“The Case For Reparations”- Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates essay “The Case for Reparations,” is, without a doubt, a highly controversial perspective on a highly controversial issue. In any day and age, but especially today in the current political climate, talking about race in any fashion is at the least uncomfortable and at the worst downright suicidal. This essay, however, goes a step beyond even that, to discuss the idea of reparations- compensation in some form to be paid to Black Americans due to the grievous injustices inflicted upon them through years of slavery and discrimination. 

It probably doesn’t need to be said that the vast majority of white people would be against or at least a little hesitant about this idea. It’s uncomfortable, costly, etc., etc.; the brain leaps to make all sorts of excuses to why reparations aren’t feasible. Ta-Nehisi Coates knows this, probably all too well. Yet still he makes his case.

He begins with a fairly reliable method of intriguing an audience- he provides a specific case study, the personal story of one man named Clyde Ross who endured some of the injustices to which Coates refers in his case. It’s always easier to become more invested in a story if there’s a person at the face of it, so Coates frames the rest of his essay through the initial frame of Ross. One the audience is somewhat invested and relating to the story, it becomes much easier for Coates to then delve into his more specific research. Even while conveying Ross’ story, Coates carefully integrates relevant research relating to both Ross and his larger case, such as information on redlining in Chicago. 

Coates then broadens his scope and reveals that Clyde Ross’ situation is not unique- in fact, Ross is actually one of the somewhat lucky ones in this tale. He’s not dead. He hasn’t been lynched. he got out of the South, and he still has his house- things which cannot be said of everyone. 

At the same time Coates broadens his scope, he also dives down the rabbit hole, taking the audience with him. One figures that if we’re already discussing the topic of slavery, why not go all the way? Ross’ story has already taken us halfway there. Coates masterfully writes a brief history of Black enslavement and post-emancipation injustice, darting here and there to give the full picture of the last 500 or so years in stark, depressing detail. At the same time, it’s captivating: Coates weaves history together in a way that makes sense and doesn’t feel like a textbook. Every sentence he writes is purposeful and deliberate, as if he is building his towering case with words instead of bricks. 

Ultimately, Ta-Nehisi Coates manages to create a masterwork out of an impossible subject through the sheer skill of his writing and expansiveness of his research. That, I suppose, is the takeaway here- if one writes and researches in the right way, even the most impossible audience can be made to lend an ear. 

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“The Remains of the Night” and Images

In Elizabeth Royte’s essay “The Remains of the Night,” Royte compellingly illustrates her experiences picking up trash in the Midwood Area of Prospect Park, located just a bit outside the island of Manhattan in New York City. However, this essay is not just about trash, but instead about a very specific type of trash that shows up in spades in parks everywhere: sexual trash, like condoms, lube packets, dildos, etc. 

Without a question, this is an interesting subject in itself, and one which we may not have thought about. After all, almost everyone has had the experience of walking along in a park or on a sidewalk and finding a discarded used condom. It’s disgusting to look at, but other than that it’s rare that we give it any more thought, or god forbid pick it up (even with a tissue or the like) and discard it in a trash can because it’s so repulsive. 

Royte, however, is not like the rest of us; instead she spent time on a crew that almost exclusively went about Prospect Park picking up the remains of people’s sexual encounters and pondering the stories behind these discarded objects. She expands on this in her essay, while also including facts, figures, and other anecdotes to create an interesting and informative reading experience. 

One important thing to note is that this piece is posted on the Medium platform, an innovative website designed for hosting essays, articles, and other nonfiction works. It creates a sleek and chic reading experience, very much a “reading of the future” -type thing.

A definite benefit of the site is that it allows an author to seamlessly incorporate images into a piece, both in the more traditional wrap-around style and also as a background to the text. Royte uses both types well and frequently, which without a doubt makes her essay even more compelling and interesting than it already is. Pictures of the park appear behind Royte’s text descriptions, illustrating and enhancing the reading experience. There’s also maps to establishing setting, pictures of specific objects she describes, and other pictures of trash that just generally help create a larger point.

