Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Planes and Automobiles..definitely no trains

Planes and Automobiles, definitely no trains (which are for those Eurotrash wimps, of course; here trains are drafthorses; get with the post-industrial age, pal). This thread will be in two parts: To Chicago and flight from Chicago to Kansas. Then Kansas and return. Perhaps it will be three posts. Like a mini-series. Networks like to use the mini-series to secure a loyal audience for at least three evenings. Will it work on a blog?

So, I don't usually make strictly personal posts. Usually about politics, culture, music, not about me per se/per son. So savor this rare sortie. Not much analysis, just third-rate poetry.

The flight over. Bad omens.

No more free wine or beer, to say nothing of cognac,etc. on American Airlines. At least it didn't cost an arm and a leg--just an arm.

The potbellied 50-something man in front is reading Anne Coulter.
I will never again say, "At least he's reading."

The stewards and stewardesses do not even try to hide their contempt for the passengers, for their jobs, for their lives. Keepin it real. Keepin it real comme ca: somewhat charming (the charm of refusing to fake), mainly depressing. It's a country's export of services that people don't like to render--not like that--and people don't like to receive--not like that. But there's no alternative--not like this.

I land in Chicago (to sound post-post modern, I'll just say that I thought of the old Stephen Wright joke--"and boy are my arms tired"--but I didn't say it, just thought it) . No people selling tickets, making change at the O'Hare CTA (Chicago Public Transportation/Transit Authority) entrance. Just machines. Oh, wait, there were people who had no contact with the money, with the machines. They were there to tell you that you could put your money in the machines, like this and that. There you go. After withdrawing money from the money machine. I am forced to put 20$ into the train-card machine, even though I don’t plan on using 20$ worth of train service. Moral of the paragraph: in this country, you are encouraged to waste--everything.

I'm aware that time register is erratic in this post. Shifts between present and past. I'm too lazy to correct them. Correcting is for fascists and neurotics (as is rationalizing).

A few minutes on the train and a small, patchily goateed man in a NASCAR cap and sunglasses boards behind people at whom he’s grumbling: “Fuck, get on the fuckin’ train!” He moves toward me and my two suitcases: “Can you move this shit so we can fucking sit down?!” I am stunned, trying my best to ignore him while I move my bags, slightly. I notice that he is shorter than I. Luckily, I'm distracted. An African-American woman approaches an African-American man on the train a few feet away from me. They don’t seem to know one another, but she immediately starts talking about how she was attacked recently by some “punk” in her neighborhood. “What kind of world are we living in?” is her refrain. The man appears to get off the train early to escape her anecdote. Are you still reading? Are you off the train?

An hour later I get to my friend’s place. I’m loving the ethnic restaurants I pass (Vietnamese, Chinese bbq, Thai, Ethiopian. Average cost of main courses:$6). The two-story, brownstone walkups, and small houses, both with big porches, on some of which are sitting old men with beers and/or pulp fiction. The dogs and their walkers. The homemade yard signs admonishing fecalphobic dogwalkers. The trash. The SUV’s, possibly 75% of the vehicles on the street.

That night I find myself munching a great burger and fries--stereotypically for you foreign readers, bien sur--for 8$ (it's not a fast food joint, but a tavern) and drinking a bottle of Czechvar beer for $3.50. They're playing Devo, Beck, and a few I can't recognize. I really miss having bars in Paris where I hear music I like. It's so rare that I will make a show of it when it happens. It has happened once. How does one compute all these things that aggravate and enamor?

Next day, after going to Siam Noodle and Rice and having a delicious Pad See Eew for 5.50$, I head down to Powell’s books. Great academic and fiction books, remainders in fact, dead cheap. Dead Cheap? Max Horkheimer’s essays, new (Continuum Press), for 5$. On the way back, people are descending from the el tracks, down the stairs. It’s two-way: left-side coming down, right side going up. But wait. There’s a lone man walking down on the right side, coming right for…me. “I’m going down, muthafuckah, before you’re going up.” What to do? Go all the way back down? No! I freeze. I do the cliché American macho shoulder bump with him and he goes on. I love American masculinity. Really. I long ago walked into Dostoyevski's Notes From the Underground--is there no exit?

