Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Game of the Rough Beast

This is an open letter.
This is a game.
This is a poem.

To The Editors,
Dear Mr Reporter,
This is my second draft.

First I wrote to The Editors,
Then it was to you.
Now it's a different beast.

A parlour game in your honour.
I tried it out on a friend.
A political junkie, he likes toli.

He said it was rough,
That it needed work.
Bear with me, I'm wrangling with this thing.

I'm a child of the web.
First an adventure in hypertext
Now prose and some poetry.

William Butler Yeats.
Recall what he wrote:
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold"

This is part of a series.
I hope you'll play.
It's about The Second Coming

  1. Cut and Paste
  2. Cause and Effect
  3. The Game of the Rough Beast

Cut and paste

A game for you.
Simple instructions.
A test of comprehension.

Phase 1: Cut

Read the following passage.
It's from the New York Times
Some questions when you are done

In the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, thousands of Palestinians mourned the death of most of the Ghaliya family and wept as Huda Ghaliya, 7, kneeled to kiss her dead father before he, her mother and four siblings were buried. All were killed when the Israeli shell struck the beach where they were having a picnic. Huda had been playing nearby on the beach at the time. On Saturday, she asked mourners, "Please do not leave me alone."

The Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniya of Hamas, who called the incident "a war crime," said he would adopt the girl. Later, Mr. Abbas, who called the incident "a dangerous, horrible, ugly crime against civilians," issued a presidential order adopting her.

The dead included Ali Ghaliya, 49, and his wife, Raisa, 35, and their children Ilham, 15, Sabreen, 7, Hanadi, 1, and Haihsam, 4 months. Mr. Ghaliya's first wife survived, said Ayyam Ghaliya, 20, one of Mr. Ghaliya's surviving children.

Questions (Phase 1)

  • Imagine that you wrote this passage, what title would you use when you submitted the article?
  • Imagine that you were the editor of this newspaper and received this article, what title would you use when you published it?
  • Bonus question: What page would you run this article on?

Phase 2: Paste

Read the following passage,
it's from the same article.
Some questions when you are done

Hamas fired at least 15 Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israel on Saturday, ending a tattered 16-month truce with Israel, a day after eight Palestinians were killed on a Gaza beach, apparently by an errant Israeli shell.

Later on Saturday, in Ramallah, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, announced he had set July 26 for an unprecedented Palestinian referendum on the principles of a unified political platform agreed upon by Palestinian prisoners, which calls for a Palestinian state in pre-1967 boundaries alongside Israel.

Spokesmen for the ruling Hamas movement said they rejected the referendum decree and were studying their options, raising the prospect of further confrontation.

Questions (Phase 2)

  • Imagine that you wrote this passage, what title would you use when you submitted the article?
  • If you were the editor of this newspaper and received this article, what title would you use when you published it?
  • Bonus question. How well do these passages flow?

Cause and Effect

I made your second passage my first.
If you read the published article,
You'll no doubt see the reverse.

These were my friend's answers:
"Orphaned girl adopted by President"
"Random stuff about Palestine"

He saw two different stories:
"Death of family leads to end of truce"
"Hamas breaks cease-fire to distract attention from political confrontation with the President"

This was the published title:
Hamas Fires Rockets Into Israel, Ending 16-Month Truce
My friend then wrote "The perfidy of the press is one subject you should be used to"

It was a late night
The Wife saw me reading
Something in my face

"Why are you reading this Israel-Palestine stuff?"
Then I showed her your second passage,
I now call it the second coming.

"But they've buried it.
I would have never read past the beginning.
What page is it on? ... The whole thing is hidden..."

The Guidelines
They said:
Avoid politics

The Guidelines
They said:
Don't pick fights

Common sense,
Empirical evidence:
Steer clear of the Israel-Palestine matter

Still: I'm a journalist's son
You've given me an opening
I can't resist the temptation

The journalistic impulse
I seek out strange bedfellows
A student of editorial decisions

I'm in awe of what you've accomplished
You wrote the strongest fourth, fifth and sixth paragraphs I can imagine.
You ought to be a hero.

You covered a textbook massacre
Wrote in the strongest language
And yet: the story was buried.

A skillful presentation
You reported eight deaths
You shouldn't be accused of mendacity

And yet: the story was buried.
It's lost. Misrepresented at best.
The Reporter and The Editors.

Intentional and artful rather than inept:
The page, the wording, the images, the placement.
And calculation: the title. Best left unread.

Below the fold.
The Reporter's byline.
Those delicately arranged passages

A terrain of uncertainty
Did The Editors ask you for balance?
Were there two separate stories?

Who chose the title?
And are you proud of it?
I'd rather be wrong.

I would be grateful if you could comment
On words hidden in plain sight.
I had the most dreadful time that night.

A young girl has been taught
An awful lesson in life:
Death, the school of hard knocks

I lost faith that night
At this brutish spectacle
What kind of world is this?

