Saturday, July 30, 2011

Me and Modern Art (and why we don't quite understand each other)

So I went to an art museum today, and it was great!, and inspired the bellow reflections. For anyone who loves art or especially loves or hates modern art, I would really love to have your thoughts, comments & feedback!! Seriously. 

Post-script: it occurred to me that I should really be more specific by what I mean by 'modern art', and indicate that by that I mostly mean 'abstract art.' Rather than edit the whole piece however, I'm just going to declare that here and assume you get my drift in the rest of the post. 

I like art, but I am not sure it can be said that I love it. Some works of art I absolutely love, and could stare at them for hours. Sometimes in fact I am put off by how much I gravitate towards a particular piece – there is something about a captivating work of art that is much like eating a delicious meal: I want to be completely absorbed by it, but there always seems to be some thin line between touching the painting with my eyes (or tasting the meal with my tongue) and becoming completely enveloped by it – as though I am stuck on the brink of an orgasm.

So let it not be said that I am unmoved by art. However, there is so much art that leaves me either cold or uncomfortable that I think there is much to art that I do not understand – and by understand I mean not that I lack an intellectual appreciation for any type of art, but that on an intuitive, neurological level I do not connect (or am adverse to) the piece I am looking at in front of me.

At this point I should pause to explain a bit about my aesthetic preferences. Firstly, aesthetics are rather important to me, and in that sense I suppose it could be said that I love art. The differences between a dark room and a brightly lit one, a bougsie restaurant and a bland diner with a counter-top, impress upon me so much that I will do just about anything to avoid the aesthetic I am adverse to. (Including spending more money than I should.) Lighting in particular has the capacity to instantly alter my mood. So I quite notice aesthetics, and have all sorts of opinions about interior design and the such. But perhaps the best way to get at how weird, in some ways – and I might have to confess, narrow – my aesthetic preferences are is to point to one fact that has never failed to puzzle the person I’m confessing it to: I don’t like cartoons. Actually, it is not much a matter of liking or dislikingI feel as though I am allergic to cartoons. But not all animation  – I can handle the realism used in most Disney films, and the animation style used in such films as Waking Life, which I actually rather like. I am allergic to a particular type of cartoon – those that employ strange, non-geometric shapes in rendering figures and above all, those that use bright, largely primary colors. We are talking The Simpsons or Family Guy, but also the profoundly disturbing animation of Monty Python, which is unfortunate since, I otherwise love watching Monty Python. This allergy extends to such a point that I simply do not watch these shows (in the case of Monty Python I just look away and listen), and do not even like to look at pictures or depictions of them. They are off putting and creepy, a big distortive blob in an otherwise pretty landscape. This, as I have been informed by many of my friends, makes me a total freak.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hello sir, do you have a minute to listen to my rant today?

Oh my, it's been a month. And here is another repost from an older blog - but oh well, something is better than nothing, right? Most of my time has been sucked in by my other blogging enterprise, and you know, life and work. But I will try to at least keep this blog alive, even if only in a, once-a-month kind of way. 

Anyway, I chose this piece because yesterday I actually stopped, sighed, and expressed to the young woman asking me if I had time for the ocean the general sentiment, in a very shortened form, of this post. She answered, "you'll just have to find a grassroots movement," to work for social and economic justice. Too true, too true. 
About those people always asking if you have a minute for the environment? Well no, I’d rather this not be too rant-like, to be honest. But I do have a complaint – actually, a concern, more accurately, about what I’m constantly getting stopped for during my pedestrian commutes.

No one does this more often of course than Calprig. When my sister used to live in California, I just told them she had covered our family’s commitment to the environment and move on. Today I just have to decline as politely as I can. Yesterday, I was stopped by Amnesty International to be asked whether or not I have a minute to help end violence against women. Again, smile, politely decline.

I try to be polite because I do have sympathy for these people, and I have some sympathy for their causes. Anyone who decides to spend some of their time on actively trying to improve the world is doing better than most, I’d say. Violence against women, for example, is obviously something I would like to stop. But violence against women where, and how? Amnesty International seems like a good organization, but whether or not they can curb corrupt regimes driven by power and/or religious fundamentalism through the good will/guilt of middle-class American donations seems dubious to me. I wonder why they do not attack the structuring problems more directly, more broadly, rather than pouring energy into smacking band-aids on the results.

But I have no idea what would stem international violence against women, and I’m not here to claim I do. But what I do notice about these enthusiastic young people asking for a minute of my time is that almost always, they are advocating for something I will, and I admit this has some derogatory connotations, call “soft issues.” Yes, saving the environment is an important issue. I wish them the best of luck with it, and, I recycle. But why is that political issue so much more attractive, so much more morally compelling, to young people than well let’s say, the immediacy of social injustice in their own country? Global warming is real, and there is a good chance it will eventually fuck us over; but in the meantime, wealth inequality has continued to expand since the 1980s, the Tea Party spirit is trying to take over our nation’s education via Texas, and oh yeah, homosexuals still are not considered equal human beings in the vast majority of the country. Why don’t I run into people asking me if I have a minute for that more often? I almost always would. I’m all for the environment, but I, like all people, have priorities as to where I want to place my time and money – but while those involved in the green movement currently have a huge cultural upswing of being taken seriously by the rest of the world, my issues – shall I dare call them the “old leftists” issues – remain as unpopular as they have been since the 1970s.

