Monday, September 8, 2014

September 8th: Not the Same Deal

If you’re looking for the good news in the wake of the Donald Sterling debacle, it may have come in something of a surprising form. Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson announced today that he would be selling the team because of a racist email he sent in 2012.

At the first moment, all basketball fans’ hearts should sink. I don’t think the NBA could handle another owner causing a team that kind of distraction again. Upon further inspection, though, something very different was happening here.

In the email in question, Levenson sent a communication to his General Manager, Danny Ferry, in which he seemed to be giving something of a “state of affairs” in many important areas of the team’s operations. He began with commending parts of his organization, as well as giving some thoughtful remarks about how to move forward with issues such as food vendors and season tickets. In my reading of the email, I started to like the guy from the beginning of the email.

It was in the fourth section that the issue came up. In it, Levenson diagnoses one of the issues he is facing that most drastically affects his team’s bottom line: season ticket holders. He makes the comment that, more than at most stadiums, the Hawks draw a uniquely African American dominated crowd. He cites “eyeball statistics,” numbers he attempted to guess at based on observation, mentioning 70% African Americans in the crowd, predominantly black cheerleaders, and an overwhelming amount of hip-hop music in the stadium. He then goes on to say that the feeling of overwhelming African American culture in the building may be leading to low numbers of season ticket holders because most season ticket holders are affluent, and there are fewer affluent African Americans in Atlanta than whites.

This is the email that Levenson self-reported as racist and the reason he has no business owning an NBA team. Really, though, business is the reason he is owning an NBA team, and all of his comments were observations in the name of smart business. Upon deep inspection of the email, there is nothing that should have driven Levenson to step away.

Now, that isn’t to say stereotyping and over-generalization isn’t a big issue. These can be incredibly detrimental when assessed in society. The thing is, though, that business and society are very different, and sometimes something that is wrong in society is imperative to running a financially responsible organization.

This case, more than most, needs to call into light the importance of intent. In the case of Sterling, he was a racist who meant to say that blacks were inferior. In the case of Levenson, he even goes so far as to call other antics “racist garbage,” almost feeling bad for making his observations. He was attempting to answer a business question with something that, for all intents and purposes, were ball-parked observations. If he had done a census of fans at his games, he could have made the exact same statements with facts (plus or minus a few digits), rather than slightly skewed information that could be claimed as “opinion”.

You may be wondering where the “good” from the Sterling situation comes into this one. The good is that this is evidence that the NBA learned something. This is evidence that no level of racism will be acceptable. This is evidence that a seemingly good man who made a mistake will own up to it and take responsibility for his actions.

I don’t believe Levenson needs to sell his team. I think he made business-minded statements to a man in his organization to help make more money. I think it is pretty great, though, that he is willing to step down (step down for some big bucks, that is) to state how important it is that we be thoughtful of the way we treat each other and think about racism.

I have two blogs: a sports blog and a “life” blog. The reason this is on the “life” blog rather than the sports one is that racism is an issue that transcends sports. It’s also important that, in a time when issues in sports will bring to the forefront important societal issues, that the public knows about the conversations going on in sports and, in this case, the great moves forward that are being made.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

September 2nd: Numbers Never Lie...or Do They?

We, as people, like facts. We like the certainty of knowing that what we claim to be true is, in fact, the truth. We like the validation of knowing that the numbers are behind us, and that we are ineffable, because statistical proof is behind us.

The problem is, we aren’t getting data nearly as rock-solid as we think. As a matter of fact, most of the information we take in is skewed, portraying a picture with just enough of the puzzle missing to leave us profoundly lost.

Worst of all, we don’t even know it’s happening. Statistics are shared on a daily, even hourly basis that, without the proper framing, can lead to total catastrophe. The biggest challenge is that the numbers actually DO pan out. The Emory University football team is technically undefeated. That is a fact. The problem is, you aren’t going to necessarily have the information that they are also un-victorious (Emory, you see, doesn’t have a football team).

