Thursday, February 28, 2008

Anti-Israel = Anti-Semitic?

I've been noticing a troubling conflation of ideas in the media and political dialog lately. This issue was brought home forcefully during the debate last Tuesday, when the candidates sparred on their relative friendliness towards the Jewish people. The brief exchange was prompted by Tim Russert questioning Obama whether or not he would "reject" the support of Louis Farrakhan. Obama spoke about his strong Jewish support, the need for a revival of the black-Jewish alliance, and his generally pro-Israel stance before Hillary intervened to turn the issue into a matter of semantics by demanding that he should not only "denounce" but "reject" the Nation of Islam leader's support. Obama conceded the point, had a laugh, and the moderators moved on.

This little skirmish didn't carry much substantive weight in the debate; Farrakhan's endorsement isn't an important policy issue, nor is it a major attack point. But the language used in the scuffle underlined a pernicious conflation of "anti-Israel" with "anti-semitic" that is common in today's political dialog. Throughout the brief exchange, "anti-semitic and anti-Israel" were bandied about as if they meant the same thing. It is important we remember that they do not.

Glenn Greenwald's post from yesterday made a very interesting point. Drawing from recent survey data, Greenwald argues that positions that are taken to be "anti-Israel" in America, such as the need for direct talks with Hamas, are actually supported by a sizable majority (64%) of actual Israelis, the people whose lives these policies are actually affecting. The article underscores the increasing divide between the positions of right-wing Jewish groups in the US and actual Israeli citizens. Many positions that are labeled "anti-Israel" over here, then, are actually more in line with the consensus on the street in Tel Aviv. "Anti-Israel" is a creation of American hard-liners.

So this first term, "anti-Israel," is problematic on its own. The troubles don't stop there however; "anti-Israel" is increasingly being paired up with a twin concept, anti-semitism, and this I believe to be an even greater problem.

Let's break this down: many of the positions that are labeled anti-Israel (complexities aside) are simply criticisms of Israeli policy in regard to the Palestinian territories. As mentioned, direct talks with Hamas is often cited as an anti-Israel position; many people feel that the dismantling of the West Bank settlements also fits into this category. For a more complete look at the contemporary socio-political dynamics in Israel, see the recent Economist article. So "anti-Israeli" positions, barring the extreme notion of denying Israel the right to statehood, are really just positions that are critical of the Israeli state. Anti-semitism, on the other hand, is critical of the Jewish people as a race and a culture. It is hateful and driven not by policy particulars and political philosophy but by blind fear and ignorance. Conflating these two concepts, then, is in essence equating criticism of Israeli policies with hatred of Jews.

This sort of rhetorical trick reminds me all too well of the "Support the Troops" slogans that you still see spangling the bumper stickers of cars. This successful if intellectually dishonest propaganda campaign conflates support for Bush's failing policies with support for the rank-and-file soldiers on the ground. If you're critical of the war, then you must be against the poor soldiers who are risking their lives every day because of this selfsame war. It's a ludicrous proposition.

In the political discourse, words are potent messengers. Let's make sure that blatantly manipulative phrases like these are kept in check with a healthy dose of criticism. If you've identified any other crafty wordplay in the world of media and politics, post them into the comments section.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On a Roll

Watching the MSNBC debate between the democratic contenders last night underscored a point that has been growing more and more obvious since Super Tuesday: Hillary is sunk. It seems that at this point in the race, every new trait that she exhibits simultaneously brings her down a notch while adding to Obama's assets by comparison. It's certainly possible for her to stage a come-back in Ohio and Texas (although the polls aren't looking good), but it's difficult for me to see that she has garnered one iota of new support as a result of her recent campaign missteps. She's going to be riding purely on her stalwart supporters who have resisted the Obama hurricane, and a shrinking base does not an effective candidacy make.

Rather than my usual weekly political post that tend towards the long side, I thought I'd just list some of the revelations about the candidates that have come out in the last couple weeks:

- Hillary has exclusively adopted a negative and divisive message. This applies to both her proposed governing technique (she claims that she will be a "fighter," while Obama talks about reaching out to the other side) and her assaults on Obama's abilities and lack of experience. Chiding voters for believing in Obama's "false hope" is a failing course - nobody wants to vote for a curmudgeon.