In a larger sense, the images work because they’re gross. As I mentioned before, used sex trash is something we don’t like to think about. But by including specific images of this trash, Royte makes the reader confront the reality of what she writes about. The Medium platform really helps with this, and makes Royte’s essay even better.

Considering ‘Consider the Lobster’

Okay, full disclosure: when I saw this assignment on the calendar, I didn’t really think too much of it. At most, it reminded me of that movie “The Lobster” that came out a few years ago, a film which I absolutely adore. I distinctly remember dragging my high school friends with me to an old art-house theatre nestled in the rows of vape shops and pot dispensaries just south of Downtown Denver in order to see this weird dystopian sci-fi art film about a guy who would get turned into a lobster if he didn’t find a romantic partner in time. Weird shit, but good.

Anyways, I digress. I didn’t think about the essay again until the time came for me to find it on the web and read it and then write some crap about it or whatever. Well, it changed when the link on the assignment calendar didn’t work and therefore I was subjected to the horrible and savage inconvenience of having to go out and Google the article for myself. What I found was intriguing- not only did thousands of results pop up, but quite a lot about this being the title of a book. “Consider the Lobster and Other Essays,” which is the name of David Foster Wallace’s book, quickly appeared in the top results, prompting my happy little amazon browser bot to pop up and ask, “Did you want to buy this book?”

Now I was interested. Why was what I had assumed to be some highbrow rambling that probably wasn’t even actually about lobsters producing so many results, and was it really good enough for this guy to name his book after it?

The essay starts off pretty much as you’d expect an article covering a food festival to begin; establishing the setting, naming some of the events, etc, etc. And for the average report on a festival, that’s about as deep and extensive as you would expect it to get. However, this is no average report. Wallace’s cynical tone is evident almost immediately as he lists of all the different varieties of lobster paraphernalia saturating the festival. This tone continues throughout the piece and only grows more prominent as time goes on. That’s one specific way this essay is different– it’s not a ditzy puff piece written for the express purpose of showcasing the festival and saying how “wonderful” it is. It’s harsh, biting, and has no qualms being critical. I think that in itself is enough to endear me to it in the first place, but that is only the beginning. 

Wallace starts by detailing everything you ever wanted to know (and more) about lobsters, from their latin name to eating habits and the habits in which they are eaten. Doing this early on is a brilliant tactic, he intrigues the reader by offering information which they may never have known or thought about before. Caught up in the deluge of intriguing writing, Wallace easily carries the reader along to the real subject of his essay, the “meat” of the article, if you will.

Is it right to boil a living creature alive in the comforts of our own kitchens?

That certainly is not a question you’d expect to come across within the pages of a cooking magazine (“Consider the Lobster” was originally published in Gourmet magazine in 2004). It’s surprising, shocking even, but that’s part of the beauty of this essay. Wallace tricks you into reading something seemingly average but then pulls the rug out from underneath you. Despite this, I couldn’t bring myself to be mad with him while reading this essay. Instead I almost felt as if it had been inevitable; that this was the natural conclusion of events and I just hadn’t noticed it in that way before. To me this essay was almost like the experience of rewatching a season of a TV show after you’ve seen the finale. You pick up on little things you missed before, tiny hints that make the buildup of events so natural and obvious when looking back.

This essay feels like that: looking back you feel stupid for not realizing that of course this was where he was going to go. Wallace does this amidst presenting the reader with genuinely interesting questions and research- do lobsters feel pain? Can we even know? It’s uncomfortable to think about, but by the time you start to feel guilty it’s too late- Wallace has already captivated you with his honest writing. You’re already invested in this essay.

Basically, the point I’m trying to get to here is yes, this essay is worth the hype. It’s a marvel in essay writing and worth reading not only for it’s ideas but also it’s mastery of the English language. It’s poignant, genius, and unexpected, which is all, in my opinion, an essay can hope to be.