This is why it is so dangerous for all of the “news” information to be deciminated to an often ignorant public without some context.

Here is an example from this past week: A news article, found on the Washington Post website,shares a study conducted that looks at jogging information taken from the Runkeeper cycling app. The app takes the data from the running routes of users and sets them onto maps of 10 major US cities, as well as a few international selections, to look at where the most popular jogging routes are in major metropolitan areas. This data we can safely say is factual. These maps accurately reflect where people are jogging, according to the application's data.

The article, though, goes on to make a claim. The maps of popular jogging routes appears, according to the Washington Post, to correspond with generally more affluent neighborhoods. There is more tracking in areas where residents are wealthier. The article goes so far as to say “These results are to be expected. People who can afford to do so tend to prefer living near parks and rivers, where runners also like to run.”

The hip, contemporary news outlet Mic attempted to take this information and prove exactly why there is a link between jogging and a financial gap. Because of the lack of running in those areas, there must be a growing obesity problem in America, and it has to be based in the most financially unstable parts of our country. That is, after all, what the data suggests. Right?

Not exactly. What the data suggests is that, those who are using the app tend to run in more affluent areas. That doesn’t take into account that most (if not all) who suffer from financial hardship can’t afford apps on their non-existent smartphones. It doesn’t take into account that only those using this specific app are being taken into account. It doesn’t take into account that the poor could be obese or starving. There is plenty of information here that we simply don’t know.

Another example, also found in the Washington Post, looks at the number of African American friends white people have. The article looks at a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, which studied the average number of friends a person has based on racial identification. The findings were that white people tend to have 91% white friends and only 1% each of a  few other racial identification. African Americans, on the other hand, have, on average, 83% black friends, 8% white friends, and a small numbers of others to round out the other 9 percent. The article goes on to look at the fact that, because of this data, most racial conversations are done with homogeneous groups of people. What could be wrong with that?

Well, at first glance, nothing at all. On second inspection, though, the article fails to take into account that only about 14% of America is African American. Literally, there are fewer black people to know. This doesn’t inherently make the data unusable, it just gives a reader pause.

In each of these examples, the information isn’t wrong. In fact, there is statistical back-up for the claims. But, in reality, the data requires a reader to do some critical thinking and analysis as to how this can be used most accurately in a global context. This information is, of course, not just found in the Washington Post. News outlets everywhere are giving “facts” without all of the context or framing necessary to paint a clear picture.

Is poverty challenging our world? Certainly. Are there issues with obesity in impoverished areas? It is definitely possible. Are there differences in the ways African Americans and White Americans interact in social groups? Sure. But we can’t necessarily run to conclusions about what that really means without first taking a good hard look at how all of the pieces fit together.

People are attempting to diagnose what is wrong with our society. Are there challenges? Most definitely.  And there are some things that need our immediate attention. We can do more, do better if we are more accurate in our assessments of what is truly going on and, thus, what we can do to make things better.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

August 24th: Our Biggest Problem

I feel like every blog I write starts with “I saw on Facebook.”

The truth is, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other forms of new media are the ways that people share what is important to them. It is an open forum that allows people to not only put out thoughts, opinions, and feelings, but gives their friends the chance to weigh in, to validate those experiences.

This week, it has been fascinating and downright upsetting to see how the world is falling apart. There are riots going on in Missouri, people being shot because someone was shot (yes, it makes sense for violence to lead to more violence). There are bombs being thrown every hour in the Middle East, with Israel defending itself from terrorist strikes. There are people dunking water on their heads, hoping to raise awareness and money for a disease that is ruining lives across the country and the world.

Yet, the story that most baffles me is the one that popped up less than 24 hours after Taylor Swift released her newest music video. People began to argue with Taylor. Yes, you read that right. With the world crashing down around us, there were those who insisted that Taylor Swift was one of the major global problems in need of immediate attention.