A perplexing script:
Business as usual,
There go those Palestinians again.

My first draft:
Your article published on Sunday June 11, 2006 in the New York Times newspaper is by my measure the most skillful piece of journalism in the past year. I applaud the care you have taken in your endeavours, the craft with which either yourself and your editors combined to tell a story. It is so skillful that I feel obliged to write to you.
My second draft:
Your article published on Sunday June 11, 2006 on page 6 in the New York Times newspaper is by my measure the most skillful piece of misdirection I have witnessed in journalism in the past year. The phrase intelligent design does not do justice to the craft with which either yourself and/or your editors combined to bury a story of outrage. I applaud the care you have taken in your endeavours. It is so skillful that I feel obliged to write to you. You should win a Pulitzer for it.

I attempted to play your game
Exercising editorial discretion
And tried my hand at misdirection

The rest of the article
The same clarity of structure
3 paragraphs to muddy, 3 paragraphs to disarm

The Reporter and The Editors
I haven't slept since that day.
I assume someone didn't sleep round your way

The cameras must have been rolling
Slightly different story the next day
Hmmm, a new reporter.

The Game of the Rough Beast

Cut and paste.
Cause and effect.
The logical structure of perfidy.

The Reporter
The Editors


A question
An exclamation
A period

A fine line

Cognitive dissonance
Fair and balanced

Paragraphs: 1-2-3
Paragraphs: 4-5-6
Jackson 5: "ABC. Easy as 1-2-3"

I want to think the best of you.
I want to think the worst of you.
This is all a big muddle.

I want to think the best of The Reporter.
I want to think the worst of The Editors.
Resistance or deception? I'm unmoored, bereft.

[ this space intentionally left blank ]

The beach at Beit Lahiya.
The soul of a reporter.
The policies of The Editors.

"From Gaza into Israel"
"On a Gaza beach"
First movement and action, then the passive, a mere location.

"Hamas... launched at least 15 Qassam rockets"
"An errant Israeli shell"
First actor then action, then the passive. There's no actor.

Curtis Mayfield spoke the truth
We lost him, I miss him
This is what he sang:

They're all political actors... but they all know
If there's a hell below
We're all going to go

The logical structure of perfidy.
An awful reversal of causality.
The strange architecture of misdirection.

Normally effect follows cause.
Outrage is directed at cause,
And understanding attaches itself to effect.

In the human infrastructure of misdirection,
Cause follows effect,
And cause is itself an effect.

In those middle pages of your newspaper,
Cause is buried by effect,
And outrage attaches itself to effect

All that remains is effect.
Your byline, your story, the passive tense
The Editors, The Gray Lady

Back to front, the story is buried.
Eight dead bodies replaced by abstraction
Grim reality meets editorial necessity

I can't work out this puzzle.
I don't know which facts to dwell on.
I like to play this puzzle at night.

I don't know how to order these paragraphs.
Cut and paste. Cause and effect.
I don't want to play the game.

Do you sleep at night Mr Reporter?
Do you think The Editors sleep at night?
I rewrite your article at night

Her name is Huda Ghaliya.
Her family is dead.
They died on the beach in front of her.

It was a picnic. On the beach.
A shell.
They are all dead.

She cried.
They died.
I cried.

I suspect you cried
Did The Editors cry?
And were the cameras rolling?

Did the world cry?
Errant Israeli shell
15 Qassam rockets

June 11, 2006
Page 6 of the New York Times
The title, your story: buried.

The beach, the picnic, the shell
The cameras, the family: the coffins
The rockets, the funeral, the story

June 12, 2006
Page 8 of the New York Times
New title, the story: gasping.

Night. Sleep. Day
Black. White. Gray.
The Reporter. The Editors. The Gray Lady.

New York Times.
The Reporter.
Hamas Fires Rockets Into Israel, Ending 16-Month Truce

The spin.
Peretz: Gaza beach blast may have internal Palestinian cause

New York Times
Round two. Politics as Theatre.
Errant Shell Turns Girl Into Palestinian Icon

This is what I read that night
This is what I saw
This is the fog of war

Do you know each other?
Do your editors know the other editors?
This is such a muddle.

My original title: Abject mendacity of New York Times Editors
My draft title: On misdirection and injustice
My published title: The Game of the Rough Beast

I wanted to avenge her.
Instead I wrote a parlour game.
It is my only act of resistance.

I want to stare directly at the heart of darkness.
I hope I won't flinch.
I don't trust myself.

I wonder if you've come close to the rough beast.
I think you've come close to the rough beast.
Have you come close to the rough beast?

I want to know what he looks like.
I don't want to know what he looks like.
I know he's there.

I can only hope that one day you will do a follow-up story on her loss.
I can only hope that one day you will do a follow-up story on the Hamas shelling.
A follow-up story with the same editors.