Vinson Cunningham- What Makes An Essay American

In the New Yorker piece “What Makes an Essay American?” by Vinson Cunningham seems to be a cross between an argument to inquire and a summary of positions. It’s clear that Cunningham is asking a question- it’s there in the very title of the article. However, he asks this question while exploring a variety of different positions on the subject. He first begins by drawing parallels between a sermon and an essay, and points out that historically many argumentative essays were rooted in and inspired by rhetorical speeches. Cunningham adds pointed anecdotes and both modern and historical examples to illustrate this, all of which work well with what he’s saying. Further on, Cunningham reaches what is his main point- disagreeing with John D’Agata about the purpose and form of the American essay. D’Agata’s goal is emphasize the essay as an art form, and that it should be “art for art’s sake.”

All of what Cunningham writes up to this point and what he writes after in the conclusion slowly builds up to his disagreement- he says that D’Agata is wrong and the American essay can’t just be “art for art’s sake” because it’s so rooted in the argument to dominate. At the very end, Cunningham reveals his final realization: perhaps a well-crafted argument IS art, and that a beautiful, harmless essay would really serve no point at all.

The whole piece and Cunningham’s slow, steady buildup of facts to create his point is very different from the aggressive argument to dominate (think the old debate-news show Crossfire, for example) because the basis of his argument isn’t just “You’re wrong,” and then with a list of reasons why complied after. Instead, Cunningham’s argument is crafted after surveying a variety of examples and asking the question “What is an American essay?” Therefore although it is still an argument of disagreement, it reads more as “Due to my own investigations and a summary of these positions, I’ve come to believe you’re wrong” instead of just saying “You’re wrong” for the sake of it. 

A Short Primer on Types of Podcasts

Podcasts: they’re like radio, but hipper because they’re on the internet. To completely oversimplify it, a podcast is basically an audio broadcast  recording available over the internet at any time for listeners to enjoy, instead of a live broadcast. If that definition sounds vague and tells little about the content of podcasts, that’s because it is. Like almost every other form of media out there, the types of content podcasts can contain are as various and numerous as you can imagine. Although it would be near impossible to make a completely comprehensive list of every different variety and genre of podcast out there, I’ve tried to compile a short list of some of the basic types of podcast I’ve noticed.

First, let’s divide into groups of fictional and nonfictional. This pretty clearly divides content by it’s type and purpose. Fictional refers to more dramatic, storytelling types of podcasts that are meant to entertain, while Nonfictional podcasts tend to be more reality and fact-based and are meant to inform, although that’s not to say they can’t be entertaining as well. Next let’s divide each group into two more groups: group and individual. This refers to the specific way in which the podcast is recorded- is it just a single individual talking that sometimes brings in audio clips of others, or is it a more “round-table” type of audio, in which multiple people talk and bring focus?

In the Fictional category, once we’ve divided into individual and group podcasts, we can then further divide into three separate genre-specific categories: drama, comedy, and mockumentary. Drama and comedy are pretty self-explanatory, but mockumentary refers to a parody-like production calling attention to something (in an often-humorous way) in the style of a nonfiction type documentary.

As far as Nonfictional podcasts go, there are a lot more genres that I could categorize. Among them are: interview-oriented, investigative, self-help, memoir, game show, documentary (long form and short form), audio blog, and review. All of these incorporate research and information in their own ways, and all have the potential to be equally entertaining and interesting.

Overall, a lot of different types and genres of podcasts are similar to other types of media in movies, television, and Youtube. However, what makes podcasts unique is that that they are told with audio only and thus have to create a hold story and picture only using words and descriptions. The genres may be similar, but to tell a story or inform with audio one must come at it from a very different way than with video.

Doing “Everything About Something,” and a side-note on Interviews

It’s not uncommon in today’s job market to find an ad listing like this: Entry-level position, must have at least 2-4 years experience. Must be proficient in writing, editing, video production, sound production, graphic design, etc.

At first glance, of course, this seems ridiculous. 40, 30, even 20 years ago in order to get a job you basically just had to know one thing; how to do your specific job, and that’s it. But the unfortunate reality of today’s economy means that this is no longer an option if a person really wants to get the job they want. Instead, job-hunters today, especially those looking to go into journalism, really have to know how to “do everything.”

