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On Being "Off The Air" Of The Internet For A Period, On Imus, On Blacksburg, And On Bill Moyer's Show About Mass Media

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Lawrence R. Velvel describes the intellectual activities which have kept his writing to a minimum in the last month, and sets forth some brief comments on Imus, Blacksburg, and Bill Moyer’s program on the mass media’s complicity in war.


May 1, 2007

 Re:  On Being “Off The Air” Of The Internet For A Period, On Imus, On Blacksburg,And On Bill Moyer’s Show About The Mass Media’s Complicity In War. From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel


            Now and again, at times when this writer hasn’t been “on the air” very much, someone will write to ask whether he intends to cover some subject or other that has arisen in the meanwhile.  One such email was received regarding the Imus controversy -- which became eclipsed by Blacksburg, so that cable TV went from all Imus all the time to all Virginia Tech all the time.  So, because of the receipt of occasional missives of inquiry, it has occurred to me that, in addition to saying what little I have to add about some of these matters, I might also explain why much of the time I was “off the air” -- a partial absence which could, of course, be considered inconsistent with the blogosphere’s animating spirit of writing all the time, writing from one’s kitchen, from one’s desk, from airports, from hotels, from anywhere and everywhere without cease.  The thought of explaining one’s absence seemed an especially likely one because the reasons could conceivably be of interest to liberal people of intellectual bent -- there still are a few of us, after all.


            The last few weeks have been heavily devoted to one prong of our two pronged law school.  Persons familiar with the Massachusetts School of Law will know that it has what could be called two different tracks.  On the purely academic side, from the day of its founding in 1988, it has been different from any other law school.  There are perhaps 230 or 240 or so law schools in this country, but, as far as I know, ours is the only one whose announced mission, and whose program accordingly, is to provide legal education and social mobility to members of the working class, immigrants, people in midlife and minorities.  These probably are a handful of other law schools, or maybe fewer, that do provide education to such people, but I don’t know that this is their proclaimed mission, as it is MSL’s.  Because of our mission, and an academic program geared accordingly, we deliberately keep MSL’s tuition to less than half of the average law school tuition in our area (and in most other parts of the country as well), teach not just the academic side of law but also (unlike most law schools) focus extensively on teaching the practical skills that lawyers must have (e.g., teaching students how to try cases, negotiate, write contracts, draft wills and trusts, deal with clients, etc.) (the teaching of practical skills, one notes, is a large part of medical education and of most forms of professional education, albeit not generally of legal education), and deliberately reject use of the particular alphabet test, the LSAT, which has been used for 40 years and more to turn law schools into a bastion of the upper middle class and above.


            The other prong of MSL will be thought by some to be at the opposite pole from a focus on providing practical legal education to the less advantaged of American society.  It is to make accessible to the public some of the best intellectual and academic thinking taking place in the country on a host of political, historical, social, economic, medical and legal subjects.  (Perhaps surprisingly for a law school, legal subjects are the least of it.)  That academic institutions should make such thinking accessible to the public is something that this writer has been hearing since he entered the University of Michigan in 1956 -- 51 years ago, no less -- but that has rarely if ever been done since then by institutions of higher learning (which instead have largely gone in the opposite direction entirely).  For the purpose of doing what others do not, MSL puts on one hour long television shows, called The Massachusetts School of Law Educational Forum, which generally consist of one hour long panel discussions of a particular subject, puts on one hour long television show about books, called Books of Our Time, on which an author is interviewed about his or her latest book, has now inaugurated a new, one hour long radio program called What The Media Doesn’t Tell You, which discusses important subjects that the mass media fails to cover or covers only very sparsely, two to three times a year holds one or two day intellectual conferences featuring leading academics and thinkers who discuss a particular topic from a host of angles, and twice a year publishes an intellectual magazine, called The Long Term View, which devotes each issue to a single subject.  The television programs are seen throughout the Northeast on Comcast’s own Channel CN8 (as well as on some other stations around the country), are viewable and downloadable on the internet, and are also converted into radio programs that are heard in the United States on Sirius, on the World Radio Network).  (WRN also broadcasts the programs in Europe and Africa.)  The new radio program on What The Media Doesn’t Tell You” is heard on the same station in the same areas, and is likewise streamed and downloadable on the internet. 


People who read or write liberal blogs are likely to be interested in many of the television and radio programs, and issues of the magazine, which can all be accessed at www.mslaw.edu.


            The dichotomous combination of providing practical education and social mobility to the less affluent of American society, plus simultaneously providing public access to some of the best thinking of the American academic and intellectual worlds, causes me to think of MSL as the Eric Hoffer of law schools.  (Hoffer, of course, was the working class guy -- a longshoreman, I think -- who became a leading philosopher.)  And it was the access-to-the-best-thought prong of the school that occupied my time for approximately the last four weeks and caused me to often be “off the air” in terms of internet writing.