Here’s the background information. Taylor’s new video, “Shake It Off,” was released on Monday. The video shows the country-pop star singing as she attempts (rather unsuccessfully) to dance alongside many different kinds of dance. She is a ballerina in one shot, a modern dancer in another, and a hip-hop/rap star in another. The lyrics of the song, which talk about how she doesn’t let what people say about to her get to her, embody “shaking off” the bad things, and focusing on just being you.

Who could have a problem with a role model like Taylor singing about being one’s self, loving one’s self, and owning it with flare? A whole lot of people, apparently.

Within 24 hours, the internet was abuzz with people clamoring to call out Swift’s horrific example of cultural appropriation. She, in her wickedly offensive, and clearly hateful video, goes so far as to wear a flat brim hat, walk around in a letterman jacket with a hood, wear basketball shoes, and, get this, have a boom-box on her shoulder. She even allowed women to twerk! How dare she?!

Here’s the question, though. What could she have done that WOULDN’T have caused a stir? If she had put together this video, with cultural appropriation issues in mind, and left off the scenes with rap and hip hop themed outfits and dance moves, she would have been destroyed by the same people for not giving those genres fair attention, which clearly is an example of racism. Doing what she did, we clearly see she got accused of “perpetuating a black stereotype.”

Even twerking, which has been a major part of pop-culture, has a place in this video, especially in the fun and playful way Swift attempts to understand the dance craze. If she had ignored twerking, she would be accused of being a goody-two-shoes, too prude to understand the world she’s living in. As it is, she’s a raging racist who needs to be brought to justice.

Let’s be real, though. She isn’t perpetuating a black stereotype. She is perpetuating a hip-hop stereotype. Is hip-hop a predominantly black cultural piece? Sure. But is it a stereotype of all black people? Not even a little bit.

The most challenging part about this is the lunacy of the meaning of the song, in context with the criticism. One critic who has received a lot of attention for his comments is rapper Earl Sweatshirt (yes, that is his name). In his blast of Taylor’s video, he admits to NOT HAVING EVEN WATCHED IT. Seriously, Mr. Sweatshirt? Your quote: “haven't watched the taylor swift video and I don't need to watch it to tell you that it's inherently offensive and ultimately harmful.” The only thing inherently offensive and ultimately harmful about this situation is your desire to argue about something’s value without even educating yourself on the matter.

This video is about finding yourself, about dancing to whatever type of music is in your heart. It is about not taking yourself too seriously and not getting wrapped up in what other people say about you.

The world is a screwed up place right now. There are a lot of good causes, good fights to stand up for. This fight, though, is a petty argument, meant only to take advantage of a girl who is making the music she loves.

One of my favorite TV shows, the Newsroom, handles this best. When Will, the main character, is overwhelmed by the craziness in the world, he goes to bail one of his co-workers out of jail after his wrongful arrest for participating in a peaceful protest. Video here.

At the 1:49 mark, you see Will explode a little bit. He declares “So obviously, what I’m doing is dealing with the easiest one!”

People here are dealing with an easy thing. A young girl who doesn’t really have the ability to bite back. Our biggest problem isn't a music video. It is the world's refusal to learn how to pick our battles. Grow up, people, and learn to pick the right fight.

If you would like to argue about it, go watch the video. It’s posted above.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

August 17th: Ice in My Veins (And on my head)

As I begin my working career in the post-college world, I am beginning to think about the necessity for charitable work with my pay. Once a month, I will be making a donation from my salary, and will be blogging about the places that the money goes, in an attempt to not only hold myself accountable, but also provide awareness and education on some very important works. This serves as the first.

How long does it take to get the world’s attention? Apparently, 10 weeks will do the trick.

There isn’t necessarily a secret formula. Audio-visual aids help. An element of humor is great. A world-renowned celebrity endorsement can’t hurt.

It is no surprise, then, that the entire world has been paying attention to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. At the beginning of the summer, we saw a few people jumping into bodies of cold water. It was funny, it was intriguing, but it only went so far. As far as I knew, there was no organizational sponsor; the donation that accompanied rejecting the challenge was to any charity of your choice. I suppose, if there was organization to it, and I didn’t know about it, then it wasn’t working anyway.

