An Appetite for Propaganda

When I taught educational psychology to prospective teachers, I told them about something called “confirmation bias,” a problem they might run into if they taught high school students. Young adults can dislike having to learn new or different information.  They’d rather default to existing belief systems and confirm long-held biases as opposed to changing the way they think. Adults can also be subject to confirmation bias.  Many years ago in my role as a high school debate coach I had a parent approach me with a deep need to confirm his particular biases.  He said he didn’t want his son debating the opposite side of the beliefs he’d been taught at home.

“Why?” I asked him, thinking it strange that this man allowed his son to take a debate class if he wasn’t interested in having him learn all sides of any given argument.

“Because I don’t want his head filled with crazy ideas. I just want my son to learn better ways to defend our side of the story.”

I was not surprised when his son made certain inflammatory statements about minorities in my class, mimicking something reportedly said by a notorious commentator on Fox News. I’d watched some Fox News, channel surfing, but was always sensitive to their one-sided handling of various political issues. There are progressive news programs on television that have this same problem.  Info-tainment is news designed to make people feel good by telling them what they want to hear. Viewers inevitably find themselves smugly justified in their thinking.

Confirming our biases by only consuming media supportive of our values and beliefs can be problematic though.  Our vision of reality becomes disabled and distorted.  I remember reading back in 2012 how shocked Fox news viewers were to realize Mitt Romney had lost the election to Barack Obama.  It wasn’t supposed to happen.  News pundits on Fox had assured their Republican audience that Romney would win.  Democrats were just as stunned in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected.  I listened to the progressive film maker and political activist Michael Moore explain how people can develop misconceptions about political realities when they surround themselves with an echo chamber: they only hear voices like their own, repeatedly bouncing back to them.  Moore went on to warn that Trump was likely to win, that there was a deep stretch in the Midwest peopled with displaced manufacturing workers and their families who were gunning to vote for Trump.

Political propaganda used to be considered undesirable and something only dictators employed to manipulate thinking and enact their agenda.

Russians living in the Soviet Union during the Cold War did not have the luxury or freedom to change the channel and move away from bias.  They were stuck with “fake news.”  It’s shocking today to realize that despite our free press and the abundance of news sources available to cross-check for accuracy, we still have a sizable segment of our population willfully addicted to what is essentially broadcast propaganda.  Instead of an appetite for propaganda, we need to develop an appetite for truth.  Even if that truth is sometimes hard to hear: that for example, special prosecutor Robert Mueller found no evidence President Trump colluded with Russia to get elected.  But the full truth can be complicated, going many different directions: that for example, there is evidence the president attempted to obstruct justice.  We want the truth to be simple and reflect what we think.  But it rarely does.

Image Credit: Fox News

To Fly or Not to Fly

When I read the tragic news about another crash of a Boeing Max 737 jetliner, this time in Ethiopia, and how the pilots fought the programming and the automatic controls to keep the plane in the air, I remembered a sci-fi movie I watched about a coming war between man and machines.  This movie might have been a “flight” of some screen writer’s imagination except that the imminent astrophysicist Stephen Hawking worried about the peril of intelligent machines. Hawking believed AI or artificial intelligence had the potential to threaten mankind.  Still, I doubt he ever considered malevolent autopilots becoming a problem.

Nervous flyers might be hesitant to fly after hearing about the Max 737 crashes.  I get it.  I’m not a fan of flying either.  I’ve fought irrational fears of flying for several years.  In fact, one time I boarded a one-hour flight to Portland, Oregon, and in a martini fog (acquired at the airport bar trying to bolster my courage) I staggered up from my aisle seat and blew alcohol fumes into the stewardess’s face when I begged, “Miz?  Hey miz?  I wanna get off the plane.  Can I?  Pleeze?”

There are other, more rational reasons to reconsider flying as your form of transportation, which have nothing to do with machines running amok or phobias.  According to Sciencefocus.com the amount of CO2 spewed by one jumbo jet traveling a distance of 400 miles is the same as 336 cars driving that same distance.

