Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


An open letter to Mark Zuckerberg

Dear Mark Zuckerberg:

I just sold what Facebook stock I had purchased back in 2012.

I’m in that group of Americans fortunate enough to have money to invest, even if it’s not very much. Still, the money grew, so I owe you thanks. Most of it was in my kids’ Coverdell accounts; I’m now going to reinvest those funds some other way to save towards their education.

I didn’t sell because the stock had fallen. Instead, I began thinking I was benefiting from your company in a way I could no longer justify. Long before your recent comments appeared in various media outlets, I was already thinking of selling my FB holdings, weighing the ethics of profiting off your company. My opinion of you and your company was, at one time, very high.

Asked if you thought Facebook influenced the election, you responded:

“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way—I think is a pretty crazy idea…Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”

You also played a transparent empathy card:

“I do think there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is they saw some fake news…If you believe that, then I don’t think you have internalized the message the Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.”

Oh…we’ve internalized it all right. There’s no confusion: the people who voted for Trump are furious at the government, enough to spread global chaos. Of course, they’re being conned by a trickster, and they will suffer from the attack on liberties and environmental policy right along with the rest of us. If they deserve empathy, it’s because their points of view, experiences, fears and feelings toward oppressed groups—these feelings float on a spectrum between passionate hatred and blind indifference—were harvested for political (and probably for financial) advantage.

***

You’re smart enough to know no one is saying the only reason Trump’s supporters voted was because of the fake news distributed via Facebook. You’re also smart enough to know that Facebook did, in fact, influence this election in some way, an idea far from crazy. Do you think your employees are crazy? They are wondering what influence Facebook has had, and have engaged in necessary soul searching.

Facebook is many things. It helps me connect with friends abroad, sell books and keep track of information during emergencies. Alongside all that, of course, you must admit that Facebook is human history’s most efficient and far reaching propaganda and counterknowledge distribution system. Those of us who use the website to distribute news have to own that. As its creator, so do you, just as you have to own the role your company played in the election of a bigot whose threat to the world is very real. Facebook would have influenced the election either way, no matter who had won, but the fact remains that we’ve elected a psychopath currently empowering every variety of repugnance.

Facebook needs to change. Dramatically. It cannot sit idly by knowing how it is contributing to mass misinformation and propaganda. The consequences extend to every layer of our society.

As an educator, I’ve been fighting the “filter bubble” social media effect, highlighted so brilliantly here by Eli Pariser back in 2011, since the beginning of this decade. Ignorance and misinformation are so high among my students, especially on topics like climate change, politics, economics, international affairs and—to my shock—human sexuality and the process of learning, that I routinely assume they’ll need to unlearn a laundry list of things, and I’m usually right. Because most don’t read books or newspapers, most of them lack any information outside of their sphere of gratification. What’s inside their sphere is often misplaced, misunderstood and flat out wrong.

This semester one student “heard on Facebook” that video games help their attention span more than other activities. Another one thought that a local grocery store was giving away hundreds of dollars’ worth of food to random people. A third thought we should close all bank accounts because Obamacare was going to drain them of money if Clinton won. A fourth believed that Facebook was close to charging people cash to maintain their profiles. I should note this one is pretty old, but you jumped to correct it.

***

Obviously, we all are to blame for this on some level. Facebook does not generate information any more than does the mail carrier. But you are not a mail carrier and you know it. As a corporation, you don’t have to weigh the balance between your desire for profit and what social impact you have. However, you claim to imagine yourself as a place meant to connect people. It begs an obvious question: what sort of connection do you want us to share? Do you want to make it easier for us to hoodwink each other with nonsense, or to spread legitimate information and concerns? In the end, what do you think of us, your users and investors?

Frankly, I’m shocked by your Trumpist denial. Just as it’s Trumpist to say one thing but then to turn around and claim you never said it…to say you care about people whose rights you want to attack…it is also equally Trumpist to say that something is false when you know it’s true. It’s also Trumpist to say things so outrageous and extreme that they force people to respond to a distraction from the conversation. That’s exactly what you’re doing with your claim that Facebook had no impact whatsoever and that your critics lack empathy.

