How Fake News Works

Here’s how fake news — the real fake news, right wing fake news — disseminates itself, and it depends on the fact that six in ten Americans only read headlines according to a recent study.

I receive daily news alerts from a number of sources from the far right to the far left. This morning, a far right outlet, Godfather Politics (just the latest iteration of a continually renamed site) sent out an email with a list of headlines, almost all of them alarmist in different ways. One of them included a disturbing headline: almost 8 million illegal immigrants tried to buy guns recently according to FBI stats.

Just on the face of it, I thought — ah no, I don’t think so, so I followed up. Here’s how it went.

Godfather Politics posted the following headline yesterday, December 28th: almost 8 million illegal immigrants tried to buy guns:

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You can read it yourself

They got their information on December 27th from the Washington Examiner‘s Twitter feed, @dcexaminer

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Which you should be able to see for yourself here:…r/status/1078397615350390785

That tweet of course links to an article on the Washington Examiner‘s website, which has a somewhat different headline now. Instead of claiming that 8 million illegal immigrants “tried to buy guns this year,” the headline now says that a “record number of illegal immigrants are barred from buying guns this year.” See the difference? Here’s the new headline:

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Which you can read for yourself here:…/fbi-record-number-of-illegal-immigrants-tried-to-buy-guns

Ah, but there’s more: the Washington Examiner did in fact erroneously report that a record number of illegal immigrants tried to buy guns and were prevented from doing so. But, that did not in fact happen. What has happened is that the FBI released lists of names of people barred from purchasing guns. Nearly 8 million of those names are illegal immigrants. So the real story is that the FBI list is bigger than before, and that it has 8 million names, but it was never the case that 8 million illegal immigrants actually tried to buy guns. That’s fake news.

Now the Washington Examiner did post a correction on the news article:

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You’ll notice that the venue incorrectly named itself Washington Secrets in the retraction, which was no doubt an earlier iteration of the Washington Examiner, but they’re so sloppy they didn’t even catch that.

What is the real number? The Washington Examiner did in fact report the real number. Of the 8 million illegal immigrants barred from buying guns, 3,300 attempted to buy guns in 2017 and were denied:

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So what has happened?

  1. The Washington Examiner, formerly Washington Secrets, falsely claims on December 27th, 2018 that 8 million illegal immigrants tried to buy guns in 2017.
  2. Godfather Politics picks up that headline on December 28th, 2018 and emails it out in a digest by December 29th.
  3. Some time before December 29th, 2018 the Washington Examiner changes the headline and posts a small correction on the bottom of the page.
  4. They have not removed the misleading tweet as of December 29th, 2018.

I know my right wing friends. They’re going to say “everyone makes mistakes. Mainstream media does the same thing.” No, this is the deliberate spread of misinformation that leverages the fact that most readers don’t read more than headlines. I know that because they didn’t remove the tweet. I also know it because every time I follow up on right wing media headlines I get the same results. I don’t get these kinds of results from my follow-ups on the Washington Post or the New York Times, however.

What do we really learn from this fiasco?

First, that consumers of right wing media are regularly being fed massive lies and they believe them. My right wing friends won’t bother reading this, and if they do, they might believe it in this one instance but never learn to distrust their sources.

Next, that right wing media is complicit with the Trump administration in manufacturing an immigration crisis that doesn’t exist. The Trump administration, with the help and support of right wing news outlets, is lying about the nature and extent of our immigration problem. The fact is, most illegal immigrants are here to work and to support their families, so they are overwhelmingly law abiding once they get here. And, for the record, they keep coming because American employers keep hiring them — but the Trump administration is not targeting American employers even though they are just as guilty of breaking the law as the illegal immigrants that they hire.