For example, why isn’t there some powerful non-profit organization like Calprig which interrupts pedestrians by asking, “Hi, do you have a minute for poor people today?” upon which they present their petition to raise taxes considerably on upper middle-class and rich Americans, to pay for a more redistributive society that takes social justice seriously. How about that phrasing actually, “Do you have a minute for social justice today?” Hell yes I do.

Another example is the green/organic movement around food. While I have some mild concern about the health quality of my food, I am less concerned about that than I am about the exploitative labor practices of Food, Inc. Instead of having almost one of everything labeled “organic” in the grocery store why aren’t products labeled according to how well companies pay and treat their workers, whether or not they provide them with health insurance or deport them to Mexico in the middle of the night? Seriously, this is what I would base my purchasing choices on if I was given the information I’d like to filter products with.

Of course, to ask all this is rather silly – I might as well ask, “why are Americans so afraid of redistribution,” or, “why do Americans value property rights over human rights?” But I guess my surprise comes in with the fact that the absence of top-down funding and mainstream political acceptability is really enough to stifle almost all interest in economic justice at the student or undergraduate level. I hate to have an elitist-driven viewpoint of history – after all the New Right is profoundly grassroots – but sometimes all the evidence tends to point towards it. Our young people today can’t get fired up about economic injustice or the limits of American political discourse as easily as they can about baby sea turtles. (And really – I was asked the other week if I had a minute for baby sea turtles. Who can say no to that? Baby sea turtles are stupid cute.) This is apparently because they were never taught to, or even exposed to the issue in any sustained way. And indeed, while I distinctly remember a documentary about global warming I used to enjoy and watched several times over as a child, I never remember seeing anything about ghettos or rural poverty, especially nothing directed at children.

Again, all this is obvious to state – holy hell, Americans are quite comfortable with economic injustice, believe it to be the normal order of the world and, don’t really question the assumptions of our center-right political consensus. But I reserve some right to be disappointed in our youth population all the same, especially the ones at the university – the same people who like to fantasize about the 1960s are the ones who abandon the fight to really challenge the status-quo and put up posters about fuzzy polar bears instead. (And again, nothing against polar bears, which are also stupid cute.) But since they aren’t going to learn it anywhere else, this to me emphasizes how important the university is as the absolute last hope for really holding the line against collective cultural stupidity. I have seen some progress in this regard with the recent protests about the fee hikes – but even there, students tend to focus on a few (granted, totally authentic) villains in the UC Regents and Governor’s Mansion, and advertise their plight narrowly, on a very clear but narrow issue, rather than building a cross-class, cross-issue coalition that sees the connection between California’s voters condoning the erosion of their public school system and a broader American public that does not believe that the government can or should provide equal social services to everyone.

But the university isn’t really about questioning the system anymore — quite the contrary, it is about shaping people into cogs in order to ensure its smooth functioning — and who knows if it ever was. But no worries. We will always have a minute for baby sea turtles.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The crucible of argument.

 Note: This is actually a post I wrote over two years ago, and put up elsewhere on the Internets. But I think it is worth reposting and, I've had trouble getting to this blog lately!
I have a theory about arguments. Political or intellectual arguments, that is. If any argument could be carried on to its smallest unit — if all the evidence, sub-arguments and assumptions entailed in each could be worked through by two opponents — inevitably the combatants would whittle the argument down into a very few, or even a singular, unproveable assumptions on which each has a different position. All the other details of disagreement rely on and can be traced back, ultimately, to this central philosophical difference.

I call this a theory for good reason, since it would work in an ideal world but, probably not too often in this one. People misrepresent facts, sometimes with only one conscious eye on the fact and, sometimes deliberately. They also ignore facts that they kind unconvincing or unimportant simply because they butt up against their opinion. Even a simple matter of data can run up against a whole slew of objections — whether this data set is the most accurate or that one is, whether this data set or that one is relevant to the question at hand, etc. And thus, if we can’t even decide on facts, it is harder for us to work our way down to the central disagreements that are not so factual. Additionally, some people are just plain disingenuous; they don’t really have any intellectual interest in the question, but merely get whatever kicks they need from being dogmatic warriors.

I do not mean to argue here that because truth is illusive, it does not exist and therefore, let’s all be moderate and listen to each other’s opinions with equal respect, even when some opinions are patently absurd. That would suggest I am content with what my theory implies. I’m not. Increasingly I am disturbed by how those, when confronted with convincing evidence that opposes their opinion, manage to weasel their way out of consciously admitting fault or reshaping their assessment. There is nothing anyone can say, for example, to libertarians convinced the New Deal made America worse off. There is nothing anyone can say, for another example, to someone who really believes the moon landing was faked. And there is nothing anyone can say to a religiously minded conservative that really believes that civilization is headed for the toilet once gay people can get married. These are mindsets immune to historical or factual reasoning. But, this is not to imply that all opinions are so ideological or resilient to reasoned debate.

However, it does imply that as humans, we have done a pretty bad job at teaching ourselves to truly reason. It does mean that currently, there are other things – religious sentiment, ideology, dogmatism — that while our society does not always openly place above reason, a whole slew of subtle and not-so-subtle influences in our society actually do encourage the dismissal of evidence and reason. Additionally, many people rely on such overarching mindsets as the means of supplying meaning, understanding and purpose in life — with so much at stake, they cling to them like desperate little birds about to fall out of trees. They will take any pathway out of having to question them, including falling under the spell of less-than-reasonable modes of thought.