You know your policies and business model influenced the election, just as they influence any host of other things. You either don’t care or you like the results. Out one side of your mouth, you’re accusing your critics of lacking empathy. Out the other, you claim your critics—a group that includes your employees and investors—perceive a false reality.

What’s real? Obviously, it’s what Mark Zuckerberg claims to be true, no matter how extreme and absolute. That’s not an example of empathy. It’s much closer to the Facebook post of a stubborn and crazy uncle.

Cordially,

Gint Aras
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Image of Narcissus by Carvaggio from Wikipedia.


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Two Chicagoland readings, back to back

The good people at the Morton College Library have agreed to host two readings next week. I’m very happy to present my novel at the library, which has benefited my writing tremendously. Obviously, The Fugue is set in Cicero; these are the only readings I have planned in my hometown, so they should be special.

During these readings, one in the late morning, January 25th, the other in the early evening, January 26th, I’ll have our students in mind, and I’ll talk about writing as a lifelong craft and profession. However, they are free and open to the public!

The Morton College Library is on Morton College campus, almost right in the middle. Head through the courtyard/amphitheater, enter through the glass doors and take a left in the vestibule.

3801 S Central Avenue, Cicero, Illinois

The following hyperlinks will take you to Facebook event pages where you might RSVP. Of course, you don’t have to. Just come, and bring a friend!

Session One—January 25th, 11:00 AM Morton College Library Cybercafe

Session Two—January 26th, 7:00 PM Morton College Library Cybercafe

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Photo by Morton College Library.


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Are author interviews boring?

The reason I’m asking this question is because The Next Best Book Blog has run an interview of me today (click here) . It’s a series called Would You Rather, and the header asks a rhetorical question: Bored with the same old-fashioned author interviews you see all around the blogosphere? I had a load of fun answering those questions and I hope you’ll check it out.

I got to thinking during the interview. I’m not like those authors who want to cut themselves when they hear “Where do your ideas come from?” or “What are your greatest influences?” As I blogged yesterday, I often forget my influences, but I also feel a bit ashamed about them; so many are the usual books writers are “supposed to know”. Still, if I had to pick from among cliches and sentiments, I’d rather answer questions like, “Does an artist have a responsibility to society?” or “Is there any way to bring back the noble hero?”

Asking a writer where ideas come from is obviously loaded,  and to certain parties can be a put down. What do you mean where do my ideas come from? They come from me. I know a lot of people assume they “lack ideas” (they don’t, and more about that in a moment), and ideas must “exist somewhere”. But how would we feel if we asked a writer, “Hey, where do you get your ideas?” and s/he answered, “A vending machine outside Hammond, Indiana.” Would we seek out that machine? Would the art be interesting, then, if you could buy it for a quarter?

Any time I hear a piece of beautiful music or read an amazing book, I’m stunned by the artist’s creation. It’s shocking to think there existed nothing, but then an artist came around and released a symphony or an epic poem or a monumental sculpture straight out of empty space. It must have a source! Where? Tell us where!

That hope for a source is worth investigating.

I had a neighbor once tell me—most writers hear something like this—that, despite never having written a thing, she should write a book about her life. I asked why. Oh, she said, my ex-husband cheated on me, and I had a tough childhood, and my eldest daughter is in therapy over my ex-husband’s affairs, and I used to work in hospitality but I quit because I thought I’d raise a family.

She felt the weight of all this experience, all the sadness. I could sense it. But was it all that different from what anyone else has ever felt? Who knows. The book she imagined doesn’t exist. She never found (or carved out) time to sit and write.

Curious things happen when you force people to sit and write. I see it among my community college students. Most of them—perhaps 90% of them—believe they lack ideas. They’ll prove it to you: ask them to write a regular old college essay and it will drip with “say no to drugs” and “it’s unfair to be judged” cliches high schools dump into young brains. But when you make them freewrite—just keep pen to paper for ten minutes without pause and allow whatever comes to come—all kinds of intimate surprises appear.