Finally, we learn that the immigration crisis is in fact a manufactured, fictional crisis. The numbers prove it. 3,300 illegal immigrants out of about 8,000,000 on the list is .04% — only .04% of illegal immigrants who enter the country attempt to purchase guns. That’s in contrast with 30-40% of American households with guns as of 2017. In contrast, as of 2011, “data collected by the FBI show that firearms were used in 68 percent of murders, 41 percent of robbery offenses and 21 percent of aggravated assaults nationwide.” So the overwhelming majority of gun offenses are committed by Americans who own guns, not illegal immigrants. If we want to curb gun violence here in the US, we need to do it with extensive, national revision of our gun control laws. No wall is going to change that, and we need to quit blaming illegal immigrants for our own problems.

And yes, in case you weren’t sure before, this all adds up to the fact that the Trump administration forced a government shutdown for no good reason at all, and he did it while his own party controlled both houses of Congress.

Bohemian Rhapsody, A Review

Bohemian Rhapsody is a great biopic about the history of Queen from Freddie Mercury’s first encounter with the band (then known as Smile) to the Live Aid concert in 1985, largely focused on Freddie Mercury.

It had the flaws that most biopics share — it’s not tightly plotted — but it strived to be an honest (though not necessarily always factual) portrait of Freddie Mercury. It didn’t downplay his bisexuality or partying, or how much of a jerk he could be with his fellow band members and other people he loved, but instead tried to get us to understand Mercury through the lens of his relationships.

His primary relationships were with a long time lover Mary Austin, whom he always called “the love of my life,” his fellow band members, his parents, and Paul Prenter and Jim Hutton, with whom he was involved at different times. So you see his flaws, and you see why the people around him loved him, but you don’t see the media stereotype of Freddie Mercury — which is what I think some people wanted to see.

Small parts of the film were cinematic kitsch, like a tour sequence in which the names of cities are formed in bright letters out of Mercury’s different performance postures, and a montage of different very negative reviewer comments about “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The former wasn’t necessary: I think a montage of concert performances would have been enough. The music always carries the day in the film. But the appearance of kitsch should be forgivable in a film about Queen, who could always elevate it to art while indulging in it. The latter, however, was still enjoyable, as “Bohemian Rhapsody” is arguably one of the three to five most important songs of the 70s and their signature song, so these negative reviews deserve the short attention they get.

I probably took more pleasure in seeing arguments with record producers about singles and arguments the band had with each other during recording than I should, but I think the band members who produced the film — Brian May and Roger Taylor had producer credit, and Jim Beach, the band manager, has writing credit — wanted to depict those tensions as part of the band’s creative energy. I think it worked.

Rami Malek was impressive. I’d only seen him before in the series Mr. Robot, and if you’ve seen that series, you couldn’t imagine two more completely different characters. One is a deeply introverted computer geek who suffers from multiple personality disorder, and the other is Freddie Mercury. I now see Malek as up there with Heath Ledger and Johnny Depp in range of characters. Performances overall were very good, and it’s worth seeing for no other reason than the fun and energy of the music, which is I think the film’s real star. The film is as in love with Queen’s music as anyone could hope.

Incidentally, the film is also a great tribute to Live Aid, the 1985 concert for Africa relief. It begins and ends with the Live Aid concert. Retrospectively, and because of this film, I think the Live Aid concert was the last great swan song for major acts from the 60s and 70s from Dylan to punk. The 70s ended in 1985 at that concert. In terms of the band’s history, ending the film with Live Aid omits the last six years of the band’s life with Freddie Mercury, which covered the last three albums released during Mercury’s lifetime and what would have been a heartrending presentation of Mercury succumbing to AIDS-related pneumonia. So the film is an incomplete portrait in terms of the band’s history, but I think a good portrait of a group of personalities creating music together and a great celebration of the music itself and the larger than life personality who made it come alive for so many of us.

What it’s like writing for publication…

I’m posting this to give readers a general sense of what scholars do when they write for publication — specifically, the amount of reading and work involved. I’m not particularly exceptional in this area. I have friends who read faster and more than I do. The reading load I describe below constitutes a partial list of reading that I did for an introduction to and chapter of an edited anthology I’m working on. My chapter was on Plato and Derrida, and over the Spring 2018 semester and into a bit of the summer (maybe the third week of June), I did the following reading just for the Derrida part of my chapter, which makes up about 16 pages of a 32 page chapter. This reading also added about two to three paragraphs to my introduction.