- Hillary claims that she possesses superior management skills and can tame the bureaucracy. It is difficult to take this claim seriously when her campaign has run itself into the ground both financially and strategically. As Frank Rich pointed out in his recent Op-Ed piece, the Hillary Campaign was so confident that it would have the nomination locked up after Super Tuesday that it failed to plan for the future. As a result of this oversight, her presence in states like Wisconsin have been close to one quarter that of her opponent (4 offices to Obama's 11). Furthermore, her bank account only had enough funds to last her through Feb. 5, and recently disclosed financial records from the campaign show that they have spend money frivolously for months now, blowing through hundreds of thousands of dollars on expensive hotels, pizza, and Dunkin' Donuts. Is this the sort of political and fiscal management we want for the country?

- Obama is unflappable, and the more orotund Hillary and the GOP grow, the more calmly he deflects the negativity. The insightful blogger Glenn Greenwald often writes about a peculiar phenomenon in democratic politics these days: on issues like national security and other so-called GOP strengths, democrats often respond to threats with anxiety, back-peddling, excuse-making, and general concession. This sort of behavior casts their positions (like the recent PAA extension) as indeed "soft" by playing by the republicans' rules and allowing themselves to be portrayed as "soft." Obama, on the other hand, is cool in the face of baseless attacks, whether they are from Hillary or from the GOP. Moreover, he rephrases the issue to expose the real dynamic of a situations. This was illustrated wonderfully when he his patriotism was disputed because he doesn't wear an American flag lapel pin. Here's how he responded:

"A party that presided over a war in which our troops did not get the body armor they needed, or were sending troops over who were untrained because of poor planning, or are not fulfilling the veterans' benefits that these troops need when they come home, or are undermining our Constitution with warrantless wiretaps that are unnecessary? That is a debate I am very happy to have. We'll see what the American people think is the true definition of patriotism."

Unfortunately, all too many democrats would have simply made excuses for their lack of a lapel pin and not used an attack like this as an opportunity to question failed GOP policies.

- It is now a widely-circulated observation that the two candidates are nearly identical on their positions. As Chris pointed out, if there really is no difference in substance, then it is entirely logical to vote based on style. If they are saying the same thing anyways, why not choose the candidate who says it in a more inspirational manner and who is capable of bringing more people to the table to hear the message? Obama drove home a very good point in the debate last night: in order for real change to happen, you need the people behind an issue. Unlike the endless calls for committees and position papers that seem to comprise Hillary's idea of change, Obama recognizes that the people need to be psyched about action for it to happen.

- Although the race issue has reared its ugly head a few times during the campaign, Obama has skillfully managed to avoid falling into the role of the "black candidate," as much as Bill Clinton tried to spin that narrative in S Carolina. His broad support among all ethnic groups points to his inclusivity on the issue of race. Hillary, however, is making her sex more and more of an issue as the campaign drags on, not less. In the debate, she closed by saying that "I'm thrilled to be running as the first woman president, which would be a sea change in our country and around the world, and would give know, hope, and would be, you know, a real challenge to the way things have been done." While I happen to agree with the potential social and symbolic power of a woman president, that's no reason to vote for someone. Obama has tossed race out of the equation; Hillary's use of her sex as a political asset brings down the level of the debate.

- Nobody likes a complainer. Much of the criticism coming out of the Hillary camp lately has just seemed like whining, whatever way you cut it. For instance, in the debate last night Hillary opened with a playful tirade about always being asked the first questions in debates. She then alluded to an SNL sketch that portrayed the media fawning over Obama, and concluded with asking Obama how comfortable he is and if he needs extra pillows. Hillary has been complaining of media bias and sexism now ever since Iowa, and while at first she had a good point (MSNBC's Chris Matthews was pretty inappropriate in the week between Iowa and New Hampshire), her continuous claims of bias and unfair treatment smack of petty resentment. Do we want a president who is always looking for excuses during hard times? As a NYT piece points out after analyzing the pattern of blaming that has become endemic in Hillary's campaign, she probably would have claimed bias had she been asked the second question in the debate. This victim mentality won't fly.

These are just the distinctions that are popping into my mind right now as I sit here avoiding work. If you have any addition thoughts or things that you've learning about the candidates in the last couple weeks, please post them into the comments.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Misdirected Hostility over Migrant Workers

Not that long ago, I pulled a flier about illegal immigration down from a bulletin board. I don't typically believe in censorship, but considering that I've had fliers pulled for educating tenants on their rights, I thought this action was warranted. The flier, written by a group called DefendDC, was speaking out against government money being used for a day labor site. Or that was the legitimate veil over the true intentions of the post - to speak out against "illegals."