That all changed a few weeks ago. There was a moment of focusing of the campaign, an attempt to centralize the fun and human interest intrigue, while maintaining the viral videos that made the “cold water challenge” successful.

What resulted was a full-scale social media coup. Everyone was participating. Literally everyone. A look at your Facebook news feed stopped including links to articles, pictures of family vacations, and rants. There seemed to only be an endless loop of videos of people dunking themselves in water.

The reason that “Ice Bucket challenge” took off so much more enthusiastically than the “Cold Water Challenge” was because of the element of focus associated with a cause. By donating money specifically to the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association, participants were able to band together around making a difference for people struggling with a terrible disease. Did it matter what the cause was? Probably not. But off it took.

ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, is a neurological disease that slowly destroys the motor neurons leading between the brain and spinal cord, eventually leading to loss of muscle movement. Every year, 6,000 Americans are diagnosed with ALS. Every year, those diagnosed are living longer. Which is where the ice buckets come in.

By making a video of yourself dumping ice water on your head, you are spreading awareness for a terrible disease that has the power to destroy families. But, with the help of an accompanying donation, we have the power to make a much larger impact on working toward a cure.

Celebrities like LeBron James, Oprah, the New England Patriots, and even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have all submitted themselves to the fad. President Barack Obama was nominated, but chose to make a donation, rather than submit to the icy blast, which does just as much good (if not more).

Critics of the challenge are growing irritated by the growing number of videos bombarding their walls. They are understandably frustrated by the action that doesn’t inherently represent any kind of good for others. “Awareness” doesn’t actually help anyone, unless action comes with it. We are a generation of slack-tevism, rather than true activism.

But we are aware. ALS has our attention, and our dollars. It has our time and our commitment. We are doing what we can, and making a positive difference in doing it. In the past two and a half weeks, the ALSA has received $11.4 million in donations, as compared to $1.7 million during the same period a year ago. THAT is exactly what making a difference looks like.

The world is a pretty screwed up place. Missiles fly back and forth between Israel and Gaza. Air strikes in Iraq put the American government in another conflict. American politics at home aren’t pretty. Yet, amidst all of this horror, we have the opportunity to go outside, dump some water on our heads, and take our attention to making the lives of our fellow humans better. There are a lot of issues that we don’t have the power to fix. In this case, though, we at least have the ability to help.

Monday, August 4, 2014

August 4th: Long Road to Peace

In the seven weeks since I went to camp, the world seems to have broken. Thousands of rockets have been hurtling back and forth between Israel and the Gaza strip, and everyone wants to know why.

There is a boiling point for everyone. Mine came as I read what must have been the hundredth article about “picking sides.” I finally hit the point where I could no longer sit quietly and take in all of the information and “facts” that have been given out by the media and the public at large.

The first “fact” that I can’t possibly tolerate is the fallacy that this is a conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Is there conflict between these two groups in Israel? Sure. But this isn’t it. This is a conflict between Israel and Hamas, a terrorist organization. While many describe themselves as ‘pro-palestinian,’ no rational people would identify as pro-Hamas. Hamas is single-mindedly looking to destroy, to wreak havoc, and to kill and maim as many innocent people as possible to push their agenda. Let’s not confuse that for a government seeking recognition or a people looking for rights. These people want death and destruction. Nothing more.

This is paramount in understanding the most inappropriate statistic that is being shared on a daily basis by nearly every news outlet in this country: the death tolls of the two sides. The number of Arabs killed during this period of conflict is measured in the thousands. The number of murdered Israelis is in the 50s. Does this mean that Israel is doing more to hurt others? Does this make Israel the less humane participant?