I can only hope you'll play the game again
The game of cut and paste
The game of cause and effect

Then maybe I'll sleep at night
Then maybe I'll know the rough beast
Then maybe I'll make my own accommodations

I have only my pen to wield
I wonder if you've read this far
I hope you haven't read this far

He is close
I can hear him
A neighbour's house is on fire

I hear her cries.
I see her face.
I play my music

"It's 2am when the party's over
All I wanna do, all I wanna do
I wanna be with you"

Cut and paste.
Cause and effect.
The logical structure of perfidy.

Her name is Huda Ghaliya.
Her family is dead.
They died on the beach in front of her.

I want to avenge her.
Bring them back to the picnic.
Maybe it is better this way.

What kind of injustice is this?
Who is writing the script?
And who is editing it?

What are the names of your editors?
Did you have an editor at all?
I prefer to know them as The Editors.

Let's hear it from the poets
William Blake: Til we have built Jerusalem
William Butler Yeats: Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

Yeats's first cut,
A quotable sort
Everyone remembers this:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

But it's about The Second Coming
The story written afterwards
And everyone forgets it:

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born?

My thesis as it is:
In the School of Hard Knocks
Things Fall Apart beats Heart of Darkness

More practical, bear with me.
Heart of Darkness: Angola, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Congo, Chile, Somalia, El Salvador
Things Fall Apart: Soviet Union, Nigeria...

Try it again, your neck of the woods.
Heart of Darkness: 9/11, Baghdad, Al Zarqawi, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Haditha...
Things Fall Apart: Katrina, Enron, Abramoff, Cunningham...

When I read your article
I was reminded of the poem
"A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun"

I seek a comfort suite
And pray for peace and quiet
The cement of my society

To be out of sight
To live out of mind
A chance to recover

I try to stare at the sun
I want to look into his eyes
Confront him head on:

The rough beast.
Observe his contours
Resist nostalgia

I hope I don't flinch.
I want to cover my eyes
I fall asleep

Help me, Mr Reporter.
Her name is Huda Ghaliya.
The rough beast, The Editors

This thing's a puzzle.
I'm tired of the game.
Where are The Editors?

I wake up on the beach at Beit Lahiya
Where are you, Mr Reporter?
And who are The Editors?

The rough beast lies next to me.
William Blake: Among those dark Satanic Mills
William Butler Yeats: Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born

Yours sincerely.
Sincerely yours.
I'd like some answers.

The Game of the Rough Beast
The Reporter and The Editors
The beach at Beit Lahiya

The Second Coming
The Ghaliya family lost four members less than two years ago when an Israeli Army shell hit their farm in Beit Lahiya. Then, as now, the army said it was shelling to try to stop Palestinian fire into Israel.
The Rough Beast

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Publication

Some good news, which I'll announce by paraphrasing Public Enemy's Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos

I got a letter from the university the other day
I opened it up and read it
It said: "We wanna publish."
They wanted me for digital culture or whatever
Picture me giving a damn, I said "Hell yeah".

Unlike Chuck D's response to the US Government and its Army, I was elated that Cultural Sensitivity in Technology was selected to be published in Best of Technology Writing 2006 by the University of Michigan Press in its new imprint Digital Culture Books. It took a few months, as these publishing cycles go, but I now have the first ISBN associated with my name.

Best of Technology Writing 2006

There's further reason to cheer since acquisition editor, Alison Mackeen, noted that mine was the only blog post that was selected for the volume; the other contributors are mostly journalist or academic types. The web is the great leveler and I am greatful that my musings can appear along with the heavy hitters of traditional media and technology. It is rather like the way that The Humanity Critic can lie in the same folder as Malcolm Gladwell in my Bloglines subscriptions and each are equally appreciated.

Over the past year there has been interest expressed in various books of toli. It turns out that if you write as much as I sometimes do, there'll be an audience for you once you find your voice (at least on those days when the stream of consciousness tendancies are curbed). In this respect I am pleased that it is the cultural sensitivity piece that is the first to hit Gutenberg's press because it was written in a personal yet controlled voice, and I was able to navigate the tension between an entertainment and a focused monograph. The folks I like to read cross the spectrum from dry technical exposition to the satirical. One needs to cater to both education and whimsy hence my writing tends to run the gamut from small things to big ideas.

The time that was spent in editing back and forth and wrangling my conversational web style into something fit for the printed page was instructive. I am a ruthless editor of others but don't normally submit to that impulse in my own writing. Still I don't envy editors and I have renewed appreciation for the blood, sweat and tears it takes to actually make a reasonable book. In any case, I revised and expanded the article, throwing in a few bits about the human factor, the web and irreverence. Do check out the book; as befits its title, it contains lots of great writing about technology and its implications. Eminently readable and stimulating, I'll be mining it going forward and will be pointing out some of the food for thought in it.

I was asked to come up with a tagline for the article, my take:

Everything is local.

Now I have to get serious about The Pitch. Oh and I should get back to writing in this joint.

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