Review of Down These Mean Streets

I bought Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas shortly after I’d just finished reading all of Junot Diaz’s books. I’d read in an interview with Diaz that Thomas’ book was a personal favorite of his, so I was curious. In the vein of numerous other first works by male authors, the novel is a memoir-based bildungsroman. Covering his early childhood until his mid-twenties, Thomas’ protagonist is himself and like so many other such tales set in New York heavily features drug use, criminal activities and racism.

I found the lyricism that some people have accredited to the writing to not be as prominent as suggested. Thomas certainly captures the Spanish Harlem patois of El Barrio, however there are few and far between extended passages of beautiful writing or musicality. Furthermore the third component of lyricism, profound insight into the human condition, is also an infrequent feature.

Given Thomas’ character as an adolescent – someone that abhors reading ad foregoes completing high school in order to deal drugs, robs people and uses intravenous and other drugs – this should come as no surprise. In the closing chapters, after much maturation, this finally happens. This is not to say that insight into the cause of internal conflict is not fully flushed out, but that Thomas’ does this via short scenes (sans lyrical introspection) that is neverthless engaging and at times heart-breaking to the empathetic reader.

The predominant internal conflict for Piri is reconciling himself to himself in the racist milieu of New York in the 1930’s. Piri’s family is of Puerto Rican extraction. His mother is white, his father black. His siblings are able to pass not only as puertorriqueño but as white. However Piri’s skin color, however, leads others to view him as black. This is something that Piri has trouble accepting, and this leads him to numb the pains of being born into such a caste, to fight those that would keep him there and to search for inner knowledge and confidence by an extended trip from New York to the Jim Crow South.

Much of the tales told by Thomas are picaresque in nature, the chapter ending on some comic high note, however those with Brew – his black friends – often end without such levity. Brew, black as black coffee, plays Piri’s guide to navigating the racial divide in America and his position is one of resigned, but still angry, acceptance. He sings Piri part of a song he learned as a child whose content is about accommodating oneself to oppression by white people, contrasting the genocidal behavior of the whites to the Native Americans for fighting for what traditionally was theirs to the merely exploitative behavior that blacks faced. A discussion between Piri, Brew another mixed race youth, though one with a more privileged background that is currently in college, leads to further troubling reflections on Piri’s racial identity.

After Piri’s returns his bad behavior catches up to him. After having become addicted to heroin and engaging in a number of armed robberies, he is caught and ends up imprisoned in Sing Sing. This is a pivotal period for Piri and the last arc of the books is his slow development into someone able to embody emotional intelligence and rely on the new insights he gained from prison study. He studies with the Nation of Islam, though later rejects ummah for the less exacting Christianity that he was raised on.

 

Review of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday is a great read for a variety of reasons. First, it presents an account of all the ways in which different blogs, new media and traditional media outlets can be manipulated in order to get press coverage for products and services. Secondly, it is an explanation for why this newly formed digital media landscape is to the general detriment of society combined with a mea culpa for helping to have created such an environment. Ryan’s writing style is such that the combination of braggadocio for being able to serve his client’s needs so well with the recognition that it contributes to an abhorrent style of discourse comes off

The book opens with a variety of case study-style examples of various tactics that a media manipulator, or digital publicist, can use in order to obtain press coverage and social network shares for their client. Ryan’s clients, which include among many other Dov Charney of American Apparel and author of the book I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, Tucker Max, provide most of the specific stories, however many other clients and many other examples are provided through out. It’s these that media manipulators such as myself will find useful to be familiar with.

Holiday’s analysis of the new media environment is both compelling and frightening. While the books was published before it happened, it’s worth noting that what he’s talking about is a major social issue. Social media influence by the Russian government is being cited as a major factor in the most recent presidential election, the term Fake News is being used to dismiss a variety of news outlets and Facebook has implementing digital algorithms in order to prevent the dissemination of deceptive information on through its service offering.

Holiday starts with an analysis of the growth and influence of blogs, which he considered to be a variation of yesterday’s newswires. Blogs need not be solely personal affairs, like this, but include a large number of well-known outlets such as Business Insider, Politico, Huffington Post, Drudge Report, Buzz Feed and the now defunct Gawker. These, and other, outlets may not always have the largest readership – but their consumers are often people that work as producers for television and writers for national newspapers.

