Browsing the blog archives for December, 2008.

Dept. of WTF (your rant of the day)

Culture, US culture

I suppose someone has to write this kind of article about the new Obama age – all chatty and gossipy, and smug about it; even at a magazine like The New Republic. Or maybe especially there, because the deepest minds disappointingly often are also the most snobbish – or rub shoulders with them. And Michelle Cottle always knows just how to do the job – but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

The New Yorker does this to me every time – I’ll read the issue’s feature articles and be left impressed by their depth and empathy, and then read the Talk of the Town section and just be left slack-jawed by the shallow, insular upper class brattiness in some of the items. Left thinking just, who are these people?

A telling moment in Cottle’s article comes when a parent at one of DC’s elite primary schools harrumphs:

It was remarkable how naked the status anxiety became at all the schools under consideration, recalls one dad [..]. Parents would just chatter away, he recalls, about “‘Oh my God, wouldn’t it be just amazing if’–their daughter, fill in the blank, Zoe or Chloe or whatever–’wouldn’t it be amazing if they had a sleepover at the White House!’ Then they’d envision themselves having to pick up their child and telling people, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go over to the White House!’” He harrumphs, “People would actually say this stuff out loud. It was just embarrassing.”

Right. That’s exactly the reaction I have when I see otherwise smart and intelligent people being quoted saying stuff like this:

Washington old-timers and Obama insiders alike are predicting an urban renaissance of sorts. “There’s a glamour about Barack and Michelle that I think will infuse the capital in a way that we have not seen for some time,” says Holder. “They are both tall, good-looking, striking people with adorable little girls. I can’t help but think that’s going to have an impact.”

Yes, that’s Attorney General-to-be Eric Holder. I mean, WTF? What does that even mean? The Obamas are tall and good-looking and “I can’t help but think that’s going to have an impact”? What – how? 

And think about it – even if there is something there, hidden somewhere behind the nonsequitur, wouldn’t you be embarrassed to even admit it?

There’s superficiality of all kinds. I guess this is just a kind I don’t get, and which invariably gets up my nose. And yes, I hate celeb news too, with its humiliating Janus face of alternated licking and kicking. Its one-two of ingratiating prostration before those who are hot, and mean-spirited assults on those who can be torn down. It seems to me to reveal and condense the worst traits of humanity. And no, it’s probably not the most pressing issue in the Republic right now. But jeez.

Most grating is perhaps the fact that the kind of people being quoted saying embarassing shit like this actually think themselves the cool people who “get it” – you know, instead of feeling moved to temporarily hide underneath an ornamental garden rock. Rich people really are different.

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Everything Vibrates: Eagles Drop a Bomb in the Laps of the Supreme Court

US culture, US Politics

The Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE), an organization founded in 1898, has been in the ten commandments racket since the early 1950s, when it handed out copies of the Mosaic law as part of its efforts to curtail juvenile delinquency. Thousands of the suitable-for-framing copies of the ten commandments, however, were evidently not making a significant dent in the ranks of juvenile delinquents, so the FOE decided that large granite monuments, plunked down in various governmental locations, would be far more efficacious. It seems, however, that no thought had been given to the possibility of dropping one of these massive monuments onto some of the most serious juvenile offenders, thus killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. Nevertheless, from about 1954 to 1985, as many as 4,000 of these monuments were deposited across the US, sometimes with help from the stars of the 1956 Paramount Pictures film epic The Ten Commandments, such as Charlton Heston (Moses), an early proponent, and Yul Brynner (Pharoah), who was apparently a late adopter.

nope, no religious expression here

The monument in question: nope, no religious expression here

Each of these monuments was like a constitutional time bomb waiting to explode in the nation’s courts. The problem is obvious: the establishment clause of the first amendment prohibits the government from setting up a state religion. Erecting a monument on government property that says something like “I AM the LORD thy God: Thou shalt have no other gods before me” tends to convey the message that the state is endorsing one particular religious viewpoint over all others, which is constitutionally suspect. But what if the government just passively allows a non-governmental organization, like the FOE, to erect such a monument? And what if that government doesn’t allow any other organization plop down a monument that displays a contrary religious message?

That’s the question that the supreme court encountered in the case of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum.