This is particularly evident in the group podcast production projects we’re currently working on. The work required by the project is extensive; over half-an-hour of audio recordings and supplemental videos, 2000 words of finished product, a website complete with graphics, and 6000 words of research. And that’s just what I can remember off the top of my head.

Now on the one hand it seems fairly obvious to just say, “Well, one person can do the videos, another can do the writing, another can make the podcast,” and so on. But the truth is that that is really just not a viable plan. It’s unrealistic, for one; nobody can be expected to do the same thing in a project for a whole month and still have interest or do it well, and even if they do, there’s still the rest of the group to worry about. The goal isn’t to create four separate projects and patchwork them together.

Instead, it’s better to spread the work around. Everybody does some research, everybody writes, everybody makes the videos. Of course there’s naturally going to be some people who are better at certain areas than others, but it doesn’t help everyone else get better if the one person who already knows how to do the thing does it 100% of the time. If you want to do well, you have to learn to be a jack-of-all-trades; make the videos AND the podcasts AND the website AND the blog posts. You actually can be that mystical job-applicant who can do everything.

Like Jay Rosen’s article suggests, it’s best to begin doing this by finding and focusing on some hyper-specific topic, like in the case of my group who chose to focus on the idea of “stickers.” That way you can learn to create a lot of varied types of content but don’t have to worry about it being about all different subjects. For example, it would be pretty difficult if you have to make a podcast and learning to make a video at the same time but on two wildly different topics, like a podcast on manatees and then a video on how pop tarts are made. It’s much easier when you can focus on researching one thing (e.g. how the advent of the internet and online shopping has influenced sticker production) and then learn how to put that information into different formats.

Speaking of which, here’s one thing about research, regarding a trap a lot of content-creators fall into: you can’t rely on interviews for everything! Are they good at providing “meat” for a piece? Most of the time, yes. But they shouldn’t be the entirety of your research or your piece (certain cases aside, of course). One, interviews don’t always provide all the info you need (trust me, as someone who has spent hours doing fruitless interviews, I KNOW). You need other research, graphics, B-roll footage, etc. in addition to your interviews to give your finished product a certain degree of quality. Two, interviews can be really boring. Nobody really wants to listen to some person talk about themselves for an hour, it’s doubtful every minute of that interview is going to be riveting. Instead, pick and choose the best parts of an interview to include in the final product.

Regardless, the point stands; whether in a group project or in creating your own blog, it’s better to learn to produce a variety of types of content on the same subject for a variety of reasons. It’s more interesting for the person doing the project; it helps you learn how to do a lot of different things, which is great for the job market; and it helps you learn how to do research and format that research to best fit a certain type of medium.

 

Marc and Terry Interview

I think the best question Marc asked Terry was when he asked her if she got something emotionally out of interviewing people. I don’t know why I like this question so much, as far as questions go it’s not especially remarkable, but I still think it’s a really interesting question. It’s not just like a basic, boring question that’s too vague to get a meaningful answer out of, like “So tell me about yourself.” It’s an unusual and intimate question that offers insight into who Terry actually is and why she does what she does. I also think it’s interesting that she was going to ask him the same question; In my opinion it shows that these two people have somewhat of a connection and are genuinely interested in one another. 

I think what was really striking about this interview is that it didn’t really seem like an interview; it really just seemed like an insightful conversation, almost like the ideal conversation wherein the two participants are curious about one another and ask intimate questions. The key is that these questions are intimate but they don’t seem too nosy, so it’s like a conversation with a good friend instead of an interrogation. 

This piece was a good example of what the ideal interview should be: not just a list of questions that the interviewer rattles off but a genuine conversation between two people that provides some insight into both of them.

 

The Fault in Our Editors, aka Wikipedia Part II

As with everything in our world, any innovation that has upsides also has downsides. The website Wikipedia is remarkably unique and successful because it allows anyone and everyone to add to and edit it, but at the same time that’s also the site’s major downside. It would be nice to believe that every Wikipedia contributor is impartial and only working to further the common knowledge, but it simply isn’t true. Trolls and vandals plague the site, and while they are problematic and annoying, they aren’t the biggest issue by far.