Some background might be needed in order to clarify the situation. Washington, DC is a city with a long and complex set of racial ties. It has always had a large African American population, and much of the infrastructure and many of the buildings were built by African American labor. In the 60's, DC experienced race riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Washington has been referred to as "Chocolate City" and many of the residents feel a sort of blood connection for having lived here for so many generations. So it's not without surprise that residents of the predominantly African American Ward 5 would greet the prospect of a day labor site with some hostility.

The informational sheet describes DC as a "Sanctuary City," playing a active roll in the defiance of federal law by matching "people who can't legally work here with employers who can't legally hire them." If you go to the web site, you will find multiple references to public urination and drunkenness at labor sites as a main reason people are opposed to them. On the same page, it accuses undocumented workers of being criminals, here to "rob, steal and rape," and claims that "they are docile and hard-working." It throws around a handful of other accusations, like the idea that day labor sites are used only by illegal workers, and that employers never have to recruit workers after they hire illegals, due to their relatives and friends back home. None of these, of course, are substantiated in any way.

Immigration is one of the most complicated issues of our time. Most opponents of illegal immigration make a casual distinction between undocumented workers and ones with legal status, but do not work particularly hard to emphasize this distinction. What it amounts to is the assumption that anyone who is Latin American and looking for work must be illegal, or at very least, unwelcome here. My question is, who put up a big "keep out" sign in the first place? America has always had an underclass of workers seeking social mobility and a better life for themselves and their families. There's no sign preventing the flood of capital from our country into pre-developed nations, costing thousands more jobs than are lost through workers coming here.

The real question, though, is who does this hostility towards immigrant labor really benefit? It is essentially a victim blaming scenario perpetrated by another set of victims. It is not until the final paragraph of the info sheet that the author makes a valid point - that the construction industry is desperate for an influx of cheap labor that does not seek proper pay or benefits and fears deportation. Yet, the hostility is not towards the leaders of industry. It's from one oppressed class to another.

Any military strategist will tell you that the way to defeat your enemy is to divide and conquer. I envision the leaders of industry - corporate CEOs, construction magnates, mainly rich white men, laughing up at the top of the socio-economic ladder while African Americans and Latin Americans duke it out over who wants their low-paying jobs more. Rather than uniting against a common enemy and trying to make the situation better for everyone involved, they squabble amongst themselves, thus reducing their own credibility and directing attention away from the real criminals - not some Mexicans who work for $3 an hour and piss in public, but the folks who are driving luxury cars as a result of it.

Pastel Skies

The view from my window last night

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Surgeons are Restless

Through dogged journalistic endeavor Mirth and Matter has managed to acquire the actual stenographer's transcription of an address given by Colonel B.B. Quincy to a radical ague-fascist block of the American Surgeon's Society for Cholesterol-induced Laziness, Organ-failure and Gross Guts (ASSCLOGG).

Comrades in Cholesterol, these are not times of plenty for our kin. Revenues are down, and this despite our best efforts.

And yet, I sit lazily before you today with a message of hope. Do not be down-hearted, my Brothers in Infarction. ASSCLOGG has much of which to be proud. We have managed to swell already massive profit margins in angioplasties. We have overseen a successful bombing campaign against metamucil manufacturing plants. And through the assassination of Kevin Trudeau, we have put an end to that horrific trend in D.I.Y bypass surgeries that briefly threatened our monopoly.

Still, it is with sad hearts, my Allies in Beef and Pork and Chicken-skins, that we must concede the failure of our propaganda campaign. Our Ministry of Disinformation has not achieved its primary purpose. People are exercising. People are healthier. McDonald's, once a stalwart champion of our cause, has been pressured into publishing nutritional information and offering salads. Subway Jared has been elevated to the status of national hero. Nowadays you can barely read the cigarette brand for the warnings. And while once we had hope that the trend in weight-loss would provide us new bulimic and anorexic markets to tap - esophageal lesions to suture, bradycardia to medicate, immune system failures off which to profit - we must admit this to ourselves: our bread and butter is eating too healthily.

We have taken immediate action. Our Ministry of Disinformation, including all those h-h-horrid little Oscar Meyer wiener children, have been experimented upon and, consequently, terminated. And we have surveyed our options with a view to identifying and implementing new approaches. And it is with the hope of a new age, with a view to bloating our coffers and organs everywhere, my Tovariches in Polyunsatured Fat, that I humbly propose the following strategy:

We must exterminate the Vegan scourge.