It is unfortunate that so few are willing to concede that at heart, many of their cherished opinions are based on improvable assumptions. I too of course, have values that shape my thought that cannot possibly be validated by empirical evidence or pure reason. But I feel encouraged by the conclusions they lead me to because I see evidence of their efficaciousness and positive effect in the real world, in the realm of the actual and the factual. Regardless of whether humans are really created “equal” — obviously this is man-made idea, insofar as being empirically unproveable in the way it is meant to be read — it is certainly true that multiculturalism, pluralism and the division of church and state allow for more freedom of expression, which leads to more varied cultural products, which leads to more human creativity in general. I am with Chomsky in assuming man is happiest this way. But I fail to think of many examples where open minds, intellectual diversity and curiosity have resulted in a more miserable or less functional populace. Perhaps things are less conflicted in largely homogenous communities, but that is not because diversity is a bad thing in and of itself; it is because people have a negative response to diversity, which creates all sort of negative things. Ignorance, in other words, is the problem, not diversity. And diversity is perhaps one of the most stubborn characteristics of human nature and modern society.

If all people were aware of their starting assumptions, we could then have a fruitful discussion about how much our assumptions match real-world phenomena, or how well they work in a real-world context, to put it in a better way. But few consider their fundamental beliefs as “assumptions” — rather, they are truths, and truths do not respond to mere facts.

Furthermore, even if we were able to throw arguments into this crucible of debate, it would be difficult, in our current society, to find a medium in which to realistically do it, particularly due to the disagreement over facts. We would have to throw the two central representatives of a contested issue in a room (or force them into continuous written dialogue with one another), with access to every reference or experimental procedure and then force them to explain and defend each and every one of their points. In the age of infotainment, when even the analysis of important issues in the most prestigious newspaper makes an undergraduate paper look thoughtful, it is unlikely that anyone would be willing to pay attention long enough to absorb the lesson.

Yet so often I fantasize about being able to get to the heart of fundamental issues in this manner. It makes watching our sorry excuse for public discourse even that more painful.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Liberals: we just want to feel good!

More than any other backlash meme, I am personally familiar with the idea that all that lies behind the concerns of leftists is a desire to “feel good.” Two things are meant by this – one, leftists enjoy the delight of being idealistic; they are dreamers, people who would rather make up fairy tales to swoon them to sleep at night rather than face reality. As a consequence, they are constantly advocating policy that directly contradicts reality, with all the dysfunctions of the welfare state as a result. Two, leftists enjoy the thrill of being self-righteous, of believing they are the victim and “fighting the power” – the rebellious stance is always appealing, after all, to those who cannot take personal responsibility and have not grown up.

In this post, I am not going to launch into a defense of the various progressive causes – I am not going to exhaustively detail how opposition to racism ultimately traces back to strange fruit from Southern trees, or how opposition to Proposition 8 ultimately traces back to the Matthew Shepards of history and the millions of lives lived in isolation and depression because one would lose their job, their family, and their whole lives if they came out of the closet. I’m not going to talk about the increasing wealth disparity in America, the shrinking middle-class and the deplorable working conditions for those on the bottom of the social totem-pole. It has been done so many times, so well by so many people, and if those who want to dismiss the left as merely masturbatory indulgence have seen this evidence and still lack understanding and empathy, I’m certainly not going to change any minds here.

But I do want to look at the cognitive, or psychological, mistakes that are going on here. First, I will not for even a moment deny that many leftists who are politically active – or more likely, are dabblers who troll on YouTube – do not participate for reasons of sincere interest or concern, but out of self-righteous bitterness or delight. Surely by the late 1960s, many in the student movement did not understand what they stood for or why they stood for it and were merely along for the thrill ride. But what the backlashers fail to be honest about is that this is the case for all social movements and ideologies. Would any conservative – fiscal or social – really suggest that for every self-righteous, shallow liberal, we could not produce an obviously equally self-righteous conservative who cares more for having something or someone to loathe than building (or rebuilding) a better world? Especially in the world of the Christian Right, one does not have to dig very far to find men that even the majority of conservatives would readily admit are clearly not men of a loving God.

It is in the nature of social movements that the motives of all who are attracted to them cannot be identical or even always similar – if they were, you would end up with a cult or a monastery rather than a social movement. The very openness of democratic organization and association means that a certain amount of people who are not really “in it” for the right reasons will be absorbed by the movement and identify themselves as a part of it. This does not mean, however, that the original impetus for the movement, the original reasons that it resonated powerfully and widely enough to reach thousands and millions of people, were or become shallow or self-serving. Injustice remains injustice.  It simply means that in an open society, you cannot always control who joins your group or why.

Secondly, this is what I like to refer to as a frisbee accusation – no one can hurl it at others without it immediately applying to themselves. Because quite frankly, who adheres to an ideology or a philosophy that makes them feel bad about themselves? Calvinists aside, very few of us are capable of self-laceration – sincere, not merely pretended, self-laceration. The conservative claims the liberal only wants to “feel good” – and at this precise moment, he feels quite good himself. He feels proud that he can see the “real world” for what it is, and very often, he is a successful man who has a stake in seeing this “real world” as the legitimate ordering of society. He is not shallow, he thinks to himself; he is not indulgent. He is pragmatic, he is intelligent, he is virtuous. Now, the liberal, too, is happy to think about how his philosophy, and his hopes for this world, reflect on his personal character. He is open, he is loving, he is unafraid, he tells himself. The point is not that both the conservative and the liberal are lying to themselves – sometimes they very well might be, but very often they are simply identifying actually commendable aspects of their personalities. The point is that everyone does this – what is a political philosophy if not a reflection of the characteristics we most admire in ourselves and others, painted onto a world that we think would therefore be the most admirable of societies? And so of course, again, the mere taking of psychological pleasure in one’s political position says nothing about the truth or falsity of a given opinion, or the more objective desirability of a certain vision of the world.

