived in Brooklyn for about twenty of the last forty years, primarily in places that had not yet been "discovered." I know something about urban change, having seen it happen. And I know something about the people the change "happens to."

Too Sensitive to Smears?

My growing sensitivity over disparagements of my Appalachian (Scots-Irish) background may be making me a bit more sensitive to insults to other groups—to an extent I had not realized. And, perhaps, too much so. Perhaps it is due to my anger at the assumption that West Virginians (inbred hillbillies, doncha know) voted overwhelmingly for Clinton because of inherent racism—and not because they (like people in, say, New York or California) actually made thoughtful choices between candidates.

Race and New Media Conference

Our Race and New Media conference last Saturday was a great success—putting it mildly. Positive reviews are raining in from all directions, from participants to audience members, and there are a few journalists in the process of writing rave reviews. We’ll also have the audio online soon for podcast, as well as pictures.

Thanks to all who were involved for making it work so well, from the two of us who organized the event, Annie Seaton and Aaron Barlow, professors of English at New York City College of Technology, the host of the conference. Estimates are that close to 200 people participated in the conference at one time or another.

The conference kicked off with a talk by Dr. Reginald Blake, professor of Physics at New York City College of Technology, also a Visiting Research Scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory and director of City Tech's Black Male Initiative (BMI). Dr. Blake cautioned us to remember that new and old media are inextricably intertwined, setting a framework for what proved to be a day of intense and instructive conversation. In fact, Dr. Blake’s kickoff talk was far more than just the expected introduction—it was a very smart and thoughtful foray that left with the following questions: how does “new media” deal with the catalog of American racial stereotypes (mammy, sapphire, sambo, etc.). Does “new media” alter perceptions of race, or reinforce them? Dr. Blake reminded us that, after all, this is just a tool—and therefore, neither intrinsically helpful nor harmful—but as we think of Barack Obama as the first “new media” candidate, it’s difficult not to feel helpful. And yet, Dr. Blake brought us back to some basics: is there, he wondered, via new media-- a time on the horizon where notions of race and racism will alter significantly? Dr. Blake was skeptical—feeling that “new media” had, perhaps, not done enough to prove itself to be different, but he was also hopeful about the goals of both the conference and the larger intersection between race and new media.

Torturing Ideals

In high school, I read with interest Joan Baez's autobiographical musings Daybreak. At the time, 1968, I was quite involved with questions of non-violence and pacifism, and was constantly challenged by “what would you do if” questions that tried to force me to admit a hypothetical limit to my unwillingness to use violence. Baez, not surprisingly, had faced similar types of grilling. Unlike me, however, she didn't fall into the trap, sidestepping the questions by showing the absurdity by turning the questions themselves into a series of laughable impossibilities.

Her point was that one cannot set up principles as absolutes, that one cannot claim that he or she will act unequivocally in one fashion or another, regardless of the details of the situation. Principles provide guidelines for the future and a means for analyzing and even judging the past. No matter how much we want them to, they do not restrict one from particular actions in the moment. They cannot, for each situation differs from every other, as universals do not.

Forty Years Ago, This Summer

Prague, August 6 or 7, 1968 (two weeks before the Russian tanks rolled in). Three o’clock or so, and I was in the gigantic central train station. The little tour with my erstwhile traveling companion was over (we’d finally found an official willing to extend our expired visas—mine to midnight only) and I needed a ticket, nothing more, to West Germany. Or, at least, close to West Germany. No trains, I knew, crossed that border. And no one at a ticket window seemed to speak any language I remotely found familiar. “Allemande?” Shaken heads. “Deutschland?” Same thing. Finally, someone sold me a ticket to somewhere, a track number and a train number on it.

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