Sunday, March 26, 2006

Security, Work, Dignity, Protest

I wish this photo were in better focus. Again, taken with my trusty cell phone. I'll see if I can take it again next time I'm at the metro stop where I saw it. Okay, so this poster is in the metro. It's "headline" or major anchor there in red reads, "Etre Chomeur n'est pas un crime," or "Being Unemployed is not a crime." Can you imagine seeing this in the U.S. at any other time after the Great Depression? A very different idea about unemployment and being on welfare with over 12% of the population on government relief, which continues to be much more generous than in the United States. How can such policies continue? Obviously there has to be rhetorical efforts like this, by the government itself! It attempts to anticipate and cut off those responses by critics of government subsidies, insisting that these are citizens of the republic and worthy of their respect, like any other citizen.

The topic of work and unemployment, economic security, has of course been at the forefront of French media and culture over the past two weeks. The new CPE law (Contrat Premier d'Embauche/First Job Contract) is summed up in the following way on "The CPE is a new employment contract due to take effect in April. The CPE would allow firms to hire people aged under 26 for a two-year trial period, during which they could be easily dismissed without a reason. Students and others complain this will only increase the precarity of everyday life in France where unemployment currently runs at 10% and 50% in some areas." In fact, "[t]he rate rises to 40-50 percent in some of the poor suburbs hit by several weeks of youth rioting last autumn" (Reuters).

As much as I hate neo-liberalism and the economic insecurity of life in places like the United States, I have mixed feelings about this. In my opinion, French culture is very hostile to change of all types that announce themselves officially. Bring American and other global cultural products in on the market and people are more likely to experience and take part in change almost imperceptibly, despite the roaring of their intellectuals (who do indeed get more public voice than their counterparts in the U.S.). The biggest problem with this law may be that it discriminates against an age group, those under 26. But is the spirit of the policy bad?

Again, I tread cautiously here. I have watched the "new economy" roll across the U.S. like a juggernaut in my lifetime. Downsizing and corporate unaccountability have cost loyal American workers jobs, pensions, and human dignity. This trend of de-industrialization and outsourcing to cheaper places in the world also corresponded with the exacerbation of racial-economic disparities, where entire formerly industrial communities lost work and were abandoned with the rusty warehouses that once buzzed the dreams of upward mobility, on one hand; and the downsizing of the welfare state and villification of the poor, on the other(especially after 1980).

But France has a very strong safety net for its citizens and, as I note above, a very strong civic rhetoric that insists citizens owe respect to their fellows, even if or especially if they are without work. Of course, some French will remind me that those benefits have decreased over the years.

"The Paris march began with students in front and workers behind, but turned into a multi-generational mix including many parents who accompanied their teenage children. Banners declared "No to throw-away youths" and "Tired Of Being Squeezed Lemons."

Opposition Socialist and Communist politicians also joined the protest, only the third time in almost four decades -- after 1968 and 1994 -- that students and workers marched together" (Reuters).

But I have trouble understanding the argument of those objecting. It appears to me as something of a slippery slope. That is, is this law the first of a series of inevitable measures to come where not just the young but people of all ages will lose job security and the social security aspect of the state will wither away in the vapor of neo-liberalism? Or might this actually be a compromise that begins to deal with many stagnant and problematic aspects of the French economy and culture? What do I mean?

It is striking to someone from the U.S. how extreme the difference is here on job security. In my job, for example, the American tenure process doesn't apply. Under French labor law, I have a one-year trial period, during which I may be dismissed if the employer so desires. That means if there's no problem after one year I have tenure and job security for life, unless I do something taboo. In French academia as well as the state and corporate bureaucracy, there appear to be thousands of people who have gotten in through nepotism (and not) and who are content to stay in that position forever, with very little incentive to do their jobs to their utmost. The pay is low, and in some cases, it is not easy to be promoted quickly. There is a vexxing torpor in many aspects of the economy and culture generally. On the one hand, I respect their uncompromising privileging of time with family and friends, cooking, eating, talking, spending time with each other that is not limited to watching television or shopping. That time is partly due to the tradition of not overvaluing the workplace, especially boring, alienating labor with very little quality human contact. But one might ask whom the current system serves most?