Despite these commonalities between those on the left and those on the right – which is merely to say, the commonality between all human beings – there is something odd about accusing liberals, in particular, of indulging in their philosophy and political hopes merely for the sake of self-indulgence. For what is hope for change if not a dissatisfaction with what we have seen thus far? What is progressivism if not the argument that despite the justice we have achieved, there is still too much injustice? While conservatism usually (but not always) looks to an idealized past of how things used to be, and thus still has the comfort of believing its ideal had once been reality, progressives are constantly pushing forward into the unknown, the untried, the uncertain. But they do so because they feel a deep seated need for something more – they cannot bring themselves to accept as “natural” or “inevitable” the degree of suffering and injustice they currently witness.

When held sincerely, these are not views that are likely to make one “feel good,” about either the world or one's personal place in it. Indeed, for those of us who are progressive and privileged it involves a constant awareness of just how random and unearned much of our success is – for those born without such boons, it means a constant awareness of limitations they have very little power to push against. After all, if you are looking to what can be you are constantly looking at what is – and while there is much to be proud of, and much to rejoice in, the hard work of political consciousness asks us to constantly see the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, the bigotry, the ignorance, the inequality, the poverty, the fear, and the hate that still creeps over so much of this country and indeed, so much of the world. There are plenty of insincere leftists around, and they come in all shapes and sizes – but the philosophy of the dreamer, in and of itself, is not for the faint or shallow of heart.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mausoleums of history.

I am happy to report that my week of research went very well. The papers I were looking at were completely unorganized, subverting even the desire of the archivist to bring me out something more select, so I got the pleasure of shifting through 24 boxes all on my own. As it turned out, about 10 of those boxes had materials in them very useful to me (especially a core 3-4 boxes) and then the other 14 were pretty worthless and easily categorized as being so. Therefore, despite what the hard core might say, it is quite possible to get a lot done in an archive in a week.

I was once again amused by the archaic and sometimes somewhat silly “culture of archives,” let’s call it. In many ways, archives are beautiful and inspiring places to work in – they are big on the Grecian architecture, they have fine, beautiful wood tables with elegant lamps, and they are decorated with the historical portraits of notables. The silence in an archive, and the seriousness which seems to hang from the shelves containing reference works no one ever references, remind one that even in an age of iPhones, instant entertainment and the always latest, newest thing, there are still quiet places which revere the past and the quiet contemplation it requires.

On the other hand, archives can also be stifling places to work. I personally cannot stand studying in total silence and therefore must bring in headphones to pipe in some classical music while I work.  While the surroundings are beautiful, after several hours of sitting they can no longer distract me from the ache in my back, the growl in my tummy or my undeniable need to stretch. Part of me feels like I get exposed as less than a true scholar in the archives – while others in the reading room seem to sit calmly and contently during the entire day, I am often fidgeting, yawning, stretching, or even muttering quietly to myself when amused or confused by something I come across. It is like I lack scholar Zen, or something. And then there is my inability to get there right when the archive opens – I always sleep in a half-hour or an hour later than I should. This week I managed to get there right on time once in the week, although as it turned out, it never mattered because I finished early on my last day anyway. But the very aesthetic of research makes one feel obliged to flip on the internal Puritan switch.

Then there are all the rules. Let me acknowledge that some of these, even most of these, make plenty of sense. They do not want you bringing in large backpacks – makes sense. They do not want you bringing in pens – makes sense. They do not want you bringing in a jacket – wait, what? Because I am going to try to smuggle 40 year old documents from some obscure sociologist out in my jacket and sell them on eBay? Granted if I were say, reading letters written by John Adams (which I in fact have the bragging rights to), this would make more sense. But it isn’t just big, bulky jackets that one might conceivably be able to muffle the sound of crinkling paper with that they forbid, but almost anything that makes it difficult to discern your cup size. I always forget this the first day at an archive, and therefore always spend it shivering, rubbing my arms to try to keep warm. And this is with long sleeved shirts; these places are kept quite cool.  Fortunately, well-fitted sweaters are allowed.

Finally, and more seriously, the very formality of archives makes me somewhat sad. The fact that these are elegant, quiet places that require IDs and badges to get into seems to point towards how selective their clientele, how encrusted with the nobility of insignificance the boxes that make up its contents. In the heydays of Jacksonian democracy, no one thought it a great sin to bring a giant piece of cheese into the White House to stink the place up for a few weeks – but now that such uproarious participation seems quaint, we have guided tours and gilded hallways, as though we trying to honor American democracy through mystification of its past, rather than participation in its present. The archive I went to this week was particularly poignant in this regard – let it suffice to say that it started out as something approaching the true spirit of citizen participation in a republic: but today, it merely seems like a well-decorated tomb for forgotten history, the kind of place only the educated and the elite of the country return to. As beautiful as archives are, they also serve to remind me how much of our history has become precisely that - rather than a living, present reality that we all must grapple with.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Jon Stewart - A Poem.

Disclaimer: I am allowed to be silly on this blog. We are all allowed to be silly. The world needs more silliness.
Jon Stewart you are like,
The best person ever.

You take the most obvious truths,
And the most obscure ones,
And make them so funny -

And I love watching you talk to conservatives -
And they are speechless,
And it feels SO DAMN GOOD.

