Saturday, December 30, 2006

This is a preview of my novel.

Stacking my books up in the corner of my room, largest to smallest on the top in spite of my wish to put a large Asimov or White Teeth in the most visible place possible, I fit two piles up against the step leading to my dilapidated porch, must kee them under or equal to its height of about eleven inches, and I realize that it’s a slight precursor to shame I’m feeling, knowing that I can fit my books to certain dimensions. I should be in school right now, reading reading, I only ever picked up books over the last ten years of my life in order to find that last book I’d ever read. I can’t control that urge to stop my compulsive reading with a book, I can’t stop the flow with Pynchon, even, though it’s large enough to trouble the passage in my mind with very nearly full blockage. I’ll be lost as an old man in piles of books about me with my own face effeminate behind one stack—oh, never sure which—when I do find that last book, a levitational act of one tower, a gap halfway up a four foot monolith of pages, just the size of a quarterly academic journal, where the books above it can’t fall into and the books below can’t rise, a total failure of all the books about it to fill it, and I’ll either turn away from it or maybe even pick it up. The last book I read will have no weight whatsoever, and no one else will ever see it.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Blackmail in Your Stocking

Christmas sucks.
That's right, I'm going to do it.

The virtual blackmail members of a family inflict upon one another by recoursing to well-established social norms so they can extract as much as possible from those from whom they should demand as little as possible in terms of exchangeable tangibles.

That's really what irks me, the exchangeability and the tangibility of the objects demanded, and not so much the demanding.
Here's why:
I will forgive people who are in love with each other the grand pains they can inflict upon one another, but not the small ones. Because however much all pain people do one another must be stopped, one is performed as a desperate mark of uncontrollable love with no thought of the ego (which is presumably already shattered: "Charlie, you bitch, let's work it out!"); the other is performed underhandedly by a sick ego that cuts the other 1) in order to avoid cutting itself, 2) with the hope in mind of not being injured itself in retaliation (it always hides behind a sophist-icated justification).
And the Christmas programme, the structure it provides set rules by which one can determine who got the other the best gift. Even if it isn't the case that each one wants to see the other lose as much money as they have in the purchasing (and this is highly suspect), then the very fact that each weighs the other's gift against their own on these finely calibrated scales which allow for the expression of will in ratio of money spent to income and 'thoughtfulness'--this boils down to two lovers using a well-crafted societal mechanism to attempt to best the other.
Gift giving is not always like this: the ego can be inflated in the giving of a gift without the diminuation of the other so long as it happens outside an exchange-based system.

If people are to give gifts, they should not do so during Christmas, or at least should not do so by exchanging them at Christmas with someone they love. Maintain your ability to love above all else, and give them to the poor, or someone else you don't like or whose face you won't see when they open the present.

There we are.

But seriously. However mediated by society all our relationships may be, we do need to reserve the right to declare the medium a poisonous one.

Friday, December 22, 2006


Sitting in a bar in Trelew - at 2 in the morning after 18 hours on a bus from Rio Gallegos through the endless repetition of the flat unchanging plains of coastal Patagonia - I ate a large pizza, drank a beer, and thought about the concept of synchronicity. More to the point, I had four thoughts related to this concept, thoughts which stood out from the continuous monkey-like chatter of a mind mostly numbed by a long bus ride, and each of which produced a moment of clarity - a brief refreshing silence in my own inner monologue and an equally refreshing sense of oblivion to the noisy, chaotic, smoky Argentinean bar. I scribbled each of the thoughts in my best cursive on the place-mat - a dirty-white paper square bordered by a simple design of green grass and red, yellow, and blue flowers - in front of me and took great pleasure in the act of writing in cursive and in the way that words, when written in this font (even the worst most messy attempts at cursive), have a habit of flowing together and running with immense ease from each to the next. The first realization was that one could sit and observe a hunched, middle-aged balding Argentinean - slightly overweight and wearing thick glasses - eating a hamburger in a bar with his family in the middle of the night, in the same instant that one could rest in a modest, simple kitchen in southern Chile talking to the owner - a woman named Chila - and a campesino - slightly drunk on wine and with an obsession for John Kennedy and Elvis Presley - whose greatest pride is his calloused, rough hands and whose greatest love is the forest, the land. If you choose to view time as a consecutive series of moments, then these two moments, in being timeless, violate such a series. Such moments, when experienced, feel limitless, as if being simultaneously possible at any given chosen instant. This for me, then, is synchronicity: that two such moments as these could be occurring simultaneously not only with each other but with the rain falling softly on a window of a red farm house in a gray morning in the tiny Fair Isle in the Shetland Islands; and with a couple - holding hands and standing completely still and close - in a moment of silent reverence in front of a painting in the Louvre in Paris; with bread baking in Barcelona and a street market in Tangiers and a child coming into the world in Dakar...

Strictly speaking in terms of the definition of synchronicity (described as the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection), there must be an apparent relation between the events in question. It seems to me that if one can see beauty in all events occurring in the world, or in those that might occur (as I believe is an aspect of eastern religions like Hinduism), then this common quality is enough of an apparent relationship to meet the above definition. If one takes no stock in the ethos of eastern religions, then perhaps the above definition needs to be modified.

The second thought that bubbled up like a small ephemeral sphere of mountain air appearing at the surface of a sulfurous rank tar pit was the following: So inextricable how deeply beautiful and wonderful, and at the same moment sad and terrible, the world can be. Each of these two extremes is capable of feeling deeply blinding to the point of apparent absolutism. Thus for some is suicide the solution to depression, to briefly cite an example. The fact that these extremes are capable of occurring simultaneously, or even of being experienced in the same instant, defies human reason and rationality. Memories of the 'Sorrows of Young Werthe' come now, unbidden, to the mind.

The third thought: In the time that it takes to write these words, someone has been killed or hurt with malicious intent in an atrocious and brutal manner, and in this same brief period of time someone has been loved or has loved with epic selfless passion and purity of heart. Realization of the truth of this synchronicity, it seems to me, leads to a vision of beauty great enough to bring a tear to the eye of even the stoniest and statuesque of solemn stoics.

The final: If I had loved and never been hurt, or been hurt but had never loved, I would say let the universe persist with its infinite and infinitely random and chaotic collection of possibilities and impossibilities indefinitely. But in both worlds have I dreamt and raged and thus I say let it all come to an end - disintegration, collapse, ruin - without reason or warning (as it will); I welcome it with a smile and a sigh.

Because of the unavoidable fact that transferring thoughts to words can only be done in a progression from one letter to the next, and from one word to the next - the simple process of which thus creating the illusion of a beginning, a middle, and an end - it seems that the above four thoughts arose in the order that they are now posed. Upon reflecting, however, I really can't claim that the thoughts didn't all occur in the same instant, a small microcosm of synchronicity, serving as a model, perhaps, for the thoughts of all mankind.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Eight months ago...

Stumbled across this the other day, as I was feeling depressed about the decline of my writing post-college. This didn't necessarily help, but I do feel it is a nice iteration of what I've liked so much about this blogging project. To contextualize briefly: it was written for the Bates Student as a farewell piece for the Arts Section. I reference some of the columns I wrote, but not to a degree where it is necessary to offer further explanation of them. Anyhow, to lengthily quote myself (is this this apex of egomania?):

"As the academic year comes to a close, it seems appropriate for us all to reflect upon my articles over the past months. Brilliant at times, exceptionally so at others, my pieces for this paper cautioned against the baleful currents of traditionalism and naïve historical longing that obfuscate the potential of our generation, that stigmatize us as divergent or deviant and as complicit participants in a systemic apostasy of “culture.”

In short, my pieces attempted to satirize this antediluvian way of thinking, imagining popular culture, that much maligned discursive nexus of society, as an object of traditional nostalgia. I intended this representational juxtaposition to reveal the relationship between an engrained elitism and the divisions and judgments by which the value and quality of art and culture are determined.

Despite the frequent verbosity of my sentences and the impossibly ridiculous choice of subjects, I am deeply invested in the intellectual exercises my pieces exemplify. Reading a Cameron Diaz film as a rigorous deconstruction of metaphysical gender politics in American culture, or Kelly Clarkson’s music as a potential locus of post-industrial dialectical radicalism is not merely an attempt at humor but the concerted effort to reveal the narrowness within which contemporary political and academic disciplines seem to operate and the social potential that arises from an increased willingness to engage popular or mainstream culture seriously and powerfully.

Too often corporate or capitalist culture is fallaciously counterposed against the academy or against a properly liberal political culture, a counterpositioning promulgated and justified primarily by members of these institutions, members who use supposedly radical academic jargon and theory to legitimate an ideological stance fundamentally rooted in classism or, at the very least, significant disdain for and distrust of the so-called “masses.”

This includes the relatively arcane, (Marxist professors who vilify an entire cultural epoch by narrowly and tenuously relating something as vague as “postmodernism” to “consumer culture” and the evaporation of idealism), and its reoccurrence as the relatively commonplace, (the disappointing installment of personal attacks and wearisome jokes as the primary forms of political critique emanating from much of the left.)

The articulation of these differences or relationships between academic culture and popular culture is not necessarily problematic, but when difference becomes oppositionality or polarity, conflict ceases, democracy stagnates, and the gap between self-demarcated groups widens threateningly. My emphasis on conflict stems from a specific conception of democracy as fundamentally plural.

