I’m a news junkie, and I read way too much on the internet. If you’re reading this blog, that probably applies to you, too.
Reading things on the internet can be a good thing, particularly if you’re an academic who studies contemporary culture. Being well-informed is great, and there have been plenty of random things that I have read on the internet that have made their way into my “job”—which is writing about popular music and culture. In fact, the day before I gave my first talk at a big national academic conference, I read an article in the New York Times about a study that gave me a crucial piece of evidence for something in the paper. I quickly incorporated it into the talk that I gave the next day, and when that talk finally made it into a journal article and got published, the study I had stumbled upon was still relevant and survived into the final draft. If you write about contemporary culture, you never can tell where inspiration and ideas are going to come from. And while reading a wide variety of tangentially-related current news can definitely serve as a procrastination tool, I think it also helps to make me a better scholar. The trick is keeping those things in balance.
Another trick is to read with a critical eye and try to figure out, not only what content might be relevant for your own thinking, but what rhetorical strategies from other writers are worth emulating or avoiding. I’m trying to lean towards the "emulation" these days. True, there is a ton of bad writing out there, and perhaps the thing we are trained most to do as graduate students and junior scholars is to point out all of the flaws we see in the writing of others—and bonus points if you can aim a cutting assessment towards some rising superstar with a plum gig and a flashy book. And that’s helpful training, sure. But at a certain point it’s a lot more rewarding to put something out there yourself, rather than just tearing others down. And if you find fault with a writer, make sure that you’re avoiding whatever mistakes he or she is making. And also try to find the good in what they do and think about how you could use it it to make your own writing stronger.
At least, that’s what I’m thinking this week after reading an article in the Huffington Post by Lynne Huffer. (And I don’t read the Huffington Post often, but it’s amazing that her last name is Huffer and this was published in the Huffington Post.) I found it from a likely source: a friend had linked to it on Facebook. The actual content of the article isn’t super-relevant to what a want to talk about here, but a brief summary might be helpful: her argument is that we shouldn’t let the Supreme Court’s invalidation of DOMA blind us to the fact that they also struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And the bigger picture for Huffer is that we shouldn’t think that race problems in the U.S. are over and that we can now focus our attention squarely on LGBT civil rights; instead, there is much progress still to be made on both fronts.
To which I say, “hear, hear.” But I don’t actually think that the attitude Huffer warns about actually exists, at least not among the politically-engaged progressives she cites. Here’s the evidence she gives:
For example, lawyers, pundits, and activists regularly compare the inevitability of same-sex marriage rights to Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court decision that struck down state statutes prohibiting interracial marriage. On the day of this year's SCOTUS decisions, Evan Wolfson, the head of Freedom to Marry, applauded the death of DOMA but lamented the failure of the Prop 8 decision to end marriage discrimination nationwide. But, he assured us, invoking historical precedent, we too will finish the job. "The Supreme Court first punted on interracial marriage before it finally did the right thing in Loving v. Virginia in 1967--and brought the country to national resolution," Wolfson said.
Or take Barney Frank's comments at the DNC last fall as another example LGBT activists' "like race" equations. In a clear analogy between gays and blacks who become traitors to their cause, Frank slammed the Log Cabin Republicans by calling them Uncle Toms. And let's not forget the August 2012 cover of The Advocate depicting Obama in the place of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, transforming a symbol of our nation's union after a Civil War over slavery into a story about the wedding vows of same-sex couples.
The message behind these comparisons is clear: racial discrimination is a thing of the past. Now that race is taken care of, it's time to move on to equality for gays and lesbians.
I don’t actually think she earns those last two lines, especially her introductory clause of “the message behind these comparisons is clear.” Do you really think that Barney Frank wants to send the message that race is no longer a problem in the U.S.? And if he does think that, Huffer doesn’t give us any real evidence for that being the case. In fact, the message isn’t clear at all.
I was struck by this, however, because I use “the message is clear” in my own writing. Like “thus” and “therefore,” it’s a handy way of drawing various pieces of evidence and guiding the reader to the conclusion you want him or her to make. But anyone can just use those words to lend credence to an argument, whether or not the evidence you’ve marshaled actually supports your conclusion. So the takeaway for me as a writer is this: if I’m going to write that “the message is clear,” I better make double sure that it actually is.