If you want to know where writers’ ideas come from, try freewriting. When you see what’s there, what came from you, ask yourself which of those bits you’d be willing to develop and share with strangers. That’s what a writer is. We share the bits most people pack away while wondering where the good ideas are.

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What’s appropriate to wear to class?

This just happened.

I was sitting in my office and typing an email message . A trio of students walked past my wide open door, and I noticed that one student’s shirt said “suck dick” on it. So I stepped out into the hall and asked him, rather jovially, “Hey, can I see what your shirt says?”

Here’s what it said:

You can’t suck my dick while talking, so shut the fuck up.

I’m not for censorship. I think people should wear what they please, and I occasionally teach wearing a dashiki. But I’m glad I’m not the one who’s got this guy in his classroom today. I’m going to guess most instructors are just going to ignore it. Why attract further attention? However, right now I’m wondering how I would handle it if he came to my class wearing that thing.

I’ve responded to students’ t-shirts before by assigning research projects. A guy who came into my class wearing a hammer and sickle got to do a project about the Gulag. Another guy sporting a Che t-shirt got to read Ay, Cuba, A Socio-Erotic Journey. But how do you turn this kind of frat-boy belligerence into a learning experience? “Here, watch all 44 episodes of Keeping Up Appearances, then write a paper on how etiquette and protocol can be contrived to equal passive aggression.”

For the record, when I was 16, I had a t-shirt that said Shut Up, Bitch. I bought it in California following a nasty bit of heart-wringing over a girl, and I wore it to a few beach parties and a summer camp. One of my dearest friends in the world, a woman who knows me through-and-through, two years my elder, took me to the side and said, “I don’t think that shirt’s like you. It’s just taking the hurt you feel and hurting others with it.” After that I never wore it again.

So, perhaps it’s best to leave these kinds of things to the peers to sort through. Again, I’m glad I don’t have to make a decision.

Here’s a photo of me in my dashiki, as photographed by my 5 year-old daughter in Vilnius this past July. I often teach class this way:

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Progressive, compassionate education reform

Those of us interested in serious education reform so often bump up against intense opposition, enough to make us feel there’s little we can do as educators or citizens. Thankfully, some people are not left discouraged but take action.

Introducing, The Chicago Wisdom Project and founder Theodore Richards who is also a writer and activist. My conversation with him in a Chicago tapas joint inspired me to profile his mindful and creative approach to educating at risk youth in this week’s True Community, my weekly column about men and education. I hope you’ll check it out and share. This provocative project, which teaches permaculture and art education, deserves wider attention. I feel it’s a model for serious education reform, particularly for inner city schools and urban community colleges.

From the article:

The creative process, of course, is natural. It is not an artifice we impose on ourselves. To create, one must allow ideas to come, let them take their course as we also guide them. Creative ideas grow. Sometimes they’ll be attacked by weeds or insects. They’ll dry up in the sun or get washed away. People will taste them and like or hate them. They are born, ripen, rot and die, yet they are never “finished” completely; they lead to other ideas in endless cycles. The most valuable lesson of exploring one’s creativity, especially for a young person, is that we wish to perfect things but can never be perfect. Creating—cultural participation vs. cultural consumption—is a process. Its purpose is to journey, not to arrive.

Click here for the full article.

Wisdom Project


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Looking forward to the Summer Literary Seminars

Am I excited about this summer’s SLS? I can’t really express the anticipation. However, I tried in this article.

As a side note, I’m excited to find myself in a new environment, at least for a short time, away from the community college. This week’s True Community explains why: ...the community college can become a lens, a point of perception, and if I sit too long inside it, I face the isolating illusion that the entire world has become disinterested in itself.

Hope you’ll check it out. SLS participants, see you there!

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Photo from SLS Facebook Page.

 


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Americans fear creativity

I was taken by the story of Paris Gray, a high school student in Georgia disciplined for bombing her yearbook quote. She cleverly used chemical symbols from the periodic table to code the title of a hip-hop song by Juvenile. The song is vile and disgusting, but I think that’s beside the point. This girl beat the censors with a code that obviously embarrassed the school. I comment on it in this week’s True Community.

Check it out. And please do share.

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Photo by TAMUC