The next morning I’m on another American Airlines flight from Chicago to K.C. Typical (?) American 14 year-old next to me? What’s he like? Big white basketball shoes;casual, new Eddie Bauer shorts and shirt. He has no patience. No attention span. He’s addicted to stimuli. Society of the Spectacle. He's fidgeting crazily. When the announcement of safety precautions asks for attention to be given to the steward/esses, he drawls, "Shuuut UUUp!" When he pulls out his portable DVD player (sort of like a Sony Watchman but bigger) and finds that the power is dead, he lets loose a "fuuuuuhck!" His dad is about my age it seems and apparently has the "I'm in junior high with you" parenting style. "Really?" dad queries. "That sucks." Indeed. It also sucks to sit by you guys. But I'm sure you're holding Bush's pants to the fire, vigilant citizens, when you get a break from your Gameboys and portable . (I also don't like to start new paragraphs. Too lazy. I just sat down. Not getting up to get another new paragraph. You're just going to have to wait.) So we're taxiing down the runway, and the kid blurts, "Come onnnnnn! Hurry up!" He's in the throes of tech-attention withdrawal. I recall the de-toxing scene from Trainspotting, where the kid is locked in the room by his parents and images of a sweaty, bulgy-eyed drug-addled kid clinging to the ceiling are offered to express what's going on in the kid's mind. I'm imagining the kid next to me in that room. It's not hard.

At least the kid has some fallback technology, the trusty MP3 player. He still treats me to epithets and sagacious observations nonetheless. I look out the window of the plane, away from the annoying teenager. Between Chicago and K.C. the ground below is a green patchwork quilt of astonishing symmetry. Squares of well-tilled and planted land are carved by straight and narrow dirt-rock roads. There is seldom a winding road to be seen, though I occasionally spy a diagonal. I try to remember my theorems from high school geometry. Those classes would have seemed so much more real if we had practiced on aerial photographs of the Midwest.

The Mississipi River snakes into the distance. It's a brown, thick snake. It's not poisonous though. It won't spew venom. Don't worry it's harmless, white people. Not much traffic on it today.

Back to the geometry of the fields and country roads. Oh, look, ma, it's a city. A little city, so well planned. So gridded to serve the shopping centers, the economy, which of course means it serves the people. From above, all the houses look the same. Sadly, they look the same down on the ground. I know, I can't be there while I'm above, but I'd bet all my highschool year books that they are. (It's a safe bet: I'm going to burn them anyway). More quadrants, sines and cosines, alternate interior and exterior angles, congruities, similarities, terms and rules that are learned and forgotten. Now the perfect square plots are getting some variation, thanks to little plots of brush and timber which look strangely similar to the tops of brocolli heads. It's like someone put broccoli (I don't know how to spell it, so I'm going to try and do it two ways, and hope I get one right) heads on the fields. They're slightly darker than the green fields around them; they're healthy heads of broc.

We land, and the kid takes off his MP3 player. The fidgeting is renewed. "Finally," he spudders when the plane touches down. He jumps up before the "fasten seatbelts" sign is dimmed, before, in fact, the plane has stopped taxiing. I will never forget the kid or his dad. God Bless America. People say the Founders had great foresight. That's why they created the Constitution, such a durable and adaptable document through the years. I'm sure they saw the kid and his dad when they debated and drew up that time-honored prescription for the good life.

I get out in the K.C. airport. I'm struck by the obesity. The khakhi shorts and golf shirts. The midrifts on girls and young women--comme il faut. Strange, violent even, extremes of sculptured bodies clearly belonging to fitness nuts and, on the other end, Supersize-it obesity everywhere. There's also a semiotics of sports that can't be avoided. The bodies and the clothing. If you're obese, you're still going to perform your cultural legitimacy with a ball cap or t-shirt. Testosterone is visible like the fog when you breathe on a cold day. Encore: SUV's. Shopping. Pollution. My favorite ad, ever, is the native American shedding a tear as he looks down on the polluted river. I think it's still downloadable at the Prelinger archives. It never left me and now has new company in a tech-stimuli-deprived teenager.

Moral of the post: I feel happy to live in Paris. But I feel like I've just walked into an elitist, facile, East Coast caricature of the Midwest. Have I just committed cultural suicide? I'm listening to Cracker and feeling trashy. Is moral the same as "main idea?"

The end of this section of "PLanes and Automobiles" part I is:

I don't hate the States, I don't hate it. I don't. I don't.

(My East Coast liberal Elite friends with imaginary knowledge of the Midwest would change that for me: "You don't hate the States. You hate the Midwest." Thanks for reminding me that I don't hate the entire country. I don't. I don't. Not even the East Coast prep school liberals. Honest. I don't.)