Frovocation, or faux provocation, is one of the many specific types of methods that the modern media manipulator uses in order to to exploit public perceptions and sell product. Manufacturing controversy, even if means making up fictions to spread about a client, creates a situation that allow for media content about a person or company to be traded up the chain. Training up the chain is when smaller blogs with lower standards publish groundless gossip or invented critical clamor for a certain group and because of its virality other outlets soon cover it as well. Holiday cites examples such as fake ads disclosed to bloggers so they could decry sexist ads, untrue rumors spread to gossip websites to obtain New York Times coverage and even Dick Cheney’s anonymous-at-the-time leak that, once it was “in the air” he then cited to support the invasion of Iraq. I include the last example as even though it’s not related to marketing, Holiday points it out as an example of the spread of the new digital media norms to the traditional media landscape that leads to widespread public deception and high-jacking of the political process.

The economics of media outlets are described as one of the primary driving features for the degeneration of the truth online. Ad revenue for companies are determine by page clicks, leading many to publish information that hasn’t always been vetted as felicitous and once proven wrong, isn’t retracted but left as is with an addendum on the bottom (re-working the whole piece takes too much time, so new information is merely copy and pasted near the end, meaning the reader is taking in lots of information as truth and then, if they even get to the end, comes to learn that everything above was false). This quest for scoops and exclusives, which builds reputation and traffic, incentivizes deception and poor reporting.

Holiday gives straight descriptions of a number of the ways that he’s taken advantage of this system – helping bloggers by investing in them early on; telling them what they want to hear (even if it’s not true); helping them trick their readers; selling them something that they’ll be able to sell up (and thus gain in influence); formatting enticing headlines for them that may not always reflect the reality of the article and a variety of other tactics. A short but compelling history of news media from the yellow journalism of the late 19th century to the subscriptions services of the early 20th century followed by analysis of the blogosphere and its relation to modern news institutions shows just how far people have come to again accepting misinformation as reality.

These qualities of a news publication all helps drive clicks and make things sell, yes, but at a cost. One example that I related to specifically, as I recall it getting shared by people back in 2009, relates to disaster-porn photos of Detroit. One set of photos shared many times depicted Detroit like New York looked in I Am Legend. Another set on another blog included people within the images, and wasn’t shared nearly as much. Thus, as a result of an ad-revenue incentivizing system people come to be alienated from the very depressing reality of massive job loss and community flight and instead perceive a nearly spiritual narrative as to the impermanence of man’s socio-economic achievements. Bad feelings, unless they’re directed at someone who caused the problem, simply don’t sell. As Holiday himself puts it, “What thrives online is not the writing that reflects anything close to the reality in which you and I live. Nor does it allow for the kind of change that will create the world we wish to live in.” Another quote worth citing in whole is this: “The death of subscription means that instead of attempting to provide value to you, the longtime reader, blogs are constantly chasing Other Readers – the mythical reader out in viral land. Instead of providing quality day in and day out, writers chase big hits like a sexy scandal or a funny video meme. Bloggers aren’t interested in building up consistent, loyal readership via RSS or paid subscriptions, because what they really need are the types of stories that will do hundreds of thousands or millions of pageviews.”

When I reflect on my own experience doing content marketing, I which was on a smaller level than what Holiday was doing, this rings true. In ideation sessions the purpose was rarely to use available or paid-for data to honestly depict the truth but instead try to create something viral. Some of the tactics that we would use included excluding certain survey data that didn’t align with the narrative we were trying to pitch to bloggers; failing to disclose that the small sampling size meant that in no way was the questions we surveyed people on were in no way representative of all of America, even though our write ups would certainly say that; and ignoring counter-factual data that ought to be included in content claiming to be authoritative on a particular issue.

