Category Archives: History

Marshall McLuhan: Still prescient, 49 years later

Back when esnl was a budding journalist, no name was better known in media theory than Marshall McLuhan of the University of Toronto School of Communication Theory.

McLuhan’s theories about the role of mass media in shaping the consciousness of the 20th Century sparked endless hours of coffee house conversation.

But McLuhan has largely dropped out of sight, enduring mainly on DVD’s of Annie Hall, in one of most memorable movie cameos ever:

But McLuhan’s theories prove remarkably resilient, most notably his prescient understanding of the computer-enabled panopticon and the power of television to shape and mobilize emotions on behalf of corporate agendas.

He also grasped that the dramatic first-person journalistic reports and prime network coverage by the free-roving reporters of the Vietnam War would lead to draconian restrictions liked the “embedded reporters” who covered the two Bush Wars in the Middle East and North Africa.

Indeed, he even foreshadowed the rise of the presidential candidacy of a creature such as Donald Trump.

And that brings us to today’s video, a remarkably documentary aired on NBC 19 March 1967:


And now for the video. . .

Aired 49 years ago, yet remarkably timely, it comes from from Marshall McLuhan Speaks:

This is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Massage

Program note:

Featuring Marshall McLuhan, and narrated by Edward Binns.

Quote of the day: Trump, would-be racist dictator

From Seattle native and deputy editor of Der Spiegel Charles Hawley:

All it took to reveal the lengths to which Trump is prepared to go was the half-hearted retreat of a few leading Republicans when it became no longer possible to ignore that their nominee was a sexual predator. But now that he has been “unshackled,” as he himself has said, it is becoming apparent that Nov. 8 will very likely not be the end of what he has taken to calling his “Patriotic Movement.”

The rhetoric that Trump has begun using with ever increasing frequency — that he would lock up Hillary Clinton if he won, that the election is rigged, that his followers should monitor the polls and “watch other communities,” that he would rein in the “corrupt” media — is the rhetoric of dictatorship. But it also appeals directly to a significant chunk of the population, one that feels abandoned by the country’s leadership, left behind by globalization and threatened by demographics.

Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” might suggest that he is adhering to the American exceptionalism narrative and, thus, to the American founding myth. But much of what he says — banning Muslims from entering the US, stepped up domestic surveillance, expanded use of torture — is in direct opposition to the Constitution. Indeed, the “greatness” that Trump wants to return to, it has become clear, is one free of immigrants and blacks. One where white American men need not encounter adversity, allowing their supposed natural superiority to shine through.

Trump is suggesting an altogether different narrative of American identity, one based on race and religion.

France ends mandatory transgender sterilization

Goof lord.

Mandatory sterilization?

Although it wasn’t all that long ago, many states in the U.S. mandated sterilization for the “feeble minded,” part of the the same eugenics movement that gave inspiration to Hitler.

From the  Thomson Reuters Foundation:

Rights activists celebrated a major victory in France on Thursday after the country passed legislation allowing transgender people to legally change their gender without undergoing sterilization.

The move comes after a handful of European nations strengthened the rights of transgender people by scrapping requirements such as undergoing medical procedures in order to have their desired gender legally recognized.

Since 2014, Denmark, Malta and Ireland have allowed people to legally change their gender by simply informing authorities, without any medical or state intervention.

The practice of involuntary sterilization has been widely condemned as a human rights violation, including by the United Nations.

Graphic Representation: Debating considerations

Sunday’s presidential “debate” was the final nail in the coffin containing the corpse of American democracy, the reduction of discourse to carefully crafted sound bites designed not to inform and provoke serious thought but to inflame and trigger knee-jerk reactions.

On on side we saw the looming narcissist, grabbing attention by the power of his sneers and on the other the stiff, robotic technocrat.

If anything, Trump dominated the debate, in part by keeping his eye firmly on the cameras’ red lights and lumbering into its relentless gaze, hovering behind his opponent whenever it was her turn to speak.

Trump, the cartoonish, hulking media star best known for declaring “You’re fired!,” knows the medium well. But like all sociopaths, he is dazzled by the kleig and so self-assured that he overplays his hand to anyone with a skeptical eye.

Clinton, the epitome of the backroom dealer, is awkward in the public gaze, coming off as stiff when she relentlessly keeps to her script.

Part of the problem with the modern presidential debate is the format, shaped by medium in which they are conducted as candidates are forced to confine their answers to brief sound bites.

Consider, by contrast, the gold standard of American political debates, the seven 1856 confrontations between the consummate insider, between the diminutive [5’4″] Democratic incumbent Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, and his challenger, the looming [6’5″] Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln [and the matter of stature is about the only resemblance between today’s opponents and those of 158 years ago].

While Douglas would go on to retain his senate seat, it was Lincoln who two years later defeated Douglas to win the White House.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates set the stage for the presidential race two years later, and election that sparked a civil war.

Those debates bore no resemblance to Sunday’s debacle.

Consider, first of all, the format:

Lincoln and Douglas agreed to debate in seven of the nine Illinois Congressional Districts; the seven where Douglas had not already spoken. In each debate either Douglas or Lincoln would open with an hour address. The other would then speak for an hour and a half. The first then had 30 minutes of rebuttal. In the seven debates, Douglas, as the incumbent, was allowed to go first four times.


On seven separate occasions voters got to hear each candidate speak for 90 minutes!

Candidates could develop their ideas in detail, giving the voters a deeper understanding of the issues, developing their platforms and revealing what they actually stood for and intended to implement during their terms of office.

Not so today, when each candidate speaks for about as long as a reasonably skilled person can hold her breath, a time limit about as long as a campaign television commercial.