This post is finally over, finally, at least one paragraph too late. This is the way it ends.

Friday, June 16, 2006

"Flag Burning" : That Old Chestnut

My trusty Yahoo headlines have alerted me to the fact that the Senate is considering an anti-flag burning bill...again. We're seeing the standard Republican repertoire lately(of xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-flag-pyromania), which is a sign that there's an attempt to shift the attention to a new front, i.e. the Iraq front is dominating the media agenda (along with White House corruption stemming from Rove), and the Republicans are trying their best to spin and shift attention. Iraq is not a losing matter, we're told. Things are looking up, we're told, especially now that Zarqawi has been killed. And yet they are hounded by the recalcitrance of the real, which returns again and again to be the skunk at their PR picnics. In the same bunch of headlines, I also learned that we've reached another landmark in the war on terror in Iraq: 2500 American men dead. Better send out some press releases about flag-burning, gay marriage, immigration, perhaps drugs. Anything to avoid admission that Iraq has been the biggest American foreign adventure failure since Vietnam.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Timing is everything

More stories about divisive votes and the U.S. divided by hot "cultural" issues like gay rights.
More desperate attempts by Republicans to suture the fragile and torn coaltion of gay-friendly unzealous neo-liberal fat cats and extremist zealous, homophobic, racists (click here for the latest bill defeated in the senate by widely covered by the news). As mentioned in previous posts, the Republican elite have been scurrying around trying to assemble PR crisis rhetoric to manage the disenchantment in the rank and file. Perhaps it's working. In any case, this is the game.

By the way, speaking of the game, you are encouraged to binge drink and run naked on the occasion of the capture of Zarqawi ("most wanted") dead in Iraq yesterday. How dramatic. You wage a war to prevent the spread of terrorism and supposedly to bring bin Laden to justice, and you end up spreading and attracting terrorism and have no idea where the elusive evil genius has gone. But forget about the past. Today the show in Lotus land is the capture of a villain. If things had been looking bad, it's your fault for not steeling your patriotic resolve and hanging in there. Good always triumphs over evil. Gotta go dance in the street. Ciao.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

"Another Beautiful Day on the Island"

This article on the alleged "clownification" of America appears on alternet, and is one of their "most e-mailed." It's really in a long tradition of seeing entertainment and news media (increasingly the same thing in a privatized media market) as ways of softening the masses for the real decisionmakers and rulers in the country. Horkheimer and Adorno's work is oft-cited by academics, and more recently you have the late Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. But there are signs that things are now really as bleak as these doomsayers precociously, perhaps, said.

The alternet "clownification" of America article is occasioned by its author reading front-page headlines about American Idol in his morning newspaper. It is not contained in the entertainment section but has crept onto the front page to compete for newsworthiness with scandals, natural disasters, and highly dramatic (they hope) political conflict--eg. a candidate who, in an attempt to perform his requisite masculinity, resorts to the playground challenge "Bring it on!" an alternate of "After School [you're dead!]!"

It's true. It's a claim somewhat different from the media are producing robots, though it often accompanies that claim. This claim is about the content of stories and the news market values that produce them. Scholars increasingly refer to these news content/values trends as "infotainment" or "tabloidization." And yes, you can assume that such trends do have some kind of an effect on the available information necessary for a democratic public life.
Just saying that anyone can go to the internet to be informed is a flawed response for many reasons (even less chance of accuracy for the undiscerning; and the unlikelihood that many will actively seek out such information). "If men were angels, no government would be necessary," wrote James Madison in the Federalist Papers. The idea here is that you can't trust everyone to behave and use their liberty in ways that will benefit the whole citizenry (one might also read into it an elite distrust about whether everyone is capable of acting in ways that are even self-beneficial--a worry about uneducated false consciousness). Might one say, following Madison today, "If men [sic] were angels, no media content and values guidelines would be necessary."? You can't trust the market to serve the democracy well by providing non-tabloidesque stories to citizens. You can't trust citizens to seek out information vital to citizenship, especially when powerful forces in a society have created a locally-controlled national education system highly inconsistent in quality combined with billions of advertising and public relations dollars going into celebrating the equation of leisure time with consumption, of objects and services, some media services, that are more about a break from the pressures of everyday life than something that is going to make you work hard intellectually, politically, morally.