I’m not a frequent reader of Breitbart, but from what articles I have read I’ve noticed a large similarly de-contextualized information. In large part this aversion to nuance is driven by Warnock’s Dilemma – or the dilemma as to why it is that some posts receive many comments from readers (thus driving up Domain Authority) while others do not. For one, context more takes time to produce and second, with that context it’s more difficult to take a simplistic, binary stance on the position. I use the example of Breitbart specifically as their blogging (I dare not call it reporting) does this so well. In an age where attention spans are so short due to the never-ending assault of media on our senses, they know that readers are fickle and, for the most part, prefer entertainment and salacious or rage-inducing subtle mischaracterizations and misleading information to longer format education and enlightenment. Holiday points out that people tend to confer authority to such content due to the “link illusion,” or the delegation of authority to articles with a number of HTML links on them, as it seems to replicate the academic methodology of publication – however this is, as the term suggests, merely an illusion. I too, for example, have done this in my own professional work so can relate.

If I ever find myself teaching media literacy again, I’m going to make sure to include a photocopy of Holiday’s chapter XXIV, How To Read a Blog. I’ve never made list as to what I look for in trying to determine whether or not content is “true” and thankfully I need not as he has made it here. The assessment as to “where things go from here” which follows is not at all optimistic and the proposals for change are not likely to be adopted anytime soon as it would mean a drastic re-structuring of the monetization process for blogs, online newspapers and online marketing content. What is likely to continue to flourish, at least until people are able to assert that their media outlets follower stricter editorial guidelines, is the continuation of media manipulation using the methods that Holiday describes through-out this book. In the case such a book is great for those, like me, who work in such a field and those that want to better understand how much of what they consume digitally is absolute garbage. People ought, as I says in his closing statement and which I have long agreed with, to read more books and less of the messes that get shared as “news”.

Review of Race to Revolution: The United States and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow

Gerald Horne’s book Race to Revolution: The United States and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow is an incredible account primarily on the relationships between the two countries mentioned in the title along with Cuba’s former colonial master, Spain. Horne’s account is not, however, a mere institutional history but one that illustrates that key role which enslaved and emancipated African Americans had in structuring attitudes and actions of the colonial Cuban government, the slaveholding Republic to its North and the center of Empire across the ocean to the East.

A large concern of the United States was that of a “black military republic” in Cuba that was sponsored by Britain. Secretary of State Daniel Webster was deeply concerned that London would “offer independence to the creoles, on condition that they unite with the colored government” in this Negro Republic “under British protection… and that “A Venezuelan general residing in Jamaica was to “take the command of an invading army,” which was to be “seconded” by an insurrection of the slaves and free men of color,” and thus with “600,000 black in Cuba and 800,000 in her West India Islands London will then strike a death blow at the existence of slavery in the United States (73).

The Long History of Interaction Amongst Cubans and American Negroes

Due to its prime ports and location, networks of trade and information were created between a large number of the States in Havana. Louisian, Mississipi and Texas were the primary buyers, however while slave markets closed in the United States due to abolition, they flourished in Cuba. Shipping now primarily to Texas, which was still a territory, Cuba experienced a boom in trade.

While all this was going on, in the halls of the Congress the Southern legislature hooted and hollered for annexation. Reading the speeches, yellow news article clippings, letters, diaries all depict a primal lust to aim, shoot and pull Cuba under the yoke of American capital and American style property management and enforcement. After all, American investment had dramatically increased as many of the Americans reinvested capital that was previously in the south to Cuba.

Cubans Considered by White Racists to be Lesser Humans

The Cubans, and for that matter also the Spaniards, were considered by the Americans to be less than white. In the racialist literature of the day, subscribed to by any politician of importance, the occupation of the Spanish by the Moors made them “not fully white”. Quoting Horne:

“U.S. nationals tended to think that Spaniard were “not quite white,” given the lengthy occupation of the Iberian peninsula by Arabs and Africans and, inter alia, this disqualified them from holding the prize that was Cuba.”(25).

The Spaniards subsequent intermarriage with the Negresses brought from the Ivory Coast increased the rationale for their being inferior.