The contemporary equation of plurality with provincialism marks a divergence from a more properly Nietzschean conception of pluralism as fundamentally conflictual. It is not enough for a nation to contain differences within itself and maintain these differences as distinct—these differences necessarily undergo constant negotiation and revision. To foster a culture of hermeticism and fragmentation ignores the complexity of institutional and personal relationships within society while ignoring and effacing the dynamic histories out of which contemporary institutions emerged. Furthermore, it fuels the processes of alienation by increasing the disconnect between public systems of representation and private experiences.

Sealing off academia or “high-culture” from popular culture fails and erodes American democracy. It obstructs dialectic processes within society and participates in a tragic ahistoricism, an ahistoricism that denies existence in favor of essence, to employ a famous existential dyad.

This ahistoricism becomes apparent in an anti-corporatism that critiques contemporary capitalism without ever wondering why these mechanisms persist at all, or a liberalism that attacks conservative values without wondering why these values are able to accumulate power and influence, or, in an example from my own writing, a hipster sentiment that maligns popular culture without ever examining or explaining the reason why popular culture is just that.

What I am suggesting is not a laissez-faire way of being in the world in which anything that exists is ok because it exists. Instead I am proposing a movement beyond criticism and a rebirth of truly democratic dialogue in which difference is not taken as fixed and unchanging, but instead as a site of potential, and a place for re-articulating the way in which we present our beliefs to the world.

That is, criticism must begin to be comprehended only in coordination with its positive obverses: invention, creation, writing, construction. Without this “will to power” the political system falters and is replaced by an economic system that attempts to engage popular culture by catering to those tepid, “neutral” commonalities that exist between all citizens.

To end what has been, in the end, a lengthy digression from my frequent rage over the way in which my (our) generation is discussed by those in power, I return to this initial point and propose a powerful reversal of this stigma in which, if any link can be drawn between our generation and its fervent embrace of popular culture, this strong relationship edifies popular culture as a sort of meeting hall of the post-industrial state, a commonality that, if manipulated properly, allows for the insertion of radical new discourses and narratives into these networks of near-universal vested interest and participation.

The cultural convergence presented by mass culture very formally represents a new beginning and the re-emergence of a conflictual and dynamic democracy. In effect, the cultural homogeny bred by capitalist mechanisms prophesies and determines its own end: the very idea of homogeny always teeters precariously on the brink of fragmentation, co-option, and plurality. But to push it over the edge we have to stop hating it at least enough to work through it. Make Kelly Clarkson a symbol of the revolution in a way that people believe, and mass culture becomes yours to imagine and determine."

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Nightmare Palace of John Derbyshire

Wandering through Arts and Letters Daily today, an article caught my eye. Called "The Dream Palace of Educational Theorists" and written by a John Derbyshire in the New English Review, the article infuriated me to the point that I found a response necessary. My essay here will make little sense without Derbyshire's as context. It can be found here.

Before I comment on Derbyshire's article, in which he is far angrier than I could ever be, I want to note that his point about college education actually gave me pause. While his comparison between college and Chinese women's foot-binding or German men's duels is overstatement to the extreme, His point that college-educated persons wind up able to "get low-paid outsource-able office jobs, instead of having to descend to high-paid, un-outsource-able work like plumbing, carpentry, or electrical installation" had some merit. As a recently-unemployed college graduate with all the storebought accolades, I have been surprised at the dearth of well-paying positions for which I am qualified, and aside from singing "What Do You Do With a BA in English?" from Avenue Q, I am also dismayed. Does this excuse Derbyshire's blasting of the "college racket" from which, no doubt, he has likely benefitted (admittedly I can find no bio to affirm this), however? Certainly not--if only because his calling this "a racket" while refusing to consider the achievement gap in education anything so cohesive is inconsistent and unnecessarily derisive.

As for the rest of Derbyshire's post: I have to be careful not to take this all too personally. It is tempting to revolt for personal reasons, knowing many of those whom he calls "saints and masochists" personally. However, it is because of my personal knowledge that I can not intellectually excuse him for noting, "I am sure there are some people who enter the teaching profession with the desire to crunch their way daily across the crack-vial-littered streets of crime-wrecked inner-city neighborhoods in order to put in 15-hour working days, but I doubt there are many such." Certainly, his depiction of urban education is accurate in some instances; in fact, it fails to go far enough. He is also correct in assuming how few would be willing and desirous of this challenge (though, I should add, an organization like Teach for America does receive over 19,000 applicants a year). What bothers me, though, is his use of this black-and-white depiction as an excuse for the achievement gap, which might best be described as the difference in achievement between poor students and students of color and their wealthier and/or white peers, in public schools.

This is not all that bothers me. Derbyshire evidences his clear sexism and other biases when he exclaims that in public schools "boys are pressed to act like girls, and dosed with calming drugs if they refuse so to act; girls are encouraged to act like boys by taking up advanced science, math, and strenuous sports, which few of them have any liking or aptitude for; and boys and girls alike are indoctrinated in the dubious dogmas of 'diversity' and political correctness." I will let this statement speak for itself.

What bothers me most about Derbyshire's article is how easily he dismisses every shred of public education as we know it and the attempts to improve it -- without attempting to offer any form of an alternative or even a coherent, unifying critique. Even someone who agrees with Derbyshire that teachers in unions are overpaid and underworked and that asking parents to help with homework is like forcing them to do the teacher's job might leave Derbyshire's article asking: "So now what?" The man has an easy time blasting "leftists" and insinuating that education is a crock run by Democrats (ever heard of No Child Left Behind, the latest crock of them all?), but he falls into the same trap that many claim afflicts Democrats: criticizing to the point of attacking without offering an alternative solution.

It's popular to criticize public education--or better yet, American education in general--and until recently I fell into the same trap of solutionless ranting. I think I might have a solution, and I'm currently drafting a 10-year plan for a non-profit I plan on founding as early as 2007 that will possibly help me to attack some of the problems in American education. It is a stopgap solution, but I'm also a proponent of small victories in lieu of waiting for the perfect solution to come. I can criticize with the best of 'em (a rank I do not ascribe to Derbyshire), but what will happen if we all stop there? Probably more than merely the pollution of the blogosphere.

Blair's Speech.

There has been a significant amount of talk over Tony Blair's recent speech in which he essentially said 'conform to our tolerant society or get out of/stay away from Britain'. It was certainly refreshing to see Blair come out and say something that obviously has been on his mind for a while - at least since the 7 July bombings - not masked by political correctness. The Muslim Council of Britain called the PM's speech 'alarming', but I think that's rubbish. Certainly this isn't just a case of extremist Muslims spontaneously emerging in Britain - they have to be reacting to something (such as the Iraq war) - but I can't help but agree with Blair this time. It's about time that he told extremists who come to Britain and use their right to free speech (which they would be denied in most Muslim countries) to violently denounce their adopted home. (I'm referring to calls to arms and incitement to murder, not simply criticism of the government.) What I find so ridiculous about the Muslim Council of Britain's comment about Blair's speech is that Blair was very specific in describing exactly whom he was addressing. Blair said the threat came from 'a new and virulent form of ideology associated with a minority of our Muslim community'. I think that anyone with a brain understands what he means. I think it is a failure of responsibility on behalf of the Muslim Council to overlook this and pretend to not understand exactly who is being condemned.

What do you all think? Is there/should there be a limit to freedom of speech?

There is a link through this article to a video of the full speech:

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Scalia V. Breyer

Interesting debate between the two Supreme Court justices with transcript here. Haven't read it through entirely myself, but its proving quite interesting thus far. For an overview, see the Slate article from today.

Also from the legal world, I urge everyone who has an online subscription to the NYT to read Stanley Fish's blog. He posts about every week, and often times the discussions are interesting and attract a peculiarly diverse range of comments, for the NYT anyway. The debate that has held my intellectual attention and still confounds me to a certain extent is one that began with Fish's October 22 blog entry about professors bringing politics into the classroom. In standard Fish fashion, he deviates from the liberal norm, though this time it seems less like self-indulgence and more like an attempt to lay-out something substantial and nuanced. For those without NYT access, e-mail me and I will send you the resulting 225 or so pages worth of criticism, responses, and discussion.

Chewing the Fat

Tuesday, the New York Board of Health unanimously voted to ban trans fat in all of New York restaurants. The ban will not take effect immediately, but the Board expects all of New York’s restaurants to be trans fat free as of July 2008.

Nutritionists across the country have applauded the decree, and have claimed that trans fats are worse than saturated fats as they both increase bad cholesterol and simultaneously decrease good cholesterol. Considering the disastrous effects of obesity as well as our national failure to combat the disease, the ban might just be the start of something both remarkably healthy and necessary: indeed, the city of Chicago has proposed a similar ban. Even multi-million, multi-national fast food chains have either already voluntarily stopped cooking with trans fats (KFC) or have begun researching trans fats alternatives (Wendy’s, I think).

Despite these obvious and admitted benefits, I’m still grappling with the Board of Health’s recent decision. Perhaps some form of libertarianism initiates my discomfort. I think this decree reeks of over-governance, perhaps of the worst kind of hold-your-hand liberalism. I felt the same about the V-chip push years ago, those cute little substitutes that let parents off the hook and keep their children from stumbling across sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. But V-chips never became law.

