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.