So, the approximately 20,000 flights taking place daily across our planet emit a tremendous amount of destructive greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

That’s why, despite having largely conquered my flying phobia, I decided on a recent trip to New York City to fly one way—and take the train home.

I felt very good about taking the train back from NYC—noble even. After all, rail transportation accounts for only 2% of total transportation greenhouse gases.  I could rest easy riding the rails—and I did.  I took numerous naps in my deluxe sleeper, lulled by the gentle rocking of the train on the tracks.  Due to the research I’d done I knew taking the train meant my carbon “shoe” was a modest size 2 instead of a clown flipper size 14.  I was relaxed until our train slowed down coming into the Philadelphia rail yard.  Then I blinked my eyelids open and gazed out the window to see dozens of CSX rail cars loaded with coal.

The thing about taking a train is that you share tracks and rail yards with other trains, especially freight trains.  Coal is primarily moved by freight trains.  For some reason, pure black carbon in the form of coal seems much more threatening to me than the nebulous greenhouse gases blown out of a jumbo jet.  Our train passed one coal car after another in Pittsburg, Chicago, Omaha, Denver, and Salt Lake.  I finally stopped seeing coal cars when the train dropped me off in the middle of the night at a lonely passenger shelter in Elko, Nevada.

Traveling green can be challenging no matter what form of transportation you choose to take.

The good news about flying is, there are ways to go greener. Check the airplane statistics when you book.  Many jets now use biofuels.  Also, most major airlines offer carbon credits you can purchase to support various green initiatives.  Of course, if you really want to lessen your carbon footprint, nothing beats staying home.  But then you’d miss out on a chance to see the Statue of Liberty and who wants to do that?

image credit: airplane

Sex and Power

Last night I watched The Favourite, a drama based on actual historical occurrences, and one of the movies nominated for best picture in the Oscar race this year.  It was, on the surface, a weird film. The weirdness had to do with: the fantastical costumes of the 17th century, (men in long, curly wigs with red beauty patches on their cheeks); the recreation of Lordly aristocrats (they seemed to enjoy pummeling a bewigged nude man with apples); and an instance of ballroom dancing (whereby a Lord twirled his partner around his waist aka Dancing with the Stars and then proceeded to crawdad-walk the length of the ballroom).  The fascination of the film though was its theme:  the limits of sex to gain power or to comfort.

Every advertiser knows the power of sex:  sex sells.  You may be reading this blog because you saw the word “sex” in the title.

Frankly, when I was a much younger woman, I, like many women, used my sex appeal to influence.

As a twenty-something living on an isolated desert farm, I dreamed of becoming a journalist and writing for a newspaper.  Without any experience or education in journalism, I wrote seven newspaper columns about a city girl’s life on the farm.  When I marched into the newsroom of our local newspaper with my columns in hand, I had on my prettiest dress and most charming smile. The city news desk editor took notice (I could tell).  He may have liked what I wrote, but I also think he was influenced by what he saw.  A week later I got a call telling me the newspaper was interested in publishing my work.

In the movie, The Favourite, Queen Anne of Great Britain is horribly depressed.  She’s lost her husband and endured 17 failed pregnancies. What is a queen’s value in the 1700’s if not to produce an heir (or even, in Great Britain today—consider how overjoyed everyone is that Prince William’s wife, Kate Middleton, has been reliably fertile).

Queen Anne is easy pickings for the machinations of her assistant, Lady Sarah, and her chamber maid, Abigail, who both vie for Anne’s favor in the hope of gaining power.  They coddle Anne and respond to her every whim, including providing sex.  Ironically, considering Anne’s barren condition, sex appears to be the most effective manipulation.

I was both fascinated and repulsed watching Queen Anne try to comfort herself by eating cake until she vomited into the vomit bucket, or quietly sob as she participated in yet another meaningless sexual experience.