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What We Can Learn from the 1979 Bailout

Economy, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

Almost thirty years ago, an automotive CEO appeared before Congress to ask for help.  His company was failing due to poor management decisions, run away gas prices and an overall economic slowdown.  If only he could get enough money to stay in business, his company’s next generation of small, fuel efficient cars would hit the market and lead to the company’s success.  His company employed 40,000 US workers and laying them off would be a disaster at a time when the economy was already struggling.  He’d even work for a dollar a year.  Sound familiar?

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It’s Not That I’m Anti-Erect Penis…

Funny, Uncategorized, US culture

… but is it really a good idea for a major company to convert its logo into an erect penis? (Or reveal the existing erect-penisness of its logo, as the case may be?)

Joe Camel: An early example of the effective use of penis fear in advertising.  (Nose = penis.  Not erect though.)

Joe Camel: An early example of the effective use of penis fear in advertising. (Nose = penis. Not erect though.)

This was playing on TV during a nice, innocuous show about doggies on Animal Planet. It’s not one of those edgy web-only ads you see when you’re reading the Onion or something. (Speaking of the Onion, I immediately remembered their 1989 cover story, “Penis Fear,” which exposed the subliminal use of penises in advertising. Joe Camel was featured prominently. I tried to find that story online but the only references were made by a) me, and b) a guy who said he kept the issue for years and then his wife threw it out. The noive.)

If it were an advertisement for, I dunno, mattresses or something, I could maybe understand it. Ha ha. Clever. But a restaurant?

I mean, I see it now… the Arby’s logo sure does look like (a rather stumpy) erect penis. Or maybe a partially unrolled condom.

These are really associations they want to create?

(I almost titled this “I Don’t Have Anything Against Erect Penises” but thought that might be a bit too much…)

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Obama-related oopsies

Funny, Politics, US Politics

Worth a smile: A Republican Florida congresswoman was so determined not to become the next prank call victim that she hung up on the president-elect when Obama called – and then hung up again when he had his chief of staff try again. She apparently told Barack that hey, he sounded better than the guy on Saturday Night Live, but she wasn’t going to be “punked.”

Worth a groan: “Oh Yes You Can! Save 20% on EVERYTHING Storewide”. With the Obama-O and everything.

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From relief to suspicion and back: Eyeing up Team Obama

Economy, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

Again with the caveat that I haven’t really caught up yet with the transition news of the last week, the confirmations from before surely mean that there’s one man who must not be happy. On the day after Obama’s victory, Dissent‘s Mark Engler celebrated:

Obama rose to the top of a Democratic pool that, as a whole, positioned itself notably to the left of what we had come to expect in the Clinton-Gore years, when top officials scrambled to prove their pro-corporate bona fides and to declare their allegiance to the Democratic Leadership Council. Today’s contenders, while far from perfect from a progressive perspective, campaigned as opponents of an unjust war and of faulty trade agreements such as NAFTA, as advocates of pro-worker labor law reform and of serious national health care.

But he already warned:

To be sure, the .. more contemporary fight to thwart the rightward-pushing forces within the Democratic Party .. is not over. The likes of Robert Rubin and Larry Summers hover over Obama’s victory.

Larry Summers at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, 2007

Larry Summers at the World Economic Forum in Davos, 2007

I bet he didn’t realise just how much they’d “hover”. With the appointments of Geithner, Summers and Orszag, I’m guessing Engler must have gotten a lot more worried still. As Ezra Klein noted:

For critics of so-called Rubinomics, [..] watching Rubin’s proteges step into every major economic staffing position in the new administration has been concerning. Watching them do so as Goldman-Sachs, which Rubin once led, and Citigroup, which Rubin recently advised, get buffeted by the subprime collapse is almost perverse.

To be fair, however, the opposition within the Democratic Party between the neoliberal, Rubinite cheerleaders of deregulation and the progressive sceptics of free market solutions no longer has the bitter edge it had in the 90s. And the main reason for that is that experience has taught Summers et al. to be more sceptical themselves.

Consider what The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, himself a progressive critic of Rubinomics, wrote about Geithner last September:

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“What a Progressive President Might Say”: How will Obama match up?

Politics, US Politics

I didn’t have any spare online time the last week or so, so I’m no longer current on the latest transition news. This was a good find just before, however. After it was confirmed that Melody Barnes would be the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Obama, TNR The Stump dug up a link to an op-ed she wrote in January 2007 for the WaPo — which was framed as the State of the Union address a progressive president might give.

She gives fashion advice too.

She gives fashion advice too. Not kidding - the Washingtonian profiled her as one of "Ten Well Dressed Women".

