Thursday, December 31, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar

I had very little interest in seeing this film, based largely on commercials that made it appear as a B-movie blockbuster wannabe epic and the sort of buzz that usually leaves me cold. And it is true that the script is cast of B-movie noirish science-fiction yore, the plot contrived and convoluted and the underlying message obfuscated by the visceral dynamism and 3D gadgetry. And yet one cannot overlook that visceral dynamism, because this film offers a veritable orgy of images, colors and sounds that is truly stunning to experience.

The plot, for those who have not already seen the film, revolves around a twin brother who, in the year 2154, is sent to complete a mission on the planet Pandora (how much did the internet radio company pay for that plug) for his dead brother. From here we are cast into space and another world that, as with most science fiction, doesn't stray too far from our own – except in its colorful majesty. Here the natives (Na’vi,) who appear as blue versions of our own Native Americans populations, live uncomfortably with the corporate interlopers sent to extract the precious “unobtanium.” The protagonist Jake Sully (Australian actor Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic ex-Marine, who arrives at Pandora to psychically control the movements of his Na’vi-like avatar while confined to a coffin-like container. The program, originally designed for botany research, is overseen by an Alien-reduxed Sigourney Weaver, the most seasoned actor in a relatively modest cast. The opportunity to again walk is never fully explored in the film, but it is clear that Jake has found a renaissance in his blue avatar, leading him quickly to love with the lissome warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who saves him from death on his first trip to the "other side."

At first, Jake appears comfortable lying to his newfound “tribe,” as he continues to offer information and secrets to the corporate boss, played by Giovanni Ribisi (a miscast in my opinion), and the more nefarious Colonel Quaritech (Stephen Lang). Yet predictably, he is ultimately confronted with a choice between the greed and militarism of his own people and the ecumenical, near-Buddhist beliefs of his adopted tribe. The remainder of the film unfolds as one would expect with a series of battles, love lost and regained and a conclusion that fits smugly within the Hollywood formula. In the buildup to the dénouement, we move into the realm of serious, and arguably unnecessary, violence and a revenge narrative that seems misplaced in a film built around the sacred nature of all life and its inexorable interconnectivity.

The real beauty of the film is the combination of live-action and motion-capture animation. The exotic life forms, the stunning colors, the exquisite 3D, that literally jumps out of the screen toward you, all make the film much more than just a movie -- it is a holistic sensory ride. This is heightened by the fact that the year 2154 is "a time of great sorrow," as Earth is in ecological trouble. And this is but one of the many ideological messages Cameron delves into within his magical world. The clearest message is about looming ecological devastation and our need to reconnect with the natural world. At this level, the film appears to succeed, though one wonders if the same people who believe they know more than Nobel Prize winning scientists about global warming will really listen to the soft rantings of “liberal” Hollywood; within a fictitious film. Cameron also delve into the world of politics with a couple of relatively tame (and equally lame) shots at Bush and the Iraq War ("shock and awe" and some incantation of "you're either with us or against us") and a critique of nefarious corporations (and maybe Blackwater specifically) for their profits-over-people bottom line rationality that seem well-timed to the moment. Finally, he begs more serious questions about the legacy of our slaughter of the Native Americans here and maybe native populations all across the globe that, combined with the ecological and capitalist critiques, appear to paint a picture of a civilization that has destroyed too much in its struggle for profit and “advancement,” imperiling its own future in the process.

Whatever your feelings on the political message, this is a film to see for its technical mastery and bold step forward into that blurring line between fiction and reality – an instantiation of the post-modern movement toward the desert of the real. (A-)

Hypocrisy 101

Sometimes Republican hypocrisy is cute, sometimes it is funny and sometimes it is downright despicable. The latest terrorist attempt has allowed their favorite topic to resurface: fear. Yet the interesting side note of this attack is that they appear to be attacking Obama for doing exactly what the Bush gang did with the infamous shoe bomber, namely trying him in a court of law ( We know Republicans don't like courts, particularly as so many of them have been finding themselves or their corporate benefactors in them lately for various forms of malfeasance, but what is the alternative? In this case, the fears seem completely and totally unwarranted as the facts of the case are clear. A Nigerian man boarded a plane with explosives, attempted to blow said plane up and was caught. How will the court system fail us here? He even admitted his intent and a long electronic trail details his evolution (or devolution) toward this choice. But that won't stop Dick Cheny ( et al from turning the facts to their advantage. We wonder why anti-intellectualism is so popular in America today. Could it be to allow the masses to buy stories without ever considering the validity of the arguments posed. Luckily fear facilitates the process, as it tends to make us less "rational." The Republicans hope fear will "lift us up where we belong." Let's hope the country has another ditty in mind, one based on a memory that goes back more than a year to all the missteps of those offering their misguided clarion calls today.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

New York, New York

So when one thinks of unhappy places to live, New Jersey and Connecticut come directly to mind. Maybe also Louisiana post-Katrina or the ominous deep South ala Mississippi. And of course, if you think about happy places to be Hawaii and Florida would obviously be near the top of the list. Where would New York fit though? The place of dreams where millions come to chase their dreams, make millions of dollars or get lost in the cultural and financial capital of the entire world? One would think this would have to be near the top of the happiest state list, would they? Instead New York is the unhappiest place in the country: How could that be? Well maybe part of the explanation comes from above. Many of those people who come to chase their dreams fail. Many don't ever make those millions -- and even those who do are often disillusioned by the fact that while money does bring comfort, it alone does not bring happiness. Maybe those who come to forget their past, forget their present and future as well. At the top of the list, though, may be the fact that New York doesn't seem to live up to its promise any longer. Most New Yorkers I know spend their time either bragging about how great everything is here (often unconvincingly) or engaging in our favorite pasttime -- complaining about just about anything we can think of, from our apartments, to the weather, to cabbie who seem to have more friends than us (given their constant, ongoing conversations throughout their shift in some exotic language we wish we knew), to a subway system that is under perpetual construction, to traffic, to our jobs, to the new restaurant or club or movie or play that just didn't live up to the hype, to the waitress who is too slow, the buses that drive too fast, to the neighbors who are up too late or complaining we are, to the air conditioning, the heat, the water, the prices, the mayor, the governor, the president, etc., etc., etc. Really it seems to have a lot to do with the "grass is greener" mentality. The married friends I have are bored, the single ones are constantly complaining about the latest relationship gone awry or the guy or gal that never called, texted or facebooked them (or that it took too long), my friends that make truck loads full of money are complaining about never having any free time or dating girls that see them as an ATM machine, those of us toward the lower end of the spectrum constantly worry about money even if we do like our jobs.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Unfriend Joins the Lexicon

Drumroll please . . . the word of the year, according to The New Oxford Dictionary, is unfriend: Defriend was the word that I have been using, but I will bow to the protectors of the English Language. To unfriend is an interesting new dynamic in the world today. No breakup at a coffee shop, no avoiding calls for months, no need to confront the ex-friend with a final salvo. Instead we simply click a button and then confirm the end of a relationship. And who says technology is impersonal?

Friday, November 13, 2009

NFL/NCAA: No Fun for Anyone!

A few weeks ago, a series of penalties in a big college football game helped to decide the outcome (as I don't really care about college football, I can't really remember which game it was). God forbid 18 to 22 year old men actually celebrate a late touchdown that could win them a game! Now the NFL shows they have the sense of humor of a Tibetan monk (actually, I think Tibetan monks are actually much funnier). They have fined Bengal Chad Ochocinco for trying to bribe an official . . . with $1: The penalty?

"According to a league spokesman, Ray Anderson, the league's executive vice president of football operations, fined Ochocinco for violating a rule that "prohibits use of abusive, threatening or insulting language or gestures toward game officials. He was also in violation of Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 (f) of the Playing Rules which prohibits possession or use of extraneous objects that are not part of the uniform during the game on the field or sideline . . . The NFL also cited Ochocinco using the word "bribe" in his postgame comments to reporters."

Well thank god in this difficult time of major unemployment, international instability, people losing their homes and terrorist plots the NFL is protecting us from a laugh. What would we do without them?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Gossip Girl Talent Just Too Big to Contain on TV Screen Alone

Remember when bands struggled through years of poverty and degradation to get a shot at success. Thankfully we have all but eliminated this route to fame for at least one group . . . the already famous. One actor after another has taken a shot at traversing the musical big time (Keanu Reeves, Bruce Willis, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Danza, John Travolta, Peter Gallagher, Don Johnson, Barbara Streisand, Steven Seagal, Robert Downey Jr., Minnie Driver, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Milla Jovovich, Zooey Dashanel, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Jason Schwartzman, Kris Kristofferson, etc., etc., etc.). Are they any good? A few are, but can we admit most are slightly better than the American Idol first round cuts.

In case you haven't got enough of these career-benders, actor-cum-pop stars, the siren from Gossip Girls Leighton Meester has joined the list: Who exactly has the poor taste to put this crap out, you ask? The same sort of people that gave us the Backdoor Boys, 'N Sync, Miley Cyrus, and just about anything you hear on the radio these days.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Healthcare Reform or Conservative Revanchism?