The Board of Health and other nutritionists have defended the ban, equating trans fats with slow-acting poisons. In some of the reports I have read, defenders will say that arsenic might taste good in food, but it’s the responsibility of the government (municipal, state, federal, what have you) to protect its citizens from a known poison. The same, they reason, goes for trans fats.

But interestingly, as of right now there’s nothing illegal about trans fats at all, at least outside of New York. The Food and Drug Administration has approved trans fats. I imagine that somewhere in the FDA’s tomes there’s a clause or section barring restaurateurs and chefs from lacing their food with arsenic (and if not, there probably should be). But as of right now, Washington says it’s OK to cook with. The National Restaurant Association says that banning trans fats sets us on a slippery slope, and that slope might be slippery because it’s been greased with cooking oils. Precedent could push municipal, state or federal government to ban (beloved) bacon, or as Nick Naylor had it in “Thank You for Smoking”, Vermont’s cheddar cheese. These fatty foods, not necessarily made with trans fats but certainly high in saturated fat, could be reasoned to act as even slower-acting poisons like their recently-banned cousin. Depending on how you look at it, this precedent might lead to fitter Americans or to an unnavoidable infringement on our inalienable rights.

This, of course, might all change. Considering New York’s move, Chicago’s potential move, the federal law mandating the labeling of all trans fats in commercial food and restaurants’ voluntary move away from trans fats, the oil might be, well, cooked. And if so, well, good riddance. Voluntary moves towards a healthier product and a healthier lifestyle are commendable, and if the free market demands a healthier product then that’s saying good about us as consumers (both economically and digestively).

An abrupt change here, but I think an important one that should reconnect with some of the ideas I’ve explored later on: The way, not ways, the bill is being covered is fascinating. More often than not, news agencies will say something to the effect of “Mayor Michael Bloomburg, who banned smoking in New York bars and restaurants during his first term, signed the bill today.” I simply don’t believe in the implied equation between smoking and trans fats. The push behind the smoking bans tends or tended to focus on the deleterious effects of secondhand/involuntary/passive smoking, that exposes ‘innocents’ to carcinogens that can lead to lung cancer. Yes, trans fats have obvious and maybe irreversible effects, and, like secondhand smoke, can increase the chances of cancer. But short of someone cramming a donut in your mouth or you slipping on a greasy French fry, I doubt that the same goes for fatty foods. A family can be effected by a family member’s poor eating, but a family can also effect the family member’s poor eating. And if we want to eat poorly for a meal or two or three or as many as we want, and if we understand the consequences of that meal, then, as adults, we should be entitled to. Right?
Maybe not. Like I said, the coverage of the bill is fascinating, and reveals something ugly about us as humans pre-politically. In order to stretch the article, news agents have gone to New York fast food joints and interviewed the patrons about the bill. More often than not, every patron supported the trans fat ban (I only read one complaint, wherein the patron worried that the price of his lunch would go up because of the costlier cooking oils). The patrons that supported the measure all discussed the obvious health benefits to the ban, were all eager to be eating healthier and realized that the change in the oil would probably improve their lives. Reporters, augmenting the quotes that they received from these patrons, noted that they received their quotes as the patrons fed their children McDonald’s French fries, gnawed on hamburgers, chewed on donuts.

As I said, most of the patrons expressed some understanding that trans fats were bad for them. Then why go and eat the damn food? Why put it in your children’s hands? Why wait for the government to come along, hold your hand, and smack the French fry from your mouth? If these patrons were concerned, truly concerned with what they were eating, were aware of what it could do to their bodies and so readily welcomed the enforced change, then why did they wait for the Board of Health? Like I said, the coverage reveals something ugly, something lazy, about us. In spite of our understanding, more often than not we won’t save ourselves. But we’ll happily wait for and let someone else do it for us.

Monday, December 04, 2006


I probably read five or six articles on climate change per week. This one in particular, however, really struck me. I'm posting it for all of you to read. First, though, take a look at this map of North America with the projected wheat-growing regions in 2050 compared with now. Jesus.

Map of North America. Image: BBC

Here's the article:

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Review of independent film on Radical Islam

[I have to run and catch a plane to Buenos Aires so I don't have time to post my own reactions to the article and interview, but I'll try to add my comments when I get to Argentina...]

The following are excerpts from an article by Christina Gallagher in the Johannesburg Saturday Star entitled 'Islamic fundamentalism gets REEL - An independent film analyses the hatred of fundamentalist Muslims for the West'. The film in question is 'Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West', and Saturday Star's interview with the maker of the film is also quoted in this blog post. Most interesting, I believe, is Kopping's perceptions of the role that should be taken by the international liberal media in the conflict between radical Islam and the rest of the world (including the non-radical Muslim world).

from the article:

"The most disturbing parts of the movie is the footage of how Muslim children are being indoctrinated by radical Islamic rhetoric to feel hatred. On Abu Dhabi Television, a sweet-faced girl from Bahrain says unemotionally: 'I hope Bush dies in flames, and I want to go to Ariel Sharon and kill him with a gun and stab him with a sword [she tucks her hair behind her ears and adds] because of the poor Palestinians.' Obsession also sets forth compelling evidence about the connection between Islamic fundamentalism and Nazism - specifically ,the use of similar propaganda." [, scroll down until you see the link containing the word Hitler]

from Saturday Star's [SS] interview with Johannesburg-based film-maker Wayne Kopping [WK]:

"SS: How did you find such poignant clips?
WK: There are two organizations that record hundreds of hours of Arab television and scour the newspapers. They watch for incidents of propaganda and also moderation. Any time they find something that is overt or subtle propaganda, they take it and they translate it and those transcripts are available on the internet. It's been out there for years.

SS: Why do you think the mainstream public has not accessed this information?
WK: I just don't think people have been made aware of it. And even many of the news reporters living in the Arab world can't speak the language. They see some guy ranting and raving on TV and they don't know what he is saying. Some immam says 'Kill the Jews' or 'Kill the Americans' on some religions programme and that isn't a news story to them."


"SS: In the film you say that after the September 11 attacks, the Americans were asking 'What did we do to them to provoke such action?' For the Islamic extremists, is it simply a hate against everything that is Western or is it more about a hatred of a belief system that is inherent in people?
WK: First of all, it must be said that American and UK foreign policy is not necessarily the greatest. They have caused pain in the Middle East and the Arab world. As far as the hatred of the West, they don't hate our foreign policy. I am talking about the radical Muslims who see the world according to the literal translation of the Qur'an. You have to see it from their point of view. Islam means 'submission'. We [the West] don't submit to Allah. Who the hell are we to turn around to the Almighty God and say 'We reject your laws'? That is an insult of the highest order. It is their religious mandate to correct that. We are the ultimate sinners and insulters of Allah. So when they hate the West it is not because of something we have done but because of who we are. "


"SS: What do you think is needed in order of there to be some type of change?
WK: What it will take to tip it is when we realize that majority of the Muslim population does not want to live under or be associated with these regimes. We must find a way for them to determine their own future and help them fight this war. I really believe that Islam as a religion is compatible with democracy as long as they don't interpret it in the way that the radicals do, which is the hardline, literal interpretation. What the liberal media should focus on is broadcasting those moderate voices in the world and help to support them. It is all going to come down to an enormous body of Muslims who are going to choose on way or the other. Do they feel that West is the greates threat to their religion? Or do the believe that the religions leaders are the greatest threat to their religion?"

2 poems

Slightly irresponsible, but if you all want something on Amy Hempel, I do assure you it's coming. So 2 new poems for now, and lucky audience, these got titles:

It's bad when too many things do it

and so many things can do it!


[illocuted profanity]
the perversity of this is not due to the actions described per se but instead the banality
the unremarkability of the gross violence in the book is what disgusts, that we already know what he is telling us.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Some Things of Interest...

1. The New York Times has released its annual Top 10 list for fiction/non-fiction. Of particular interest are The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, if only because John M. has so assiduously reccomended them to me. (Assiduous make me sound insouciant, which I'm not.) Diction aside, he seems quite confident of her literary abilities and I certainly plan on obeying his praise, which, no doubt will ripple with equivalent actions throughout this increasingly large community. Also, I've just begun Emperor's Children, which I'm finding quite impressive. It offers a critique of middle-class liberalism nearly as incriminating as Yates's Revolutionary Road or Smith's White Teeth, and yet there seems to be a nearness to the irony and wit that, in my thesis days, I might have called pastiche, or parody without depth. It's such self-indulgent parody of self-indulgence that it's strongest emotive quality is its ability to resonate with my own anxieties over distance, namely my inability to believe the delineations my interior monologue establishes between my imagined self and what I fear becoming (but perhaps know I already am?). Affectionate postmodernism perhaps, or just ambivalence?

2. The $150 Laptop. A number of you may remember my temporary fascination with this early last year. Seems it has made more progress. I still have a guilty interest in owning one myself but remain aware of ethical/theoretical/economic implications of such fetishism. What's interesting in this particular article is the so-called debate the journalist seems to create between the designers and their detractors. Wonder what is thought of the Microsoft argument, "we shouldn't do in the developing world what we do in the rich world"? Reminds me of the life-boat argument and all its self-righteous morbidity, especially when spoken by the voice of he-trying-to-make-a-buck, but perhaps its a discussion that must take place pragmatically.

3. For those who haven't seen it: Ronaldinho's goal vs. Villareal last weekend. A think of astonishing beauty, really. As I've been told, "something even us Yanks should appreciate".