Most striking about the piece is just how on message she already was for what would become the framing of Obama’s candidacy and presidency. No wonder she was picked for a top post.

Most encouraging is how she placed escalating income inequality right at the top of domestic policy priorities. What’s hopeful in particular is the way she presented it as the container issue through which other domestic policy questions are framed. Tackling the rapidly increasing concentration of resources in the hands of the few is not just a question of upping the minimum wage. It’s the basic challenge of socio-economic policy that major social issues like education and health care all tie back into.

The acknowledgment of this in Barnes’ piece does warm the progressive heart – both the urgency with which she posits the issue and the ability (and political will) to contextualise pressing sectoral issues like health insurance as more than just individual issues that have come up. Implicit is the understanding of these issues as part of a broader failure of the market economy, or at least of the lurch toward an ever less regulated market economy since the eighties.

A somewhat disappointing part of the piece is the contrast between the paragraphs on Iraq and health care. In both cases, the general diagnosis is solid. For Iraq, however, there is an unambiguous plan of withdrawal. On health care, on the other hand, it’s mostly what’s not mentioned that’s interesting. What to do about the uninsured? Who should ensure them? A state program or private insurers? If a state program, one that’s open to all, or just those without coverage now? Funded how? And if private insurers, how would they be compelled to do it? What about mandates?

A State of the Union obviously doesn’t need to dig way into the details, and a brief op-ed posturing as one cannot possibly do so. But some idea of what path of action she was imagining would have been instructive, especially since her portfolio will include health care and education.

The same goes for energy. The op-ed raises all the right points, but it’s wildly vague on courses of action and priorities. While the paragraph on science underneath includes a pointed reference to embryonic cell research, there’s nothing in the way of even a general approach (say, cap and trade) here.

Still, the fact that one of the top domestic policy advisors to President Obama actually authored an op-ed specifically imagining a progressive presidency is definitely encouraging. Barnes comes from the Center for American Progress, which might calm some nerves about the lack of progressive Obama appointments. The post she will fill is potentially a very powerful one. Now the only question is, what kind of influence will she be able to exert?

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Just How Evil Are Real Christmas Trees?

Uncategorized, US culture

So I tend towards green-ness. I’m not an uber-environmentalist but I do what I can. I’m sitting here in my down jacket because I like to keep the thermostat relatively low in the winter, (and because it’s #@$% cold outside). We recycle. We don’t leave the water running when we brush our teeth. That kind of thing.

That means that when people say that real Christmas trees are evil and that fake trees are a more responsible choice (i.e., that plastic is greener than actual greenery), I am cowed enough to want to look into it before blithely buying another real tree this year. (Even though I LIKE real trees. A lot.)

My initial thoughts include:

- My community recycles (mulches) real Christmas trees. Does that count for anything?

- Christmas tree farms are better than strip malls, aren’t they? (But is that a false dichotomy? Maybe they tear down nice forests to plant the fertilized and insecticided Christmas trees.)

- Isn’t plastic, just, like, icky? And people don’t keep their plastic trees literally forever, do they? So is the environmental cost of dealing with giant hunks of plastic occasionally really less than dealing with gen-you-wine biodegradable trees annually?

So I set out to try to find out what is actually greener.

First, yes, it appears that plastic IS icky!

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Not amused

Culture, European culture(s), International Politics, Politics
Sweatshirt I bought @ Target, writes Flickr user Eshm (photo used under CC license)

"Sweatshirt I bought @ Target," Flickr user Eshm (photo used under CC license)

Living in the Netherlands, ca. 1998, meant increasingly being confronted, not just with that ubiquitous icon of wannabe rebel teenager identity, the drearily mass produced Che tee, but training jackets and the like saying DDR, or CCCP. Not because there was any suddenly resurging affinity for the former Eastern Bloc regimes, but because those were the thing to have for any self-respecting ironic hipster.

It went with, say, nodding your head to the latest abstract beats, or dancing to the soundtrack of a soft lesbo porn movie from the seventies with a knowing smile. Aren’t we being cool!

I never got it. Stunned at the baffling lack of … awareness, I suppose. Even if I knew that no disrespect was intended toward, say, the victims of communism — all was tongue-in-cheek, after all! The postmodern game being played out transformed me, instantly, into an old crank. It did so right at the moment that I refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of that irony; the moment I failed to think, “oh that’s OK then”.

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