It was like watching someone with an appendix attack try to staunch the pain by riding a roller coaster.  Thrills are not going to solve Anne’s problem.  Sadly, in the film Queen Anne never overcomes her depression, and the aristocratic women prostituting themselves for her end up trapped in that role.  Here’s a movie (or a piece of history) I would gladly rewrite.  In my ending Queen Anne would find something she obviously and desperately needed: a genuine friend.  This person would ask nothing of her—and give nothing to her—except real love.  I’d call it a fairy-tale ending.

Image credit:  The Favourite

Surviving Donner Pass

“Chain up!” That’s what the large, electronic message board said at the side of the highway. My eighty-five-year-old mother and I were sitting in my little blue Prius at the base of Donner Pass west of Reno, Nevada. Outside our car, snow blew around a long line of semis parked with us along the highway shoulder. In the distance, dark silhouetted truckers scurried like giant ants throwing chains over their duals, anxious to be on their way.

“Mom, do you know anything about putting chains on tires?”

She looked at me horrified—and I shrugged. It was an old habit, asking mom for help. Back in Reno, I didn’t get any direction from the Les Schwab tire guy about how to do it. When I went to the store counter I noticed his name tag said, “Hunter.”

“I don’t know if we have any chains left, but I’ll check in the back. End of season you know,” Hunter commented.

“Are you sure you want to go over Donner tonight? Looks pretty bad out there,” he glanced out the big front windows at the swirling snow.

Yes we were going over Donner tonight. I thought about how excited mom and I both were to see my daughter and her granddaughter waiting for us on the other side of the mountain in our San Francisco hotel room. Besides, we were staying at the downtown Hyatt Regency in a room that the reservation clerk told me normally went for $923-a-night. Tonight they’d sell me that room at a steal—$250—since I was attending a two-day conference there. If nothing else, we’d brave the weather just to see whether our hotel beds were gold-plated.

“Hunter?” I smiled sweetly, “Would you mind . . . I mean could you put the chains on our tires?”

He was typing out my order and never looked up. “Um, you don’t want to put them on now. Wait until you get to the base of the mountain. They’re easy to hook up (my smile faded). Usually there’s a guy at the bottom of Donner you can pay thirty bucks to chain you up.”

In the car now, peering through the blowing snow, I wondered what we’d do if I couldn’t find the guy Hunter told us about. Then I saw him. He was covered head to foot in a fluorescent yellow snowsuit.

“Turn your tires to the left. FAR LEFT!” the chain-up guy shouted multiple times to me as I tried to hear him through my cracked window. “Now right. FAR RIGHT! (This was easy?—I don’t think so Hunter). Okay,” he tapped my hood, “You young ladies are good to go. Be careful up there! It’ll be dark by the time you get to the pass.”

Here’s what I learned about driving with chains on your tires: it’s like driving on marbles.

Even though chains are supposed to prevent sliding, driving at the top of Donner’s 7,000 foot pass still felt like skidding across ice cubes.

Mom chatted along as I gripped the steering wheel, our speed topping out at a formidable 25-miles-an-hour. Then a strange thing happened. Somewhere past Truckee the snow stopped and the night sky suddenly cleared.

“Oh,” mom gasped, “it’s so beautiful. Look! The moon’s out.”

The road was virtually empty except for our Prius and several dozen semi’s, but the landscape was fairy tale-like, flocked in snow under the pale moonlight. I felt a moment of awe and my fingers loosened on the steering wheel.
The descent on the other side was steep and quick and happily the snow soon turned to rain. I worked to keep our shackled tires to the recommended 35-miles-an-hour until I could bribe someone to take the chains off at a quickie-mart.

“Thanks for this adventure,” mom said smiling at me as we whizzed along the interstate now free of our chains. I realized then it really had been an adventure—and I was glad I could have one more of those with my mom.

A True Idahoan

I was reading about the lineup of candidates running for president in 2020. The Vanity Fair article said that though Beto O’Rourke lived for a time in New York City, he would always be a Texan. I don’t know what that means. Did he “howdy” his way into performances at the Met? Did he walk the streets of Broadway wearing snakeskin boots and a rodeo belt buckle? When Donald Trump first ran for office in 2016 comedian Rosie O’Donnell commented on Trump’s combative style: “He’s from Queen’s. What do you expect?” Apparently, people from the New York borough of Queens like to get into fights.

