Friday, July 23, 2010

Inception- "Your mind is the scene of the crime"

I saw the movie Inception twice last week. It had it all- an excellent storyline, great special effects and cinemotography, superb acting, and a quality original soundtrack. If you haven't seen it yet, Inception presents a world in which your enemies can break into your dreams and steal ideas from (or maybe even plant ideas into) your subconscious. The theme central to the movie is Perception and Reality, as the main character, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), struggles with distringuishing between the dream world in the real world.

It just so happens that the issue of perception and reality is just as relevant to many current events. The media can plant ideas into your mind more easily than Cobb and his team can. Magazines and news shows have been slyly photoshopping images since the term was invented, and biased news crews have been taking quotes out of context even before then.

Earlier this summer, The Economist was criticized for photoshopping a photo of Obama to make it look more emotionally appealing for its cover story "Obama v BP: The damage beyond the spill." A local parishoner, Charlotte Randolph, was edited out of the photo. After The New York Times exposed the photoshopping, deputy editor of The Economist responded by saying "We removed her not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers [. . . ] it is to bring out the central character. We don’t edit photos in order to mislead." Honestly, I don't feel like The Economist was trying to misinform its readers, but the image without Mrs. Randolph has a different emotional appeal to anyone that sees it. The cover (including the text) infers that Obama was damaged by the oil spill, especially in light of the edit, yet the editor claims that "I wanted readers to focus on Mr. Obama, not because I wanted to make him look isolated [. . . ] "The damage beyond the spill” referred to on the cover, and examined in the cover leader, was the damage not to Mr. Obama, but to business in America." However, I didn't percieve that message when I got my Economist in the mail and saw the cover.

More controversially, AMERICABlog has analyzed three photos from BP's crisis response and found that they have photoshopped screens into them to make it look like the employees were busier than they actually were.  AMERICABlog has circled the areas where the edits are visible in one of the images (for more details click the link above), which are featured on BP's website. The Washington Post recently picked up the story, and now BP is scrambling to defend itself... yet again.

However, more than just the media doctor images. When the Chinese government built a railway in an area that environmentalists claimed would endanger local antelope, it photoshopped antelope into photos of the completed railway. Two summers ago during the Summer Olympics, China broadcasted a computer-generated clip of a complicated fireworks routine during its live footage of the fireworks in the opening ceremony. While the second of these two stories is more innocent, both are two examples of the government of China intentionally attempting to deceive its people. While China gets political capital out of such instances, there are businesses out there that make big bucks on photo-editing. Take Digital Retouch, an entire company based on retouching, shaping, and manipulating photos of models (the Beauty & Hair and Shaping sections are the most dramatic, see for yourself).

Still, photoshopping is only one way to plant false ideas into a media consumer's mind. You may be tired of hearing about this by now, but it's an easily identifiable and recent example of news networks taking a quote directly out of context. What happened was Andrew Breitbart, a conservative blogger, posted a segment of 4-month old video of USDA employee Shirley Sherrod speaking at a Georgia NAACP gathering. Sherrod's father was murdered by a racist, and in her speech Sherrod talked about overcoming her racism to help a poor white farmer. However, the quote about her racist past was taken out of context and exploded over conservative media. Before anyone thought to review the entire speech, Sherrod was fired from her job in the Department of Agriculture, and the President of the NAACP even condemned her speech. It wasn't until someone thought to actually review the entire video that Sherrod was vindicated. Although some complain that this received too much news coverage, I believe it's a clear example of bias in the media. Think of the consequences for Sherrod and race relations as a whole if no one had though to check up on Breitbart's original claim.

The tagline for Inception is "Your mind is the scene of the crime." In this modern day, the criminals are everyone from respectable periodicals like the Economist to corporations like BP to governments like China to mega news networks like Fox News. Thankfully, other journalists and bloggers have called them out on their crimes against the honest mind. However, it's scary to think of the misinformation that hasn't been uncovered. At least Cobb is stuck in the dream world of Inception so he can't plant anymore false ideas into people's minds.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Recession Blues (Song)

This week's blog post comes in the form of a satirical song I wrote about current events and the economy. Enjoy. :)

"Recession Blues" by Krista O'Connell

Well I'm broke, ain't got no money in the bank
Except for six lonely dollars at a low interest rate
Benny B, give me some good news
Cause I've got recession blues

Finding a good job is harder than winning the lottery
I'd rob a bank, but they're in more debt than me
I'd beg on the street but I'm afraid to get mugged
By some greedy, unemployed corporate thug.
I hear BP is looking for lawyers,
But maybe they'll take me.