            In particular, a lot of preparation had to be done to inaugurate the new radio program.  Outlines had to be prepared, and interviews had to be, or shortly will be, taped on various important questions.  One is why The New York Times failed to carry its story about the NSA spying on Americans as soon as the story was available, in October 2004, well before the November 2004 election and at a time when the story could have (and I think would have) changed the results of the election, instead waited 14 months to carry the story (in mid December 2005), and then lied about when it had first known of it.  Others of the questions have been why the mass media has carried little or no information on (a) why Iran does or does not have at least as much right as the U.S. to “meddle” in Iraq -- our mass media simply assumes that it is perfectly proper for the U.S. to take the most serious and often quite deadly military actions there but it is improper for Iran to do anything there, (b) the government’s extensive ability to know, before 9/11, that airplanes could and might well be used as missiles to destroy buildings (the media instead carried only the Riceian, Bushian lies that this was not foreseeable), (c)  the existence of and our failure to develop any countermeasure for, a submarine-borne Russian missile, called the Sizzler, which apparently has a conventional warhead, gives only very short warning, can readily knock out an entire aircraft carrier, therefore threatens our entire carrier based strategy all over the world, and has been sold to the Chinese and offered to the Iranians (who could use it to destroy our carrier forces off the coast of their country).


            Another intellectual project that took extensive time was reading and preparing a sixteen page outline of “The Mighty Scourge,” which is the most recent book by the dean of Civil War historians, James McPherson.  The book represents, one thinks, the culmination of McPherson’s oeuvre, and he will appear at MSL for a daylong conference on August 25th to be interviewed about his book and to extensively discuss the book with the audience, who will doubtless include history professors, high school history teachers, civil war aficionados, and people with a general interest in American history.  (The book’s title “This Mighty Scourge,” is taken from a classic passage in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural – which contains some of the most classic passages ever written in the English language.  The two most pertinent sentences (in my view) say:  “Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.  Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”)


            Yet a third intellectual project that took extensive time was whipping into final shape for publication -- or at least attempting this -- a 900 plus pages volume containing all four books of the slightly fictionalized memoir of a career entitled “Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam.”  (The first three volumes were previously published separately.  The final volume has not been published before.)  Proofreading 900 plus pages, and then looking the book over later -- albeit not nearly as closely -- for further mistakes that inevitably creep in, because of the vagaries of technology when prior mistakes are being corrected, is a time consuming job, to say the least.


            There was also the matter of the TV show called Books of Our Time.  It was necessary to begin reading (in order to subsequently prepare an outline for an interview about) the book for the next program, Howard Gardner’s new “Five Minds For The Future.”  (Gardner is the famous Harvard professor who is the father of the now widely accepted theory of multiple intelligences.)  Thank God the taping of this show will not occur until May 23rd, so there is plenty of time; yet it still was necessary to begin doing the work.


            And, finally, this last weekend there was a conference to attend at MSL on the need to begin teaching American history in the context of world history, instead of in isolation from world history.  This subject, long overdue, was fathered in a book by the conference’s keynote speaker, Thomas Bender of NYU, who had previously been interviewed on Books of Our Time.  The conference, one is pleased to say, attracted speakers and attendees from all over the country, nearly 55 in all, which isn’t bad for an academic conference dealing exclusively with one specialized subject.


            So . . . there has been a lot going on that has occupied much of this writer’s time and has kept him largely “off the air.”  During this “non-broadcast” period there have been a few events which one ordinarily might have written about:  the Imus affair, the Blacksburg disaster, and Bill Moyer’s TV show on the media’s complicity in the run up to Bush’s war in Iraq.  Because so much has already been written about the first two of these matters subsequent to their occurrence, and much was previously written in the last few years about the third, I shall borrow by analogy from another of Lincoln’s classic statements:  “When a campaign biographer in 1860 asked Lincoln for details of his youth and young manhood,” writes McPherson (pp. 187-188), “the nominee replied:  ‘It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life.  It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s elegy: ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’’”  In other words my comments on the subjects at hand will be brief. 


            With regard to Imus, one does not bleed for him.  There was a (relatively brief) period when I used to watch his show because he had some interesting discussions with interesting people.  Eventually I stopped watching it because the guy was just too self absorbed to be bearable.  (To my surprise, after it hit the fan, one or two other people told me they agreed about his self absorption.)  And even in the period when I watched his show because of the discussions, the impression he made on me was that underneath it all, and maybe not so deeply buried, the guy was a bigot, anti Semitic, misogynistic and, in effect, a 1969 hardhat.  (Since all this was just my impression, it could all be wrong, of course.)  We are of almost the identical age -- isn’t he too 67 or so? -- and he struck me as an unregenerate, white, majoritarian, hard-hat-mentality guy of my own generation.  (Again, possibly wrong, but that’s how he struck one.)

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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.
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