How can democracy thrive under such conditions? A climate in which impressions carry more weight than ideas?

Enough said.

Now on with today’s Graphic Representations

And rarely, if ever, have we seen such unanimity in the world of editorial cartooning.

First, from the editorial cartoonist of the Washington Post, the first of two offerings employing a similar metaphor:

Tom Toles: Donald Trump is breaking some barriers, too


And the second falling image, via the Charlotte Observer:

Kevin Siers: Trump in free fall


UPDATE: One more image we just discovered from across the pond via the Independent:

Dave Brown: Hair-raising experience


From the Los Angeles Times:

David Horsey: Trump steers the presidential debate into the lurid side of politics


From the Lexington Herald Leader:

Joel Pett: The GOP and women


And from the Columbus Dispatch:

Nate Beeler: Defending Liberty


Similarly, from the Arizona Republic:

Steve Benson: Trump targets women in new campaign slogan


And from the Tulsa World:

Bruce Plante: Trump in the locker room


Back to the locker room again, this time from the Baton Rouge Advocate:

Walt Handelsman: “Locker Room Talk”


Next up, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the first of three offerings on a parallel theme:

Mike Luckovich: Presidential grab


From the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the second:

Clay Bennett: Respect


For our penultimate cartoon, the Philadelphia Daily News weighs in:

Signe Wilkinson: A GOP power grab


Finally, from the Washington Post again:

Ann Telnaes: The Donald nose whereof he speaks


We close with another image, this one painted by Caravaggio, and telling the story from Greek mythology of Narcissus, a man so enamored of self love that when he gazed into his own reflection in a lake he pined away and died from unrequited love.

Remind you of anyone?:


Chart of the day: Global trade collapse in 3 charts

A stark picture of the collapse of global trade from World Economic Outlook — October 2016:

IMF World Economic Outlook, October 2016; Chapter 2: Global Trad

Quote of the day: On the evil of two lessers

From political scientist Carlo Invernizzi Accetti of the City College of New York and the Center for European Studies of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, writing for the Guardian:

The roots of this populist drift in the Republican party go back several decades. Although the party’s current establishment professes to be outraged by at least some of Trump’s excesses, there is a direct line of continuity running from the late 1990s’ bid to impeach Bill Clinton over the Lewinsky affair, to George W Bush’s self-presentation as the candidate one would “most like to have beer with”, the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate in 2012 and many features of Trump’s current campaign.

The Democrats’ response has been to move progressively towards the center, assuming the mantle of “reason” and “respectability”, while presenting their rivals as irresponsible mavericks. No wonder the substantive policy differences between them have fallen into the background: when politics is structured around the opposition between competent technocrats on one hand and anti-establishment populists on the other, there is little room left for substantive policy disagreement in the middle.

Nor is America alone in this shift. The debate over Brexit in the UK was fought along the same axis of opposition. The core of the Remain campaign’s argument rested on the opinion of “experts”, according to which leaving the European Union would have had objectively catastrophic consequences for the country. In contrast, the Leave campaign appealed to many of the same sentiments that underscore Trump’s appeal: widespread anti-establishment feeling, guttural nationalism and concerns about immigration and international trade.

The paradox is that all this is depoliticizing public debate, precisely as campaigns become more bitter and conflictual. Democratic politics depends on the confrontation between rival political agendas and ideological visions. But in the struggle between technocrats and populists all we are left with is the choice between preserving the system as it is or burning it all to the ground. For those who want meaningful political alternatives, this doesn’t bode well.

Marilyn Waring: Economics as if people mattered

Marilyn Waring is one of the world’s most remarkable economists, a former New Zealand legislator — the youngest-ever national lawmaker when elected in 1975 — who brought a government down over her opposition to nuclear weapons, then went on to earn her doctorate in political economy.

She won her degree with a revolutionary thesis on the  a thesis on the United Nations System of National Accounts, the system of valuing a national economy solely on the financial value of tangible goods produced.

That system was devised by British economist John Maynard Keynes to engineer the British Empire’s participation in World War II, and ignored, among other things, all of the household labors of women, labors which, literally “kept the home fires burning.”

Waring’s critique forced the U.N. to revise its accounting system, and as Bloomberg reported three years ago:

Waring gained international prominence with “If Women Counted,” also published as “Counting for Nothing.” Praised by the feminist Gloria Steinem and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, the book lambasted national accounting systems as sexist for excluding unpaid women’s work. Canada’s National Film Board in 1995 made it into a documentary called “Who’s Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies and Global Economics.”

While Waring wasn’t the first to criticize the exclusion, her book drew attention for its thorough and persuasive analysis, said Joann Vanek, a former director of social statistics at the UN.

“She demystified the national accounts,” Vanek said. “Many feminists had taken pot shots at national accounts, but Marilyn went into the body of it and disaggregated the specific assumptions that were made and how that really shaped what ended up being a bias against women.”

Waring’s knowledge and outspokenness made the critique credible, Vanek said. “She was unafraid. These guys, these national accountants, are somewhat oracle-type figures, and she would confront them.”

In 1993, the UN revised the system of national accounts to recommend that all production of goods in households for their own consumption be included in the measurement of economic output, a definition excluding childcare, elder-care, cooking and cleaning.

But Waring’s critique is much broader, and is superbly outlined in a just-re-released 1995 documentary from the National Film Board of Canada:

Who’s Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies and Global Economics

Program notes:

In this feature-length documentary, Marilyn Waring demystifies the language of economics by defining it as a value system in which all goods and activities are related only to their monetary value. As a result, unpaid work (usually performed by women) is unrecognized while activities that may be environmentally and socially detrimental are deemed productive. Waring maps out an alternative vision based on the idea of time as the new currency.