I'm waiting for a paycheck to come in the mail...
Maybe the Postal Service stole it to bail
Itself out of this sinking, sad sorry economy
Benny B, give me some good news
Cause I've got recession blues

These days it'd be easier to fake a degree
Than to pay tuition at a university (UVa *ahem*)
And forget about retiring before I'm dead
Cause my Social Security check is gonna be negative
Guess I'll have to take a loan from Japan
Just like you Uncle Sam

On the bright side:
Wrecked my car, don't hafta pay for gas
Can't shop online since my computer crashed
Got no money to spend and nothing to buy
But hey, I'm gonna be just fine
Since I got you boy and you're lovin is free
And that's the most valuable thing to me

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Was America really founded on Christianity?

So I've got a lot to blog about, but this is the most seasonally appropriate. On the Fourth of July, my dad convinced me (and my boyfriend and his sister as well) to go to church with him and the rest of the family. The church service started thirty minutes early to make time for a special Fourth of July play by the children. As a whole, the entire one and a half hour service was a bold display of the persistent forced marriage of church and state, and the pastor used the sermon to more acutely articulate his conviction that our nation was founded on Jesus Christ, and, unless the USA returns to her Christian roots, we will no longer be the land of the free and the home of the brave. To paraphrase the pastor, "today (July 4th) is a commemoration of our nation's independence from tyranny, but dependence on God."

I've heard conflicting stories about exactly what role the Founding Fathers wanted the church to play in America, but after doing some research I've discovered that many of our founders, such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams, specifically called for a separation of church and state. While they were undoubtedly devout Christians, they had no intentions for America to be a theocracy.

When the first colonists came to America, they came escaping religious persecution and state religion. Hypocritically, many colonies went on to officially establish their own religions, and some jobs and political offices required applicants to pass a religious test. However, this all changed once the Article 6 of the Constitution prohibited the use of religious tests and the First Amendment protected the free exercise of religion. Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were very clear in their writings that it for their best interest that the church and state be separated.

Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 articulating his beliefs (along with  citing the first amendment) about the relationships between church and state
"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."
In fact, many historians claim the Jefferson was the one to coin the term "separation of church and state." Jefferson went on to design the University of Virginia (holla!) to further reflect his faith in the separation between church and state. As an architect and founder of the school, Jefferson placed the Rotunda as the center of his public university, ostensibly choosing to place a library modeled after the Parthenon at the nucleus of the UVa grounds instead of a church.

James Madison, our Father of the Constitution, was also a fierce advocate of the separation of church in state, as you can see from many of his letters. Many times he refers to the desire for a "total separation of the church from the State" and also writing that, "perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together" (Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822). I don't think it's possible to have a clearer framer's intent.

Perhaps the most blunt assertion of the idea of the separation of church and state comes from a clause in The Treaty of Tripoli, as ratified by the US Senate and signed by President John Adams in 1797. The treaty was a part of the set of Barbary Treaties crafted to address pirating on the Barbary Coast. Recognizing that the area was dominated by the Islamic faith, Article 11 of the treaty reminds the world that "the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

And it's a good thing that our nation wasn't founded on Christianity, especially as the US becomes increasingly diverse. According to an extensive 2007 survey by the Pew Form on Religion & Public Life, 78.4% of American adults are Christian, and a shrinking 51.3% of them are Protestants. That's a pretty big number, but it also means that 21.4% of American adults practice other religions or none at all. Thus, to say that America was founded on and perseveres because of Christianity effectively excludes and marginalizes the religion of nearly one fourth of Americans, whether they be Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, or atheists. Even among those Americans who are Christian, there are so many different denominations and interpretations of Christianity that I doubt there could be a national agreement to what exactly "the church" is and how to apply it to policy. Just sit a Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, and Greek Orthodox down at a table and I'm sure they can come up with more ways that they're different than similar (come to think of it, this is exactly what Thanksgiving at my dad's house sounds like). After all, some of the worst wars and violentest of conflicts are between people of the same religion whether Catholics versus Protestants or Sunnis versus Shias.

Walking into a church full of children waving flags and streamers singing "God Bless America" is cute, but powerful imagery. While I don't think it's wrong for churches to celebrate the Fourth of July, it's factually inaccurate for anyone to claim that America was founded on Christianity and the marriage of church and state.

As long as voters or politicians erroneously believe that our country was founded on Christianity, we will get policy that is poisoned with homophobia and sexism, intolerance of other beliefs, government funding of religious initiatives, restrictions on sex ed and birth control, and Creationism in the schools. Ultimately, basing policy on religion is dangerous, because it needs no justification other than "because the Bible says so." There is little critical thinking in religious fundamentalism, and it's unfair to subject an entire country to any group's misguided beliefs.

For further reading check out Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, or click on any of the links/ citations in this article.

Photo credit to Monque