Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Followup Interview: Joshua C. Cohen Asks ME Questions!

Who read my interview with Joshua C. Cohen yesterday?

Given my direct connection to Penn State of last year's Sandusky scandal—I lived in State College for seven years and attended grade school there—the author asked me if he could ask ME a few questions about some of the themes his debut novel, Leverage, touches upon, including athlete glorification, the scandal, and bullying.

I'd like to welcome myself to the blog, today-blahblah y'all know how this goes. Here's Josh!

Having once lived in and gone to school near Penn State, (which was recently in the news for revelations that Penn State Assistant Football Coach, Jerry Sandusky, was a serial child rapist and the iconic head coach, Joe Paterno, covered up his assistant coach’s predatory practices), and having happened to live in Austin, Texas for several years (home of Lance Armstrong and the Livestrong Foundation), from your rather unique perspective of having actually lived in both these places: What do you think it is about our culture that we (using the “we” loosely, here, folks) continually worship athletes to the point that we seem to ignore and/or excuse often outrageous, illegal and immoral behavior from them? Do you think this is unique to contemporary American or Western culture, or have you seen it, as well, in your current location of South Korea? And is it even a cultural phenomenon that we should be discussing? Is this “false idol-athlete worship” ingrained in our human nature at a more primitive level as opposed to something that was picked up along the way with the invention of giant sports stadiums and jumbotron screens built for turning athletes into demigods? Please discuss?!?!

ok just kidding this isn't *actually* me
sorry for the confusion everyone,
even i can't tell the difference sometimes ha ha
The American mindset is to always be powerful, to always have an air of brute force because we as Americans are supposed to come off as superior. The Western culture is superficial, but also power-driven. You see it everyday; the most popular kids in high school were the jocks (especially the jocks from rich families) and some of the highest paid workers in the nation are athletes (doesn’t Michael Jordan still earn money even though he’s long-retired? ugh). Sports and money scream power, but lack in substance. Sports = power, and I think that’s why America has allowed itself to suck up to sports and athletes and classify them as the elite.

That’s definitely not something you see in Korea, which is a very education-driven state. All high schoolers study only to get into a university, and all university students only study to get a good job. Koreans value education because, as per Confucian ideals, it is a cultural and familial expectation to be successful academically. (This is also why the #1 cause for suicide among adolescent-early adult victims, is for academic reasons... i.e. bad scores on the Suneung test or rejection in an occupational field).

I also daresay Korea is beauty-driven. We’ve got the highest plastic surgery patients and clinics in the world, and literally every girl you meet here has gotten something done. That would not be acceptable in the States, because it’s seen as narcissistic; the US doesn’t strive for something as flimsy as beauty because the US struggles for power. In the same vein, being an athlete isn’t half as acceptable in Korea as it is in the US. Unless it’s Kim Yuna (Olympic figure skater) or Park Ji Sung (internationally recognized soccer player), athletes are generally looked down upon, and especially from academics, condescendingly. It’s generally not a respectable career choice, so yes, I would say the glorification of athletes is certainly Western—if not exclusively American.

When the scandal surrounding Penn State first broke into the news, many students and football fans’ immediate reaction was to run down to the revered statue of JoePa (Joe Paterno, head coach of the football team) and rally to his defense without knowing one way or another how guilty he was in covering up and allowing a serial child predator to go free. I still ask myself why that would be those fans' first reaction. I’m curious, because you lived in that atmosphere, what you thought might be going through their minds?

The JoePa statue controversy might be a little difficult to understand from an outsider’s perspective, so before anyone passes judgment on the fans’ sympathy, I want to explain who Joe Paterno was to us State Collegians:

He was a revered football coach.
He was one of the most successful college ball coaches in the nation with 46 years of loyal service to the Nittany Lions. He led the football team to multiple victories and was the reason Penn State football was held in such high regard. Now, being a Longhorns fan myself, it would be unfaithful of me to gloat about his football prowess, but as someone who grew up beside him and watched the town flush and flourish in his presence, I know: he did a damn good thing for State College, and that won’t ever change.

He was the reason Penn State University is what it is today.
He and his family supported not only the athletics, but also the academia and community. The Paternos donated millions of dollar for the PSU education system, including the construction of the only fully appointed library on campus. It wasn’t just football for him and his family; everything else. The Second Mile was a fitness organization for underprivileged and underprovided children that he and Sandusky founded. It has closed in the Sandusky scandal’s wake (understandably), but when it did operate, it was as virtuous as UNICEF. He really cared.

He was iconic, a symbol of the city.
There’s a bestselling ice cream flavor named after him at the nationally recognized Creamery, for crying out loud! The local Walmart sells JoePa masks and blow-up dolls during the season, and I’m pretty sure other JoePa memorabilia (bobbleheads, pennants, etc.) could have been found in every corner of every store on campus. That’s how much he was loved, how much he was respected. He wasn’t just a figure for Penn State football... he was a figure for State College. Period.