A large number of expeditions – filibusters – went in in order to claim property and spoils. Former soldiers accustomed to the horrors of the Civil War re-enacted their old jobs. Like Hell on Wheels, but if when Bohannon first rolls up he just re-enslaves the black crew with the help of the white present – who he says now gets paid double. Richard Gott, perhaps no surprise, writes a wonderfully journalistic description of something akin to this in his history of Cuba. U.S. privateers were able to do this primarily as it occurred during a period of intensive rebellion in Cuba. Slaves, Freeman, and Mulattos united against the Spanish colonial administration. Over 160,000 people were killed in the ten years uprising. The atrocious and widespread slaughter literally split the country in two as domestic rebels acted as an insurgent and constituent force alongside the shores America. As can be imagined, what shape the constituent force to take was of prime significance to American politicians, which represented the interests that investors had made into Cuban railroads, sugar mills, land and labor.

Unlike what was said in the halls of power, the writings of Cuban newspapers were often written in part to target American Negroes and contained a message that didn’t sanctify property rights but one of community control. The content of these messages was often presented in a manner that would encourage readers towards a pan-African identity. By carrying tales of lynching and profiles of people such as Frederick Douglass as well as more daring stories such as that of “The Mutinous Sixth” – a deployment of African American Soldiers that were preparing to invade Cuba in Georgia that suffered casualties by American racists for refusing to submit to Jim Crow segregation. In 1886, the year slavery was effectively banned, the first cigar factory was built in Tampa, accompanied by the arrival of about a million workers from Cuba and other lands touched by Spain.” (159). Yet while slavery maybe have been made illegal in the United States, this did not prevent those that had profited from it from finding places where they were able to return to their high ROI practices. This put the US in the perilous position of, basically, fighting to impose a racial order on an island that was considered “colored”.

White Nationalists Afraid of a United Soviets of America

Horne’s book doesn’t go into the much detail as to the Soviet influence on either Castro’s or the Communists in Cuba – itself split along Trotskyist, longstanding anarchist, and nationalist lines. However he does point out how vastly inflated as a cause for fear this was by the members of the United States’ Havana Bureau. Whether this was because it gave informants cause to receive bribes from the U.S. government’s “liason and administration offices,” people that among others Cuban patriots would later call “vendepatriots,” is uncertain. What is clear from the record is that “Cubanidad” and distaste for Jim Crow style white supremacy was an organizing ideology against White Supremacy. Citizens of Cuba and the U.S. paid each other homage to the struggles going on there in a coordinated series of marches, demonstrations and exchanges between committed cadres of organizers.

Domestic sympathies towards the Cuban Communist party by America Negroes drove home the fear that Soviets would spread across the southern tip of the country and radical property struggles would again take place. This fear flamed by the KKK and others wasn’t entirely without cause, as the people involved in this cultural and intellectual exchange would soon have an outsized role within the civil rights movement in the United States.

Cubanidad as an Ideological Enemy to White Nationalism

Horne tells the story of Havana’s holding lucrative “black vs. white” boxing matches, a practice then forbidden in the United States. Havana allowed Paul Robeson to sing to “mixed race”, “mixed couple” crowds that were drunk on Bacardi family products. These, however, are shown to be showcase moments by the new economic and political leadership.

The reaction to the Jim Crowism that the US brought to the region was swift. It was so repugnant to the people that a domestic response force soon composed itself to eject such a social order. Most of the J26 movement – which I write about more on here – were also composed of Black Cuban nationalists. After black political organizations were banned, “the Communists came to play an increasingly conspicuous role on both sides of the strais, with those on the island going to far as broaching “the idea of an autonomous state in Oriente” (239). Domestic unrest lead to U.S. and Cuban elites embracing military rule via Batista, however his darkness made some in America suspect and uneasy. While first embraced by American blacks, subsequent secret police actions against poor, “colored”, Cubans that had mobilized against American investment and the enforcement of Jim Crow rules when Black American businessmen were visiting for conventions made him soon lose his lustre. Private party delegations between the countries increased to study each other’s answer to the “racial question” and increasingly the Cuban people – both the poor the suffered the most as well as the elite which more often dealt with resentment over American influence – came to view the US as prohibiting the social structures most appropriate to a post-colonial export economy. When Castro finally did come to power, one of the reasons he was so welcome by African-American was precisely because his policies were against such racialized oppression.