A question I can't competently answer but which I wish to explore is whether in fact the mass of French youth are well served by the current laws (of course they may not be for the current laws, either, but are certainly against the new one; it may not be either/or). It appears to me that they have an education system that privileges early over-achievers and those who are annointed (through culturally-constructed measurements of intelligence and intellect, as all such tests inevitably are) brilliant. For these latter people, the current system is great. I'm not saying this group is not brilliant by many standards, but many have had extra resources (including geography and race), and the "others'" cultural formation produces knowledges devalued by official French institutions. Some of France's most famous intellectuals have weighed in on these subtleties of power distribution through education, in particular Roland Barthes and esp. Pierre Bourdieu, to which the majority of French, some of them quite well-educated, remain unaware. See Barthe's classic essay "Dominici, or The Triumph of Literature". Bourdieu, for his part, produced several works
" * showing that despite the apparent freedom of choice in the arts, people's artistic preferences (e.g. classical music, rock, traditional music) strongly correlate with their social position
* showing that subtleties of language such as accent, grammar, spelling and style — all part of cultural capital — are a major factor in social mobility (e.g. getting a higher paid, higher status job)."

The privileged groups have all sorts of nepotistic networks and opportunities as the result. They will get into comfortable positions and are not obligated to meet any goals that would require them to uphold their privilege, while the high rate of unemployment may prey on the less fortunate. Of course, the same nepotism and education system that selects out the elite may not be broken by such a law. The same employers who overlook well-qualified Africans and Arabs and academically elite achievers, may not ruthlessly dismiss their select employees even if they do not perform up to their ability.

Government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope raised the question of how this law is worse than the current situation: "Defending the CPE contract, Cope argued it was better than the present situation in which 70 percent of employees under 26 work under short-term contracts of only a few months, after which they can be fired just as easily as with the new contract."

As mentioned above, this is the first time in decades that unions, socialists, communists and students have come together. Why do these old dudes support what was initially a youth protest? Interestingly, most of the articles I found on the web don't mention the larger context of dwindling benefits and security:
The main contingents on the trade union sections of the marches tended to be older workers concerned not only for the future of their children and grandchildren but also their own situation: the second largest category of the unemployed in France is workers over 50. They have been hit by the harsh reductions in unemployment and retirement benefits imposed since 2002 by the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) government of President Jacques Chirac. For them the administration is proposing the “CDD Seniors”—short-term contracts for workers over age 57, and a low-wage-combined-with-pension contract for retirees.

However, these schemes were not raised on the demonstrations. Nor was the New Hire Contract (CNE—Contrat nouvelle embauche) mentioned, which was passed last August without a fight from the unions or the left parties. Designed for small businesses employing less than 20 staff (4 million workers—29 percent of the French workforce) it was the template for the CPE. Laurence Parisot, chairman of the big business organisation MEDEF (Movement of Enterprises of France), has criticised its friends in government for not implementing a contrat unique—extending the provisions of the CPE to all French workers. She told the press on Tuesday, “We have some reservations. It’s never good to treat young workers in a separate category.”

It's not an issue with an easy solution. The aspiration of market capitalism to keep its labor costs low has always resulted in attempts to prevent labor from organizing and collectively demanding job and wage security, not to mention workplace safety. For employers, the CPE can fit right into this tradition of dismissing any notion of worker rights to job and wage security. Though France, again, has a strong safety net, the fear that this is just the beginning of a neo-liberal trend that was bound to wash over France sooner or later is quite real. Afterall, it's been washing across the globe to the tune of There Is No Alternative.
See this NYT/IHT article or this for more.

RIP Buck Owens

I'm going to re-post these comments I made on the colicky blog . I just heard that Buck Owens died. Buck is a legend. He popularized a distinctive classic country style with songs like "Together Again," "Tiger By the Tail," "Hello Trouble," and the one sung at my wedding: "My Heart Skips a Beat." Like a lot of country stars, his later years were a caricatural shadow on his youth. Hee Haw was rural minstrelsy on a par with "O Brother Where Art Thou" (that my educated East Coast friends can't get that is exactly my point). His s-lo-w baby talk to his Japanese audience on his live Japan tour album is also regretable. But the guy was human, and he wrote some damned good little ditties. At least I think so. And my opinion matters. After all, you're reading me. Thanks for acknowledging Buck, STDPM. Buck is dead: long live Buck!

Progress in Iraq

Here're some headlines I've been collecting from the Yahoo browser, that bastion of liberal media discourse, every other day. A certain testament to the march of freedom there.

Blast at Baghdad Bus Terminal Kills 7 (AP), 3/4/2006

Workers From Iraq Security Firm Kidnapped (AP) 3/8/2006

Gunmen Abduct 50 Iraqis; Bombings Kill Two By ALEXANDRA ZAVIS, Associated Press Writer 3/9/2006

10 Dead As Violence Continues in Baghdad

45 minutes ago , 3/12/2006 [accompanied by this photo anchor and text to the side: AP Photo:Baghdad, Iraq,. Wife of Amjad Hamid, left, cries during the burial of her husband, in

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Bomb blasts, rocket and gunfire killed at least 10 people and injured 23 in the Iraqi capital Sunday, police said.