Vegans, Gentlemen of the Order of Chronic Gassiness, are a fringe group of radical herbofascist nuts, and a bunch of nancies to boot. They do us harm with their leftist righteousness and their anthropomorphism. If they existed in communal isolation then we would have no beef with them. But they insist on speaking up about their dirty, dirty lentil-habits, about leaving cows to determine their own hormone levels, about the cuteness of piglets, and the property rights of bees to their own honey and wax. They scour ingredient labels with dangerous fervor. And their dreadlocks stink. I hate them. I hate them. I HATE them!

Please excuse my...I...I'm sorry. I just need to gather myself for a moment. Comrade George, would you pass me a lard smoothie. Thank you. Oh. Delicious. It's just upsets me so much to have to think about [inaudible].

Allow me to continue, ASSCLOGGs, please. It has been a point frequently raised at these meetings that Vegetarians, rather than Vegans, are the real enemy. Of late, Vegetarianism has gained heretofore unheard of traction in the mainstream. However, our research has ascertained that Vegans are a primary source of this growth. Vegan extremism is dangerous to us, not because anybody takes it seriously, but because nobody does. Vegans are so far to the left of mainstream, that they lend credence to everything on their right. And that includes the Vegetarians. It is because of Vegans, that Vegetarians can stand in public squares, in public places, that they can eat their whole-wheat islamofascist falafels with pride, and that they can say without a hint of irony, "No, it's not weird. I mean, have you ever met a vegan?"

And so, Brethren in Cardiomyopathy, the simple truth of the matter is this: if we exterminate Vegans, if we create and harness immense public antipathy towards them, if we smoke 'em out of their holes and shoot 'em, then the real enemy, Vegetarians, will perforce replace them on the dietary fringes. Vegetarians will once again become the freaks they should have been all along. The consumption of meat, of fat, of animal products will become not merely a matter of preference, but the staking of an identity claim. And as the masses consume marbled beef in an effort to distance themselves from Vegetarianism, as they fatten up, and as they clutch at their chests in agony, there we will be with our jaunty clown and cloud covered scrubs, our rubber gloves, our little green masks, our defibrillators, and our scalpels. We will rise!

Thusly, I propose a twofold plan of attack against the Vegans. Propaganda and War.

First, we'll need another Ministry of Disinformation. If anybody wants to volunteer, please give Margaret your name on the way out. And fear not for your physical integrity, Ye Exponents of Obesity. There should be no easier task in the history of propaganda than creating public antipathy towards Vegans. I say this because I am convinced that there is no essentially more irritating group of human beings alive. They plant the seeds of their own destruction every time they open their mouths. It is merely for us to emphasize the ridiculousness of their jabbering.

We need to plan our disinformation strategy carefully. I have identified three avenues of attack. Let us call them "fronts". These are to be the "Creationist Front", the "Epicurean Front" and the "Moral Front". And while I fully expect the Ministry to develop each of these fronts in due time, I would like to take this opportunity to elaborate a little:

First, the "Creationist Front": The God-fearing public needs to know that Veganism is an affront to nature. Vegans are making a mockery of the human body. Not least they insult digestive systems perfectly suited to the consumption of flesh. Had God not intended us to eat meat, would he have allowed us to evolve canines like wolverines and badgers? I think not. Vegans are thus insulting God. Do they imagine He gave us only incisors and molars, like horses. Are we horses? No. Did He give us four stomachs and do we ruminate like cows? Are we cows? No. We do not emit cow pats. What we emit is more dog-like. Hence, we are humans and therefore Vegans are evil. They cannot but wilt in the face of such flawless logic.

Second, the "Epicurean Front": I have not yet tried Vegan food, for fear of dying, but it can't be any good. What will become of gastronomic delight if their evil conspiracy becomes mainstream? Will we all have to consume their gelatin-less jellybeans? And if so, what do we do with the hooves of animals we slaughter? Waste them? Are we to eat only egg-less flans, or rennin-less cheese? What if we want a spot of honey in our tea? "No", they will say, "apiarists cruelly subject bees to secondary smoke in the extraction of honey". Veganism is an affront to taste. God gave us many thousands of taste buds. Would Vegans have us waste this miracle of God's own creation on rice-cakes and tofu? Yes. Hence, Vegans are evil and deserve to die.

Third, the "Moral Front": Where does it end, I ask you, this "love" of animals? This anthropomorphic hullabaloo is a great threat to the institution of the family. It's a slippery slope from merely not eating animals to marrying them. Already, Vegans have gone one step further than Vegetarians. Vegetarians are opposed to the slaughter of animals. Vegans don't want to inconvenience them at all. How is this different to most marriages. Hardly. One day, you're protesting the treatment of chickens in battery farms, the next you're telling your friends they can't come over because, Roberta, your wife and a Rhode Island Red, is hormonal and laying a particularly painful egg. Is it right to have sex with chickens? Not according to the Bible. Therefore Vegans are evil and we should declare war against them.