The healthcare debate has, in many ways, taken on a relatively surreal tone in the past few months (Obama as a socialist, fascist Hitler-like figure, the healthcare reform somehow leading to a tragedy worse than the Holocaust, the bill allowing the government to decide when people live and die, etc.), but it seems as if the Catholic Church has taken the debate to a new level of inanity. So healthcare reform was supposed to be a movement forward to insure those who are uninsured, to cut costs and to reign in the excesses of hospitals, insurers, pharmaceutical companies and others involved in the “industry.” To progressives, it was offered as a way to free people and improve our quality of life. That was until “progressive” Nancy Pelosi decided to heed the warning of Catholic bishops and include a provision that disallows coverage for abortions. Even worse, it prohibits any health plan that seeks federal subsidies from offering abortion coverage. Huh? Last time I checked, abortion was legal in America. So if they can’t win the battle in the courts, or in the ballot box, use a backhanded deal in Congress to undermine a women’s right to chose.

Essentially a potentially huge progressive victory will all but outlaw abortion in America. Women can supposedly buy supplemental coverage for abortion, but isn’t that a stigmatized solution to the problem that will give many women (and particularly young girls) pause? Can the young even get coverage for abortion, given that they are on their parents plan? What of poor women, who might not be able to afford the additional coverage? And how can a rider like that be legal, given the reality (again) that ABORTION IS LEGAL IN AMERICA. Whatever your position on the matter, it is hypocrisy to allow that people should be free to do what they want as long as they don’t do what you don’t want them to. Why are we allowing the government to step in and take control of women’s bodies? And does this make the bill a progressive, or conservative, triumph if it does eventually pass in the Senate? Even with a huge victory in the election a year ago, the Democrats again show that they have the backbone of jellyfish.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Teabaggers Go Trolling

I’m going to let the words of the Teabaggers largely speak for themselves this week: Just for a little context, they continue their attacks on Obama and healthcare reform as some sort of Nazi plan to destroy America. And when Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel questions them, they become Holocaust deniers, Anti-semites and, surprise, surprise, make all Jews culpable for Bernie Madoff. How have these fringe lunatics gotten so much press? Oh yeah, it's the conservative revolution that's been so in fashion since the day after the election ...

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Next Better Thing

I have always been interested in the ways that culture influences our beliefs, values and attitudes. I am particularly interested in the influence of media and overarching economic beliefs on how we act. When I was in Los Angeles, I noticed the way single people interacted. It seemed as if everyone was looking for the next better thing. And because of that a sex culture had developed where men had to put very little effort into “getting laid” and girls, at least the ones I knew, begrudgingly accepted this arrangement. I returned to New York four years later and found a similar dynamic at play. Single and even married people seem to be constantly looking for an upgrade or supersizing of whomever they happen to be with. Not only men, but increasingly the women I meet. They will tell me they are finally in love with a great guy and then ten minutes later be hitting on me or one of my friends. I have friends who date two or more people at a time, and know many more that are cheating on their significant others as often as they try a new restaurant in the city (a veritable New York pastime). The question is why? While we are single, it makes sense to go on a lot of dates and meet a lot of different people. But what of giving a relationship a real shot? I know far too many good people in the city that are single or casually dating but looking for something more. It is hard to find, and so they settle into the single life ala NYC – a few dates, random sex, or relationships thaOr t fade into nothingness as one or the other moves on before really giving the person a chance. And then there are the guys who are completely comfortable being single and have no interest in any sort of commitment. They move from one girl to the next, treating sex as a hunt. While there is nothing implicitly wrong with this, it creates a culture in which no one really trusts anyone else. And many women embrace the lifestyle choice as well.

So what could the source of this dynamic be? Could it have anything to do with the neoliberal penchant to treat greed and self-interest as the most worthy goals? Could it be the way in which advertisers seek to commodify everything from family to love? Could it have anything to do with the American predilection to think that there are always simple solutions to complex problems? Or what of a culture that wants to hide from deep emotional commitment of any kind (often through pharmaceutical drugs that numb us to the world around us and any pain)? Or could it be Hollywood and the way it feeds us one happy ending after another, without sufficient barriers along the way? Could it be the way they venerate the man who never quite grows up until he finds the right women who transforms him into a honorable family many? Or the obsession with infidelity in film? Or maybe even Sex and the City, Gossip Girls, One Tree Hill and all the other shows that celebrate female emancipation through jumping from one bed to the next. This is not a jeremiad discussing the downfall of western morality or even a call for monogamy. It’s just to ask the question of why I know so many people who want real relationships, commitment and love but have such a hard time finding it. These are genuine, good and honest people who get caught in the sexual realpolitik of New York City. I have always believed that love is the answer . . . it’s too bad so many people settle for less. I know many will call me a hopeless romantic, or someone who has fallen prey to the oldest human mythology, or just a fool who doesn’t see the world for what it really is. Even if that is true, I will continue to embrace love as the only truly worthy thing in this flawed world.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

GDP and Quality of Life

A report out yesterday showed the unemployment rate above 10% and the unemployment and underemployment number at over 17% ( This is a very troubling number and relates to the absurd notion of a “jobless recovery.” Is it really a recovery when people continue to lose jobs or remain un- or underemployed? Is it a real recovery when people continue to lose their homes or remain mired in major debt? Is it a real recovery when the quality of life continues to decline, as social services and education receive huge cuts in funding? Who in fact is benefiting from this so-called “recovery?”

The answer, of course, is those at the top of the income ladder. Everyone else suffers and a future filled with debt and little fundamental change in policy bodes well for the rest of us. What is one cause of this differential between GDP (the indicator of economic health) and quality of life? GDP became a popular indicator around the time of the Great Depression and has been one of the sole indicators focused on since the late 70s. Forget unemployment, inflation is the key economic measure of monetarists and their neoliberal supporters. Forget growing income gaps along the lines of class, gender and race – per capita income is the key. Forget growing populations in our prisons (predominalty youth of color), our middle class is safer – even as the media focuses on crime and terrorism. Forget purchasing power, the real issue is productivity and profitability. Forget most Americans, as long as the super rich are living opulent lives and safe from the results of their own risky behavior. And in case anyone wants to ask these questions, we have the lunatic wing, made up predominantly of working class Americans fighting against their own interests and futures (tea bagging anyone)?

GDP fails because it fails to measure too much that is going on in the economy that defines our quality of life. What about income disparity? What about quality of education? What about happiness and economic security? What about massive depression and legal and illegal drug abuse? What of the contribution of women and educators to the future of the country? What about pollution and serious looming ecological danger? What about the health of the population and the growing percentage of our income many pay each year for services and insurance? What about massive obesity and the dumbing down of America? All of the less tangible, non-profitable activities are excluded from the measure, and yet it defines our collective future.

Reinventing the Wheel?

For years I have been listening to people warn me against “reinventing the wheel.” It makes sense and though I cringe every time I hear it (I have a natural aversion to laziness in language; and the anti-intellectualism it hints at), I never considered the burgeoning crisis it might invoke. Recently I have become troubled that this common cliché might in fact be causing immeasurable harm to humanity. What if a better wheel is out there, but has been left undiscovered because of the demoralizing message spread so far and wide. Is the wheel we have been using for thousands of year really so great? Is there a better design out there waiting to push us forward into an unimaginable future? Probably not, but I really hate that phrase.

On a related note is the pervasive “thinking outside the box.” I have long believed that anyone that uses this phrase is in fact stuck inside a box from which it would take them several years to emerge – given the constricted logic and language available to them. Thinking outside the proverbial box is indicative of the instrumental rationality that forever keeps us inside the prison house (or box) of language and business mentality that in fact makes the world fully enclosed with that box.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Land of the Free . . . For Some

The results of the same sex marriage ban in Maine are somewhat disheartening to those attempting to end one of the last forms of government sanctioned segregation in America: The result, the 31st victory for the anti-gay marriage gang in a state in the U.S., highlights the paradox that is American politics. Our idea of freedom has always been set against the limits on freedoms of others. This started with slavery and the lack of legal or economic equality women had in the newly born nation. Years later, after all the civil rights battles, most Americans now believe (at some level) that all should have equal protection under the law and an equal opportunity to succeed. All that is, except gays and lesbians. Really the discourse on freedom in America appears to be: you are free to do what you want unless my morality or religion says you shouldn't have the freedom to do that or it offends me.

The hypocrisy in this position relates to a number of inconsistencies in the views of the general public today. The government, many believe, is implicitly corrupt and handing them too much power over the economy will lead to our collective downfall. While many of the same people hold increasingly negative views of corporations, they still feel “free” markets and reduced taxation and regulation make America a better place. The same people who fight vehemently against abortion (in the most radical cases, killing the doctors who perform the procedure) believe equally as vehemently in the death penalty. While the paradox here can be resolved by their differentiating between innocent victims (unborn fetuses) and convicted criminals, the larger issue of whether we should trust the government with the ultimate power – to end a life, seems to be ignored by those on the right. This is also the case with a number of other issues, like the power we give to the president, accountability for some and not others, military action oversees, tough mandatory crime laws and the like.

