January 7, 2012

Sara Ackerman Is Both a Nut, and X

pic removed by administrator

How to summarize a complex story? Start from first principles: what does the author want to be true?

Sara Ackerman is a student at NYU, and sent a mass email to the "Department of Social and Cultural Analysis" complaining, inter alia, that a professor forced her to go to OWS and do an ethnography. Her complaint was not that it is impossible for a college student to do an ethnography of a fluid movement comprised of people who in, say, November are completely  different than the people there in August, rendering any conclusions not just moot but misleading, or that the term ethnography is correctly spelled "personal anecdote," which would have been my complaint. But then again I  didn't go to many of my classes because I thought they were full of people who didn't care or blindly followed the typical herd mentality.  Was I right?  NB: that's an ethnography.

Her rambling, highly fonted emails are the typographic equivalent of an old time ransom note, and I have every suspicion she's a nut.

Your problem is that the accompanying pic to the NYU article about her is this:

sara ackerman.jpg
Uh oh.  Things about to go racial up in this joint.


Gawker's summary of her complaint:

...objected to being "forced," in her words, to interview "criminals, drug addicts, mentally ill people, and of course, the few competent, mentally stable people"--[Sara] did not like this [assignment].

And the NYU paper continues:

She requested an alternative assignment, but wasn't granted one by CAS Dean Kalb until, she had already gone down to OWS "with two other young girls, who are quite attractive and thin, and don't look particularly physically fit enough to take on a potential predator, rapist, paranoid schizophrenic, etc" and felt like she "escaped an extremely dangerous -- and even, life threatening -- situation."
So it is pretty clear that she sounds like she was afraid to go there.

But then there's the picture.  That's a picture symbolizing what she is allegedly afraid of.  No picture of her is available, which is weird, as she has 1000 followers on facebook and I found it in 9 seconds (though it took hours to verify), but if you open the Textbook Of Media it becomes immediately understandable: her picture is not useful to their narrative. If this was a story of a sexual indiscretion they would find a pic of her in a bikini, and if she doesn't fit in a bikini they'll use someone else in a bikini as a symbol. 

If you take the phrase, "quite attractive and thin", and juxtapose it with the pic above, or the  picture NYMag used:

nymag ackerman.JPG
You've set it up nicely: white girl is afraid of black people.

In fact, her actual complaint is that she disagrees with OWS, on principle: "a movement that runs entirely against my core values, and principles".  I'm not saying she's not a nut;  she may also believe there are drug addicts and rapists down there, she may be afraid of them, but in her brain the secondary problem is the rapists, the primary problem is OWS.

So that's your second clue: an ideological disagreement-- albeit an insane one-- has been reframed into something that seems self-explanatory: this crazy girl who thinks all of OWS are rapists is a racist.

Which isn't entirely wrong:

On a side-note have you ever heard of that mega-university in Cambridge, Mass. called Harvard?

Long story short, they had a few disputes between a tenured professor, and a big man on campus, and look what happened in the end:

They swapped him:


For him:


And got a PR nightmare---does anyone see the parallels? Or do I have to continue to spell it out for you, as I have been for over 2 months?

Look, neither Summers nor West is perfect, but why don't you do a little research to see who was more deserving of a prominent position at Harvard?

These are the ramblings of a person whose personality is made of paper mache.  But listen to the words, the words she felt were important enough to underline:  highly qualified X guy was replaced for terribly inadequate Y guy.

You fill in the X and Y.

"Does anyone see the parallels?"


So she's a nut.  So what?  Why are we reading about this?

Nothing about her story is interesting or unusual.  As a psychiatrist in a university hospital, I have seen hundreds of situations just like this.  I'm not saying they all actually had psychiatric pathology, I am only saying that somehow or other, referral or kicking and screaming, they have wound up at the door of the university counseling service.  Psychiatry is the tool the system uses when it can't shoot you in the head.

And yes, every year five or so nuts send terabytes of emails to everyone.edu and every newspaper within the blast radius about professorial misconduct, conspiracies, mishandlings, promises broken, he said/she said, with multiple quotes from the Student Handbook.  (Here's a protip: if you ever refer to the Student Handbook, you should take a semester off or lithium.)  You never see these stories in Gawker, let alone the entire emails, and trust me when I tell you they are more interesting.  So why this?

She's a nut, but she's a nut in the required direction: this nut hates OWS, which is to say, only a nut would hate OWS.  A nut, or someone who doesn't like blacks, or....   Her nuttiness serves a necessary ideological function, which is to set OWS in opposition to her insanity; OWS is magnified as the voice of reason, the voice of sanity.  When the media points out the idiocies of Sarah Palin, Bachmann, and Perry, it isn't to discredit them-- a maneuver that overt would be distasteful to intelligent media;  Pailinizing them sends a more subtle but powerful message: anyone who agrees with these nuts is a nut.  The point is not to doubt them, the point is to doubt yourself, nudging you closer to center (i.e. leftward.)  That's how you win an ideological battle.

Thought experiment: you come across a story about an OWS supporter who is also a nut trying to get her professors fired.  What network are you watching?  So then why are you watching?


Sara Ackerman threatened to, and then did, the worst thing you can ever do:  go to the press.

The press is not your friend, and when you give them your existence they will use you however they need to, and you will have no recourse.  If you happen also to be a nut, you're done for.

NYULocal is a student paper, so it's safe to assume they're deeply pro-OWS.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the point is that they don't see it that way, they see it is pro-truth, or pro-uncovering the lies of Wall Street.  Again, fine; but it means that when they use your image for their purposes, like they are using Ackerman's, they think they are doing a good thing.  You can't fight against that.

The essence of an ideological battle is not, "I believe this, but you believe that" but rather, "You believe that, but I know the truth."  Because of this, not only can you not convince them of their bias, but it is impossible for them to ever be aware of it.  It's not bias, it's reality. Hence "basic" and "fundamental" are attached to the very things that other people see as anything but.

At around 4pm MST, I wrote a comment on the NYUlocal page: "Look at the picture they used.  THINK!

Sometime within the next 15 minutes, both my comment and the pics were gone.

You'll either be surprised or not: I knew they were going to do that.  Which is why I screencapped the before and after:


nyulocal capture1.jpg


nyulocal ackerman2.jpg

The point here is not that I "caught" them, that is not my interest.  What's important is that they took it down in response to my comment.  What will they tell themselves is the reason they took down the picture? Or used it in the first place? 

Was it that I misunderstood the picture, or was it that I did not properly understand the picture?


End notes:

1. The scientific problem with ethnographies is that unlike a clinical trial or even a straight census, the "investigator" cannot be separated from the work.  It is simply impossible-- looking forward to some angry comments-- to have an "objective" ethnography because the process of the investigation requires the investigator to apply his own biases and defenses to the work. You strive for neutrality, of course, but there is always conscious awareness that you can't reach it.   It mitigates this by weaving within it a narrative about the investigator, the investigator becomes explicitly part of the research, so the reader can (conceivably) make some guesses about why this particular investigator saw this particular thing in this particular way.

I tell you this because Sara Ackerman is thus correct in saying she cannot perform this study.  Her hatred of OWS, misguided and shallow though it may be, would interfere, and that would inevitably come through in the study.  But, and this is an important but, since no one on the planet would have known who Sara Ackerman was, we wouldn't have had that needed information to properly interpret her findings should she have forged ahead.  Which means that in refusing to do the research, Sara Ackerman was the only honest ethnologist in the class.

see also: Why does the media ignore Ron Paul?  Not because they disagree