4. The Show with Ze Frank. My most recent internet addiction. He posts a new video every day of the week, and they are all quite entertaining or, at the very least, interesting. He's a surprisingly adept social critic (and I only say surprising because of my preconeptions of the medium), ranging from a Jon Stewart-esque critic of political culture, to a more properly Barthesian critic of cultural systems of meaning, etc... Be sure to check out his "Popular Shows" link, and, for an example of his mental agility at its best, the Jon Benet episode. The various terms he employs can be a bit confusing at first, but no doubt you'll all become fond sportsracers in no time.

5. Evidently people read this. Not an enormous amount. But not a paltry amount either. John M. will comment with specifics.

Anyhow, my best to you all. I've enjoyed reading everything over the past month or so and encourage you to continue telling all you can of our fine internet endeavor.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Farcical Football Awards???

While football may not seem the most worthy topic to be discussed on this board, I believe the philisophical nature of the disagreements that have sprung forth since the awarding of the Balon d'Or today warrant an exception. The Balon d'Or is the award given to the best player in the world (the merits of assigning the award to a single player in what is possibly the world's most team oriented sport are dubious, but i will leave that debate for another day). This year's winner is the italian defender Fabio Cannavaro. He played his club football for Juventus of Turin before they were relegated to the italian second division for match fixing. He then captained Italy to world cup glory this summer and joined Real Madrid this fall.

Now that we have the background over with I will air my gripes. In the history of professional football only one defender has ever one the award. His name was Franz Beckenbauer and he was the tall grey haired gentleman that you saw in the stands 2 or 3 times each world cup match. not only was the world's most accomplished defender, but his charges upfield with the ball earned him the nickname der kaiser. he was a complete player who's dribbling and passing were second to none. Since then we have seen other great defenders with the skills to play anywhere on the field such as Carlos Alberto, Fernando Hierro, Roberto Carlos, and Paolo Maldini (who started playing professionaly for AC Milan before we were born and still plays there today). None of them have won the award. There are even contemporary examples of complete defenders such as Gianluca Zambrotta, Rafael Marquez, Eric Abidal and Rio Ferdinand. This year's winner has little in common with these players. He is a tough, fast, take no prisoners type of player. He is the archetipical defender, but nothing more. he lacks the skills to control, protect and pass the ball. When pressured he uncerimoniously boots the ball into the stands. And when he is beaten he resorts to fouls. I have no problem with this type of player (I am this type of player). The skills required to stop the Ronaldinhos of the world are just as important to victory as attacking finesse. Should all players be judged within the sphere of thier vocation, or should they have to transcend it? should 'the best' be the decisive player of the skillful player? Is Cannavaro's selection a victory for all hard working, self sacrificing football players like he claims it is? or is it the imposition of heartless resultism that misunderstands the emotions of the game? Does the Balon d'Or in a world cup year need to be on the winning team? This would be a nice return to the team ethic for this paradoxical award, but that makes it hypocritical. To call him the world's best player and base that status on being arguably the best player on the best team is markedly unjust.

I invite your opinions on all of these questions and of course on the parallels in the world in general, because the beauty of football is that football is life. Everything that exists in life and the world is present in football. It includes men of every size, shape and origin. It has fair play and cheats, an imperfect justice system, tribalism, nationalism, political alignments, history, globalization, a winner, a loser or neither all within 90 minutes.

Monday, November 27, 2006

A post NOT about capitalism, democracy, or war...

...but about the Islamic faith, and, all things considered, probably still pertinent. I have sincerely found great pleasure and moments of deep thoughtfulness in reading your posts about various aspects of (and faults in) Uncle Sam's great land, but I must confess, dear friends, that I feel I have grown more removed and out of touch with our home every day. Forgive any burgeoning ignorances or naivete. Here's something from the other side of the planet, another side of the coin, the Other side of our world...

I was resting one day in my hotel room in Agadir, in the company of the flies and cockroaches that happily shared my living space and probably enjoyed the viciously scorching midday heat as little as I did, when Mohammed Farai, a manager of that particular establishment, knocked on my open door and announced that I had a visitor. I had not been expecting any one and indeed knew not a soul in the city, so you can imagine the surprise that slowly emerged in my dozing mind like the head of a turtle sedately protruding from the confines of its shell to investigate its surroundings. I followed 'M' (as I took to calling Mr. Farai, whose behavior on more than one occasion had me convinced that he was a Moroccan mob boss with the hotel gig serving as a convenient cover) down the stairs to the dingy hotel lobby. Seated at one of the tables was a plump smiling Arab man wearing a white robe and a red fez, and as I approached he stood and greeted me in English (to my relief, as my French is pitiful and my Arabic even worse). He introduced himself as Aomar Saadaoui, a devout Muslim and a man who knew something about birds, and we talked for some time about various aspects of my project and of people and places I should visit while in the area. Possibly because the important month of Ramadan had recently begun, but possibly because he was simply a devout Muslim, Aomar also frequently slipped off onto tangents about the Islamic faith, especially the importance of Ramadan as allowing people to remind themselves of the Outer World, a realm of the spirit that has no regard or business with the physical, material sphere of which food and human hunger is an integral part and a powerful symbol. In relation to the habit of seabirds like terns to fold their wings back and plunge-dive from great heights into the ocean in the hunt for fish, Aomar related to me a Berber fable that I found particularly pertinent and interesting. His translation conducted on the spot certainly left the parable only partially complete, but in my mind its power still stands. According to Berber tradition, in the impossibly brief fraction of a moment directly after a seabird like a tern sees a fish and decides to dive, but before it folds its wings and lets itself fall like a stone from the familiar world of air and light to the foreign dark wet world of the ocean, an affirmation passes through its head with absolute certainty: 'Life is limited and must come to pass, and the living of this moment is intimately connected with that life in its whole form'. With the realization that life is limited and that God controls all, the bird relinquishes all humility, accepts no humiliation, and dives into the waves, knowing, accepting, and believing with complete totality that the only fears worthy of being faced and overcome are a fear of death and a fear of hunger.

For someone like me, traveling on a tight budget, devoting myself to simplistic living and a near-ascetic diet, often living in or passing through places that have gained a reputation (sometimes misconstrued) of being dangerous, the concept of overcoming fear and plunging into the unknown with such grace and courage naturally holds a great deal of attraction [in case you are wondering why I decided to do the bungy jump off the Bloukrans bridge, the highest jump in the world, the answer may lay in the desire to approach a real understanding of a seabird's dive]. Interestingly, I have always been awestruck when I have watched seabirds plummet into the sea in search of food, but my envy and fascination has generally been of a scientific nature (speed of the dive, depth of the plunge, etc), without ever drifting into the realm of considering any spiritual potentialities of the birds' bold lifestyles. Unbelievable, no, to think that a discussion of Ramadan could allow a different understanding of seabirds' predation strategies?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Hell, no.

Wouldn't sacrificing yourself in a war on behalf of a liberal government be dying for the government that wasn't supposed to kill its citizens? If that liberal government buries you in a gigantic, monolithic supercemetary well-garnished with flags, doesn't its monolithic presence feed on your blood just as thirstily and debasedly as any authoritarian regime that gets a standard-raising erection from public executions? Shouldn't any liberal government which requires that its citizens die to maintain its dominance be ashamed of and shaken by this gross contradiction? The moment liberalism requires a 'patriot', it has failed as an ideal.

Take WWII. We beat the Nazis. But they didn't lose. They pissed in the well of human decency, and we firebombed Dresden, we conducted scientific experiments on minority populations and even servicemen, and we still profit off of the information gathered by Nazi scientists (ever wonder how, when your teacher in elementary school tells you how long humans can survive without food on the one hand versus water on the other, we know that? Or regarding overexposure?). Liberalism, that permanent refusal to give shame to another, truly can't exist without being a totalizing ethos.

So do we act 'like them' and engage in dirty tricks in a 'war to end war' mentality? Or do we act the purists and refuse to do anything that even slightly resembles causing another any suffering? We can't do either. We need to do both. We need to be the United Nations in this country of mine that can't stop killing.

So when Charles Rangel suggests we reinstate the draft to make politicians "think twice" about going to war (bullshit: politicians are always thinking about going to war), I immediately think of previous wars for which there was a draft, and especially WWI, where there was massive dissent and public opinion weighed heavily against it… and how we went to war. The problem is that if you can force a person to do something, they will rationalize by recasting that action as being of their own election. Hazing makes people part of a team by putting them through trauma so ego-shattering that they have to incorporate that trauma, that violence into themselves, like flesh growing over a bullet that can't be removed. This is why the 'ignorant' underprivileged lay down their lives so readily for the country that wrongs them and kills them: it's not stupidity but Stockholm syndrome. And as a privileged white young man, I've been lucky enough to have been kept with one foot outside of the door to the kidnappers' safehouse.

This is why I don't want a draft, is because people need to be kept free of patriotism, and subjecting the many to it (even as a stake in a gamble) does not free any from it. If the powerful want to go to war, they will go to war, and thank god that this time—unlike the real Vietnam—our volunteer-driven corps allowed for an entire middle class basically freed from the war which could look at it from a distance and object. The people on the inside were given no voice with which to object so long as the media was on the fence, so all we knew was jingoistic yokels. They were wronged ideologically and quite materially as well inasmuch as they got fucking shot to death in the desert. And nobody should be wronged like that. Including me.