Most troubling, however, may be the very notion of freedom. Individuals should be free to do what they want, as long as they don’t do what I don’t want them too. Corporations should be free to do what they want, unless I recognize that their actions are hurting me. Taxes should be low, but I want the same services I’ve always had (and more when I need them). The idea of freedom has always been complex, but in America it is a symbol without a clear associated content. Too many uber-patriotic folks on the right seem to think freedom only exists in the economic realm, while too much social and political freedom undermine the real America. This paradox remains at the heart of conservative discourse today (and at times on the left as well, as for example decrying censorship and then trying to block visitors to campuses that disagree with their perspective). It appears to relate to the complex relationship between American democracy and religion, where religion is beyond the scope of democratic negotiation – but should inflect our national morality.

So we continue to talk about the Land of the Free, while we limit the freedom of too many Americans. How can America honestly believe that homosexuality is a bigger threat to democracy than the unethical, and often illegal, behavior of big corporations? Only through a determined, inexorable myopia can these contradictory beliefs exist in the same head. It was like watching Fox last night, where the loss of a conservative Republican congressional candidate in upstate New York (where Republicans have held power for over 100 years) can be spun into a victory because “the other candidate would have lost by even more.” It is only in the eternal loop of circular reasoning and victimhood that the right can continue to dominate the political landscape after suffering a devastating defeat a mere year ago. Of course, now we will ignore the reality of the two races they won this year and pretend that Obama is in big trouble because he couldn’t wash away the corruption and unpopularity of Corzine or single-handedly save a lackluster run for governor by Democrat Deeds.

At least CNN ( made a few points worthy of repeating: 1) Since 1989, the gubernatorial races have always gone to the party that lost the presidency and 2) A majority of voters in both states said their choice was not based on the performance of Obama. Fox and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, on the other hand, ignored the polls and stated “Voters say no to Obama policies” -- Who cares about the truth – we live but for the freedom to spin . . .

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Terminate the Terminator Franchise

Terminator Salvation, the fourth installation in the Terminator series, is a major disappointing, putting the latest Star Trek triumph into even higher esteem. Here the talented, but often morose, Christian Bale takes on the role of John Connor -- the last hope for humanity against Skynet and its complex, insidious army of Terminators. The film, like so much blockbuster fare these days, suffers from too much attention to pyrotechics, pornographic violence and, often senseless and overly long action sequences. It also suffers from a an increasingly common trend in action and superhero films today -- an overly somber tone that ignores the old humor and light-heartedness that once dominated the genres. Instead we are thrown into a dystopian, technophobic world where machines roam the planet attempting to kill off the last humans left after the Skynet induced apocalypse. Clear innuendos to 911 juxtapose with the sort of mystical future, past these films so often invoke (think Mad Max, Matrix when not in the Matrix, etc.). John Connor and the resistance have discovered a new technology that could destroy Skynet and end the war for good. But in a time travel paradox that is hard to fully embrace, he must first save his own father, who was sent from the future to impregnate his mother (Sarah Connor), in the first film. A new character emerges here, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) to complicate matters further though, a killer from the past whose body and brain have been integrated into a cynbernetic machine, though he appears to maintain those aspects of humanity the film attempts to juxtapose with the machines. He becomes an ally to the humans, but in a somewhat predicable turnabout, is thrown into a moral quandary that tests his allegiance. Arnold makes a camio as well, in a culminating scene that would be suspenseful but for the necessary denouments of films like this. The action scenes are often bracing, the cinematography striking and the ability of director "McG," aka Joseph McGinty Nichol of Charlies Angels "fame," to develop drama and surprise through the camera work, is impressive. But where did the plot go, dude? Where are the truly compelling characters? Why do I care? I found all these questions difficult to answer. In the end, the film was too long, too boring and too overwrought in its attempt toward profundity.

The more interesting question with films like these is whether the narrative structure inflects fears of technology induced terrorism and destruction or a deeper fear that technology has destroyed our humanity. Is the film the latest incarnation of ongoing fears about technology and human destruction that go back to WWII and the cold war? Does it reflect the "culture of fear" sociologist Barry Glassner has catalogued, where our inability to control our lives from outside influences leads to constant, unabiding fear that dismantles the ability to act and intervene in the world? Or is it a deeper critique of the dehumanizing effects of technology like tv, videogames, ipods, cell phones and the like that increasingly dominate our lives and undermine those aspects of ourselves that we take as constituitive to being human? In the final scene, the machine gives Christian Bale his heart to save him, thus completing the metaphor – we must restore our humanity by dismantling the machines that now control us. (C-)

Election Results

Interesting results in the election tonight. It is clearly a good night for Republicans, but some interesting results could bode well for Democrats in the future. Virginia elected a Republican governor by a huge margin and New Jersey’s Corzine lost reelection, in a relatively close race; maybe closer than it should have been given his relative unpopularity. But the far right candidate in New York looks as if he is going to lose – offering a blow to those on the right that are attempting to take over the party. And even with a huge spending gap between Bloomberg and rival Thompson, it looks as if Bloomberg will only squeak by, even with most of the mainstream media supporting him. The key issue going forward is whether Democrats have the will to push against the tide of the conservative machine, that by most measures seems not to have popular support across the country. In fact, registered Republicans in the country are at their lowest levels in years, while many more call themselves Democrats. The swing vote is the key constituency, now measured as 44% of the electorate. If Democrats can again rally their base next year, if they can pass healthcare reform and stop the obstructionist Republicans from undermining democracy and the will of the people, I think they will be ok. If they become the weak-kneed party they have been for years, shooting themselves in the back by failing to confront Republicans, I believe there stay in power will be short. Even as we hear the poor, victimized right cry about a liberal bias in media, it is clear that the mainstream press tends to be parroting the far right as if they spoke for most of America. It is the job of Democratic spokesmen and activists to challenge this discourse, and offer a more realistic argument on why the country needs fundamental change if it wants to return to prosperity.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Movie Review: Couples Retreat

A friend dragged me to see Couples Retreat on Friday night. Even with a $70 million budget, $87 million in gross domestic sales, Vince Vahn and Jason Bateman, I didn’t expect much from the film. My low expectations were, alas, too sanguine, as I left shaking by head at how bad a movie it was. Like so much Hollywood drivel these days, the film was unfunny, overly earnest and finished with a silly, uninspired denouement that made me look back to remember if marriage was really this depressing. I will leave that thought unexamined, but I have to say that Hollywood has forgotten how to make good comedies in the past several years. Even the promising directors like Wes Anderson seem to get worse not better with age, and the mainstream ilk that now passes for romantic comedy is truly disheartening. The question is how one can spend $70 million without finding more than a half dozen real laughs? How can a decent cast go so wrong? Why do they presume that the American audiences are so daft that they accept a bad relationship suddenly gone right for no other reason than that is what we expected to begin with? The lack of chemistry between the main characters is palpable, the misuse of Vahn’s charisma borderline criminal and the general somber tone deaf to the desire of audiences continuing to be beaten down by the financial crisis.

One wonders if mainstream comedy has gone the way of action film: huge budgets, a big star or three and no plot to speak of. It’s truly depressing when not only HBO and Showtime but the big three continue to do much better writing than those in Hollywood. It appears as if the huge budgets lead execs and producers to put so much focus on marketing they forget one of the most important aspect of filmmaking – a decent script. The humor is generally base, the funny send-up of new age wisdom undermined by the poor delivery of the cast and too quick a shift to depressing treatment of the alienation of modern coupling, and the storyline so dull I have to rethink my next island vacation. It seemed at times as if the film was trying to make two films at once, and neither was developed. One was a screwball comedy on an island, which has never really been a winner. The other was our continued artistic reflection on the ways in which love fades under the force of marriage and kids. In any case, the American filmgoing population seems to have been effectively inoculated from movie reviewers in recent years. The marketing is all around a huge opening weekend, followed by a huge drop off in subsequent weeks as everyone else realizes it is yet another disaster film – though without any dystopia except for those who fall prey to wasting about two hours of their time. Maybe someday the American public will wake up and demand that Hollywood make a decent film besides in the couple of months leading up to Christmas and the Oscar voting season. Of course it seems as likely as stores closing for a Holiday rather than having blockbuster sales to make sure we don’t spend any quality time with our families . . . (D)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fatcat Republicans . . . or not

I haven't been posting as much because of a busy semester and now three in one day. I couldn't help myself. So John Corzine is running a campaign against literal heavyweight Republican Chris Christie, and his weight appears to be a mitigating, if not deciding factor, for many in New Jersey. So not only does the taller candidate tend to win, but also the thinner one. This seems ironic in a society that is increasingly overweight, or downright obese. But along with gays and "illegal immigrants," the group we seem to love to hate is those seat stuffing, three Big Mac snackers that are both heroes in sitcoms and film and otherwise not to be trusted: Maybe slimfast is the route to a lasting Democratic majority?