  • Webpages: 4 (maybe 30 pages of text)
  • Articles: 41 (about 800 pages of text)
  • Books: 7 (about 2100 pages of text)
  • Book chapters: 2 (about 180 pages of text, and yes, one of them was about 150 pages)

I was tempted to list everything individually with page counts next to it, but I’m not any more up to posting that than you are up to reading it.

So I did a total of about 3000 pages of reading to write just under 20 pages of text, or I had to read about 150 pages of text for every one page of text that I wrote. This number is consistent with my experience writing my dissertation. My committee asked me to add about one paragraph covering a scholarly conversation in one area, and I found that I had to read over 100 pages just to add that one paragraph. I didn’t feel like I’d read that much.

Now I did this work over the Spring 2018 semester serving as department chair and teaching a four course load (which means reading for that — course materials and then grading). I was not working in a research position in which I only had to teach one class, and for all that reading, I still feel like I didn’t do enough.

I have not yet discussed the time I spent writing. Almost every time I would sit down to write, I would reread what I had written. If I write every day for three weeks, that means I read a document that started at 12 pages (my Plato section), went up to 15, then 20, then 25, then 30, then finished at 32, re-reading the entire draft as I had finished up (to that point) almost every time before I started writing again. So we’re talking about re-reading an average of probably 20 pages of text over a dozen times.

Not only that, I have some friends who read my work and provide feedback (thank you, you great people), so when they send me back my chapter with comments, I carefully go through their comments, revise my chapter, and then reread it again.

Again, I’m not particularly exceptional and do not have the reading load of research faculty. Your professors work hard in ways most of us haven’t tried to work. Respect that work.

Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms

Cover Image, Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms
Cover photo: Taylor Fickes

Rock and Romanticism: scholarship with a soundtrack. Yes, I have two anthologies with the main title Rock and Romanticism. The first was published early February 2018 by Lexington Books, and was focused on Blake and Wordsworth and, very generally, the genre of classic rock.

This second book is Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming late May 2018) and is focused just where the title implies: on the gothic or “dark Romanticism” as it is sometimes called and on its musical counterparts in rock. The first book states a thesis about the relationship between rock and roll and Romanticism. This book restates that thesis and then extends it to different genres of music and literature.

This page provides chapter descriptions and a lot more. If you liked the first book, you’ll like this one too: those interested in one really need to get both. If you’re drawn to this project, please consider requesting that your libraries order it. A more formal description of the project follows.

Because I’ve recently published two edited anthologies with the same top title, I’ve created this video explaining the origin of these books and the differences between the two:


The edited anthology Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) is now available for preorder on the publisher’s website and will ship in late May 2018. I’m providing information here for potential readers, reviewers, and college and university librarians who may be interested in this book. If you wish to review this anthology for your publication, please contact James Rovira at with your name, credentials, and the name of the publication for which you wish to review this work.

But I’d like to provide a bit of personal history before I get into details about the book: my introduction to English Romanticism (my first way in to the vast labyrinth that is “Romanticism”) occurred in two stages. First, through the song “William Blake” on the Daniel Amos album Vox Humana (1984). That song made me run to the local B. Dalton Booksellers (remember those?) to pick up a copy of The Viking Portable William Blake.