On these three fronts, shall we turn the tide of public opinion against Vegans.

Which brings me, Members of This Esteemed Gathering of ASSCLOGG, to the final phase of the plan I am proposing
: WAR!

I must concede that I have not thought in great detail about how best militarily to deal with the Vegan blight. There are two reasons for what you might otherwise assume to be a lack of preparation. First, such actions, while inevitable, can only be undertaken with public support. As we are still in the preliminary stages, we have some time yet. Second, and more crucially, is this: I defy anybody in this room - sit as you may in your electric-powered wheelchairs, breathing into respirators, colostomy bags chaffing your thighs - I defy any one of you to lose a fight to a Vegan.

Have you ever seen one? They're skinny and they have rickets. They're calcium-deficient. Vitamin B12- and D-deficient. They're prone to cretinism and they're anemic. Added to which, they can't morally justify hurting a fly, never mind people in wheelchairs. What I am saying Brethren, is this: if we attack their protein sources first - some kind of scorched Soy-Bean Field Policy - this is a war we cannot lose.

In conclusion, my Uncomfortably Sweaty Friends, I beseech you to take this proposal seriously. ASSCLOGG has a proud history. We have held the hearts of the public in our hands for generations. We cannot let slip our hold. Up with inertia. Up with torpor. Let them have cake and MSG. Let them supp on by-products. Onward. Brothers. Onward.

Thank you very much.

Forced Collaboration at the GRAMMYs

As Zach's post, "Pop Eats Itself," points out, there is a healthy undercurrent of mutual influence among popular musicians new and old. What's more, this process occurs in spite of the GRAMMY's failed attempts to force collaboration on stage.

I am always interested to see "who they put together this year" for these awards shows. Announcements of the cross generational and cross genre duets at the GRAMMYs many times evoke a dispassionate "huh?" from my gut. And the actual performances end up being hit or miss for me. Granted, these kinds of on-stage duets/trios, etc., with little rehearsal time and (overly) complicated stage production, are incredibly difficult to pull off. It's not always the performer's fault. Precisely because of this, however, the event provides a display of the true quality of each "performer," whether abundant or sorely lacking.

This year was no exception. Sadly, failed attempts outweighed successful ones. Top disappointments included the Little Richard/Jerry Lee Lewis/Dan Fogerty Rock n' Roll Tribute; and the one I was most eager to hear: the Alicia Keys/John Mayer collaboration. I waited through the whole song to see Mayer's role, and when he finally came out for the last 30 seconds, his guitar could barely be heard.

The performances I was pleasantly surprised by were Beyonce/Tina Turner (incidentally, I think Beyonce is one of the most talented vocalists/performers in pop music today); and Aretha Franklin/Bebe Wynans, along with the entire Gospel montage.

Forced collaboration is great, and I certainly think the GRAMMYs should continue to be creative in their choices. But I can't promise that I won't change the channel (or fast forward the TiVo) in pained embarrassment when the collaboration crashes and burns.

The Alliance of Bum: Volume One – Artificial Homelessness

A distinction needs to be made. An act of stupidity is an unintentional faux pas, an accident which entails (frequently) comedic results. Conversely, an act of lunacy is fully premeditated, thought out, even calculated. And so, given this polarizing definition, I am clearly not stupid; rather, I am a proud lunatic.

The premise of our experiment was simple: I, along with two friends – let’s call them Michael and Annie – would cast aside the cluttered demands of the modern universe, renounce the bondage of our physical artifacts, turn our backs on the comfort of civility, and thoroughly study, firsthand, the lifestyle of the modern nomad, the solitary vagabond – the bum. We were, in essence, to become homeless.

Our “rules” were equally basic:

1) Our experiment had to take place in an urban environment. In no way should our philosophical quest be wrongfully construed as merely “camping.”

2) We were to appear in full bum attire. The integrity of our experiment would have instantly been lost had we worn our accustomed style of clothing, ripe with economic signifiers.

3) Lest we crumble during the misery of our first homeless night, our experiment could not be conducted in our home town. Caving in would have been too tempting with the lure of a warm bed only miles away.

4) We were to have only minimal relics from our current lives, limited solely to: one five dollar bill for the three of us, one can of Campbell’s chicken soup (with no opener), a lighter, and a disposal camera (smeared with dirt to look “authentic”).

