Monthly Archives: April 2009

Twitter, Tolkien and talk

“What do they call people who use Twitter – twits?” That’s my sister, the social media Luddite, talking. The video below is probably something she would enjoy (I found a link to it via, um, Twitter):

Funny – though it does repeat the misconception people who use social media somehow “don’t have friends,” when the majority of people who use it are probably using it to keep in touch with existing friends and acquaintances. As for social media representing a fantasy escape from “real relationships,” ironically this skit ends with the two guys falling back down to “the real world”… which is nothing but their boring, sterile work cubicles. If that’s all there is to real life and real relationships – the straightjacketed “reality” ultimately defined by the corporations that employ us — well, no wonder people are hungering for such flights of fancy.

But it’s also true that some people use Twitter as a virtual stream of consciousness, and it can be exhausting. Have you ever thought about how much space we feel the need to fill up with reports about the course that society has planned for us? This isn’t limited to social media. Advertising, talk radio, and news are blared at us 24/7. Even coffeeklatsch chitchat about weekend errands, engagements, weddings, pregnancies, vacations… it’s the “stuff of life,” true, and social glue – but it’s everywhere. Even church services have become more enculturated – after mass, we seemingly can’t wait to return to the normal talkstream in the vestibule, or at the apres-church Sunday picnic. We have less and less actual space for divine silence in our lives.

Last Sunday I went to the second annual local International Tolkien Reading Day, which was held this year at the Eastwood Palace in the “upper room.” Last year, it was held at a cafe in the Valley, which I at first thought was a more congenial public spot for this kind of thing than the Palace. It turns out that the Palace venue worked well too. The event was a straight-through reading of The Hobbit (probably good that you don’t try that in a cafe). I didn’t make it nearly that far, but a handful of hardy souls did. For hours and hours they did nothing but read fiction aloud. The audacious eventual goal with the Tolkien day reading project is to one day read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy straight through, which would take days if they went nonstop.

Some people see a straight-through public reading as a cool thing to do, an achievement of endurance and focus – which it would be. But also, imagine days of this kind of breathing room hacked into the teeming sociality of our lives. Days during which there could be no chitchat about whatever it is that we all chat about. Reading silently to oneself is subversive — but so is a public reading, during which voices are focused completely on something other than the world we’re expected to constantly uphold, promote and amplify with our talk. That would be getting closer to the silence that has been missing.

Binghamton: Hitting us where we live

I watched and read the news yesterday about the rampage shooting, and along with the horror of watching the death toll go up, there was the sorrow that this was such a terrible way for the world to hear about Binghamton. It should not have happened this way.

I also watched the afternoon press conference, a little annoyed at the politicians’ statements when I wanted to hear facts from law enforcement. However, I’m told that Gov. Paterson gave a more than decent speech. And since facts (about the victims, about the shooter, etc) are still slow in coming, I admit my mind has started slipping toward thoughts about political implications, especially as I read raging new debates on forums about gun control and the NRA. (For the record, I think we need some form of gun control, but barring that, I’ll take a real conversation without extreme posturing.)

Reading the pro- and anti-NRA standoffs in the forums yesterday, it suddenly hit me that the vast majority (if not all) of large scale rampage shootings in America have happened everywhere but the Northeast. Any local citizen outrage over the availability of guns is usually deflected not just by a “gun culture” (rural NY has that too), but particularly by political structures of long standing that the NRA influences very adroitly. But New York is a different political landscape: much more diverse, more heterogeneous and more fluid. A landscape that the NRA is untried in defending, and the state has a very powerful media machine. We’ve never really seen what would happen if gun control suddenly became a front-and-center issue of debate throughout upstate New York State. Crime-related urban violence has been “ignorable” for too long, but something like this is hard for even the complacent to ignore.

And then there are the people who died, and what they died doing. This could have happened in any immigrant assistance center anywhere in the state. But I have to think that this story must hit many New York City readers where they live, more than they are used to when it comes to news items from distant Upstate. New York City is, after all, the “city of immigrants.”

Are we really One New York, after all?

It is unfortunate that President Obama is in Europe right now. It seems to me that the shooting in Binghamton represents America’s highest aspirations being laid low by everything wrong and out of control about America. This tragedy nightmarishly reflects the themes of his presidential campaign. We urgently need someone to make the right connections, and to get past the tired and destructive political dynamics surrounding the gun control issue (both liberal and conservative tiredness, since we should be wary of trashing the 2nd Amendment).

All along the watchtower

Surveillance towers planned for Detroit, Buffalo

The U.S. Border Patrol is erecting 16 more video surveillance towers in Michigan and New York to help secure parts of the U.S.-Canadian border, awarding the contract to a company criticized for faulty technology with its so-called “virtual fence” along the U.S.-Mexico boundary. The government awarded the $20 million project to Boeing Co., for the towers designed to assist agents stationed along the 4,000-mile northern stretch. Eleven of the towers are being installed in Detroit and five in Buffalo, N.Y., to help monitor water traffic between Canada and the United States along Lake St. Clair and the Niagara River.

You know, if the government had just gone through with that plan to turn the Great Lakes into a Coast Guard “free fire zone,” they wouldn’t have needed to spend all this money on surveillance.