I read it through the first time, cover to cover, in a befuddled haze, but I loved it. Daniel Amos, “William Blake,” Vox Humana:

Next, when my undergraduate English Romantics professor at Rollins College, Dr. Roy Starling, wanted to explain to his students what the publication of Lyrical Ballads meant to the 1790s, he compared it to this moment in rock history, the moment when Bob Dylan the folk singer plugged in and went electric:

And that was how I first understood Romanticism as a literary phenomenon. Thank you, Dr. Starling. In both cases, my way in to Romanticism was rock music from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms explores the relationships among the musical genres of post-punk, goth, and metal and seventeenth- to nineteenth-century American and European Romanticisms in their literary, artistic, and musical expressions. It argues that these contemporary forms of music are not only influenced by but are an expression of Romanticism continuous with their seventeenth- through nineteenth-century influences. Figures such as Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Friedrich, Schlegel, Beethoven, and Hoffman are brought alongside the musical and visual aesthetics of the Rolling Stones, the New Romantics, the Pretenders, Joy Division, Nick Cave, Tom Verlaine, emo, Eminem, My Dying Bride, and Norwegian black metal to explore the ways that Romanticism continues into the present in its many varying forms and expressions. Book details:

Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms ~ James Rovira, ed. ~ Hardcover ISBN 978-3-319-72687-8 ~eBook ISBN 978-3-319-72688-5 ~ DOI10.1007/978-3-319-72688-5 ~ pp. 330 ~ hardcover: $109.00 (£80.00); ebook: $84.99 (£63.99). This collection is part of the series Palgrave Studies in Music and Literature, P. Lumsden and M. Katz Montiel, editors.

Chapters are listed below. Many and profuse thanks M. Katz Montiel for being a great series editor (he made every chapter better), to Palgrave Macmillan’s editorial team, and to Dr. Mark McCutcheon (see the Nick Cave chapter description) for his work assembling these playlists. After the Preface and Introduction, songs are arranged in the order in which they appear in the chapter.

I’ve created iTunes playlists for each chapter that are linked within chapter descriptions. Also check out the iTunes Master Playlist for this anthology that combines all available songs (over 200) and the Spotify Master Playlist.

Preface and Introduction: “Theorizing Rock/Historicizing Romanticism” James Rovira. Check out his iTunes profile.