Education systems and news values in journalism schools and news companies are all part of an invisible hand of government in our societies. They combine with other institutions, values, and structured behaviors to in fact shape human beings. People make choices/themselves to some degree within conditions they have only partly made themselves. Founders of the American republic knew this quite well when they debated education systems and the values important to a long-lived democracy. Founder Benjamin Rush was quite forthright in such comments about the relationship of culture to democratic life. Some excerpts from a website on Rush. (on Rush, see also here )
*Duty must be coupled with "republican principles"; with progressive
One of the basic beliefs of the new nation was that it was
established for the progress of mankind.. It would be a mistake to train
the youth of the nation in such a way that they would simply continue the
institutions that had been established. These institutions were meant to
function progressively, and so must be modified constantly. For these
reasons the pupil "must be taught that there can be no durable liberty in
a republic and that government, like all other sciences, is of a
progressive nature."

*Amusements may educate for democracy.
The reconstruction of education should not stop simply with a
reformation of the formal school procedure. It should also extend into
the amusements of youth, for there are "amusements that are proper for
young people in a republic." All activities that had the potential to
work against the spirit of democracy should be discouraged, and all others
should be encouraged.

* A new type of education required for new type of duties and new social
There was an assumption after the revolution that the form of
government that had been assumed had "created a new class of duties to
every American." Another assumption was that the force of former controls
had largely disappeared. Rush then concluded: "It becomes us, therefore,
to examine our former habits upon this subject, and in laying the
foundations for nurseries of wise and good men, to adapt our modes of
teaching to the peculiar form of our government." [...]
* Young men made by education into "republican machines"
An education should be present that would give a thorough
grounding in democratic principles, and at the same time would make for
modification of instruments of society that would be necessary for
progress toward greater freedom."
Like a lot of the founders, Rush had all sorts of ideas that today many of us would find ludicrous, if not entirely offensive (such as his ideas about race and role of women in society). But he was quite honest about the fact that social institutions, including education, will shape people in important ways. No one is entirely "self-made," despite what financial success they may have had. But in contemporary neo-liberalism, the idea is widespread that people simply demand what they want from the market, leaving aside the question of how people come to want certain things in the first place (because important social forces have been celebrating certain values and behavior for their entire lives). But more importantly, one might say, the question should not be what majorities of people believe or want at certain times, but what is consistent with a vision of democracy and its maintenance. Otherwise, let's call this polity something else--perhaps a freemarket plutocracy or something.

Just pointing the elitist finger and saying, "Let people decide what they want! Why should you tell them what they should have in their schools and newspapers!" is sociologically naive. No one escapes cultural and social government, the shaping of socical and private life through norms, values, institutionally produced ideas of what is proper and good and improper and bad. We are born into and shaped by such forces. We may be educated about them and then reflexively untangle ourselves from them in some ways and even reshape them. But we must first be aware of the complex ways we are shaped. And here we must ask what are the effects of such educational and news practices/values on ideals of democratic public life.

Suturing the torn coaltion

In my posts on the "immigration crisis" in the U.S., I suggested the "crisis" is a Bush co. public relations stunt designed to repair the crumbling Republican coaltion losing faith in the president due to the Iraq disaster. Xenophobic appeals were a technique to retrieve part of the GOP base. Now Bush announced that he will fight for a gay marriage amendment.
An excerpt:
"June 3, 2006

Bush to Press for U.S. Ban on Same-Sex Marriage

WASHINGTON, June 2 — President Bush is beginning a major push for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, part of a new campaign to appease cultural conservatives who say he and his party abandoned their issues after the 2004 elections."

Is it really that easy to manage loyalty and belief in American politics? We'll see how long they're able to play this distraction game, which the news media, once again, is happy to facilitate.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Right to Bear Arms and the necessity of a "well regulated militia"

Okay, I have long wondered at how gunloving Americans can prevail in this--yet another--non-debate in American culture and politics. I object on a grammatical, historical, and security-value level.

What has inspired this post, you may ask? The recent mass murder of a family in Indiana.
Let's begin by refreshing ourselves with the amendment itself.

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

There is an excellent legal-academic thread on the grammar of this sentence at Metafilter.
As far as I can tell in my un-scientific, brief internet sampling of voices, the participial phrase does not restrict or condition the independent clause of the sentence. But what is that clause, the main point that is subordinated? Is it "A well regulated Militia...shall not be infringed?" No. It appears to be "[T]he right of the people to keep and bear Arms,(sic.) shall not be infringed." But we would not use that comma in the middle, which today would be considered a comma splice. We need to figure out what that comma means. Some interpretations (click here) argue that placing commas in the middle of independent clauses was not uncommon in the Revolutionary period. Okay, maybe.