Business Seeks to Bottleneck Reform

The very group that helped get us into our current financial collapse wants to make sure the status quo is maintained: Toward that end, they are essentially using the profits they continued to accumulate in the run-up to the mess, and during it among some banks. So let's get this straight . . . banks and others act irresponsibly (or criminally by most ethical standards) to help cause the financial crisis. They then get bailed out by the government for their risky and predatory behavior. Then they return to profitability (in some cases) and use those funds to ensure that they can continue this risky and predatory behavior in the future. Makes sense, right?

The media plays along, more or less supporting conventional wisdom on the right, and thus the cycle continues. Who suffers? Everyone else -- including some of the low level workers in the very companies that are spending some of their profits to maintain practices that hurt the average Americans. It is disconcerting to recognize how difficult it is to change the irrational rationality that continues to dominate political discourse in America (tax cuts, inflation and deficits as more important than unemployment and quality of life, shrink size of government, privatize, deregulate, cut social services and increase the gap between rich and poor) -- even as the majority of citizens voted less than a year ago for change. Can Obama break the cycle or will he also fall prey to the power of money, conventional wisdom, a media increasingly bedazzled by money and power and a corrupt system in Washington that continually choses the interests of the elites over everyone else?

Cut-service Tax Cuts

In recent years, any economic expansion is met by calls for tax cuts. Bush used that long lost surplus of 2000 to, what else, cut taxes. States cut taxes as the economy boomed in the 90s and again in the first years of this century. Many of these cuts were based on the assumption that economic growth would continue in perpetuity . . . or maybe not. Is it possible that tax cut advocates saw an opportunity and used the general public's abiding desire for decreases in tax burden to reduce tax revenue in the long run? What is the result?

Service cuts are now occurring across the board in almost every state, right at the moment when social services are most needed. Why? Well, there just isn’t enough money to fund these programs. What services are being cut? Education is, of course, at the top of the list. Schools will have fewer teachers, fewer resources, larger class sizes and a general decline in quality. Universities (both public and private) are losing funding and thus raising tuition, cutting academic programming and, in some cases, the aid available to incoming students. And early education, afterschool programs and other important services provided primarily to poor children and families are all being pushed out. The end result is a decline in quality of life, as unemployment rates rise along with healthcare costs for all citizens. One can also add declining value of retirement accounts and public pensions and a growing crop of homeless (increasingly populated by those who defaulted on mortgages – emobodied as a dire reversal of the American dream).

The ultimate effect of the “tax cuts in good times and cut services in bad times” cycle is a transfer of social services from the public sector to private organizations. It appears to be a return to the retrograde idea of volunteerism that Hoover once advocated, worsening the early years of the great depression. And, as I previously said, a general decline in the quality of life across the nation for all except those lucky enough to work for Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan or in the remaining hedge funds (and lest us forget the overpaid, underperforming CEOs). The point is tax cuts are legitimated by overly optimistic economic forecasts and then are fortified by a “no tax increase under any circumstance” mentality that, among other things, installed the now least popular governor in the history of California (Schwarzenegger won partially on a $300 tax that had existed for many years but had been rescinded if the budget remained balanced). If they can’t reduce social services and the size of government along normal lines, they back into this approach by holding out their pockets and claiming penury in tough times. This is a troubling trend that works based on a general distaste for taxes in the U.S. that persisted throughout our history, but accelerated dramatically under Reagan and his followers (including Clinton)!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

University Inc. - The Corporatization of American Higher Education

A new book has just come out, Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University (University of Chicago Press): In the book, the author critiques the changing nature of the university, and the push toward accountability, corporate and management logic, the hiring of adjunct faculty and the undermining of the core mission of higher education from its inception. Like all social institutions, the instrumental rationality of business now reign supreme, undermining the job of teaching the next generation, opening minds, doing independent research and challenging entrenched knowledge. Instead schools have become about efficiency, cost saving, efficiency and reputation alone. What is lost in this push? The last bastion for independent research in the world.

A retired administrator at Miami University of Ohio, James C. Garland has written blog responses to critique the article, and in the process further solidified the point:

"Wannabe U made me squirm at times, because many of the examples paralleled my own experiences. And therein lies the book’s value. I hope my administrative colleagues will read this book, not because they will agree with it, or even because it is, as the dust cover asserts, 'an eye-opening expose of the modern university.' They should read it because people in power seldom understand how their actions are viewed by others, and why their good deeds and intentions often provoke suspicion and mistrust.”

In a second he further solidifies the point:

"I fear Professor Tuchman and her faculty colleagues may have it backwards. Increasing productivity and efficiency are ways to reduce class sizes, teaching loads, and busywork, not increase them. When productivity goes up, it means the quality of the institution can be maintained by fewer people, none working harder or longer than before," he writes. "Efficiency and productivity improvements can’t solve all problems, of course, and when money is running out, a university has few options but to make cuts in services that lower quality and put additional stresses on faculty and staff. But successful efforts to make an organization more efficient and productive can moderate undesirable changes."

And administrators, he writes, have valid, education-related reasons to focus on metrics. "Like it or not, the fundamental responsibility of all senior academic administrators is to improve their institution, by which is typically meant emulating more highly regarded institutions having a similar mission," Garland writes. "However, benchmarking one university against another naturally invites metrics of comparison. For example, if Berkeley chemistry professors publish more research articles, win more awards, garner more federal funds, give more invited papers at conferences, write more textbooks, and serve on more national commissions than do chemistry professors at Wan U, then tabulating changes in these measurable quantities is a way to see whether the chemistry department at Wan U is becoming more or less Berkeley-like.

In other words, efficiency and productivity are the methods to replicate research one universities, and intellectual rigor, good instruction, a vibrant intellectual community and the like are secondary to increasing the stature of the university. The logic is based on competition and markets, not seeing different universities as serving different constituencies and embracing their role. The attack is effective because it bases itself on instrumental rationality and a logic that seems depoliticized, while it is instead ripe with political ambitions and concerns. Research that doesn’t help the bottom line is deemphasized or outright rejected. The humanities don’t “add value” and are thus attacked and underfunded. Theoretical work of any kind is always labeled inferior to empirical work that is “objective” and brings in grant money and prestige. And money making enterprises in universities, like MBA and medical schools, to the neglect of other important work. The role of professors as public intellectuals is neither respected nor counted toward tenure and attacks are levied on those that openly critique the system – or the very logic that marginalizes them.

As its heart, the logic makes universities similar to K-12 in reproducing rather than improving society and deems particular types of knowledge as implicitly dangerous. This undermines the heart of the university from its inception – to challenge entrenched power and, ultimately, to serve the role of the common good.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Conservative Gone Wild . . . Over Losing the Olympics Bid

Conservatives seem to be tap dancing at the edge of sanity these days, apoplectic over the minutest details of any Obama plan but ecstatic over Chicago’s failed bid to host the Olympics in 2012 ( This celebration of failure leads me to a series of questions: Is the patriotic party really putting America first? Have they really sunk to the point where only bad news is good news these days? One wonders how low they can go in their competitive limbo to American destruction crawl before sanity prevails?

Equally interesting was there response to the news that unemployment figures were worse than expected – obviously it’s Obama’s fault (in the revisionist conservative mythology, many have pretended that Obama somehow caused the financial crisis he in fact inherited). I just want to make sure I have this right: Obama shouldn’t spend anymore money because the deficit is too high. We don’t want to regulate the economy, because that will hurt business (even as deregulation played a huge role in the current financial crisis). We want to isolate ourselves from foreigners, even as they hold a huge piece of the key to our future economic growth. And even given all of these arguments, it is somehow Obama’s fault that employment has not rebounded. This seems very similar to the arguments about global warming. Sure the most respected scientists in the world think it’s happening, but some right wing nut jobs say it isn’t and are occasionally backed by “scientists” generally sponsored by the benevolent oil companies.

Since at least Reagan, conservatives have succeeded largely based on stirring passion and resentment among working class and middle class voters. Resentment against affirmative action and Blacks in general, resentment toward gays who are “destroying the moral fiber of America,” resentment toward “illegal immigrants” who are both living off our social services and, at the same time, stealing our jobs and resentment toward feminists and their destruction of the American “nuclear family.” Facts are unimportant, or really inconvenient to these discourses. They play on deep-seated resentment at the fading of the American dream, the falling status of the U.S. in the world and the racism at the very heart of America. They play on the nostalgia that the old have for an America that never really existed. And they feed on a popular culture industry that thrives on anti-intellectualism.