General drafts do not deter war. They encourage righteous wars. And that's why that mother------- ways & means chair was on the side of nobody good when he proposed reinstating the draft. He can't conceive of a world without war, but only a world with just wars. He figured himself as George Bush's inverted double, as a philosopher king. That's still a king, that's still a demagogue. Sic semper tyranus, bitches.

Friday, November 17, 2006


From our friend at work, John Mulligan:

The daily publishing newsletter from had an article on OJ Simpson's If I did it. I was mildly appalled by certain booksellers' opinions on whether or not to carry it. One bookseller on OJ Simpson's If I Did It:

"Do we take a 'stand' on such a book, thereby sending our customers who want to buy it to our competitors? Is this a form of censorship? Or do we make it available without displaying it other than having it on the shelf?" She added, "I'm disturbed to be put in such a position. Freedom of the press notwithstanding, the way they're marketing the book raises huge ethical questions. We all know the publishers are desperate to make money on commercial books, but this takes the cake." Late yesterday, Olson said, the store decided to sell the book but donate proceeds "to Interact, a nonprofit here that shelters battered women and children."

Okay, I have some serious problems with this:

Not selling something is only "censorship" if the vendor is the only vendor to have access to the product, i.e., if their decision dictates the success or failure of that product. But obviously, this vendor does not think that is the case, as her other concern is "sending [their] customers who want to buy it to [their] competitors." If someone wants a product today, the free market is… well… free enough that they can get it anywhere, anytime. Thank you, internet and PayPal.

This is the 'bad' side of the late capitalist market economy. We have so much freedom within the system as a whole, everything is so level, that we make the mistake of thinking ourselves copresent with its totality (was it forty percent of Americans who think they're in the wealthiest 1%?). What we have is freedom, but only if we realize that we don't have the freedom to influence anyone else to an undue degree. Because otherwise, if you feel you have a huge amount of power (I can buy anything I want!), you feel obligated to act in a certain way (if I don't buy this, the economy will suffer!), and so are completely trapped by a false model of the economy and your place within it. Whereas you would really have individual power if you realized the extremely limited horizons of that power: whether or not you support company X, your forty dollars aren't going to sink it or float it, so why not decide which is the moral decision and make yourself a freestanding moral entity?

In this case: OJ's book, definitely an abomination. Honestly, who would want to give any money not simply to him (though apparently he's not getting any of it, it's unclear where it's going), but to the publisher who would profit in such a craven way on the sufferings of other human beings. Because two people did die. And OJ did do it. And playing in hypotheticals effaces them—doesn't kill them, but totally erases their fact from history and places them in a permanent state of limbo.

And finally, aside from the issues of false consciousness, that store is going to make money by trafficking OJ's book—it'll increase traffic to the store, especially if they put it in an out of the way spot, because then people will have to browse for it. And then they'll buy another book. Hypocrisy or stupidity? One is just a moral stupidity.

DON'T BUY OJ'S BOOK. (steal it)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Curry, Wells, and Armageddon

Thought this might stir up some discussion. Forgive its ultimate tendency to be a bit pedantic.

Curry, Wells, and Armageddon

Even the name sounds fictional. Dr. Oliver Curry would be the perfect nominative for a wise but too-oft disregarded scientist who convinces the world too late that it is bound for disaster in a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster in the style of “Jurassic Park” or “The Day after Tomorrow.” Or wasn’t he a character in “The Time Machine,” ye olde grim statement of the distant future, by H.G. Wells?

Hardly. Curry is real, and better than that, he’s British and bearing a PhD, some attributes that likely had some bearing on how closely the world listened when he proclaimed the latest results of his research: in as little as 100,000 years, humanity will have divided into two separate species, one tall, brilliant and attractive while the other is equally short, dim, and ogrelike.

All right – perhaps Dr. Curry does belong in a Wells novel.

The truth of the matter is, there are a thousand reasons that I should disregard this supposedly researched theory. For starters, I first heard about it in that most reliable of news sources, the Onion (all right, so I haven’t been keeping up with my pseudoscience lately). And then there was the forum in which Curry made his grand announcement: Bravo television, a British men’s network that boasts of, among other things softcore porn. There was also a great deal of news that should have, in fact, pleased the more stereotypical of men: the next thousand years should hold both great promise for the, erm, endowment of the male sex as well as the smoothing of females into pornographic proportions, if we are to believe Dr. Curry. To cap it off, there is a grim prediction coming straight out of turn of the century sci-fi; and frankly, it was better in The Time Machine (well, unless you count the shoddy movie version).

The thing is though, Curry is a political scientist, not a physical scientist. We could have figured –that- out by his prediction that in the next 1000 years, inter-racial mixing will lead to a world of copper-skinned neutral types (pigmentation doesn’t work that way). Most of the literate world is laughing at Curry, and it is easy. I mean, he says people are going to become more sexually selective, antisocial, longer-living, computer-dependent… well, tell me something I didn’t know. However, we didn’t laugh at Wells. We knew Wells was no scientist; he was an author, and the point of the Time Machine was to entertain – and to make a statement about the current trends he saw in the world. Maybe the humorous “Dr.” before Curry’s name distracts us from the fact that we ought to treat him similarly—less as a prophet, and more as a man who is making a point about current events. What alarms and then, with consideration, amuses us about Curry’s theory is more its air of pseudoscience, I propose, and less its novelty. The ideas of classism, economic/achievement gaps, sexual selectivity, increased longevity: these are less original than tedious. The demise of humanity as we know it may be impending, but it is old news.

In fact, what might be more alarming than the idea of a human subspecies is the amazing display of apathy that most educated people have for the trends we as humans are showing. This does not seem merely to apply to the trends of which Curry took note. The other day, a friend remarked that we never hear about the depleting ozone layer or killing rainforests anymore. My response: sure we do; it just doesn’t catch our attention these days. Chalking this entire trend up to aging and its proportional decline in idealism and naïveté doesn’t cut it; I for one am still petrified by extinct animals, AIDS, and global warming. The problem is, my idealistic attention tends to turn to things that are most immediate, either in chronology or proximity: the genocide in Darfur, a proposed tax cap, presidential candidates, or uneducated children joining gangs. The longer something is with us, and the farther away it seems, the less likely it is that it will hold our attention.

I’m not accusing the media for being at fault with this tendency, but I do think the same phenomenon makes the media search anywhere, desperately, for something new, also makes us shift our attention from familiar threats. A love for novelty is probably genetic. I don’t know much about genetics (…apparently neither does Dr. Curry…), but I think that this is as much of a threat to our species as anything else. I think the whole of human inattention to our greatest long-term problems is worse than the sum of its threatening parts. Curry’s 100,000 years is a long way off, after all. I’m no fool. Before the human race will subdivide, we’ll be killed by global warming, the AIDS pandemic, nuclear holocaust, street violence, the loss of the rainforest, acid rain, famine, and avian flu. I don’t list these disasters to prove myself blasé to their threat or to render them mundane. Au contraire, I am reminding us of their cumulative hazards to make the point that the greatest peril of all may be our world’s sheer multitude of problems – and our own human distraction from many of its worst.

But then – disasters are kind of like clichés; both are undervalued. Like this one: don’t believe everything you read. One apocalypse is plenty. Before we start distracting ourselves with our collective fate in the distant future, we might do well to consider the world in the present tense. This does not mean just watching the news; just as in our children, there seem to be increasing occurrences of ADHD. We may have a host of problems, but we also have the manpower; last I checked, we were at the 7 billion mark. It’s much easier to focus on the impending disaster due to the world’s problems than it is to realize that the first step each of us might take toward solving them… is to pick one.

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Rambling Prelude to Midterm Elections

To properly address today's midterm elections, we must return (and regrettably so) to John Kerry's gaff of last week. I don't want to anatomize intentions as much as I want to focus on the trajectory of the story itself, especially within the Democratic party.

Let's begin with a simple synopsis.

What Happened:

- John Kerry misspoke, so that a joke intended to darkly and viciously criticize the Bush Administration instead seemed to criticize American troops.
- Kerry initially made a strong statement in which he refused to apologize and quite nicely shifted attention to the original intentions of his joke, hoping to begin a conversation about the war in Iraq instead of a diversionary conversation about troop intelligence and Democratic patriotism, which was what ultimately ensued.
- Prominent Democrats and Republicans alike demanded that Kerry apologized.
- As a result of mounting political pressure and the failure of his own statement to initiate public discourse, Kerry eventually apologized and retreated sheepishly to one of his many homes.

What Did Not Happen, Why It Didnt Happen And Why This Fills Me With Rage:
- Democrats did NOT promulgate a unified message that stood behind the intent of Kerry's original joke and attempted to direct the media towards the more significant errors and missteps of the Bush Administration in Iraq. This indicates the serious and continued lack of a functional Democratic media machine. This also indicates increased divisions within the Democratic party, especially in this election cycle as Democrats have been forced to run moderates in order to pick up key Congressional seats. Moderates in close elections were forced to run to the right in order to avoid aligning themselves too closely with a prominent Democratic leader like Kerry. This does not bode well for a party just months away from a potential Congressional takeover.

