Giambrone’s Mistakes and Our Mistakes

Adam Giambrone

Adam Giambrone would likely have made a good mayor for Toronto.

Adam Giambrone is a smart, young, energetic man who wanted to be Mayor of Toronto. He won’t be, now, because of perceived indiscretions in his personal life. And that’s too bad – partly because I think he would have been a good Mayor, and partly because he was shafted twelve ways from Sunday by a largely undereducated public and fuelled by sensation-seeking media.

Giambrone has a long-term “partner,” and seems to have had one or more shorter term relationships with other women. When his “affairs” became public knowledge, he appears to have tried to lie about it. Eventually, when the public evidence became overwhelming, he apologized publicly and withdrew his candidacy from the Mayoral election.

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“Shouting Fire” will have you seeing red

I recently saw the new documentary “Shouting Fire: stories from the edge of free speech.”  I must say, it’s well-worth watching.  The film is about the First Amendment and free speech in the United States.  More specifically, it’s about the perceived endangerment of free speech in the US.  It consists of a collection of stories, each revolving around the use and abuse of free speech.  There’s even a Facebook page for people to find out more about the film and engage in discussions.  There is a clearly political tone to the piece: it’s makers seem staunchly in favour of the First Amendment as an inviolate tenet of American life, to be sacrificed for no one and nothing.

You may find yourself at once attracted and repulsed by this documentary.  I certainly was.  The story of  Debbie Almontaser, for instance, is a great example of how a thoughtful, caring person – who happens to be Muslim – was torn to shreds by the mass media.  Although Ms. Almontaser always represented herself thoughtfully and intelligently, she was naive enough to speak in ways that were easily twisted by certain news outlets and anti-Muslim racist groups in the US to appear to suggest exactly the opposite of what she actually meant.  Here is a case of good words, utterly in perhaps the wrong context, or with a lack of appreciation for the peculiarities of certain segments of American culture, becoming bad ones.  Perhaps Ms. Almontaser was too naive.  But it appears quite certain that a significant number of New Yorkers displayed ignorance on a cosmological scale, a streak of malice as wide as the Mississippi River, and a nearly clinical lack of empathy.

The documentary also covers the story of Ward Churchill, who was removed from his post as a Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder for “research misconduct.”  Churchill’s writings are intentionally controversial and inflammatory (check out his titles in Google Scholar).  The man is clearly well-educated and has an excellent grasp of English.  It seems, then, that he intentionally chooses to write and say things that piss people off.

This isn’t what professors do.  Once granted the status of professor, one is expected to uphold a certain code of conduct – at least in matters of intellect.  This code includes, among other things, communicating in the most rational and reasonable way possible.  And communication is a vital characteristic of the professoriate: knowledge is useless if it cannot be communicated, and professors are the keepers of knowledge.  They may be passionate, but they must abide by the centuries old rules of good, meticulous research and its communication.  Time and time again over the centuries it has been shown that those who implement slash-and-burn policies of self-expression, writing, and speaking end up being ignored and, often, proved wrong.

It seems evident that Churchill intentionally abdicated this responsibility.  The question in the Churchill case is: does free speech trump a professor’s responsibilities?  It seemed that the makers of the documentary thought it did.  I disagree.  Churchill was granted the right of free speech as an American citizen.  But he chose to be a professor, knowing full well what the professor’s responsibilities were.  (I refuse to believe anyone would subject themselves to the personal suffering needed to achieve a professorship without knowing what they were getting themselves into.)  No one forced him to be a professor.  He could have gained just as much notoriety and disseminated his ideas just as quickly without being a professor.  His ideas would have been no more praised or vilified without his professorial standing as with it.  Because it was his choice, then he also had to accept the responsibilities that require, not a muzzling of his right to free speech, but rather a choice of language, tone, and vocabulary that is designed to not be inflammatory and intentionally confrontational.  He chose instead to abdicate those responsibilities.  This demeans the professoriate.  To maintain the status of the professoriate and the trust that others should have of it, he just had to go.

These are just two examples of the stories that are covered in this documentary.

You might love it, or you might hate it.  But whatever else, you’ll be glad you watched it.

Why the BBC matters

The BBC provides an English-language perspective that is woefully missing from the American news sources.

Last night was a long night.  So this morning, I lounged in bed longer than usual, and watched TV.  Sundays are good days for contemplating the universe because much Sunday morning programming is either intensely religious – and thus can safely ignored – or of slightly deeper and richer quality than the usual fare.

I came across BBC World News, and saw a triplet of very interesting stories.

The first was about Dick Cheney’s attempts to hide some secret CIA plan from Congress, which was even the Top Story at the BBC main web site.  What the CIA plan was, is irrelevant.  The point is that I heard about this from BBC, not CNN.  CNN was still providing in-depth coverage of the death of Michael Jackson – apparently this is more important than an ex Vice-President conspiring with (admitedly domestic) spies to withhold operational information on intelligence activities outside the USA from the one US political body that can actually tell them to stop in the name of the people who elected said ex Vice-President.  Even though this is more proof of what a dick Cheney really is, there were only half as many articles listed at Google News on this story as there was for stories like the ongoing concerns around the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court Judge, even though the latest Cheney fiasco is certainly an issue of far greater gravity.

The second story was about the potential end of Australia’s mining boom, and was filed by Nick Bryant.  This story covered the historical basics of Australian mining, the impact of recent mine closures, some of the political issues, and even the major environmental issues.  Considering coal is the principal export of the Australian mining industry (most of it destined for China), these are all quite sensitive issues.  Nothing is resolved in the story, but the questions are all laid out and interconnected.  It was an even-handed and very informative story of something very big happening in the world.

The third story was about the (hopefully) impending return of man to the Moon.  Simply titled “The Moon,” the segment treated humanity’s relationship with the Moon as a long and rather tempestuous love affair.  It covered the significance of the original landing just about 40 years ago, and how it was so completely accepted by the American people at the time.  And then how, over less than 10 years, the Americans lost interest in everything Lunar.  It was quite interesting to see what a total change was brought about by popular opinion alone.  Finally, though, the story ends on an up-beat, looking towards the future and the great plans for returning, and staying, on the Moon.  The one weakness of the story is the British narrator’s use of “we” in describing the activities of NASA; “they” would have been both more appropriate and accurate.

I saw all this over an hour and a half.  I can’t begin to recall the last time I saw this much informative journalism on television.

The point is: there are current events, and perspectives on them, that you cannot begin to imagine if you only watch the American media.  If you want to understand the world, you need to see a global picture.  You can’t get it just from CNN, or just from BBC.  You need to watch them all.

(Secretly, though, I really rather enjoy the BBC more than the others, even if they have their own biases.)