Instead, the biggest issue is those users who purposefully edit Wikipedia for their own gain. Plastic surgeons have been accused of editing articles to suggest that certain cosmetic surgeries are more helpful and safer than they actually are. Politicians are constantly updating their own pages, as well as the Wikipedia pages for key legislation to present a more desirable narrative. And these are just two examples.

So the important question is, how do we protect ourselves from these purposeful edits and their editors? Wikipedia isn’t going to change its format to make sure everything that gets posted is verifiable, even attempting to do so would be a logistical nightmare. Instead, it falls on us, the individual users to be active consumers of content and make sure that Wikipedia isn’t our be-all and end-all of research. If you’re researching something, be it a plastic surgery procedure or a new piece of legislation, it’s important to read multiple sources and compare the facts that they present in order to get a better idea of what’s really going on. And sometimes, unfortunately, this means more than just first-page Google stuff, people. Even better, try to look for information on verified, reputable sources and explore both sides of any given issue (if applicable) so you get a larger scale, more accurate view.

And yes, sometimes we’re lazy and we don’t want to do extra research ourselves, we just want Wikipedia to give us an easy answer. And sometimes that’s ok. But the rule of thumb is, given Wikipedia’s ability for anyone to edit, when looking for information about crucial topics, it’s absolutely necessary to look at multiple, reputable sources before making any sort of decision.

Is it really possible to “know it all”? aka, Wikipedia Part I

Wikipedia: it’s the website that you can hardly go on the Internet without running into. The online encyclopedia has articles on everything and anything you never thought you’d want to know, all at the tips of your fingers. If you find yourself lying in bed at night wondering what the strange bug crawling across your ceiling is, a simple search can take you to a page telling you everything you need to know about the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug and its impact on the environment.

But other than providing a convenient resource for the whims of your late-night searches, Wikipedia also represents something else. It’s one of the first exhaustive ventures into the idea of “collective knowledge.” Yes, yes, of course in decades past there have been encyclopedias collecting information on a wide variety of topics all conveniently labeled from A to Z, but those were different. Old-school encyclopedias and even the newer, digital versions of Britannica and the World Book collect writings on the knowledge of experts, and experts only. And that’s great for topics like the Russian Revolution or octopuses, but what about things like the backstory of the comic book character Reverse Flash? Or a random movie-score composer? You’d be hard-pressed to find anything about hyper-specific, lesser-known topics in your average encyclopedia.

That’s where Wikipedia comes in. Instead of requiring contributors to be certified, academic experts in any given topic, the site allows anyone with an account and enough motivation to write and edit articles. This represents a huge shift in our relationship to knowledge as a whole; in short, you no longer have to have a fancy, academic degree in order to have an expertise. This way, if you’re a devout Star-Trek fan, for example, your knowledge is as valuable as that of a practiced TV critic.

The ability for anyone and everyone to edit Wikipedia is, of course, also one of the major criticisms of the site. After all, how can you trust information that may have just been made up by any random Joe? While this is true, the ability of anyone to edit also lends itself to something else: a level of accountability than not even traditional encyclopedias have. If something incorrect appears in a Wikipedia article, it can immediately be updated and corrected. As a whole, if people care enough about a topic, they will make it their mission to make sure that the information presented about that topic on a site like Wikipedia or any other wiki is correct.

But what does all this mean for the future? In other words, why is the difference between traditional knowledge and that of the new, Internet-age “collective knowledge” important? Well, first of all, it’s important precisely because it is different, as paradoxical as that sounds. Both types of knowledge have their definite upsides and downsides, but that doesn’t make either of them less valid. Saying one of these types of knowledge is preferable to the other is frankly just an ignorant, simpleminded point of view. Neither is going away any time soon; what scholars and laymen alike must do in the future is accept the merits of both highbrow and lowbrow knowledge and combine them together. Only then can we really have a true collective knowledge, better than any encyclopedia and wiki combined.