- This enrages me because: Democrats or, more broadly, liberals, have failed to author and promote a grand vision for change in this country. Democrats may win individual seats across the nation and there may be significant pickups for the party nationally. But without a unifying theme, message, vision, etc..., these victories will remain isolated, fragmented: they will fail to coalesce into the sort of movement that is truly necessarry to shift public opinion in a significant and lasting way.

I don't want to belittle or deride the gains that will be made possible by a Democratic takeover of Congress. These gains will not be insignificant, but they will be insufficient.

To move the country towards the left, the Democrats need to abandon politics, as it were. The political landscape in this country is, in a way, fully mapped. Without the invention of a new language, a new way of speaking about our values and speaking to people about these values, any movement left or right will be temporary and small.

The sort of grand vision I'm speaking of is a progressive one, a new cultural narrative that recaptures the romanticism of the American dream, a narrative of broadd gestures and rhetorical flourishes that fills the country once again with a sense of urgency towards an abstract but emotive end. I understand why progressives are frightened of broad, romantic gestures because of the violence that has occurred beneath the flourishes of language and because of the socio-political nuance that romance inevitable overwhelms. But history should not be a reason for inaction, it should merely fill us with an increased sense of caution and responsibility.

If progressivism takes hold in this country, it will be because of a political leadership able to make American believe in them, a political leadership able to make seemingly disparate issues and causes coalesce within a single, synthetic, dialectical vision of the future.

We need a political leader who can talk about the future as a time of promise, who can be honest about the challenges we will face as we move towards these promises, and who can bridge the gap between private and public lives so that politics might once again become the charge of America instead of a task left to those in power.

I think the next president will be someone who can perpetuate the story of America's greatness without resorting to isolationism or ethnocentrism. It will be someone who can talk about economic competition and the rise of power in Asia, and someone who can define these new areas of the world as foreign policy priorities. It will be someone who can talk about the nation's infrastructure and get people to support its wholesale improvement so that our nation can become a symbol of innovation and efficiency. It will be someone who can talk about diversity as a foundation of democracy and borders and walls as antithetical to this foundation without resorting to the tired metaphors of multiculturalism.

America needs a new vision. Only once we have a vision, an imagined future, can we begin to talk about how to get there. Without a telos, imaginary (and dynamic) as it will inevitably be, all politics are moot, only tepid adjustments to the status quo.

More on this later, but allow me to close with a bold pronouncement: Russ Feingold will be the darkhorse candidate in 2008.

Thoughts on 2008? On how the next two years will influence 2008? On Obama or Clinton or even Gore? And maybe even on who will get the Republican nomination? (You don't need to be registered to comment, by the way).

Saturday, November 04, 2006

I honestly can't tell you about my best poem because of a nondisclosure agreement.

I see that guy holding his
grocery bag full of food
across on the other platform,
it's plastic.

This is where the fun ends, this

is where you come
to understand just
enough of what's
going on for the
knowledge remaining
to be gained to be
not worth the efforts so expended.

My poem titled:
Aaron Sorkin films all his shows from the P O V of an overeager intern.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Democracy's Eleventh Hour

A question that arises from Ben's similarly titled post of several days ago:

Is democracy the only value that can exist absolutley in a democratic society?

A somewhat poorly-constructed and vague question, yes, but purposely so as to have the answers originate in questions of what absolutism even means and how absolutism relates to or is the same as "ordinary" belief. Another question then: what does it mean to believe (in anything) in a democratic society and when do these beliefs (if ever) become opposed to democracy and when (if ever) does it matter or even become problematic?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Watching the Watchers

As of this post I’ll have broke out of my recent tie with my globe-trotting friend, the recent historicist and the red-haired poet. Competitive as I may be, that isn’t the sole reason for writing. However, as I am vaulting into first place post-wise (I have a lot of catching up to do in the replies, which I have loved reading and especially loved seeing some new names attached to them) I suppose I should begin by apologizing. With this post, I will become the lead contributor, which means that with this post there will be way too much TV being discussed on this fine web-based experiment.

I don’t want to apologize too much. Our instigator did write in his mission statement that we are “here” to, among other things, share our “musings on culture,” and as it should have it, recently my muse has found amusement therein (and in puns, evidently).

But with any luck, this post will do a little bit more than critique one specific show. Maybe with a little luck, patience and attention (and, as Focault said, as long as the “courage” does not desert me) I can do a little better, and perhaps even start to muse about, as our instigator put it, examine a portion of the “diverse elements of our community’s collective imagination.”

There’s been a trend of late, it seems to me (and to someone else who wrote about this first: I think it was about the show “Smith”, which I’ll discuss later, and it appeared in The Boston Globe) that lots of TV and some movies have tried very hard to romanticize suburban life. For the sake of argument, I’ll start the trend at “American Beauty” (it doesn’t really start here): in “AB”, Chris Cooper’s ex-Marine is a closet homosexual, his son Wes Bentley famously finds beauty in filming a plastic bag (and everything else), Annette Bening has an affair with the guy with the huge eyebrows on “The OC”, etc.. As normal and predictably yuppy/suburban as almost everyone seems, there’s always something dramatic happening behind closed doors. There’s a degree of romance to it: something special, something hidden, buried deep within the mundane.

But the ‘special’ in “American Beauty” doesn’t seem so special when it’s compared to the romantics of its descendents. Now we have Zach Braff and Natalie Portman trekking through the woods in garbage bags, destined for a ship hanging precipitously over a rock quarry, or peering through pin-holes in a hotel. Some of “Garden State”, I think, says that there’s more to the homes that we’ve left than we thought.

There’s also “Desperate Housewives.” “DH” loves showing us the back-stabbing, two-faced nature of suburbia (if anything, that’s not Romanization, its reality). But in order to flush out the narrative of niceness and normalcy (and to keep us watching), there’s always a layer of the truly bizarre waiting just beneath the suburban and everyday (Betty Applewhite locking up her son in the basement is probably at once both the best and worst example of this, and also probably bears some further examination).

There was “Sleeper Cell” and its movie-cousin “Arlington Road,” both about terrorists living next door to us. There’s “Smith”, the recently-cancelled Ray Liotta drama wherein the Goodfella played suburban dad by day, master-thief by night. And, hey, speaking of cancelled shows dealing with the same premise, there was even “Thief.” There might even be an element of Tyler Durden in there as well.

It’s not in everything that’s out there: “Lost” doesn’t romanticize everyday suburban life at all. “Heroes” takes us to the city, not the suburbs. And there’s “CSI” and its cousins, “House,” “Grey’s”, etc..

But there’s some sort of pattern here, some sort of general movement that these shows have either created or been pulled in to. I want to ask why: why this sudden urge to not just show how the difference between the performed public and the reserved private, but also to romanticize the everyday.

An uninteresting answer is that there’s a market for it. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it, but I should note it: obviously, Hollywood feeds on itself. There’s a reason why there’s fifteen “CSI’s”: TV has found a formula that works and wants to make the most of it. Relatedly, there might be a demographic pattern that TV is following to the suburbs. I don’t have any stats that say this is even a phenomenon, and I realize that suburbanization has been going on since the close of World War II, but maybe there’s been a recent surge, and maybe people want to watch what they identify with.

Certainly possible, certainly plausible. And certainly, I should recall these plausibilities as I start to get a little more interesting as I wonder why.

Why feel this maybe recent need to tell stories about ourselves in this manner? Why coat the everyday with the extraordinary? Entertainment, not just television, has always returned to examine its audience and their shared world. Sometimes it’s showed the audience in the happy-go-lucky way it saw itself (think “Leave it to Beaver”) and sometimes it tried to do just the opposite (“The Crucible”, etc.).

What might be at issue, what might cause today’s writers to apply the romantic ‘veneer’, is what they’re trying to show us (in the same way that Miller wanted his audience to do the work for him: he didn’t want to put Cotton Mather on the Supreme Court, instead he put 50s America side by side with Salem and let the audience draw their own conclusions). Maybe TV needs this gild to hide the audience from itself, from what is beneath their shared world, from what is inevitably beneath a gilded veneer: nothing.

Do we need this kind of romantic TV? Not just as a means of entertainingly exploring the public versus the private, but to substitute for something (I hate to say it) existentially missing? Do we have to have this possibility for the extraordinary? These aren’t rhetorical questions, I’m really asking: is it that bad?

Maybe it’s something else entirely. Is that lacquer slapped on top of normal life as a further means of self-delusion, or does it represent instead something optimistic, some attempt to beautify, improve or even dislodge the ordinary? Maybe these shows try to deregulate the sensible, or at the very leas suggest that we are all far more interesting than we ever let on. Maybe they’re suggesting that we should do away with whatever institutions encourage such insecurities in one another so that we may discover just how worthy we are of each others’ attention. Paradoxically, if this is the case, then the message is being conducted through the very institution of insecurities, like a secret code reverberating against the walls of a prison cell, sent by a desperate inmate tapping out against the walls of his own cell, praying that his neighbor will listen and understand. These show might be meant as encouragement (again, might be), but they themselves are not the answer to whatever root dissatisfaction we might feel. Instead, they only locate the problem and identify a possible point of rupture.