And Jon Stewart,
You are so adorable.
And attractive.
And funny.
And did I mention attractive?
Because nothing is more attractive than a guy that is funny.
And so sincere.
And so really a Really Good Guy
And you give all us liberals a Good Good Name
Because there are some stupid liberals out there
Who do not know why they think what they think --
But you aren't one of them.
You are fucking brilliant.

And I am so glad I spent the money,
To go to the Rally to Restore Sanity,
Because that was something I believed in,
It represented me -
And you made it possible.

And I fucking love you, Jon Stewart.
You remind me how not alone I am.

And today I voted for you at the Museum of Jewish American History
To have your own video in the hall of notables
Because you are seriously the greatest Jew ever
And maybe the best person ever.
:) :) :)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Out for research.

Just wanted to leave a note that I probably won't be posting for the next week or so, as I will be on the East Coast doing research for my dissertation. It is very important to historians that we know that we've walked in cold weather to large libraries, and sat in the same room for seven or eight hours for days on end. Without this, your work means little to nothing. It is from this experience that you derive all your arguments, as the mystical power of original documents seeps like radiation from their fibers and is absorbed by your brain like a sponge.

I kid. But in truth, the fetishism around archival research can get a bit silly at times. (As opposed to reading the exact same documents on your computer screen, that is.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

On craven, callous bastards.

I just finished watching Inside Job, a documentary about the 2008 financial meltdown and the greed and corruption that it was built on. I am left with a feeling that has become all too familiar to me in the past two years – a frightened, besieged sense of existing in a dystopia; of living in a society where distinctly shameless people do distinctly shameless things, and are rewarded with wealth and power.

I’m not going to go into any of the details the movie covers, or the various ways in which various people lacked courage or decency. Excellent summaries of the film can be found elsewhere, I am sure. But to me, one question does stand out above all other questions that can be raised by such a film, and it is a question as timeless as greed and corruption itself. It is, simply, how do these people sleep at night?

This question has, of course, been asked. But by now, it is usually asked as a form of accusation – we all know the answer, which is that these people are shameless, hallow, and selfish. And that all appears to be true. But knowing this much is not enough for me – I still want to know, why are these people shameless, hallow and selfish or, more accurately, how do they function while being so shameless, hallow and selfish, and how does one end up there in the first place? Most of us are, after all, still raised in communities that at least give lip service to the idea that being a craven, callous bastard is bad. We are told by our parents not to be craven, callous bastards. Our school teachers tell us not to be craven, callous bastards. To some extent the media advises us not to be craven, callous bastards. Save for a time during the 1980s, films do not typically glorify craven, callous bastards. Our religions tell us not to be craven, callous bastards. But yet, there are so many craven, callous bastards around. And a lot of them seem to be running the country. 

The socio-economic reasons for this could be either quite complex, or disturbingly simple; but that is not the question that I am addressing here. Perhaps more than anything else, it is the psychological ability of these people to be the wretched people they are that fascinates me so; that people could be so corrupt, and so lacking in basic human empathy, that they continue functioning and flourishing in any way at all is actually quite amazing.

This conundrum is illustrated most powerfully in the film when people are presented with their own misconduct, or simply conflict of interest, and seem to insist on not facing the truth honestly or, becoming belligerent and requesting the interview to be over. What do those people think when they go home at night? Do they proceed to go on rants in the privacy of their own homes and minds about how the world should be ordered according to an oligarchy, and yes it is fine that (see video bellow) my academic economic work is corrupted by the large banks that pay me to consult for them, because I am better and smarter than most people and if we really let “the little people” run things we would end up with anarchy within months? Do they acknowledge their corruption but embrace it?, or do they suffer from an acute case of self-delusion and believe, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, that they are simply victims of an elaborate witch hunt? 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Islamaphobia; a cluster of links.

Although an atheist, discrimination against Muslims is something I feel strongly about. Following an interview I conducted with Reza Aslan, I wrote extensively about whether or not atheists contribute to xenophobic fears of Muslims. (The answer was, for the most part, no, although there are some bad apples.) In Part III of these posts, I argued against Sam Harris’s contention that Islam is the primary reason for the violence in the Middle East and the terrorism coming out of it. Recently, Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times, wrote a column about a new book which argues that it wasn’t so much Islam, but Islamic law, that held back the development of the Middle East. 

At The Rally to Restore Sanity.

Additionally, a new post by my fellow blogger Tom Beasley is up discussing the issue of Islamaphobia. As Tom makes clear, finding a religion to be false and, in many respects ethically abhorrent, does not mean one believes that followers of that faith should be assumed to be any less decent or deserving of equal treatment than a Christian, a Hindu, or an atheist. Atheists are, moreover, generally believers in freedom of worship and expression (despite the stereotypes that we want to “force” disbelief on people) and most of us do not advocate policies such as the minaret ban in Sweden or the hysteria over the “Ground Zero Mosque.” I am happy to say that our blog has been quite consistent about separating our criticism of Islam from prejudice against Muslims.

Finally, I feel that among many people, there is a strong strain of denial about Islamaphobia – “Oh come on,” our hypothetical backlasher says, “it is not like Muslims have been discriminated against or anything since 9/11. Not anything that bad, at least.” Well, yes they have. If the reports of increased incidents of discrimination do not convince you, then try something a little more personal: This American Life had an excellent show that told the story of how harassment in school actually broke apart a Muslim family in America. I challenge anyone to listen to the entire story and not feel heartbroken.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Irony, Identity, and the Tea Party.