Not in the slightest. The death toll, as a raw statistic, fails to carry the weight of knowing that Israel has done everything possible to protect it’s own citizens (as well as, in most cases, the innocent in Gaza), while Hamas has done everything in it’s power to use the innocents of Gaza as shields, as tools to manipulate the media hailstorm that is raining down on Israel.

Israel has gone so far as to drop leaflets, send “dummy” rockets, and even go out into Gaza to help warn innocent citizens about impending attacks. Israel has done everything reasonable to save innocent lives. The ruling powers of Hamas, however, have prevented these aids from getting through, and thus put people’s lives further at risk.

This, more than ever I’ve ever seen before, is a war being fought in the news just as much as it is in the Middle East. One of the challenges, though, is that we don’t even know what is real. Multiple times, powerful speeches have been “given” by world leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that have been proven to be a hoax. Even comedians like Dennis Miller have been credited with making bold statements that are, for lack of a better term, fan fiction.

With all of this mis-information, Americans have an incredible challenge on their hands. On one side, we have a country that has served as our primary ally for years, a country that both our government and theirs has spoken about as a partnership of good-faith. On another level, we are being fed information that suggests that Israel is oppressing, abusing, and killing innocent people on a daily basis.

Let’s get one thing straight, though. The double standard that the world sets on Israel has to stop. Hamas, as a terrorist organization, does not deserve the same rights that any nation would enjoy, despite the many opportunities for them to be treated better than they deserve. You see, every cease-fire Israel has offered has been greeted by a maelstrom of rockets. No other country in the world would stand for that. No other country would be asked to. If so much as a thrown rock were to land in America, the culprit would have hell to pay. Yet, Israel is asked to demonstrate patience, even to share their technology with Hamas. Israel has been chastised for having a low death rate.

There is so much that makes up this conflict. There is more than any one of us will ever understand. But the biggest tragedy of all is the need to pick sides. This ridiculous notion that it is even possible to decide who is “more right” in a death match is what proves just how far away we are from peace.

When my family went to synagogue this past Friday night, we prayed for peace. We prayed for the safety of all of those involved in the situation. We said the Mi Shebeirach, the prayer for healing, for all of those who have been injured. We said the Kaddish, the prayer of mourning, for all of those who have died. This was not solely for the Israelis or for the Jews. This was for all people. We prayed, at it’s purest form, for peace.

May it be God’s will, that peace not be far from our grasp.

Monday, June 9, 2014

"The Medium is the Message"

There are people in your life who you cannot live without. Those are easy to understand. The far more difficult to place within the context of your own life are the ones who make such a subtle, yet profound impact. In many cases, you might not even realize they are there until they’re gone.

I was a senior in high school, looking for an English credit when I signed up for Media Analysis. I wasn’t particularly passionate about the class. It just sounded interesting.

It didn’t take long, though, for the teacher to prove his incredible passion and enthusiasm for the media. He would say, on an almost daily basis, “the medium is the message.” It wasn’t until years later that I found out that, no, in fact, my 12th grade media teacher had not coined that phrase. For all I knew, he was a visionary.

I was right. He was revolutionary in the way he was able to convey his teaching to young people. It was like he spoke our language. He took an interest. He asked the football players about their games. He checked in about our lives. He even helped one boy ask a girl to homecoming. In the middle of class. As a student journalist, I always knew which office I could go to if I needed a really brilliant quote or even to bounce an idea around. There were some teachers who had to “fit me in” to their busy schedules. I never felt that way with the man who so excitedly would share his ideas about the way media can impact our lives.

What had been, in August, an academic whim, turned into a pretty deep passion for the media by December. I didn’t know it yet, but I would, three years later, get a college degree in Telecommunications, with a focus in “Media and Society.” The enthusiasm and dedication to learning was so contagious in Doug Koski’s class, it changed my educational pursuits.

It was, then, with great shock, that I found out that Mr. Koski passed away last week. I hadn’t known he was ill. I hadn’t spoken to the man in three years. Yet, as my mother shared with me one of her usual, seemingly random tidbits of news, I could feel the impact that this man had on my life.