(Whether you believe our esteemed TV writers are covering something hollow (the pessimists) or encouraging better behavior (obviously the optimists; I really don’t want to suggest one or the other, or to even limit this to an either/or issue) I think that at the root of this (at least the present either/or issue) is dissatisfaction: with life, with suburbia, with normalcy, with our jobs, with what we have compared to what we wanted, to what have you. This root dissatisfaction, endemic of something bigger than how TV writers are feeling (because TV audiences are watching) might result in these shows I’ve been discussing. And our interpretation of these effects (i.e., whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist) might say more about how likely you imagine a satisfactory resolution to this ‘root dissatisfaction (if indeed we’re willing to admit that such a thing exists) than the effects themselves.)

Even “Heroes” and “Lost,” shows that aren’t located in the suburbs and have more admittedly fantastical elements still contain bits of this romantic salvation. On TV ordinary people wake up one day and find out they can fly and that the world suddenly needs them, or the island that they’re trapped on is paradoxically connected to the rest of the world—and maybe that's the only chance we get.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Real-Life Poetry from John's Real-Life Poetry Vault

A man who made the movie sitting in the theater and the jokers in the front laughing and cackling, and a young woman several rows before him who is crying just a little, then shivers, and turns around, and their eyes meet.
breathing outward and wind accelerating objective correlative--not causative--does still make us wonder how we did that.
but thre is no cause from you to it but only horizontality between you two progeny of a prima causa--is god--says one philosophy.
   (     ):
but then nothing i do can affect anything else, even causes I'd bet, until action could never be located because it left no clues/footprints or tracks on its proxmal lexes.

and the woman is wearing the mask.
In real life, eerybody rides in the sky-world on their magical glow-worm dragon partners, but in this allegory of the cave, you and me live in bubbles in this sky, whose limits are well within theirs, and yet infinite enough to contain us forever. But for someone who could measure our infinity as a calculable finitude--able to count, unable to count--, the limits and edges of our space, apparent to them, would allow them to pop in seemingly "in the middle of things" (yes...)
Fault lines and Jazz Music.

The historian's job

Every Thursday I have a historical methodology seminar-like class. So far, we have only examined medieval historiography, but we always end up discussing contemporary issues concerning the writing of history. I came out of the most recent discussion feeling somewhat pessimistic about the prospective course of my life. We delved into some excellent issues and had some very enriching discussions about the historian’s supposed purpose. One point stuck out in my mind, and is the basis for this post: if history is the pursuit of Truth about the past, isn’t the historian’s job inherently antisocial? As it goes without saying that no historian – or indeed anyone – can ever reach an objective truth about anything, it is, fundamentally, the historian’s duty to continuously destroy old myths by replacing them with new ones that supposedly offer a ‘better’ interpretation of the past. Do I really want to be a historian if my job is, when it comes down to it, to make people less comfortable with the accepted views of the past? Good historians have to be anarchists. Do I want to be an anarchist?

I understand that in many cases clarifying the past for people is useful for their own edification. But it’s difficult to reconcile a mentality that it’s all for the greater good without feeling like it’s just being nitpicky. I can certainly see how some view the quest for historical truths as being an antisocial activity. One example to support this immediately comes to my mind: my neighbors from across the street in South Hadley visited Scotland a few years ago. When they came back, they told my family all about it, and how they especially liked Stirling, where they saw William Wallace’s sword! I almost said ‘well, that isn’t really his sword...’ but thought the better of it. Millions of people have seen that sword and believe it to be authentic – is it my job to tell them it’s not? Should it matter? I suppose that that’s a rather benign example, because were it widely publicized that the sword on display at the Wallace Monument isn’t actually Braveheart’s, I don’t think it would radically change anyone’s worldview. But you get my point. A slightly more potent example is that Churchill never actually delivered some of his most famous speeches during the ‘dark days’ of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. An actor was hired to impersonate him on the radio, possibly because he was drunk. Should everyone know that? Does it matter?

What is the purpose of history, really?

Saturday, October 28, 2006


Almost back to Belford

Home for me is dust,
Rising from a nameless road
Where wind's fingers play.

On the concept of Freedom

"Why are his feet so dusty?"...."Cause he's ripping up kilometers!" (K'Naan).

When BJ invited us to join this blog, he called me a man of freedom. I want to comment briefly on the concept of freedom. Certainly I will not astound anyone when I say that freedom is a relative term. In first world nations like the United States one has the freedom to get in a car and drive on a well-paved smooth road to a well-lit, bright super market, and fill a plastic cart with bulging red perky tomatoes. Similarly (or perhaps conversely), in a place like Dakar, Senegal, one has the freedom to walk along the edge of a dirt road ankle-deep in mud and lined with mounds of baking refuse to a hunching complex of damp dingy stalls lined with corrugated tin and covered with plastic sheets where in the half light one chokes on the stench of rotten meat and dried fish while picking through reed baskets of tomatoes for one or two that are still fresh.

Contemplating these two freedoms, one might eventually come to realize that in the light of the recent French colonial presence in Senegal, the second freedom is in fact much richer and more deeply colored than the first, as the freedoms in Dakar to walk where one wishes, to build corrugated-tin-walled markets, and to grow and sell and buy tomatoes are all relatively recent and new phenomena. Having experienced the freedom of buying tomatoes in each of these two worlds, one might also come to view certain freedoms of the United States less as freedoms and more as luxuries or aspects of easiness; and then to wonder where in these 'freedoms' sleeps the passionate actualized liberation of 1776 from the economic and military tyranny of Great Britain (the good queen of which now, I'm sorry to say, has our good brother Haley comfortably in her pocket), that liberation having served as a catalyst in the spawning of all other American freedoms. Perhaps in the imaginations of some individuals in those founding years, the then-unnamed creature capitalism would involve certain bold, inventive entrepreneurs starting their own economic ventures (perhaps with names like CBS, IBM, Simon and Schuster, or EPA) and employing and training people with the hope that those underlings would come to create similar businesses that could compete with the original in a way that would strengthen the economy on a whole and cultivate creativity, analytical thinking, and bold calculation of risks within each individual.

It seems today, as some of you have begun to grumble cantankerously of the chains that you worry are beginning to grow between your ankles and the legs of large wooden desks, that the disjunction between the actualized liberation from economic oppression over 200 years ago and the realization of the imagined possibilities of capitalism as perceived by our founding fathers and their kin could not grow any larger. Frustration with this and other fissures in the American social, political, and economic systems drove me to leave the country and to seek freedom elsewhere, and while easily romanticized (I am guilty of this myself) I urge you to realize that freedom is never necessarily synonymous with ease of living (and neither should ease of living or a quality of excessive luxury ever be equated with freedom - therein lies the strength of advertisement campaigns).

It is true that I have only myself to answer to, and have no pin-stripe fake-smile hair-grease whips driving me to pour my life into slobbering giants like CBS, IBM, Simon and Schuster, EPA, etc, but as some have said before, no freedom comes without a price, and I have met the cost in my own way. Still I would say that no easiness of living is worth a sacrifice in freedom, in the gift that is one's ability to think and act and feel and move entirely on one's own, no matter the cost of walking a self-conceived self-pursued alternative path, but I think you all know that already. I miss you all dearly and sincerely hope you will be able to join me for some stretch of my long-legged rambles.

System infiltrated

Few Americans would be surprised to discover that our educational system is flawed, perhaps irreparably. But fewer realize the extent to which these flaws are binding themselves, as if carefully, with society, so that the institution’s very defects are crucial elements in a kind of symbiotic relationship between this particular institution and the whole of our society.

When I bought myself a college education and walked off to join Teach for America, I never fashioned myself their poster-child. I have far more sense than that, I suppose. Although I could never have predicted the extent of my classroom management challenges or my principal’s malice, I certainly predicted my own skepticism for anything with a brand name. The “this is why I teach for America” stories are so formulaic that they could probably be synthesized with the aid of a computer program, a la The Postmodern Essay Generator. Or Madlibs. No: what drew me to accept the job (they refer to it as “the challenge”) was the twofold mission that the organization professes: to make immediate impact on students in my own classroom, and to make long-term systemic change with the positions that my experience would afford me.

I will leave the verdict on my “immediate” impact to the statheads (as prominent in this organization as in sabermetric baseball chatrooms) and the children – immediate impact, after all, does not really evidence itself immediately. However, the hope for long-term systemic change is, ironically, the one thing I feel that I can already judge. My studies have not been exhaustive, so whether systemic improvement is possible or the best means toward reaching it are not my aim. Rather, I can speak to the current trend that Teach for America, scrambling school systems, the government, and most other factions of whom I’m aware are perpetuating.

Depending on which study you read, the experts measure the achievement gap as something between three and four years. In other words, as a group, students of color (well, black and Latino) in our country at, say, age 17, have attained the basic educational skills of a white student of 13 or 14. No Child Left Behind, the revised version, has professed to address this issue with its bold statement that it will not consider schools to be meeting their AYP (Average Yearly Progress) unless certain at-risk subgroups, like racial groups and families that are economically disadvantaged, meet the same standards as their privileged peers. Similarly, Teach for America trains its corps members to set high “Big Goals” for their students and cites various studies to support the success of this, similar to the studies of Vincent Rascigno (1998) that proved that high teacher expectations had positive effects on students (while, for example, the effect of per-pupil expenditure was statistically insignificant). Struggling school systems have allowed many charter schools to crop up like bacilli, often scoring as dismally as their public school neighbors – who claim that the difference is that they, at least, make high achievement and high expectations their business.