I went down to the state capital on Saturday to attend the pro-union rally held to support the fight in Wisconsin. On the opposite side of the street were real live Tea Partiers, the first time I had ever seen them in person. 

The primary impression I came away with was that Tea Partiers, in person, do not seem nearly as intimidating or scandalous as they do on TV. I don’t know why I had this response – perhaps it was because I knew precisely what to expect, and I’ve seen so much footage of Tea Partiers that to see them in person was simply more of the same. 

Tea Partiers in Sacramento this weekend.

But I think there was something else. There was something about seeing them in the flesh that humanized these people – all they were, after all, were people on the other side of the street holding signs which said some very historically inaccurate things on them. (My favorite was one that read UNIONS = COMMUNISM.) But on top of the sensation that these were not people to spend too much time getting upset about, the sense of the futility of the whole exercise was acute. Rallies can make good television, and they are a good way to network with likeminded people and energize movements – but they aren’t a place where any fundamentally new politics will be brewed between combatants.*

I mentioned to my companion that had I more guts, I would go over to the Tea Partiers and try to start a conversation about why they believe what they believe, and offer some factual correctives. My friend doubted, however, that my reluctance had much to do with my guts but probably more to do with my common sense, as this was unlikely to go down well. I had to concur. There was no way I was going to stroll over there and, no matter how polite I was, challenge the deeply held beliefs that most Tea Partiers have built a sense of identity around. At one point, the pro-union ralliers and the Tea Partiers were simultaneously chanting “Shame on you!” at each other, which was a particularly humorous caricature of the state of political discourse in the country. 

Considering that historically, unions have had more to do with keeping immigrants out of the country, this one was particularly funny.

I like rallies, which remind me that some political consciousness on the Left does still exist, and I will continue to go to the ones that support causes I believe in. But if they are the best we can do, we are in trouble. It is ironic that the Right loves to complain about how identity politics have ruined American governance – and there are many, many problems with identity politics indeed – because sitting there watching working-class and middle-class workers protest against their own self-interest, their own weekends, and benefits, and eight hour work days, I thought, there is nowhere in the country where identity politics is more powerful than in the Tea Party. If you keep that in mind, it is actually quite easy to listen to Tea Partiers screaming at you and feel, in fact, a deep sense of empathy.
* I don't mean to suggest that political rallies never do this; after all, what is happening in Wisconsin is an example of the possible when a run of the mill rally becomes a full-fledged protest movement. But typically, when the event is more scripted performance than grass-roots awakening, they posit nothing new but do serve the function of giving voice to those who they represent. Which is not nothing, but is also only so much, depending on how much power in the political process the protesters possess. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"What Would Bob Do?"

That’s my favorite sign from the montage footage bellow. Wisconsin has a great progressive history, greater than most states in fact – “Fighting Bob” La Follette was considered the leader of Progressivism until Teddy Roosevelt came back from shooting animals in Africa to challenge Taft for the presidency. In the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison they have (or had, when I was there at least) this great exhibit where you can listen to the speeches of various leaders from Wisconsin (including Joseph McCarthy), and the Bob La Follette selection was a commentary on how obvious it is that men are divided into different classes in society, and that differences in power result. I tried to find out which speech it came from online, but alas, I was unable to. 

I think what is happening right now in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the country is very exciting. I don’t think teacher unions are all perfect, or that they always act themselves in the public interest – but I do believe that the Republican Party has long desired to crush unions and, for that matter, any form of political action that challenges corporate and financial power. The fact that Walker refuses to accept the compromise the unions have offered – to accede to all his financial demands but maintain their existence, basically, as a union – clearly shows to me that this is not about balancing the budget, but about getting rid of the last vestige of organized labor with any real vitality left. 

In any case, this is injecting a much needed dose of class rhetoric into our politics. The more people talk about unions, the more people are reminded that before the culture wars and the large middle-class that the unions helped win, the real political cleavage that mattered was whether you were among those who had to struggle to achieve a decent standard of living, or among those who simply leeched off the labor of the rest of the country while you enjoyed your afternoon yachting excursion. 

Anyway, here is a pleasingly upbeat video on La Follette and my favorite montage so far of the protests – and yes, I am a complete sucker for montages set to inspiring music. 

You have a progressive history America! Remember Fighting Bob!

Historians are awesome.

From this interview with Thomas Frank at The Onion AV Club:

"When you take somebody’s quote out of context, which happens all the time, nobody’s ever going to go and do the research on their own and figure out that you got it wrong. In 20 years, a historian might."

Damn straight!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Equal Signs.

This was originally written in October of 2009, so the tattoo that it refers to is now well over 2 years old now - but my feelings about it remain unchanged. 

Cooler weather means warmer clothes; clothes that cover up my shoulders and bundle up my arms in cozy sweaters and long, protective jackets. I love fall and winter clothing, and I wear scarves even when it is hardly cold enough to justify them. But the delights of fall fashion have developed one particular drawback – I am not as aware of and connected to that equal sign seared into my back, that has been there for almost a year now.

The other morning I stood with a mirror in my hand just to observe it for a minute or two, and run my fingers over it again. I had a nightmare last week that somehow it had been damaged, had been taken away from me. Not even a full year and already it seems a part of myself I couldn’t bear to part with. Taking time to meditate on its perpetual presence immediately calms me, gives me a sense of stability, a reminder of who I am and what is important to me.