5) We were to have only one safety net in the event we had any complications with the law: a ridiculously verbose “Bum Manifesto” outlining the parameters of our experiment and proving our status as regular (relatively speaking) civilians.

Preparations – Location:

Our first course of action was determining a suitable test site. Salem, OR (where we lived) was geographically improper for the aforementioned reasons. Portland was a bit too urban (plus, it already had its share of vagrants – we’d just vanish into the homeless woodwork). Albany was too rural. Corvallis felt too much like a typical college town, and we didn’t want our noble endeavor to be confused with a fraternity-based prank.

We settled on Eugene, OR. The summer climate would be perfect for street sleeping, wild berries and fruits would be in bloom, and the town was ideally bohemian. Plus, much like the famed London Fog, Eugene was enveloped by a perpetual miasma of weed-haze, which we figured would add to the atmosphere of the experiment. However, most Eugene locals themselves looked like homeless bums, what with their frequent brandishing of Caucasian-person-dreadlocks and grunge inspired sweaters. Thus, in order for us to appear as bums in full bum attire, our clothing choices needed to be bold, brash, and painfully obvious – in other words, well beyond the boundaries of the local neo/pseudo-hippie stylings.

Preparations – Clothing:

Perhaps “costume” is a more accurate word. Michael, Annie and I went to the local Good Will. Since we wanted our steps to resonate with the spirit of our forefathers we bought used, tattered shoes. Michael and I got torn jeans (the unstylish kind) that were intentionally too long. (We would later make belts for them out of knotty twine.) Annie deliberated over an awful yarn sweater. She ended up buying it after finding a moth cocoon in the right arm-pit. “This will be perfect,” she said sticking her finger through an insect-chewed hole, “for ventilation.”

All the clothes for the three of us ended up costing $8.00. Michael, being a gentleman, charged it on his American Express, which was not entirely in keeping with our bum ethos and would be strictly forbidden once our experiment began in proper.

Next we had to “prepare” the clothing. I put on a wife-beater and the new pants then proceeded to roll in the field beside my house. Unfortunately, it was summer and I was only able to conjure up a weak dusting. When a derelict appearance can’t come about naturally, it must be artificially induced. And thus it was clear: we needed paint. As if applying bug spray, we took turns misting each other with brownish spray paint the color of soil. We surveyed one another and concluded this wasn’t nearly enough.

We’d never be able to pull off the look of a well seasoned bum, weathered by the scratching of hard years and a reliance on nicotine, so we figured we’d best adopt the appearance of a popular bum subgroup: the youthful bum, aka, the street kid. Thusly, we used a fresh sharpie to scribble angst filled epitaphs on our clothing; adages, slogans, and jargon in the familiar vernacular of a young street resident. For example: I Hate Sosiety [sic]. Michael drew the anarchy symbol on his chest using a lowercase “a.” Annie wrote “Babies Are Stupid” in an ascending pattern up her leg and “WWBD” (What Would Bums Do?) on the back of her hand. I chose the linguistically confusing, “Fuck On You.”

We cut/poked/burned holes in our clothing. Michael tore the entire cuff from his jeans, only to tape it back on with duct tape. A ridge of safety pins stitched the back of my shirt together where I had torn it with artistic zeal. Annie ripped a hole over her left knee, letting her skin peak through the gash of frayed fabric. And to top it off, I emptied a quarter bottle of rubber cement on Michael’s shoulder. “What’s that supposed to be?” Michael asked. “Snot,” I said.

Preparations – Transportation:

We gathered a small backpack containing the previously mentioned essentials, selected a few blankets for sleeping, and prepared to embark. Then we realized: if we were to drive ourselves to Eugene, about an hour away, what would prevent us from getting back in our car and driving home midway through the night if we got uncomfortable? Chiding ourselves for our shortsightedness, we arranged to have a driver.

While our driver, let’s call him Jordan, was clearly surprised when he showed up at my house and the three of us were dressed, for all intents and purposes, in bum costumes, he was even more surprised when he heard our request: will you drive us to Eugene, drop us off, then leave? He was skeptical until he read the Bum Manifesto, which was apparently persuasive enough to get him to agree to our plan.

So we got in his car, said goodbye to our cushy world, and left town. The closer we got to Eugene, the more apprehensive we became about our experiment and the more amused Jordan became at our expense. Once we arrived, Jordan turned into a city park not too far from the U of O and eased to a stop, cutting the engine in the most crowded and populous spot.

It was mid-afternoon and the sun was high. Flowers pulsed with multicolored vibrancy and the laughter of children scattered in the distance, like leaves massaged from their branches by a breeze. I looked at Michael in the front seat, his face borax-white, the glue on his shoulder hardened into a walnut sized booger. Annie bit her nails, painted black for the occasion.