However, each of these, which sometimes seem to be at odds, are equally distant from some brutal realities. I do not claim to have the monopoly on insight because of some newfound welcome-to-the-real-world skepticism. Nevertheless, this experience has showed me a few things. The first is that almost every faction is attempting to educate these students on the wrong side of the achievement gap by teaching them how to succeed in a system that has been designed so that they will fail. Setting the same “high expectations” is not enough if it is not accompanied by a serious reexamination, perhaps re-creation, of the standards by which we are forcing our children to use every effort to attain. Standardized tests are so flawed that my alma mater has garnered recent publicity for forswearing them in admissions requirements. ESL, still pervasive despite studies that argue for bilingual education, forces students to write in English before students have mastered their native language. And the ideals of our educational system are so distant from the realities of our society that many students in less-than-idyllic neighborhoods create two separate identities in order to survive (but rarely to thrive) at school.

Paulo Freire, educator and theorist from Brazil, is best known for his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which opposed “banking” education – akin to the idea of the tabula rasa. Among his many criticisms of contemporary education was his disapproval of the dichotomy between teacher and student, and he found that the mutual respect between equals contributing to an educational experience with the whole self proved more successful than the more frequented methods of education. Other theorists have supported the view that community-based education is the most successful, particularly with struggling student bodies; they have also evidenced the deleterious effect of an education that denies the full investment of the self. However, the system as it currently exists – the same system that most institutions and organizations encourage students to submit to in order to emerge successfully – denies the full investment of the self in its very nature. Certainly, the aims of education should include the attainment of literacy, mathematical and technical knowledge, and a breadth of other subject understanding. These aims, however, too often are positive side effects of American meritocracy. And well-meaning institutions and educators – carrying the message of “high and equal expectations” – too often stand for serving in a role akin to that of a cheerleader, one who ignores the fact that his candidate has been forced to amputate his limbs while, unlike his competitors, he has not been granted wings.

In other words, as long as our system is a meritocracy (and what else could those entrenched in capitalism imagine?) and as long as that meritocracy continues to deny “wings” – equipment to succeed – to its least educated – we can not expect equal and high expectations to be met. This is true, at least, as long as we pander to those with so-called social capital, who set the standards for success. In this black-and-white pass-fail dichotomy, the social capital and whole personhood that persons of color and impoverished Americans of all races possess is relegated to a curiosity commodified by the mainstream culture. It is the stuff of entertainment, not of education. Thus are the children of this side of the proverbial track forced into a split-identity existence if they are to succeed at all. It can be done, and it might be true that a few of these students will emerge stronger, but the system continues to relegate the vast majority of them to failure. Teachers, too, are forced by the system into pseudo-superior roles because standards and objectives are ours for the distribution – and because American culture forces us to be disciplinarians before we are educators.

Oddly, this is why I teach for America, but it’s not the message I’m supposed to be giving. I am not teaching because I want to create a system-wide change in which all teachers hold these sought-for high expectations, per se. I am not teaching merely because of the students in my school, though indeed they are an incentive. Rather, I am teaching because I don’t want to be part of the problem. I don’t want to be one of the privileged who collects diverse acquaintances and habits like charms on a bracelet – and this is more than mere vanity. My goal is that I can learn from my students and from my experience so that maybe I can neither pander to the system nor fight it. My goal is to recreate it, from the ground up – even if my contribution is only in the form of a much better-informed essay I’d be able to write two years from now. When I was in school, I learned a lot of fancy language that enabled me to write this essay, and students will generally be considered successful if they learn to do the same. I don’t want my students to write an essay, though – unless they write one because they mean it.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Eleventh Hour

I was at work this morning, relegated to a conference room with some other new hires when, somehow, someway, and through no fault of my own, we began discussing religion. It was nothing more than a brief skirmish, perhaps even less, not even a flaring of tensions but maybe only a drawing of battle lines. It was brief and it was civil and I imagine that both its brevity and its civility are relatively lacking in similar conversations across the country.

One of the participants concisely and intelligently proclaimed his faith. That this gentleman was religious did not surprise me—statistically in today’s America, it’s always going to be the safe bet. What surprised me was the security he demonstrated with his own beliefs: he believed, and if others didn’t, fine, that was their decision. This statement (here presented in brutal paraphrase) generated a relative agreement from all parties involved, ending in a general consensus that this was one of the benefits of being an American.

I’m still inclined to agree with what this gentleman said. Indeed, in today’s America, I think this kind of relativism might just be the best all-around compromise between two sides that hate each other so much that usually in discussions with the opposition, their vile tends to impede them from forming sentences. Though I’ll be grappling with what my co-worker said throughout the rest of this post (grappling, mind you, and not answering) I want to offer this caveat: what he said might be the best we could possibly ask for nowadays. Might.

But on this site, except when its contributors digress to explore primetime TV shows and seventeenth century printing trivia, we must keep our eyes on the prize: the poorly-defined, cozy-feeling liberal cornerstone that is social justice (the term still evades me, and I challenge anyone to find any two liberals to agree on a definition. I honestly think the challenge would cause them both to combust: liberals conforming to a binding and finalized definition! GASP!).

In all seriousness, I’ve always been curious about the faithfuls’ interaction with what I think we’d all call ‘the good fight’. How do we (and by ‘we’ I mean your garden variety northeastern or coastal, private college suburban white kids who have rejected just about any form of God that’s come across our paths) team up and do business with them (for the sake of simplicity, by ‘them’ I mean progressive Christians, those who are light on dogma but high on interpretation and faith and willing to agree that some parts of the Bible might be a little outdated). We shouldn’t underestimate this ‘us and them’ relationship: indeed, ‘them’ came first. The abolitionist movement gained its momentum through the faithful, as did woman’s suffrage, as did civil rights.

Now I realize that for every item I list demonstrating the faithfuls’ contribution to social justice, we could all probably list fifty reasons where faith has either curbed, halted or crushed the progression of social justice. I don’t debate that. Moreover, even for those items which I just listed, there’s still a lurking unease that the anti-essentialists and/or post-Nietzscheans (whose name, unlike Locke’s, is very difficult to spell) amongst us might have trouble ignoring: white abolitionists thought that the slaves should be freed because all men were equally inferior to God. Likewise, some of the reasoning that drove the women’s suffrage movement presumed that because men were spiritually superior beings whose minds were focused on the realm of ideas, women, more connected to the earth and the day-to-day, were better suited to make decisions on earth. Obviously, this presumption reeks of ol-fashioned essentialism.

Regardless of their reasoning the faithful were there, and they were pushing for social change. In the 60s they were joined by us (re-visit the definition of ‘we’ two paragraphs ago). I’m not saying all of those 60s Northern carpetbaggers were atheists or even agnostic, but chances are some of them were.

After we meet, after we work together (and sometimes, God willing, after we succeed together), what then? Nietzsche would have us believe that, just as the faithful should be committed to saving souls, we should be committed to re-directing their energies back to earth (a similarity that has always quietly bothered me). Should we presume that we have some type of ‘responsibility’ to ‘save’ the faithful from themselves, even the extremely progressive ones? Or should adopt the relativism that the gentleman with whom I work demonstrated?

And what about that relativism as exemplified by the faithful gentleman? My initial, gut reaction to his display of secure faith was pleasure, if not pride: I was proud of him for being able to, if not accept, then at least allow (or allow himself to allow) the presence of differing theological perspectives. And I still wonder if that relativism is the best, if not the only way of dealing with one another. But as a Christian, as one of the faithful, is he really allowed to do that? Does his faith allow him to do that? And if so, then how can he accommodate this leniency when, more often than not, there is only ‘one way’, and every other ‘way’ is not only wrong, but will get you landed right in H-E-Double Hockey sticks? From the outside, as I admittedly am, it’s hard to allow for any evolution within a faith when, well, evolution itself tends to be summarily rejected.

These are all personal questions for me: I’m not a progressive Christian, as a matter of fact, I’m not an anything Christian, but I am related to progressive Christians. I’ve recently ‘outed’ myself to them, not because of a recent anti-epiphany but instead just because of an increased ability to argue my point. They don’t pray at dinner, they rarely go to Church, they’re all for gay rights and, with a little wine, tend to declaim that the current President is the worst in history. But they still believe, and maybe for the most infuriating of reasons: because it makes them feel good.

I’d feel uncomfortable telling them that Freud would say this is childish (if only because usually my default position on Freud is to just say ‘Wrong’). The argument ended when I asked why they didn’t believe in Unicorns as, just like God, there’s no empirical evidence supporting their existence (in the spirit of the season, it’d be convenient if I suggested the Great Pumpkin). But for me, that’s what it comes down to.

These types of the faithful, good people whose hearts and minds struggle along with ours to achieve a better world, who don’t allow themselves to be entagled in dogma and superstition, always provoke a two-headed reaction in me, and this is the best way I can explain it:

Think of undertaking a twelve hour car ride with someone. For eleven and a half hours, they’ve been rock solid. Never asked to stop, were always good with the directions, volunteered to drive and when they did they kept the car on the road. For eleven and a half hours, you couldn’t have asked for a better co-pilot.

But in the eleventh and a half hour, they insist, they demand, that you stop the car. They’re hungry or they have to use the bathroom. And so you stop the car, because they’ve been so rock solid for so long. And a part of you wishes that you weren’t in such a damn hurry, that they have a right. But at the same time you think home is just half an hour away, and Jesus couldn’t they hold it for just half an hour?