I’ll never forget the weekend when I finally got that tattoo. My sister and I had plotted it after the depressing passing of Prop 8, and the moment her brilliance thought it up I instantly knew it was the right thing to do. When it came time to do the deed, I felt a surprising sense of calm. Part of me had been expecting to feel fear, doubt; that when I would finally get right down to it, something would tell me “no.” But this never happened. And I didn’t even need someone to hold my hand – my sister was out getting money from an ATM. The tattoo artist called me over, I sat down, and without any ripple of doubt I got that beautiful equal sign etched into my back. The moment did not so much reveal itself as intense, tinted with religious fervor; it was just obvious, that this was the right thing for me to do. I had always wanted some relatively small, meaningful tattoo - something to represent an idea that I could trust not to lose my devotion to as the decades went by. But I could never think of anything before. And from the moment Michelle suggested it to the moment it was complete, I knew that this, this was the one thing I could count on to always have faith in.

Because the equal sign on the back of my shoulder is not just about gay rights, or the freedom to marry. It is about the idea of pluralism, of democracy and freedom of thought. It is my testament to the belief that any idea which allocates human dignity unequally amongst human beings is wrong – and that every idea that furthers our appreciation of the endless diversity and startling creativity of mankind is a beautiful thing. The reason that I like to stop, every now and then, and look calmly at my equal sign is not only because it reminds me of who I am, and who I want to be – but because it reminds me of who we all are.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

More on the internet.

Following up on my post the other week about the impact of technology on the human condition, Maureen Dowd has an excellent column up about the empathy-destroying powers of the internet. She quotes Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains*:

“Researchers say that we need to be quiet and attentive if we want to tap into our deeper emotions. ... If we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, we kind of short-circuit our empathy. If you dampen empathy and you encourage the immediate expression of whatever is in your mind, you get a lot of nastiness that wouldn’t have occurred before.”
This is exactly what Wallace and Franzen talk about.** And untangling what is going on here is very important, I think; I'm quite disturbed by the sheer amount of cruelty people on the internet seem to delight in directing at each other. I'm always wondering, what are these people like in their every day lives? If I could confront them, and ask them point blank, in an honest desire to know -- dude, what the fuck?, what would they say? What is their level of consciousness about how mean and awful they are being? To what extent do they behave like this in real life, to actual people they see around them? Undoubtedly there are a lot of bitter, nasty people out there that the internet simply brings out the best in, so to speak. But then it seems the internet is also a lot like road rage -- for some people, being locked into this virtual world pushes the off button on a lot of suppressed ugliness that has not been fully dealt with. Or so it would appear.

Anyway, here is Wallace discussing another aspect of the same issue, particularly relevant from 2:10 on:

* I noticed Dowd does not italicize the title of the book in her article (but rather quotes it), although I checked, and indeed it is a book - is this something else the internet has done? Has the distinction between how to present an article or blog post title and how to present a book title also been obliterated?, and now I am merely being a fusty, quaint academic by insisting on the distinction?

** I know I keep bringing up Wallace and Franzen, and I look a little stuck on them. That is because I am. No point in denying that. I'll probably blog in the near future more extensively as to why I am so drawn to them at the moment.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

American sadness.

For the past few years, I have become increasingly aware of sadness – particularly American sadness. Above all else American sadness is a sadness which is shunned and ignored by the popular culture; its sufferers are asked to keep quiet and lay low, and by and large they do. This sadness comes in many forms – depression, anxiety, the agony of being gay in a largely straight world, or black in a white one. Much of this sadness could not be avoided by any society – it exists as part of the human condition. But in America, it is made even all the more alienating by both cultural and economic oppression. 

Even those who do not have to worry about where their next paycheck is coming from – or whether it will be enough to cover the rent – experience the stifling smothering that the broader culture tries to perform on the reality of sadness. American life is full of stories of successful, affluent bourgeoisie who can find no reason to get up in the morning. Recently I have been reading Homeward Bound for the sections I am teaching this quarter. While most of the young couples Elaine Tyler May researched indicated that they had no regrets about getting married young and settling down, the doubts and uncertainties that do come through speak to dreams never believed possible, to a feeling of being trapped and lonely. This could be difficult enough for those who really were happiest being stay at home housewives or corporate breadwinners, but what about those who simply saw no other option? Who knows how many gay and lesbian Americans struggled under such conditions, who knows how many women who never wanted to have children – this one in particular I identify with – ended up having their entire youth consumed with child care?

For the economically oppressed things are even worse. American society tells us, after all, to measure our worth by our income – if we are coping both with fundamental sadness and a feeling of worthlessness, the burden becomes heavy to bear indeed. I heard a social scientist once describe those on the absolute bottom of this ladder, the homeless, as “radically vulnerable.” For such Americans, invisibility is the preferable fate – preferable, that is, to the type of scorn and rejection they are likely to face whenever they actually do succeed in attracting the attention of their countrymen. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A note on the (likely) rhythm of this blog.

As a graduate student trying to research and then write my dissertation,* I am obviously what most people would refer to as "busy." Actually, I don't feel that busy considering I have primarily three things on my plate every week and three things only: 1) working on my dissertation, 2) going about my duties as a teaching assistant and 3) taking care of my puppy. But writing is not something I do lightly or quickly; while I do write posts themselves relatively quickly, the editing and tweaking processes take some time, as does, for some reason, all the small changes I make and typos I correct and websites I need to find to link to etc etc when I finally get around to posting the writing.

So basically, I predict most of the posts for this blog will go up between Thursdays and Sundays -- because during the weekdays I am involved a little too much in finding time for everything else. I just wanted to note this so that, if it goes dead here for several days in a row, no one thinks I am fading away. I'm going to be right here for quite a while, I reckon.