“We’re here,” Jordan said, reminding us of the obvious. A minivan pulled into the parking spot next to ours and leaked a stream of young children. “Aren’t you guys going to get out?” Jordan asked. So we did, hesitantly, like a six-limbed animal testing the surface of a frozen lake with its paws. We drew immediate stares, which only got worse when Jordan quickly backed out, gave three crisp honks with his horn, waved dramatically, then sped off. The three of us, the Alliance of Bum, huddled close in solidarity.

We must have looked exceedingly strange, three bizarrely dressed youths emerging from a station wagon piloted by a laughing Mormon. A young woman pushing a stroller approached. She was wearing headphones and had apparently missed our entrance. Annie, out of instinct, gave a pleasant “Hi!” The woman glanced up, smirked, then changed her angle to avoid us. “This is a bit awkward,” Michael said. Annie and I nodded. “Maybe we should go,” I said, lifting the backpack onto my shoulder, the Bum Manifesto, our one failsafe, secure under the can of chicken soup.

I didn’t specify where it was we should go, and my companions didn’t feel the need to clarify, but we simultaneously started moving away from the center of the park towards the wild outskirts, fat with blackberry bushes and pine trees.

And so our experiment began, the three of us, walking deliberately to nowhere in particular.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Pop Eats Itself: Amy Winehouse and Herbie Hancock

While Herbie Hancock was getting on stage last week to receive his Grammy for River: The Joni Letters, the other star of the night was thousands of miles away. The Grammy Awards this year was a tale of two very different artistic trajectories indeed. A year ago, Amy Winehouse was virtually unknown outside of her native UK market; Hancock has been a force on the jazz and pop scenes since the mid 1960s. On the heels of her retro masterpiece Back to Black and a series of media exposes on her troubled personal life, Winehouse catapulted into the global pop music consciousness virtually overnight. Girls dressed like her on Halloween; her often-unkempt face appeared on magazines from Boston to Beirut; she took home five Grammy awards, although visa problems prevented her from showing up in person to collect them. All this time, Hancock has quietly pursued his usual string of jazz-pop albums and touring. Two events - the rise of Amy Winehouse and the crowning of a Herbie Hancock jazz record as album of the year - speak to a potent and intriguing force in today's pop culture. How did Amy Winehouse get so popular so quickly and what does the wild success of her album say about the contemporary pop music market? And how is Hancock's long career and Grammy triumph reflected in the young diva's work?

It's hard not to absolutely love Back to Black, no matter what your normal musical proclivities. From the first grimy attacks on the Wurlizter electric piano and the entrance of Winehouse's sultry alto, it is clear that this isn't your typical 2007 pop record. Gone are all the electronic swirls that define so much of modern pop (and dance) music; absent is the wailing, forceful vocal style of many of today's divas. Yes, Back to Black is deliberately, self-consciously retro, and the detailing of the production work on the album is truly awesome. From soulful horn lines to swooning strings, all the sonic signatures of Motown are here. And while there are thoroughly modern touches throughout (turntables, a punchier drum sound than the classic records), the old-fashioned tone of Back to Black stays consistent to the last note. In a stroke of pop magic (and studio wizardry), it manages to be both modern and classic at the same time; it is a triumphant amalgamation of the old and the new.

Winehouse effectively communicates age in five interconnected ways: 1) Her whole persona amplifies the retro impression, with a beehive hair-do and vintage dresses. 2) The songs themselves are formally structured in a very similar manner to classic soul tunes. 3) The instrumentation she employs is straight out of the Motown sound. 4) She has effectively assimilated stylistic elements of classic soul and jazz into her personal performance style. 5) The album was actually recorded on retro analog gear, or at least used digital analog simulators that are virtually flawless. What we have, then, is a complete strategy for reproducing the old feel. Unlike Christina Aguilera's recent retro project Back to Basics (2006), which employed extensive sampling to capture the old sound, Winehouse has managed to mimic every component of the classics, from the song composition to the vocal style to the recording quality itself. She doesn't let the past speak for itself through samples - she becomes the past.

Paradoxically, this is the quintessentially modern aesthetic approach in pop music. The scholar Andrew Goodwin wrote that "pop eats itself," and nowhere can I find a better example of this principle than in Amy Winehouse's work. The success of her album, in addition to the wonderful song-writing and singular vocal talent, is precisely her use of age to signify meaning. She has taken soul music's past, broken it down, reintegrated it, and spit it out in a new context.