The same commentator demonstrates that the part of the sentence beginning with "A well regulated" and ending with "State" is an absolute phrase, confusing, perhaps, because of the comma between "Militia" and "being." Absolute phrases consist of nouns plus participial phrases (-ing verbs), which modify the entire sentence, not just a noun. In that case, "The right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed" is an independent clause modified by the absolute phrases just discussed. What does it mean to modify something? When something is modified it is changed. In grammar, it is the meaning of the independent clause that is changed. Pro-gun interpreters insist that the absolute phrase does not restrict the meaning of the independent clause in any absolute sense. But why add this absolute phrase at all? They say this is just one example of the right to bear arms. Why mention it?

Here's where we get into the historical interpretations of the amendment's meaning/intention.
Consider this voice on Metafilter's discussion of the sentence:

" Ah, behold the "framers" of our Constitution, those precise grammarians who, in their wisdom and deep reverence for freedom, allowed Americans the inalienable rights to possess slaves *and* the latest in 21st century assault rifle technology.

It only took about a century to rid ourselves of the horror of slavery, and of course, our society still reels from the aftereffects another hundred years after Emancipation.

So it's not surprising that this particular nation will need time to mature further, to grow beyond the fear and childishness and fetishism that embraces guns. Perhaps another hundred years...hundreds of thousands of lives...

Grammatical arguments about the "framers'" intent pales beside what the "framing" has wrought."

And another:

"Fold_and_mutilate has a point though. Whatever the grammar, surely the intent was to arm a small group of farmers against hostile outside forces due to the lack of a standing army. Now the US has the biggest standing army in the world and little fear of sustained attack from any outside forces. Instead firearms are being used on American citizens, and rarely in defence of freedom. So surely the second amendment has ceased to be relevant to a discussion on firearms? Isn't that the point?"

So, the issue of the absolute phrase as a modifier aside, we have the issue of historical context and changing mores about guns and the costs/benefits of legalizing them and allowing them to be easily acquired. Clearly, we allow all sorts of things and behaviors to be regulated in the name of the public good/welfare. Americans cannot drink and drive, slaughter and sell meat without approval, use cocaine, hitchhike, etc., all as issues that threaten public safety/security when violated. Other practices of the Revolutionary period and beyond we now consider barbaric or impediments to freedom and security. Slavery and the franchise for non-property owners and women are a couple of examples. So, just because it enjoyed constitutional sanction in the 1790s does not mean that it should be continued today. That's an appeal to tradition fallacy.

Yes, hunters and libertarians who want to protect their homes, families, and posessions may be upset at an interpretation of the 2nd Amendment that deems gun ownership unprotected. However, ironically, widespread use of guns has become an issue of public security/safety where the public is actually threatened instead of protected by these weapons. It probably goes without saying then that I don't think the idea of everyone having a gun is an adequate solution to the frequent gun-related deaths in the U.S. The U.S. is an extremely conflict-ridden society with homicide and other crime statistics dwarfing other industrialized democracies. The U.S. ranks sixth in the world in homicide rates per/1000 people. Interesting how it follows turbulent new democracies. But Western Europe and Japan are behind, some far behind the oldest living democracy in the world.
50.14 South Africa
21.40 Russia (1999)
10.00 Lithuania
_9.94 Estonia
_6.22 Latvia
_5.64 U.S.A.
_2.94 Spain
_2.86 Finland
_2.84 Northern Ireland
_2.72 Czech Republic
_2.65 Slovakia
_2.58 New Zealand
_2.50 Romania
_2.31 Turkey (1999)

Of course, we need to ask why so much murder and crime in the U.S. and how might we curtail it? But we might also follow the lead of Europe and ban handguns.

The idea of a well-armed private citizenry being necessary for state security is ridiculous today. Why not let the most-advanced military in the world handle the issue of security? Handguns are not going to stop the U.S. government's firepower if it wants to use it on its citizenry (there the best safeguard would be vigilance and education on the part of the citizenry). And as for foreign enemies, a citizen's handgun or assault rifle is little use against nuclear weapons and terrorists piloting planes, mailing anthrax (remember that buried story?) and poisoning water supplies.

In the name of security and freedom, ban handguns and let the infantile adults play with bb guns. Until then, freedom and security of the majority is enormously threatened.