  1. “Empathy for the Devil: The Origins of Mick Jagger’s Devil in John Milton’s London” (pp. 27-44) by Evan LaBuzetta, Ph.D., Cambridge University. Independent scholar, founder of Writling Language Consultants.
    • Chapter summary
      • Evan LaBuzetta’s “Empathy for the Devil: The Origins of Mick Jagger’s Devil in John Milton’s London” analyzes the political discourse and outlines the discursive practices that influenced John Milton in his development of the character of Satan in Paradise Lost. Milton’s Satan was reinterpreted by the Romantics and later appropriated by Mick Jagger in “Sympathy for the Devil.” According to LaBuzetta, the rise of personal interpretation of Scripture in an era of vicious conflict led various combatants in the English Civil Wars to identify their domestic opponents with Satan. In pamphlets, writers could insist on their opponents’ Satanic origins regardless of outward appearance—because Satan can transform himself into an “angel of light”—while at the same time positing their own demonization as a sign of the righteousness of their cause. Through the English Civil Wars, rebellion against civil authority came to be seen as different than rebellion against God, establishing a “paradox of individual authority” by the time of Milton’s writing. Once God is dethroned as a “self-justifying principle,” a writer like Shelley could thrill to the active, virile, self-confident aspects of Satan’s character and declare that Milton’s Satan is far preferable to Milton’s God. Milton anthropomorphized Satan, and later readers came to see him in personal, non-religious terms: as a heroic individual striving against a tyrannical, self-imposing force, one with whom readers or rock fans could empathize.
    • Music
    • Literature
    • Get the iTunes playlist
  2. “‘Bliss was it in that shirt to be alive’: Connecting Romanticism and New Romanticism Through Dress” (pp. 45-59) by Emily Bernhard Jackson, Lecturer, University of Exeter.
    • Chapter summary
      • Skipping ahead about ten years after the Stones expressed sympathy for the devil, Emily Bernhard-Jackson’s “The Semiotics of the Ruffled Shirt: Connecting Romanticism and New Romanticism” shifts focus from linguistic content to visual surfaces in her comparison of the New Romantics of the early 1980s to English Romantics such as Byron. Rejecting the assumption that the New Romantics were glib and apolitical, she asserts their carefully managed, glittering surfaces were acts of subversion within Thatcher’s England, and these rock stars’ androgyny and even specific fashion choices—such as the ruffled shirt—carefully and not just coincidentally parallel second generation English Romantics such as Byron. Fluidity of sexual identity served the purpose of resisting full industrialization during 1980s’ England in a way parallel to the poets’ resistance of incipient industrialism in Romantic England, making dandyism and glitter statements against the brutal grayness of the working-class employment described by Löwy and Sayre, a very observable “mechanized conquest of the environment” under industrialization.
    • Music
    • Literature
    • Get the iTunes playlist
  3. “‘Crying Like a Woman ‘Cause I’m Mad Like a Man’: Chrissie Hynde, Gender, and Romantic Irony” (pp. 61-82) by Sherry R. Truffin, Associate Professor of English, Campbell University.
  4. “A Northern ‘Ode on Melancholy’?—The Music of Joy Division” (pp. 83-100) by Caroline Langhorst, Ph.D Candidate, University of Mainz.
  5. “‘Little crimeworn histories’: Nick Cave and the Roots-Raves-Rehab Story of Rock Stardom” (pp. 101-120) by Mark McCutcheon, Professor of Literary Studies, Athabasca University. Check out his blog.
  6. “Postcards from Waterloo: Tom Verlaine’s Historical Constellations” (pp. 121-143) by Len von Morzé, Associate Professor of English, University of Massachusetts, Boston.
  7. “Manner, Mood, and Message: Bowie, Morrissey, and the Complex Legacy of Frankenstein” (pp. 145-161) by Samuel Lyndon Gladden, Associate Dean of the School of Human Sciences and Humanities and Professor of Literature, University of Houston, Clear Lake.
    • Chapter summary
      • Samuel Gladden shifts focus to monstrosity in “Manner, Mood, and Message: Bowie, Morrissey, and the Complex Legacy of Frankenstein.” He compares Bowie’s and Morrissey’s appropriations of the figure of Frankenstein’s Creature to explore their differing responses to isolation and loneliness. In Gladden’s account, Bowie focuses on the discardedness of the Creature as he adopts and discards personae just as Frankenstein abandoned his Creature. Bowie ultimately gathers up many of his previous personae in the song and video “Blackstar,” particularly his first personae, Major Tom, who allows Bowie to revisit the trope of being in an alien environment in anticipation of his own impending death. Morrissey, on the other hand, focuses his attention on the Frankensteinian themes of hybridity or bricolage in “November Spawned a Monster,” emphasizing that Morrissey adopted as his own the hybridity or bricolage associated with the Creature through a variety of personae with disabilities, all of them set within an “idealized past.” The disfigurements of the subject described by Löwy and Sayre, therefore, assume material form in Morrissey’s various personae.
    • Music
    • Literature
    • Get the iTunes playlist
  8. “Tales of the Female Lover: the Poetics of Desire in To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?” (pp. 163-181) by Catherine Girodet, Ph.D. candidate Université Paul Valéry – Montpellier, and faculty, English Department, Universitie De Creteil.
  9. Emocosms: Mind-Forg’d Realities in Emo(tional) Rock Music” (pp. 183-197) by Eike Träger, Ph.D. candidate, University of Cologne, Köln, Germany.
  10. “‘I possess your soul, your mind, your heart, and your body’: External and Internal Gothic Hauntings in Eminem’s Relapse” (pp. 199-213) by Christopher Stampone, Ph.D., Southern Methodist University.
  11. “‘The Female Is Such Exquisite Hell’: The Romantic Agony of My Dying Bride” (pp. 215-233) by Matthew J. Heilman, Ph.D., Duquesne University.
  12. “Ashes Against the Grain: Black Metal and the Grim Rebirth of Romanticism” (pp. 235-257) by Julian Knox, Assistant Professor of English, Georgia College.

Bibliography (pp. 259-278)
Discography (pp. 279-284)
Index (pp. 285-302)

Cover photo: Taylor Fickes.