At this moment, education and media become key spaces where students can become more critical about the world that surrounds them and cultivate the ability to see through the shroud of ideology and rhetoric to the truths that lie beneath. But conservatives have also effectively attacked these two spaces. They have instrumentalized knowledge in the Weberian sense to extricate real critical thinking and depoliticize knowledge, thus further solidifying the status quo. They have made K-12 about little else but rote memorization and testing, losing the radical potential that knowledge and science once promised to improve the human condition. And they are increasingly bringing their attacks to the university, attempting to institute bureaucratic and professionalist tendencies that undermine the autonomy of professors and students to critically examine social forces and phenomena. In media, they have allowed radical conservative voices to dominate the airwaves and TV screens while shouting out most progressive voices – while pushing the mainstream media away from its position as the fourth estate, holding politicians and social institutions accountable and highlighting the distance between their words and actions (outside the bedroom of course).

With Obama’s victory, a glimmer of hope emerged from the conservative miasma that has enveloped America for almost 30 years, but it seems to be fading under the brute force of a movement that is untethered by truth, rationality or any real interest in the common good.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Question of Race

Critiques of political correctness generally come from the right. However, I think it is important to acknowledge the ways in which an overemphasis on cultural sensitivity can lead to the "closing of the American mind" (as the late Alan Bloom once argued). We must be able to have open debates about race that acknowledge its importance in how we see each other and interact. While a color blind world or post-racial society are wonderful utopian ideas, they do not seem to capture the reality of contemporary American or global society. Race and racism matter and it is important to confront prejudice, even if it is sometimes done in racist ways. The recent contretempts over Jimmy Carter's comments is one example of our inability to really contemplate race and its effects, but another interesting one just occurred at Tufts University.

An Asian student decided to make fun of a fellow Asian student by putting up posters that played on racial stereotypes of Asians. The campus became astir with protests over its inflammatory message and its potentially negative effects on students ( I am not supporting the student, but just this kind of approach can be effective at challenging PC culture that quells real dialogue on important issues. The student in fact argued that he was confronting this very culture on campus. Discomfort and confrontation are often effective ways to get people to explore their own ideas, beliefs, values and perspectives. Rather than shying away from it, I believe we should instead embrace it as a more effective form of mediation. I do this in my own classrooms, and while it does lead to heated conversations and anger among my students, I believe it forces many to confront their own feelings on racism. Civility and reasoned, "rational" conversation are a bedrock of white, middle class culture. But they too often stiffle rather than foster meaningful, critical conversations on race, gender, class and inequality. With some reservation, I thus laud the student for confronting his own sense that cloaking something does not mean it doesn't exist.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Healthcare "Debate"

Good article in Salon on the healthcare debate: While the public continues to support the public option and hungers for real reform, the heathcare industry and the politicians they have bought pretend they are representing them. This is backed by a punditocracy that seems to parrot the discourse of the far right as if it spoke for all Americans. Will the media ever change? Is there such a thing as responsible journalism any more? Too many on television ignore the real public climate in lieu of the very "special interests" they decry. Instead of the reporters who once fought for the public interest, we have too many who are part of the elite. The only hope exists on the margins and we can only hope they have a strong enough voice in the mainstream.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Feckless Democrats and the Upside of Technology

Democrats have been shooting themselves in the foot for years – from the ineffective campaigns of Gore and Kerry to the obsequious Congressional democrats during the Bush years. Obama turned the tide on conservative dirty campaigning and won a huge, and real, consensus from the American people that they wanted change. What has happened since?

He filled his administration with old Clinton lackies, including most troubling the Rubin and Reich neoliberal acolytes like Summers and Bernake
His recovery package fell short of what many wanted, in regards to changing the nature of business and the social contract in America. He made a number of concessions to Republicans who still didn’t vote for the bill
His attempt at regulation has been suspect at best
And now on healthcare, he makes a deal with the drug companies and seems ready to drop the government-sponsored plan altogether (even as most progressives argue it is the only way to solve the long term problems)

On Sunday and Monday, we learned that Obama was not inured to the public option for healthcare (the only real way to intervene and control costs): Obama then relents somewhat and says this is not the case. But it is clear he is making deals with a party that has little interest in reform of any kind. We have a consensus from the American people for change, but Obama is somehow still beholden to bipartisanship that is not bipartisan except in making concessions to conservatives who still don’t vote for the bills. He talks about breaking the gridlock in Washington, but has done little to get conservatives to play the game at all. And like so many democrats before him, we are left to wonder what he really stands for. Luckily there are some democrats who claim they will go forward without Republican support (, but whether they will succeed or not is still an open question.

What has happened to the backbone of the party? Have they fallen prey to the very forces that control the Republican party? Are they corrupt and willing to win/keep office at any cost? Are they so interested in Realpolitiks that they have forgotten what they stand for (ala the net roots)? Have they sold their soul to the devil to get the majority (think Lieberman and the Blue Dogs)? Or are Democrats just too interested in dialogue and agreement to actually stand up for their principles, and the people they are supposed to support (in this case the majority). One problem appears to be the people they entrust to frame their agenda, for example a guy who lost presidential election after presidential election become Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist, or hiring Emmanuel, who is too used to compromise to be the architect of real change, or Arne Duncan who is a strong supporter of policies that have failed in Chicago and undermined public education across the country. Today a big problem appears to be one that plagues the party – an inability to know what you should stand for and a penchant for falling prey to polls and attack-style politics.

* * * * * * * * * * *

In this blog, I often decry the downside of technology. I also often point out the positive. Obama has been very effective at using technology to mobilize, inform and communicate with the American people. This is particularly important given the relative irresponsibility of the mainstream media. Sometimes I think he sends out too many emails, thus causing me to press the delete button without reading them a lot. But today he offered a good point-by-point refutation of the conservative framing of the healthcare debate. Here it is: While the Internet is full of half-truths and outright lies, particularly in the viral emails so often sent out by conservatives, the savvy Internet user can usually quickly find the “truth.” One great site to facilitate this process is

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Your Mind on Twitter

An article on Salon yesterday perfectly captures the essence of my problem with technology: In it, Laurel Snyder admits her addiction to Twitter. And that appears to be the way technology works. We become addicted to it without ever knowing why. Video games, facebook, twitter, blogs, itunes, tv, or any host of other technologies become addictions that are hard to escap the. Is it like having a drinking problem or heroine addiction -- probably not, but what technology tends to do today is waste hours of our day. Is that such a bad thing?

Not necessarily. But what it has done is made being bored a verboten state. There is nothing worse, and I notice the effects in my classroom -- students who expect to be entertained throughout class, who can't concentrate for even 40 minutes, who sneak text messages at every opportunity, who refuse to really think about anything with any level of criticality. There areof course, exceptions. But one student a couple semesters ago went as far as taking a phone call while we were watching a movie. I took her into the hallway to talk to her about it and she never showed up again.

The biggest cost in the end though is time. All of the time we waste interacting with technology far exceeds the time we save through its efficiency. Sure it is great for research and finding information. Sure it can make organizing our lives easier, allow us to pay bills in minutes, keep our checkbooks balanced, allow us to keep in touch easily and quickly with those near and far, facilitate meeting people, help organize events and mobilizations and find others to do just about anything we desire, etc. But what it also does is keep us busy with its prime directive, whatever that may be. It creates an entire society unable to focus of anything for very long. It causes us to more often talk over each other than I remember in the past. And it breaks down the casual street culture that once defined New York City. Is there more good or bad? Hard to say. But what seems increasingly clear to me is that it goes a long way in defining who we are and how we relate to the world.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Movie Review: Waltz with Bashir

I just rented this extraordinary film on Netflix and recommend it to anyone who loves film. Waltz with Bashir (2008) follows writer and director Ari Folman’s quest to remember his service in the Israeli Army during the Lebanese War of the early 80s. The animation is exemplary and at times breathtaking in its rendering of the space between fact and fiction in our own memories and the price of war on those who participate. Its most compelling images juxtapose the horrors of war and how men deal with their own complicity in death and atrocity; often through the mundane and eradication of emotional attachment to actions and their consequences. The animation amplifies the power of the message and somehow captures the truth of the moment better than a traditional documentary or even film could. Ironically, by escaping the limitations of real images he transcends them (as Sontag once argued, a photograph is as important for what it excludes as what it includes – and this is just as true with film). In the denouement he moves from animation to real footage of the Sabra and Shatila massacre and this serves as a perfect ending, unmediated by any context except the story that preceded it (

Folman’s approach provides a balanced view of the victim’s of the war, among Israelis, Lebanese and the various other players in the long running civil war that involved many of the surrounding countries. Rather than simply condemning Israeli complicity in the atrocities, it uses images and the words of the veterans to leave the audience to decide. The main characters are all involved at some level in the conflict, but are themselves victims of events essentially beyond their control. Through his extraordinary narrative structure and use of animation, he captures the fog of war explicated so poignantly in the traditional documentary form by Errol Morris in his interviews with Robert McNamara (Fog of War, 2003). Waltz seems to take Hannah Arendt’s perspective of the banality of evil to heart, showing young men pushed to service against their deeper instincts and morality; while simultaneously showing the coldness with which they ignore or justify their behavior and the destruction and killing of civilians, including women and children, in which they partake. The film rejects the bathos that often underlies films in this genre, instead allowing the images to serve as the moral underpinning of the critique of war.