The low thud of mortar fire could also be heard, but it was not immediately clear where the shells were landing.

A roadside bomb exploded Sunday morning in a busy west Baghdad street, killing at least six people and inuring 12, said police Lt. There Mahmoud.

The blast targeted a police patrol in the mostly Sunni Qadissiyah neighborhood. Three policemen were among the dead and three were injured, Mahmoud said. The rest of the victims were civilian bystanders.

Another bombing near the Mustansiriyah University in east Baghdad injured five policemen, said police 1st Lt. Mohammed Khaiyoon.

Drive-by shooters fired on a car in the western Biyaqa neighborhood, killing its three occupants, including a member of President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, police 1st Lt. Muataz Salaheddin said.

Gunmen in a speeding car fired into a crowd of day laborers in Amariyah, another troubled west Baghdad neighborhood, injuring four workers, said police Lt. Thayer Mahmoud.

In the western Jamiah neighborhood, a rocket landed near a house, killing one occupant and injuring two others, police Lt. Col. Hassan Chaloob said.

March 20, 2006 Yahoo headline: Ir aq War Enters 4th Year With More Deaths

By STEVEN R. HURST, Associated Press Writer 27 minutes ago

BAGHDAD, Iraq - As the

Iraq war entered its fourth year, nearly 1,500 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers on Sunday sought to root out insurgents from farming villages an hour's drive north of the capital, and at least 35 people died in insurgent and sectarian violence nationwide.


Thousands Around Globe Call for End of War

By JOSEPH B. FRAZIER, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 1 minute ago

PORTLAND, Ore. - Protesters marking the third anniversary of the

Iraq war made their voices heard across the world over the weekend, with the largest marches in London, Portland and Chicago, though in numbers that were often lower than in previous years.

Headline in email version on same date, from NY Times: Today's Headlines: On Anniversary, Bush and Cheney See Iraq Success

March 21: At Least 51 Killed in Iraqi Violence

By STEVEN R. HURST, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 16 minutes ago

BAGHDAD, Iraq - At least 51 people were killed by insurgents and shadowy sectarian gangs, police reported — continuing the wave of violence that has left more than 1,000 Iraqis dead since the bombing last month of a Shiite Muslim shrine.

As the

Iraq war entered its fourth year, police found the bodies of at least 15 more people — including that of a 13-year-old girl — dumped in and near Baghdad. The discoveries marked the latest in a string of execution-style killings that have become an almost daily event as Sunni and Shiite extremists settle scores.

Sectarian killings have swept across Iraq since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine in Samarra. An Associated Press tally, including deaths reported Monday and Tuesday, put the toll at 1,044 since the golden dome atop the Askariya shrine was left in rubble by two bombers, who are believed to remain at large.

March 24

29 Dead in Iraq; New Sweep Nets Inurgents By VANESSA ARRINGTON, Associated Press Writer

8 minutes ago

BAGHDAD, Iraq - American and Iraqi troops swept the oil-rich region of Kirkuk for suspected insurgents and captured dozens, while drive-by shootings, roadside bombings and sectarian violence killed at least 29 people in Iraq on Friday.

March 26, 2006

Wave of Violence Kills at Least 69 Iraqis

By STEVEN R. HURST, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 1 minute ago

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Police found 30 more victims of the sectarian slaughter ravaging

Iraq — most of them beheaded — dumped on a village road north of Baghdad on Sunday. At least 16 other Iraqis were killed in a U.S.-backed raid in a Shiite neighborhood of the capital.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Yahoo headlines

I don't usually pay much attention to the tabloid headlines that vie for space on yahoo's webbrowser, but today I was struck by a couple of real gems, which I reproduce for you here:
"Hasselhoff divorce heats up, denies abuse claim
• Boy George avoids jail, gets rehab in plea bargain
• Janet Jackson pays for Jackson 5 drummer funeral
Meeting Matisyahu
A Hasidic reggae star? We've seen a few odd buzz success stories, but Matisyahu is tops..."

Sure beats another story about ten more Iraqis blown up, of which there's another each day. By the time that's over will there be any liberated people left?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Parents, kids, sports...

Disgusting. One of my all-time peeves is parents who use their kids to play out their own fantasies of domination. I umpired Little League baseball, softball and teeball games back in the day. Unbelievable these dads, almost 99% of the time dads,with their nostrils heaving, their eyes popping out, their faces scarlet with rage and too much bad beer, screaming at their kids or at the umpire or at other kids. Remember the dad who beat the crap out of the hockey coach, killing him? Now this on yahoo news:
Search: Advanced
Tennis Dad Recounts Drugging Kids' Rivals

By PIERRE SAUVEY, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 27 minutes ago

BORDEAUX, France - A man accused of drugging his children's tennis opponents, leading to one player's accidental death, described being gripped by panic and anguish as his desire to see his son and daughter succeed spun out of control."