Errata: if you see any errors on this page or in the book, please email James Rovira.

Zero Sum Thinking and Academic Writing

I recently came across social media discussion about difficult academic writing, and what struck me as I was reading the usual complaints was one particular instance of zero sum thinking about academic writing. It works like this:

Either. . . “I am too dumb to understand this writing,”

Or. . . “This writing is very bad.”

I think this zero sum thinking is the dominant on-off switch governing reading comprehension for too many of us: all writing should be written at the reader’s level, with that specific reader as the intended audience, so if a reader fails to comprehend, it’s either the author’s or the reader’s fault.

IMG_7701What amazes me is that this thinking doesn’t consider any middle ground. Maybe the work we’re reading is written above our reading comprehension, and we just need to educate ourselves to comprehend it? I constantly tell my students that no, they’re not dumb if they have a hard time understanding some of the reading the first time around. I tell them that doing the reading increases their ability to read even more difficult texts in the future as it teaches them different ways of thinking. I encourage them to do the hard work of understanding difficult texts because it increases their future reading comprehension.

That’s been my experience, anyway. I purchased Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology on November 23rd, 1996 at the Books-A-Million on International Drive in Orlando (I know because the receipt is still stuck in the book). The first time I read it through, I started writing a list of works discussed at some length in the back of the book, as you see in the image above, because I hadn’t read them yet. At one point I stopped reading Derrida, went back and read this list of works, and then revisited Derrida’s very dense text with a much higher reading comprehension. Was it still hard? Yes, but not incomprehensible. It was only incomprehensible when I hadn’t done the reading.

I think the zero sum thinking I just described proceeds from the idea that everything should be written for the same audience, and I think it plagues humanities scholarship particularly — very few people complain that scholarship in physics, chemistry, or medical science are written above their heads. I’m not sure why people think that professional discourse about the humanities has to be written at the ninth grade level to make it readable to a general audience, but I don’t think this is a fair expectation. When we limit writing this way, we limit the range of ideas we can express and the sophistication of our thought. AP style does not need to govern everything written.

I think that more humanities scholars should indeed be public intellectuals, and that they should write works accessible to a general audience (and learn AP style), but I don’t think they should be limited to doing only this kind of work. Specialized language is important and can perform a useful purpose. It allows us to advance our thinking more quickly, serving as a shorthand for a dense array of conceptual moves. It positions our approach within recognizable theoretical assumptions — people know where we’re coming from by our language. Difficulty also allows us to defamiliarize our writing to our readers. This use of difficulty originates in the early twentieth century and requires readers to do some work to understand what we’ve written. That way, they can approach our ideas on their own terms, with their own nuance and emphases, rather than allowing readers to use their pre-existing ideas only as fill-in for the author’s own, rather than as a bridge to new ideas.

So when others very commonly say, “It doesn’t have to be this hard to understand,” I think the validity of this complaint depends first upon the work the reader did to understand the text. I think there are two kinds of people who say this. First, people who have read the difficult text, worked through it, understood it, and then realized it didn’t need to be this hard. Most of us who read humanities scholarship have had the experience of doing this work to arrive at a very simple argument. The use of jargon in these cases was only a veneer of sophistication spread over conceptually thin thinking. But there are also people who say this, quote examples of overly difficult sentences, and just reveal that they’re reading on a level below the text’s. If you think the word “pastiche” is complex jargon, pick up a dictionary before you complain about the author.

This criticism is harder to address because it is sometimes true (I won’t say often — that’s lazy quantifying). I can say that I’ve worked through Derrida, understand him much better than I did when I first read him, and see why he needs to be so difficult as well as the benefit of doing this work. Part of the difficulty of his writing proceeds from his desire to get us to think differently: he writes in a way that defamiliarizes his readers with our usual reading practices so that we can think about reading differently. Robert Brandom, similarly, was very difficult for me on a first read, but doing the work to understand him was a rewarding experience.

I would say, then, that yes, they do need to be that hard. The difficulty serves a purpose, and it should be allowed to do so.


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