Now, I’m not justifying Paterno’s actions—what he did was severely wrong and had he not passed away, he deserved whatever legal consequences that came his way—but I am saying he’s a legend, that he is ingrained in State College’s culture, and when someone is appointed a god like that, it’s kind of hard to let go. No matter what he did wrong, there’s so much he did right for State College... he’s still human, he’s still someone generations of State College residents looked up to, and he, not being the actual perpetrator, does deserve to be seen in the light once again. To State College residents, the removal of the JoePa statue in front of Beaver STADIUM for Pete’s sake, the biggest attraction in the city, was of course, an outrage. It’s kind of like... the United Nations demanding we take down the Statue of Liberty just because France does something immoral and unholy. Yes, France may have made a poor decision—possibly even an unforgettable and unforgivable one—but would we, as Americans, be willing to throw out the Statue of Liberty just because of the disgrace with which it is associated? So too with the State Collegians: the JoePa statue was more than must-photograph tourist spot; it was a symbol that represented who we, at the core, once were.

Do you think social media, overall, helps alleviate bullying by allowing victims to more easily get the help they need, or do you think it exacerbates the problem by allowing bullies to more easily pursue their victims?

Social media is a toxic tool, in my opinion. Yes, it’s fun and admittedly my biggest timewaster, but getting too caught up in the drama can be bad for you. I see how it could connect people, giving victims of bullying better access to help sites, hotlines, or means of reporting, but if you look at the big picture, it does a mighty fine job at inflaming the problem. This is due to three different reasons: first, through social media, everyone is anonymous, and virtually nothing (especially after one simple click of the “delete” button) is trackable. People will go to great lengths to say something nasty, something cruel, because they know there won’t be any consequences if they can’t be found. Second, because social media connects everyone, word spreads like wildfire and once it does get around, there’s no going back. The internet is the worst platform for gossip and rumors, which gives bullies the upper hand. Third, bullying online and bullying in-person are two totally different things, and for the former, it’s really difficult to draw the line. Is a snarky comment on someone’s Facebook profile picture considered bullying? Is calling someone “gay” on Twitter bullying? What if the users were just being sarcastic the whole time? What if it was part of an inside joke between two friends? Online, there’s never any way to accurately determine tone or context, so “bullying” sometimes isn’t really bullying, and conversely, a seemingly innocent remark can cause someone’s world to come crashing down. It’s hard to distinguish anything online, which is why cyberbullying takes up a large percentage of bullying today, but only a small portion of reported bullying.

I will say this though: With luck and with good timing, social media can be GREAT for reporting bullying with evidence. A screen capture of or a link to a post that demonstrates bullying can be used as proof when reporting a situation, whereas in person, one can only depend on witnesses or hearsay.

A couple questions about my blogging and reading...

Based on your voracious reading, is there something out there you see that no one’s captured in fiction as of yet?

I take interest in various global and ethical issues (that I honest to God try to keep up with in the news, really!) of which I’d love to see fictional accounts. Some include the current human slave trade (particularly the mass corporations in Somalia and Vietnam), North Korean refugees (obviously!), Nazi human experimentation, various unethical psychological experimentation (e.g. The Stanford Prison experiment, the Monster Project, the Milgram Study, Little Albert, etc.), false confessions, and the obliteration and unjust treatment of Native Americans in the Southwest due to modern colonization. I’m sure there are fascinating memoirs and informational texts surrounding the above topics, but I would love to see some in fictional form... or at least “based on a true story” form.

How would you channel your book obsession if you lived in the pre-internet, pre-blogging era?

I’m wracking my brain for what I did do in my pre-internet days, and it’s pathetic because I can’t think of anything significant... mostly because the only period in my life where I didn’t have sustained internet access was in elementary school and I was too young back then. I’d probably steer clear of book clubs—they can be exhausting, especially if you’re surrounded by people who didn’t understand the book, or worse: if YOU didn’t understand the book.

I’d probably work part-time at a secondhand bookstore, and would burn off my book obsession by bugging passersby to read certain ones and hosting read-aloud nights (like poetry slams but for prose!). I could literally days upon days in indie bookstores—I feel so at home whenever I’m in one

This was a fresh, exciting twist to a followup interview—thanks so much for taking the extra time and effort to organize this, Josh! It was fun, and I hope my responses (at least the ones relevant to your book) help readers grasp a more holistic understanding of your story and your motivation.

Read my review of Leverage here

Read my interview with the author here

Readers, did you miss the giveaway posted yesterday for a PRINT copy of Leverage for one very lucky Books à la Mode reader!? Details below!


To enter, leave a comment in response to something I said in this interview
. Please make it MEANINGFUL—comments only consisting of "Great interview" or "Thanks for the giveaway!" will not be considered for entry!!!! For those of you who comment on both yesterday's and today's interviews, you will get double the entries. So head on over to yesterday's post and share your thoughts!

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Giveaway ends 12 March 2013 at 11.59 PM (your time).
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Winners have 48 hours to claim their prize once they are chosen, or else their prizes will be forfeited.
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Good luck!