Ultimately, the film is a beautifully rendered tragedy that captures the complex relationship between memory and atrocity, fear and bravery and the long term costs of war to all involved. The surreal dream sequences serve to codify the very real events that surround them and move the film from docudrama to an artistic masterpiece. I am hard pressed to think of a better animated film in history. (A)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Funniest Books in the English Language

This blog is primarily a space where I offer cultural critique, but today I thought I would offer a short list of the funniest books I have ever read in the English language. These would probably be on most lists, but I know a lot of people that have never read one or more of them – so here they are . . .

1) Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole): this brilliant book, post-humous winner of the Pulitzer, follows the travails of chubby, ne’er do well Ignatius T. Reilly and a wonderfully eccentric collection of characters in New Orleans. A movie adaptation has been in the works for years, but seems eternally cursed.
2) Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis): one of the best books ever written on the absurdly esoteric and petty world of academia and another ne’er do well falling in love with the wrong women.
3) Catch-22 (Joseph Heller): an absurdist tale of World War II that deals with some very profound questions underneath; and through the travails of Captain Yossarian added Catch-22 to the American lexicon. The Nichols film doesn’t quiet capture the magic of the novel, but is still worth a view. This was Heller’s one great novel.
4) Vile Bodies (Evelyn Waugh): a brilliant satire of the senseless decadence of the British upper class in the period between World War I and II. Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley both considered Waugh one of the greatest satirists of his epoch. A film adaptation, Bright Young Things (2003), does a decent job of capturing the epic humor of the book.
5) The Russian Debutate’s Handbook (Gary Shtenygart): a wonderfully inventive tale of assimilation in America and Prague in the early 90s, this book (like his second Absurdistan) is brilliantly rendered with rich characters and

A few others that I think fit the bill include Vonnegut, The Cat’s Cradle, Jonathon Safran Froer Everything is Illuminated (movie sucked), Douglas Adams A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Richard Russo Empire Falls (with very serious undertones), David Sedaris Me Talk Pretty Some Day, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (very funny, unlike the movie) and Nick Hornby’s About a Boy.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Debate or the Texas Two Step?

While the blogosphere and emags have been decrying the nature of conservative discourse on the healthcare “debate,” the mainstream media has again shown its ineptitude at doing much more than reporting what other people say (he said, she said syndrome gone wild). The New Republic weighs in today on the absurdity that has become conservative discourse on healthcare, essentially centered around scaring the old, the disabled and anyone who isn’t really paying attention:

“We're stuck in what Josh Marshall has called a "nonsense feedback loop"--a conversation in which Zeke Emanuel wants to kill grandma, health care reform is bad for the people who can't get health care, and Stephen Hawking has been snuffed out by the British National Health System. Instead of arguments that are unrelated to reality, we're getting arguments that are the very opposite of reality.” (

Just like the 2000, 2004 and 2008 campaigns, too much of what comes out of the lunatic fringe becomes conventional wisdom with too much of the voting public (( In 2000, Gore was a liar, based on, well, lies. Then the recount centered around a public restless for a result, that was really just restless of hearing how restless they were. In 2004, the swift boat veterans for truth spread lies like most of us spread butter on toast – but the media including the “liberal” New York Times played along, while finding the truth with a minor lie (in the Dan Rathers coverage of Bush’s suspect service during Vietnam) became a media maelstrom. In 2008, the socialist story line garnered less popular support, but still boiled at the edges of the political penumbra. And now, with healthcare reform, we have moved to the truly absurd spectacle society (

Can we have reasoned debate in America today? The answer appears to be no. Instead the lunatics and hardliners on the right take up far too much of our time, while the reasonable are attacked, marginalized or completely ignored. Why do we allow this to happen? Could it be that we are too busy updating our twitter and facebook accounts, watching movies and tv and trying to figure out how we missed out on the boom of the early twentieth century and how exactly we should take the “good news” on the economy. Or could it be that a country that has celebrated anti-intellectualism for far too long just doesn’t have the energy or critical faculties to really consider the issues? Maybe we just can’t figure out the difference between lies and truth or fiction and reality anymore. It appears that the postmodern reality has taken hold like never before.

P.S. Who are these right-wingers disrupting the President's town hall meetings? Here's one:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Family and Technology

“This is morning in America in the Internet age. After six to eight hours of network deprivation — also known as sleep — people are increasingly waking up and lunging for cellphones and laptops, sometimes even before swinging their legs to the floor and tending to more biologically urgent activities.” ( Thus is the state of the American family today, according to a New York Times article on Monday. The article starts with a typical family in Michigan who now often wake to their computers in four different rooms. Family breakfast? A fresh start to the day? Forget that! We’ve got work emails to get us reveled up, facebook and twitter updates to review, video games to play, texts to fellow teens we will see in less than an hour, TV to watch or websites to peruse before going to work to, well, sit in front of the computer all day. The kids just need that morning fix of technology before heading off to school to subsist in the anachronistic world of chalkboards and people talking to each other; as apparently do the parents.

Has technology improved our lives? In many ways, the obvious answer is yes (see prior posts). But what of the family? Another family, the Gudes, admit they”use texting as an in-house intercom,” he said. “I could just walk upstairs, but they always answer their texts.” Huh? Why bother actually waking up your kids with a smile or a careless caress of their hair. Instead technology can make sure we maximize efficiency first thing in the morning. But what is gained in this technological world and what is lost? “Both adults and children have good reasons to wake up and log on. Mom and Dad might need to catch up on e-mail from colleagues in different time zones. Children check text messages and Facebook posts from friends with different bedtimes — and sometime forget their chores in the process.” Is catching up on emails first thing in the morning really necessary? Do we really have anything interesting to say on a text first thing in the morning?

The problem I have often had with technology is that after a period of negotiation, humans tend to just adjust to its imperatives. Many people defensively disagree with this claim. But do they really think about it? Music is great, but what does listening to it all day do? Facebook is interesting, but how much does it really add to our day? Twitter has to be among the most inane of activities – but it has caught on like cut jean shorts in the late 80s. And what of email? An executive off for a week can have 10,000 emails to catch up on. Are they all really necessary? One thing I have noticed is six or seven emails can usually be taken care of in a one or two minute call. Yet we stick with the email because it’s easier or allows us to multitask. How many people can say they have talked to someone in the last week who wasn’t really listening? In fact, how many of us can admit that many of our friends and/or colleagues appear to just be waiting for a chance to talk.

The reality is it took years to see any productivity gains from computers in the U.S. Today one wonders if the amount of time people waste with their various technologies transcends any benefits that could have been gained from them. And there are, of course, other costs. People seem to have the attention span of a newborn baby. Many people I know are constantly bored. Our relationship to our surroundings has changed in profound ways that no one recognizes, because they are too busy texting about that date last night or some mundane detail of their life. There is much more talking at rather than to people. Community and neighborhood life has all but disappeared. And, as I have often noticed, people tend to act worse online. I sometimes play poker or backgammon online and have noticed that there is a surfeit of jerks, that are jerks for no other reason than that they can be without any ramifications. How does this translate to the rest of our interactions with others – strangers and friends alike? I sometimes sound like a Luddite in training, but also recognize the benefits of technology. It is just that so few seem to recognize how the technology around them changes not only what they are able to do, but what they decide to do and how they live their lives from one moment to the next. The ultimate question is whether this is better or not? Hard to say. But who has time to ask these questions when they are busy answering so many other questions? What are you wearing today? What’s going on? How’s class? What did you eat for dinner? I can’t wait to the new IPhone comes out . . .

Monday, August 10, 2009

Healthcare Debates: The Cost of Neoliberalism

A new today poll from USA Today shows the potential perils in one of the underlying tenets of neoliberalism ( The idea is that acting in our own self-interest leads to the best outcome for all. This has always been a fallacy outside purely economic terms (and sometimes within in), but healthcare brings the problem into focus in a way that few other issues do. Healthcare has social costs and benefits that transcend the individual. This is particularly true given the incredible power that healthcare providers hold – essentially the power to directly or indirectly affect the quality of your life; and more seriously it’s length. Making decisions primarily based on one’s own interests, undermine the ability to address the two biggest problems today – costs and the uninsured. In the long run, the uninsured cost all of society, but neoliberal ideology, and American society in general, have a hard time looking to the long run. And the only way to control costs is to act collectively -- as shown most clearly by the fact that the power to control costs come predominantly from the number insured within a particular group.

As debates continue and fear becomes a key factor, it appears the aging population of the U.S. is predominantly making decisions based on their own interests – in the poll as the sample participants get older, they are more interested in controlling costs than dealing with the uninsured. Among 18-29 year olds, we do see more worried about the uninsured than cost containment. But every other group believes controlling costs is more important (with the percentage increasing as the cohorts age). There is also a race dynamic here, as 75% of Blacks and 66% of Latino/as believe we should expand coverage to the uninsured. Left out of so many of these discussions are the people who can’t vote – the millions of children who do not have access to basic healthcare that could very well affect them the rest of their lives. And the group most opposed to healthcare reform are the elderly.