If an Idahoan ran for president, would it be apparent he’s from Idaho? How would an Idahoan be viewed in the political spotlight?

George Hansen became the unfortunate political face of Idaho for a brief time back in 1979. The country of Iran had just become our enemy and took several Americans working there, hostage. Into this international fray steps Hansen, one of two representatives from Idaho to congress. Hansen said he went to Iran to solve the hostage crisis. I remember seeing news footage of Hansen, a big, beefy man in a dark blue suit and tie, incongruously towering over crowds of angry Persians. The ABC news anchor voiced over this televised footage commenting that Hansen was acting as a lone wolf in Iran and did not have state department support or approval. The clear implication: Idaho Representative George Hansen thought he knew more than the rest of the federal government about how to resolve an international problem.

“No!” I shouted at the television (I was a young woman then and more prone to yell or throw things at the TV). Hansen did not represent me and other Idahoans I knew. Maybe he was a caricature of something Idahoan, people who like to think for themselves and act independently, but it was a cartoon caricature.

If I were to choose a figure in Idaho history to nominate as a representative Idahoan, I’d probably nominate Grace Jordan.

Jordan gained the national spotlight briefly as the wife of former Governor and Senator, Len Jordan. She’s remembered more today for her classic autobiography of homesteading a run-down sheep ranch in Hell’s Canyon during the Great Depression. In that book, Home Below Hell’s Canyon, she chronicles canning peaches, making soap, and teaching her children to read and write. What stands out in her story is her good cheer, stamina, and courage through a difficult time. And though Jordan supported her husband’s political ambitions, she also managed to carve out her own career as a writer and author.

Idaho has changed greatly since George Hansen and Grace Jordan. We now have a much broader demographic including refugees from other countries, transplanted Californians, and an expanding Mexican-American population. I’d be hard-pressed to define a specific kind of Idaho character today. The old slogan about our state: “Idaho is what America was,” is less relevant. Idaho is slowly becoming America: a mishmash of many different cultures, each making their own rich and distinctive contribution. And that’s a good thing.

Freedom is Coming

I was looking over the produce selection at the supermarket yesterday and I found myself whisper-singing: “Freedom is coming, freedom is coming, oh yes I know . . . “ I stopped singing when I caught the eye of the construction guy in coveralls checking out the bananas. I smiled. He smiled. Hopefully, he realized I wasn’t a homeless person looking for attention. He probably said to himself, “Oh that lady’s just got a tune in her head and it won’t let go.” And he’d be right. One of the songs we’re singing in the choir I belong to is: Freedom is Coming.

But I’ve had other songs stuck in my head before. For a few years, at odd moments, like when I was boiling eggs or sorting through my book shelf, I’d hum this weird little melody I didn’t know the name of. It sounded vaguely classical to me, a little like that song Flight of the Bumblebee. The melody builds relentlessly like Bumblebee, toward its last notes. Finally, I approached one of the members of my choir and asked:

“Hey Carolyn, do you know what the name of this song is?” Then I stood in front of Carolyn and hummed it, my eyes wandering up toward the ceiling as I tried to get the pitches just right.

“Oh, that sounds like (she paused thinking)… well, it has something to do with a mountain king–no wait!” she snapped her fingers. “I’ve got it. It’s called In the Hall of the Mountain King. Yes, that’s the title.”

I had to look the title up and make sure this was the song I couldn’t get out of my brain. And indeed, it was In the Hall of the Mountain King, a song composed by Edvard Grieg, a Norwegian composer in 1875. In-the-Hall was the music played in a popular play of the time, Peers Gynt, about a troll king threatening a young man who’d ravaged his daughter. Where in the world did I hear this song before? I certainly have never seen the play, Peers Gynt. Then it hit me. I got hooked on this classical piece of music at the same time I became familiar with most of the classical music I know: Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 1960’s. Not only was I introduced to In the Hall of the Mountain King playing as a background track for Bug’s shenanigans, but I also first heard The William Tell Overture in a cartoon where Bugs was being chased through the forest by the mighty hunter, Elmer Fudd.