During the blank spots though I highly recommend my other blogging locale, An American Atheist, a group blog on atheism and religion. I usually get around to blogging there about once or twice a week, but my fellow bloggers make it well worth visiting on their own credit.
* And yeah, I am going to do it in that order. (Research then write.) I've been told you are supposed to be writing as you research, but no writing project I've ever done -- including a year long research project that was basically the equivalent of a master's thesis and then was written in three days -- has gone down like that, and I see no reason to doubt at this point a method which has served me so well so consistently.**

** That was completely irrelevant to anything any readers would be interested in here, but forgive me the indulgence. Us graduate students have very little else to talk about sometimes other than our work.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On appreciating, not worshipping, the founding fathers.

Two evenings ago, I was delighted to discover this music video, which is a very highly produced parody of Timbaland’s hit song, “Apologize.”

No wait!, stick around – I actually have something of substance to say other than the obvious fact that this video is totally fucking awesome. It gets me to thinking about one of my favorite pet peeves – the type of idolizing that American political culture so cruelly and ignorantly asks its founding figures to endure. 

Now, let it be known that I come to this position as a profound lover of the founding fathers, and of early American history in general. In fact, I love it so much that I originally planned to make my living at it – my emphasis was in early American history before switching, at the end of my third year of graduate school, to twentieth century American history. I made this change because my interest in contemporary politics became so important to me that I could not imagine putting my academic energy into a field that I could not easily apply to the questions that face us today, and 240 years ago was just too much of a stretch – more on why that is in a moment. However, I will never lose my love for the people and stories of early American history, and a large, framed image of Alexander Hamilton is still one of the most notable features of my interior d├ęcor.

However, despite my affection for Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams and all the rest – an affection that at times feels so intimate and immediate I occasionally refer to them as “my boys” – I do not think that they hold the key to every social question we face today, nor do I believe that an argument on either side of a question is bolstered simply because you can cite one of the founding fathers as being in support of it. I’ll begin with the first issue.

If there is one thing you learn from historical training, one mantra you will pick up, it is this: context, context, context. Partly this is because without obsessing about the niceties of context, the field would stagnate and there would be no way to attack each others' work * - but mostly it is because historical analysis shows us how much  - from the clothes people wear to their assumptions about God, nature, and humanity -  is dependent on historical context. Simply put, the worldview  - the basic assumptions, the feeling of life itself - of someone from the eighteenth century was so dramatically different from someone from the twenty-first century, that to artificially extract an eighteenth century opinion and apply it to a twenty-first century problem is a very ahistorical, and indeed illogical, thing to do. It is silly to ask what the founders would have thought about abortion, or affirmative action, or net neutrality. Even if you possess primary source material expressing opinions you could then map onto these modern questions, why would you want to? They come from a profound position of ignorance – the founding fathers could not imagine the type of society we live in today nor the obstacles we would face in fulfilling our values. They were not psychic, so their writings should not be treated as though they apply equally well to all times and circumstances.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Film review - What’s the Matter with Kansas: a good exercise in empathy, but not as significant as the book.

Not in Kansas - rather, Kentucky -- but loved by Kansasans.
I finally got to see What’s the Matter with Kansas this week, after waiting months for it to become available on my Netflix queue. Based on the book by Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas takes a look at the strange world of culture wars and the stage of economic deterioration they play out on. Like the book, What’s the Matter With Kansas approaches its human subjects with empathy and patience – we meet a young Christian activist, for example, who is clearly bright and blessed with confidence, but also completely sure that evolution is merely a (wrong) theory and that all the founding fathers intended America to be an (officially) Christian nation. 

The film encourages you to view the opinions of these various Kansasans as reasons for sympathy, rather than accusation. It might, at times, even ask you to consider whether or not they have good reasons for their beliefs. This is in part because the film treats its subjects with respect, but it is also because, unlike the book it is based on, it is not nearly as explicit about its argument - or perhaps, it doesn't even pursue one.

In the book What’s the Matter with Kansas, Frank is right upfront with his main argument: the bloody flags of the culture wars have blinded the citizens of Kansas to the real divisions in America, which have less to do with pro-life versus pro-choice and more to do with poor versus wealthy. And while Republicans always pander to the culture war issues during the elections, once in office they largely ignore these initiatives and instead focus on doing what Republicans do best – making life easier for those who already have it the easiest. 

In the film, however, this argument is hinted at but could easily be missed by someone not familiar with the book. We learn about the struggles of farmers from interviews with the head of the farmers' union, and we learn about the sadly hysterical attempt of an entrepreneur to put a theme park in the middle of a place no one lives and no one wants to drive to. But the connection between the downward economic trends and the packed fundamentalist churches is not explicitly made – and this ultimately makes for a less powerful, and less significant film. 

Nonetheless, as an exercise in empathy, the film is worth seeing. Indeed, its virtue is that it is not hard to like many of the right wing activists we encounter. I didn’t like all of them, granted, but I liked a few of them. And in a time when my encounters with the Tea Party set tends to be in the form of reading horrifically homophobic, sexist, or racist comments on blogs, this is refreshing. 

The question then becomes, of course, what do we do with this information? We know that those on the far right are by and large decent human beings, with the same hopes, fears, and struggles as all Americans. We know that they derive great meaning from their causes and their beliefs. But how, once we’ve built that bridge of empathy, do we then go on to make an argument to them that much of what they believe is, unfortunately, untrue? How do you gently inform someone that they are suffering from false consciousness? These are questions this film does not try to tackle, but we need to start trying to come up with some answers.