Healthcare and education are really public goods, with huge externalities that the market is often unable to capture. These externalities are both positive and negative. A healthy society has lower medical costs and thus a workforce that can increase productivity and reduce shared social costs. A well-educated public provides more high skill workers and a more vibrant democracy that can challenge its problems through informed, diversified participation in the public sphere. Without effective healthcare and educational systems a country can easily fall into debt and long-term decline. This is also the case with the environment, with the middle class and rich the only one’s generally able to make ecologically responsible decisions. It is also the case with the corporate world, where more and more make decisions that benefit themselves but hurt others – not because they are “bad apples” but because we have set up a system where profit maximization trumps social responsibility and the common good. The U.S. is currently on a path where the privatization of public goods could send us into a hinterland from which we will not recover. Can we convince people to think beyond their self-interest, recognizing that in the end it is in their self-interest to think collectively about key public goods?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Healthcare Debates: The Government Wants to Kill You

On the McLaughlin Group this morning (, a microcosm of the problems with the current healthcare debate came into clear focus. Conservative Pat Buchanon, who has gotten more reasonable on some matters, was speaking of how Democrats want to assist seniors in suicide or, at its extreme, euthanasia. Monica Crowley was herself chiming in, using our collective fear of government intervention into our lives, warning that bureaucrats are suddenly going to start telling people how to end their lives. Other conservatives have started to call Obama a Nazi or Fascist, lied about the cost and are now showing up at the town hall meetings with their absurd comparison ( Is there truth in these claims?

The reality appears to be that the government will pay for people to go visit their doctors to discuss their end of life options (including a living will). Why would the Medicare pay for these services? Because, among other things, 24% of the total lifetime costs of Medicare occur in the last year of people’s lives. In other words, hospitals, hospices, drug companies, and the like are making a fortune on that last year of our lives . . . often not by making it better, but by running up bills that do little to improve the quality or length of that life. The second reality is that healthcare costs are now $1.7 trillion a year and rising, which translates to 17% of GDP. That is unsustainable in the long run. And lest us forget, as I have mentioned before, that obesity and the aging of the population over all (remember those pesky baby boomers that are retiring as we speak) are on the rise and thus costs will only balloon further in the future.

Healthcare is big business in America though, and a real role for the government will undermine their profitability. So lobbyists are spending millions, conservative talk show hosts come up with absurd analogies, wingnut operatives disrupt town hall meetings and the entire conservative establishment and its corporate benefactors spread misinformation and fear to undermine necessary reform. We don’t hear of the 30% of pharmaceutical company revenue that goes to advertising, or the shift to palliatives (from curatives) that occurred in the 70s. We hear lies about the healthcare systems in Canada and England, but very little about the even better systems in Scandinavia. And rather than reasonable debate, the mainstream media largely plays along – failing to give people the facts that could help them make informed decisions. Some of these facts include the fact that we have among the lowest life expectancy and higher infant mortality rates of any industrialized country in the world. Aren’t these two pretty big indicators of how good the healthcare system in a country is? And how about the fact that a majority of the population are on some drug or another, even though many of these drugs do little to improve our lives? ADHD only became a national endemic when there were drugs to deal with it. General Anxiety Disorder, Uncomfortable Leg Syndrome, Adult ADD, anti-depressants for children, Phen Phen, Hormone therapy for women, etc., all show how profitability influences healthcare decisions in a negative way. And yet few seem to bring all the pieces together and ask the really important questions. They start the conversation and then it degrades down to what we are witnessing now (

I think it is interesting to consider the conservative movement today within this context. After the election, there was some blood-letting and many argued that conservatives had to redefine themselves. Instead they seem to believe they should return to the Clinton era strategy – bottleneck Washington, undermine reform, challenge every big policy initiative and use lies and fear-mongering to turn the country against the presidency. The problem is hints are again emerging that this strategy is effective. In a country where many take pride in their ignorance or the stone-like quality of their, often uninformed, opinions, framing debates in this way is very effective. This is particularly true with a mainstream media establishment that has lost its heart and tends to report as if there were no facts to confront the he said-she said nature of debates in the political arena. The big problem is we have serious long term challenges that will go unaddressed if this absurdity continues. Beyond healthcare is the still reeling economy, global warming, retirement costs in the coming years, persistent racial inequalities and ongoing income disparity differentials that undermine democracy itself. If we do not soon address these problems, I believe rumors of the not too distant demise of America might not be so exaggerated . . .

Friday, August 07, 2009

Testing and the False Promise of Educational Improvement

An interesting article in the New York Times this week looked at New York City schools under Mayor Bloomberg’s control: While there has been a large rise in the number of students passing the tests and a closing of the gap between racial groups based on the number passing, the numbers are somewhat deceiving when one delves deeper. For one thing, the actual gap in scores has not changed much. For another, it appears that the increase in passing rates relates more to making the tests easier – rather than any real improvement in student performance. This was made clear when looking at the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed that eighth graders showed little improvement in reading or math. So what’s the story? As with many neoliberal reforms, testing justifies a shift to a curriculum based on testing, narrowed away from a broader, more holistic approach. Yet the tests don’t really measure student performance or what they’re learning in a real sense. It is a perfect example of the old adage by Benjamin Disrael that there are lie, damn lies and statistics.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Dialectics of Technology

A couple of friends of mine were talking about loneliness and technology the other night. One argued that she felt lonely all the time and the other that texting, emails, facebook and the like were the same as being with people face to face. Technology enabled us to never be lonely. Is that true? Many lonely people turn on the TV to escape the quietude of solitude. Others get on the Internet and in one way or another “connect” with other; whether its fantasy games, twitter or facebook updates, instant messaging, emailing old friends, blogging, engaging in online communities and the like.

When we text or email others, are we really “being” with them in an authentic way? Can we escape the plague of modernity and postmodernity by using technology to stay in touch? Can we be happy and engaged from afar? These are difficult questions. Having 200 friends on Facebook certainly makes one feel as if they are part of a community, with a lot of people they can turn to in times of need or want. But what is the composition of those friendships? What does it mean to have meaningless online communiqué once or twice a year? What does it even mean to talk to someone everyday without ever seeing them? Does it measure up?

The answer for me is a resounding no. Yes I believe technology enables us to stay in touch with more people, to reconnect with old friends and to more effectively plan getting together. But there is so much missing in all forms of electronic and digital communication: intonation, all the non-verbal cues that are often more important than words, the look, the feel, closeness of two bodies, etc. As Emerson once wrote, what you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say. With technology, what you do is secondary to what you write . . .

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Blink and Listen Blindly, Malcolm Gladwell has Something to Say

Malcolm Gladwell has made a career out of looking at culture in unique, often heterodox, ways. Among his most famous works are The Tipping Point (the potentially massive importance of small-scale social events, Blink (how the human subconscious analyzes events and our ability to make snap decisions based on prior experience) and most recently Outliers (which, among other things, comes up with a rather arbitrary number that describes genius and success). Gladwell is essentially a pop-sociologist who has made a fortune writing and giving lectures to corporations. Yet many critique him for, among other things, using social science arguments without context and confusing causation and correlation. At a deeper level, I just think he is dead wrong a lot.

In his new article in the New Yorker, “The Courthouse Ring,” Gladwell argues that To Kill a Mocking Bird is not the radical text we have long considered it ( Starting with the analysis of legal scholar Steven Lubet, he argues that Atticus was in fact an accomodationist, not worthy of anything but our contempt. He then compares him to real-life politician Jim Folsom. To start, Folsom was a politician and thus a poor comparison to a lawyer trying to uphold justice. Second, I think Folsom should be commended, with reservations, for the radical tenor of many of his actions as governor. The New Republic offers a wonderful critique of the article here: I wanted to add by one critique to this heavily overrated intellectual and his huge talking fees and popularity in the public sphere.

Gladwell bases his argument predominantly on the notion that Atticus is not confronting injustice, but essentially serving it by not taking it head on. But is it really the role of the law to be a radical agent for change? The law sets the minimum standard for human behavior, but as with Brown v. Board of Education, has little power if not enforced. Atticus stands up for justice from a position of moderation. He is not an activist hero that will change the world, but really a symbol of how each of us can contribute in fighting racism and injustice – by living by our ideals and standing up for what we believe in. The novel is certainly not a call to arms for radical change, but is inspirational in its ability to make us look at ourselves and our complicity in hatred and injustice.

I believe there are several other problems with his thesis and analysis. At one point, Gladwell argues that Mayella is treated as a women so desperate for sex she is willing to plot for a year to seduce a Black man. I think this is an absurdly naïve analysis. Mayella is interested in a particular Black man, Jim Robinson, serving as an exemplar of the complex relationship between Black men and white women in the South and beyond. Her desire not only ostracizes her from society and bring up one of the greatest taboos in the South, but hints at the underlying fear of White men of perceived Black virility. As bell hooks among many has argued, White men are essentially emasculated by white female desire for Black men and have thus centered racism on any hints of sexual desire related to this relationship. The novel captures this complex dynamic, showing white male hatred built on the large Black man that actually had little interest in the white girl who desired him. On top of this, the novel contemplates the racial dynamics of the town – as Mayella and her father are poor and Atticus clearly a man of some means.