This was a man whose simple job had become extraordinary. We’ve all had teachers, many of them very good. This great one, though, epitomized what every educator hopes to become: an inspiration to his students.

Even more so, the piece that strikes me as particularly meaningful is that this wasn’t just any inspirational teacher: it was my media analysis teacher. His message was about how media impacts our lives, influences our decisions, changes the way we think. He taught us how to take the raw information that the media was giving us and look for the angles, look for the reasoning. How profound it is, then, that the man who taught me so much about media analysis is continuing to teach me about life in far more meaningful and, in some ways, mysterious ways.

“The medium is the message.” Doug Koski taught me that, repeating it at an almost daily rate. Now, as I sit here thinking about the man who shared his enthusiasm for media with me, I can’t help but think about how his teaching was the medium for one very important message.

May his memory be for a blessing.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What Can "Most Men" Do?

Social media has, since it’s very beginnings, been a vehicle for social change. This is, after all, the origins of this blog.

This concept reared its head when, after the shooting two weeks ago at UC-Santa Barbara, a group of men went to defend themselves on Twitter. They used the hashtag #NotAllMen, representing the sentiment that it isn’t a universal rule that men feel hate or rage toward women. The meaning was well-intentioned. It just didn’t go quite as these men had planned.

In response, the hashtag #YesAllWomen took off, and caught fire. The tweets center around calling into the spotlight the many ways that women feel oppressed or overlooked in society.

Two of the tweets I found online were particularly disturbing to me. The first was tweeted by an unknown account. It stated “#yesallwomen because “I have a boyfriend” is more likely to get a guy to back off than “no”, because they respect other men more than women.” Having never thought if this situation that way, this was a troubling observation. The behavior of these men demonstrates that they are only interested in the woman’s availability, rather than her decision-making. This devaluation is so subtle that most wouldn’t even consider it, but, when called out so bluntly, it is uncomfortably accurate.

The second tweet was one by actress and director Sophia Bush, who tweeted “I shouldn’t have to hold my car keys in hand like a weapon & check over my shoulder every few seconds when I walk at night #YesAllWomen”. This took me for a loop. The feeling of such fear that simple tasks, like walking home at night, can illicit is something that I, as a man, have never really experienced. I worked at a sporting goods store that sold pepper spray in a college town. I knew we sold almost two or three cans per day. I never really thought about why. Was that ignorant of me? Perhaps. Was it maliciously ignorant of me? Of course not. But that is exactly the point of the hashtag.

Here is the most frightening part: this sense of fear is a learned trait. Mothers teach their daughters that they need to be afraid. Young girls learn so early that the world is a scary place, and they need to be prepared to protect themselves. I’m not saying that this isn’t true or necessary, but there is a certain part of me that asks the question: at what point do we create fear, rather than actually experience it? It this sense of danger actually perpetuating danger, rather than supporting security? We don’t really have an answer, and we aren’t at a point in society where we can really test the theory. All we know is that the number of women living in fear is too high, and we need to do something about it.

That being said, we know the origins of this situation come from men trying to say that not all males are looking to take advantage of women. Not all men are violent, not all men are hateful, not all men are chauvinistic. Yet all women feel the effects of these terrible experiences.

The really big, scary, tough part of all of this is what do we do. How can we fix this? How am I, as a man, supposed to help, if my behavior is already demonstrating the kind of values society is striving for? Of course, nobody has it perfect, and any man can learn how to be even more caring and respectful, but what are the men who are overall good people supposed to do to help?

The biggest danger of social media campaigns like this one is the precarious line between calling out a problem and shaming an entire group of people. The even tougher part is that, in this particular case, there is a lot of preaching to the choir. Those who are most likely to see, understand, and internalize these comments are actually the ones who are already behaving in respectful, thoughtful ways. We, as both men and women, need to begin to consider what can be done by the allies, the caring fathers, the loving boyfriends, the good guys, to help make the need for that deeply ingrained fear go away.