The headline read...

"Iran Threatens U.S. 'Harm and Pain'"
This is either ominous or facetiously reminiscent of prepubescent ultimatums of the "After school or your ass is grass!" type.
But for those who don't think of the playground...
So you're looking for perpetual war? Start framing your headlines to the American people like that and you're well on your way. Very careless, very careless. Does Yahoo choose these headlines, or is it the AP? I'm thinking the former, since the same story is advertised under a new headline at this point later in the day: "Iran Makes Threats, UN to take up the case." Still emphasizing Iran as aggressive. In fact, the story itself suggests a somewhat more complicated context where a threat is followed by an accusation that the U.S. is agressive and that it will be fed some of its own medicine if it continues down the aggressive path: "'The United States has the power to cause harm and pain," said Ali Asghar Soltanieh, a senior Iranian delegate to the IAEA. "But the United States is also susceptible to harm and pain. So if that is the path that the U.S. wishes to choose, let the ball roll.'"

Let it roll indeed. But if you're just reading headlines, like I often do, it sounds a little different. How many modern day schemes to reenact the Mexican/American War will this world have to endure under Bush II's global adventures initiative? Amass troops on a border, cross the border and dare the recently manufactured enemy to respond. Enemy responds, and presto: new colony, er state. Now it's to spread freedom, of course, not add stars to the American flag.


My journalism year: 1996-1997

Here I provide you with some writing from my brief stint as a legitimate journalist from 1996-1997 with the Lawrence, Kansas Lawrnece Daily Journal World.

My biggest thrill at this job was that my first feature story was picked up by the AP wire and circulated through its Midwest bureaus and various Metropoli of the Midwest. Curiously, it does not appear in LexisNexis searches. It was about the phenomenon of slackers in Lawrence, Ks, after Sarah Dunn ranked it as one of the top 10 places to slack in the U.S. Download story here

2. One of my favorite artists, musicians, renaissance men alive is Jon Langford. This is a story about him coming to Lawrence with his abbreviated version of the Waco Brothers: click.

3. My journalist year also coincided with a tribute to the writer William Burroughs, who was living in Lawrence the last years of his life. I did one of the last interviews with Alan Ginsburg before he died. What a lunatic! I asked him if Burroughs had influenced him in his life and writing, and he thought for a second and then came up with this gem: "Yes, William said to me a few years ago when I was for gun control--why wouldn't a person be for it? I thought--'You know, Alan, when they outlaw guns then only outlaws will have guns.' Can you believe that?" he crowed as if trying to educate a boy raised by wolves, and continued: "That was one of the most brilliant things I had ever heard." I couldn't bear to tell him that his oracle had plagiarized the NRA.

In any case, while I was working on the Burroughs reunion beat, I also interviewed Patti Smith. Here's the story it produced: click.

4. Lawrence, Kansas has for a long time had a vibrant music scene, especially indie rock, neo-classic country and bluegrass. Here's a story I did on the recent history of the Lawrence music scene: click.

5. Here's a review of a novel by Wendell Berry. I didn't like it much, as you'll see, but I enjoyed writing about how it didn't like it. Click.

6. A review of an interesting book that follows filmmaker wannabes, called What I really want to do is direct: click.

7. Review of an excellent book by James Howard Kunstler on zoning laws, slum lords, and developers that have turned (and continue to turn) the U.S. into a cycle of decaying-demolishing-constructing stripmalls: Click.

8. Here's my best restaurant review in which I managed to incorporate Henry David Thoreau. It got me free Vietnamese food there for about five years: Click.

I'll stop there for now, fans.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Man in Black (and white)

Walking the Fine Line between Clever and Stupid
By Jayson Harsin (copyright 2006)
From “the Man in Black,” 1971: Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,But is there because he's a victim of the times.I wear the black for those who never read,Or listened to the words that Jesus said,About the road to happiness through love and charity,Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.

Thumbs up and down. I was thoroughly entertained by Walk the Line, James Mangold’s attempt to be the first cinematic commentary on the recently deceased Johnny Cash. The acting and singing were superb. T. Bone Burnett’s musical production is often mesmerizing. But the narrative arc attracts criticism, particularly the reduction of Cash's life to a quest for June Carter and a kind of Oedipal Complex with his father....

Read on by clicking here.