The class aspect of the book is important, and yet Gladwell gives us a simplistic leftist argument that the final scene with Boo Radley has a class dynamic that undermines Atticus’ deeper sense of justice. This is the same problem with his analysis of race. Atticus may not be an activist, but he is a purveyor of justice irrespective of skin color. He is a brave man for standing up to the town and trying, though failing, to save a Black man from unfair prosecution. His quiet dignity and bravery is, in fact, emblematic of a particular type of American hero that persists up to the present day (think of Clint Eastwood in most of his movies in the 70s – though here against violence). Is Atticus a hero? I think he is. And what’s more, I believe To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most beautifully written American novels and thus transcends how radical its politics were. Yet even here, I believe they are far more radical than anything Gladwell has ever offered us (while making a ton of money in the process).

Monday, August 03, 2009

Reflection at the Speed of Light

In the film LA Story, there is a scene where Steve Martin skates through LACMA, one of the art museums in town. His friend videotapes the adventure until they run into his burgeoning love interest. An interesting article in the New York Times today,, ponders the significance of the way we look at art in museums these days and whether many don’t secretly dream of roller skating or, maybe more appropriately, skateboarding or rollerblading through museums to maximize what they can see and the “efficiency” of the visit. To be more specific, the article looks at the ways many of us don’t really look at art anymore. We take a snapshot, glance at the work or run to the famous piece, like the Mona Lisa. I have a friend who follows this trend, almost running through an exhibit in a museum or trying to see the entire collection in a couple of hours. I’m more of a meanderer and often sit down to really look at art I like; but I guess that puts me in the minority these days.

Really I think the question of a changing relationship to art in museums relates to a larger social trend – the inability to focus on much of anything. Martin Heidegger once decried the loss of the power of art that came with its reproduction, arguing that the transcendental relationship with art can only be experienced firsthand. Today, mediated reality seems to trump reality on a daily basis. We have twitter and facebook to keep constant tabs on others and keep them abreast of the minutest details of our lives, multiple reenactments of almost any significant event (think of how many Iraq War movies have already come out), advertising peeking out at us from every corner, background or foreground noise everywhere (I entered a movie theatre a half hour early last night, and they already had previews running) and essentially the “multitaskination” of our entire lives. Doing one thing at a time, for any prolonged period of time, is a bête noire to contemporary sensibility, at least in American cities. One must walk and talk, text and talk, drive and text, eat and read, have seven to ten programs opened at once on the computer, multitab our way through the Internet, etc. ADHD has become a cultural pandemic and it is not just a problem for kids.

But what is the bigger significance? By disavowing the importance of focus and time to really contemplate and explore aesthetic and material reality, what is lost? How does this relate to the simplification of American political discourse? What does it mean for democracy and social interaction? Can it undermine the ability to have meaningful relationships and friendships if one has 800 friends on facebook that need a few seconds of attention every couple of months and we are all texting our way through evenings rather than really talking to each other? Why is it that so few (including me) can have a linear conversation these days? Lost in the struggle to fit more and more information and experiences into one day and one lifetime might be the ability to actually enjoy those experiences. Could it be that an hour in front of one painting isn’t a waste of time? Hard to say as I sit here writing a blog entry that will soon disappear into the ether of tomorrow’s yesterday.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Booyah: Finally Competition 24/7

Ever get bored of competing with friends over jobs, salaries, cars, size of homes, lawns, kids achievements, vacation destinations and general quality of life? Feel like facebook and twitter are not providing you with enough of a platform to tell everyone about the spectacular bowl movement you had five minutes ago or the flight that is 15-minutes late? Afraid that life just isn’t complete if you can’t compete over the minutest details of your very existence? Tired of replacing those bumper stickers that tell us your kid is a C student at Alabaster elementary? For those who answered yes to any of these questions, or who feel that keeping score of their lives needs a technological instantiation – here it is! Booyah has come along to allow you to keep track of all of your achievements, big and small, through a point system that you can share with friends: Now this is worth a glass of champagne! It’s got to be worth a few points. I’ll twitter you about it when I’m done . . .

Saturday, August 01, 2009

So Cute, I Just Want to Eat You Up

Ok, probably in bad taste, but this has to be one of the weirdest stories I've read in a while. A woman in Texas, after a breakup, goes crazy and kills and starts eating her own baby -- claiming the devil made her do it: The Internet is already abuzz with this story, just thought I would chime in for those who missed it. Some will use this story to claim we don't take very good care of children in society or critique the way women are treated as second class citizens. Both claims are probably true, but I think it also hints at something larger and more troubling. The fact that kids have no real rights in our society. Decisions are too often made that disadvantage children and undermine their future. Many of them are happening as I write this -- as we continue to ignore future environmental calamity, build up debts they will have to pay off rather than tax the rich and corporations, have public schools that promises meritocracy but seems to base achievement predominantly on the income level of the parents and appear ready to miss an opportunity to fix a broken healthcare system. But I digress . . .

Framing Healthcare: Fear is a Friend of Foes

Republicans, conservative talk radio and even abortion foes have come together to rejuvenate a brilliant idea from none other than the Bush administration. Renaming the inheritance tax as the death tax was a brilliant strategy used a few years ago to end an important aspect of our ideas of American meritocracy. Now they are taking a provision from the new healthcare bill to do a similar thing – use fear as a motivating factor to get the very group that need healthcare reform to oppose it. The so called “death care” provision simply asks doctors to assist patients in making living wills and other preparations for all of our ultimate fate ( Yet as the powerful have known from time immemorial, besides divide and conquer, fear is one of the greatest motivators.

It was used after 911 to start a war, undermine the constitution and misdirect a growing list of scandals that plagued the administration in the aftermath (remember all those terror alert raises at opportune moments that somehow never materialized in reality)? Now they are using the arsenal that continues to allow them to dominate public discourse and debate. Fear, divide and conquer (see Gates fiasco and Sotomayor hearing), and misinformation are their arms and they trump the still enervated Democrats, that can’t seem to find the needed ganas even in the thrall of a major electoral victory. Can we survive without substantial changes to the healthcare system? What will we do when the baby boomers start retiring in mass? How can we handle the growing obesity pandemic and its enormous long-term health costs? Can profits trump the public interest in perpetuity? Like the environment, these are questions our kids and grandkids will have to answer if conservatives have anything to say about it.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Bonus Babies

The New York Times provides further evidence of the absurdity that has become our economy today: Bonuses were doled out to 1000s of top traders and bankers on Wall Street last year. Not necessarily for doing a good job, but hey, they had a huge influx of capital. Of course that capital came from the U.S. government; and by extension us. But that doesn’t really matter. These are, as Tom Woolf once labeled them, master’s of the universe. Profits and losses are not really the bottom line anymore. Either is talent, or performance for that matter. Once you rise high enough in the corporate matter, you are paid for being at the top. You are paid to maintain your opulent lifestyle, make sure you can make your payments on the three or four houses you own, the private jet, the jewelry for your wife and lovers and everything else necessary to make the rest of us strive to be just like you. Now Goldman and JP Morgan have reaffirmed their profitability, and emerged as the two winners of the battle for Wall Street hegemony (conveniently, Bernake once worked for one of them). They can pay back the government for saving them and move on to again do what they’ve always done; hopefully with little regulation from that pesky organization that saved them – the government.

This seems to be the emerging theme across the economy. Now that there are the first hints of recovery in the near or not too far future, it’s time to forget all the problems that got us here in the first place. Put government intervention back on the guillotine block – government is again the problem and markets the only solution. Forget regulation, forget consumer protection, forget any radical changes to the economy. Now we need to step back and move slowly. Now we need to give corporations and Wall Street back their power over the economy, and by extension, our lives. Sure Obama won the election to change things, but all we need to do now is forget all that and calm down because America thrives on unfettered capitalism, period. Healthcare reform and further recovery packages are unnecessary. Regulation is for those suckers in Europe. The Welfare State is the organizing principle of a bygone era. Fear should lead us to step back – and by the way, Obama really caused the financial crisis. You didn’t know? All you need to do is forget the past 8 years; or really 25 for that matter. History is for those who aren’t paying attention. What is needed is to blindly listen to the talking heads, parroting right wing ideology once again. The question that remains is whether past is prologue? I think, if nothing changes, the answer is a resounding yes. But as America moves toward another yesterday girl empire, at least we can take comfort in the fact that the super rich will continue to entertain us with their conspicuous consumption and crazy affairs. Not a bad deal, right?

Oh one other thing – it appears unemployment is a little bit higher than we have been led to believe (see 7/28/09 - . . . But don’t worry, that improves the bottom line, and that has to trickle down to us at some point, right (