Is there a reason certain music catches our attention and erupts out our mouths over and over again as if we were broken bots? Whenever I’m around my mother and we’re driving together in the car both she and I have been known to break out into that old Baptist hymn: Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine. I’m not sure whether it’s the melody or the lyrics of various pieces of music that burrows so deeply into our psyche. But I think I know why I’ve been so stuck on Freedom is Coming the past couple weeks. Not only is it a beautiful, hopeful melody, but I think it has special meaning for our family just now. My 97-year-old father-in-law finally passed away this past week. Unsurprisingly, he’s wanted to die for some time now. He’d been imprisoned in a frail, sick body and it was time to let it go. For Wes, freedom has come—oh yes we know.

Drinking, Stealing, and Lying–Oh My!

Last night I dreamed I stole a can of beer from a gas station convenience store. Let me be clear: I don’t like or drink beer. Maybe I don’t like beer because my father drank enough Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, and Black Label beer to float a boat in Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is after all, a body of water not far from where I grew up in northern Indiana, and very near the Wisconsin breweries where the beer was fermented.

In my dream what made me feel most guilty was not that I’d stolen a can of beer, but the lie I told after that. I tried to explain away my thievery to the gas station owner by saying I wouldn’t have nabbed the beer if the clerk hadn’t refused to give me the diet Coke I’d purchased. The dream gods decided I shouldn’t get away with my lie. There was a video camera mounted in the corner of the store and in my dream I saw my grainy black and white image (I’m not sure if I dream in color—but the video of me was definitely in black and white) stealthily taking a beer—and a beer only—from the cooler. The next scene in my dream was me walking away, scot-free from my crime, out the store and through an attached garage—where several mechanics were working under my baby blue Prius as it was hoisted in the air. Dreams can be notoriously digressive.

Whence cometh these dreams of such perfidy and mendacious behavior? Does my subconscious know something about me that I don’t? At the core am I a thieving, sneaky, liar? The latest theory about dreams is that they don’t actually mean anything, for which I’m eternally grateful considering all the times I’ve dreamed I was standing in the middle of a high school hallway disturbingly naked. Dreams are supposed to be just random thoughts and imagery pulled from the subconscious and pieced together in a story—or not. Some people can’t make any sense of what they dream.

The thing that intrigues me about this theory is that I dreamed about stealing and lying. Why was stealing and lying floating around in my nighttime neural circuitry? I’ve always believed myself to be fairly honest but when I think about it, how honest am I really? Apparently, the average person lies a couple of times a day without even batting an eyelash. It becomes second nature. Some of this is harmless “white lies” or lies by omission. What people say, or don’t say, to get through their day more smoothly. Other lying is more deliberate and destructive. Some of our dishonesty we dismiss with: “Well, that may be true for you—but it’s not true for me.” Relativity and post-modernism birthed an unintended consequence: it gave us all an excuse for lying.

Probably I dreamed about stealing and lying because I’m a news junkie and though all politicians lie, our current president has taken the practice to new levels. Growing up, parents and teachers, adults around me, could shame me when I told a lie. Today, “alternative truth” seems almost fashionable. In fact, I just read that the New Orleans Saints football fans, since their questionable loss to the Los Angeles Rams, have taken to calling the NFL: “alternative truth” football.

I understand some of the president’s supporters dismiss his lies by calling them “puffery”—as in an airy nothingness that doesn’t mean anything really, like the feathery head of a dandelion that once you blow on it, falls apart in the breeze. But the feathery head of a dandelion is full of seeds, seeds that can take root. In our current political climate, alternative facts (or lies) are distributed into our culture in long chains of disinformation like that old party game: Telephone. Lying itself becomes entrenched and validated. There is something jittery-making when our leadership throws truth out the window like a discarded Big Mac box. We’re littering our landscape, our mind with all this refuse. I long for the clean-up crew. I long for a good, dreamless night. When’s the next election?