But more than dealing with a schizophrenic (and totally convincing) approach to chronology, Winehouse blurs racial lines. Reading the title of the album in a different way than she perhaps intended, then, is quite instructive: Winehouse is "going back to black music." Again like Aguilera's album from a couple years ago, there is a complex racial commentary taking place in this album. Not only is she reproducing past pop styles - she is reproducing past black music. Oh, and I should mention, Winehouse is an English Jew.

The success of a white girl's totally convincing take on black music underlies the differences between the US and the UK in regard to racialized elements in the arts. In the United States, artists are painfully conscious of our long history of white appropriation of black talent (read: rock and roll). This has led, in the opinion of New Yorker critic Sascha Frere-Jones (an opinion I share) to a "whitening" of white music and a "blackening" of black music. Both sides are so afraid to borrow from the other because of the tense racial climate here that both musics end up suffering for it. In addition, central radio programming in the states makes it quite possible for people to target exactly their own tastes on the radio and listen to nothing but that.

Britain is a completely different story. There aren't the same racialized tensions about musical borrowing over there, and a brief look at some of England's most successful pop acts proves this succinctly: Led Zeppelin, Clapton, and The Rolling Stones all stole from the early Delta blues masters; The Clash took from reggae and ska. Also, radio in the UK doesn't have the same level of formalization, so people are exposed to many more styles of music - instead of an exclusively hip-hop station, for instance, pop stations mix it up with a variety of genres.

This situation has created a very interesting dynamic in pop music. In Aguilera's album, for instance, there is the same degree of indebtedness to black styles as in Winehouse's - however, Aguilera defuses the tension associated with musical borrowing by giving near-constant, overt shout-outs to black artists and black history. She is constantly proving that she is the copy artist and they are the authentic source. Winehouse never apologizes for borrowing. She steals with aplomb and sassy verve. And this is why the album is so great. In an ironic turn (the same irony exists with the British rock groups mentioned earlier), it is a white English woman who is bringing classic black American music to masses of young people around the globe.

But where does Herbie Hancock fit into all this? There is no more venerable a representation of the last 40 years of black American music than Mr. Hancock (especially after the death of James Brown, RIP). The brilliant pianist was involved in all of the seminal acts that brought soul into jazz (Watermelon Man, Canteloupe Island), jazz into rock and funk (Chameleon), and electronic dance beats to the world (Rockit). No doubt Hancock's music has shaped the development of Amy Winehouse in one way or the other, consciously or unconsciously. To add another interesting level to the Grammy results, Hancock's winning album (the first jazz record to win since Getz/Gilberto in the early 1960s) was a set of interpretations of the songs of a white female singer, Joni Mitchell. Therefore, as Winehouse borrowed from black music and Mr. Hancock, Mr. Hancock was borrowing from a white woman.

I don't want to read too much into the Grammy awards, but I do believe that what happened last week represents, on some level, the story of popular music right now. The venerable black artist got the top album honor for his interpretation of white music; the young white artist got 5 awards for her interpretation of black music. Clearly, some of the most exciting, engaging music coming out these days is a result of that thing that many Americans are loathe to admit to - cross-racial musical borrowing. And this lesson is being brought home by two seemingly dissimilar artists, a newcomer from Britain and a living American legend.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Four and a half stories

At the request of our Mr. Wallmark, I'm brushing the dust off a few of the pieces I wrote during the time I spent living in Japan (2003-2005), and republishing them here for what I hope will be the amusement (and perhaps illumination) of all. Here is the first of these dispatches, written about the second month of my two-year stay in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Four and a Half Stories
a dispatch from late-summer Japan

In Japanese, the days of the week are named sun, moon, fire, water, tree, gold, soil. I love this little list for its completeness and simplicity, and the way all necessary things are included. Lately, it seems that these beautifully-named days have been passing at an alarming rate, and suddenly there is far too much to retell about my little transplanted life here to do it all justice.

So here are four and a half stories, selected somewhat randomly, from among the hours that have made up my recent days.


The new school term began on the first of September. My four-day-a-week job is at Kinpo Junior High School, which houses about 200 students in grades 7 -9. All of the kids study English, and my job is to help the three English teachers in whatever ways we can collectively come up with. My first week consisted of giving a self-introduction lesson (complete with a game of hot potato to determine who would be unlucky enough to have to ask me a question) a total of nine mind-numbing times. Mr. Tao, head of the English department, had asked me to introduce myself in Easy English, and then “please explain your country and culture.” Time allotted for this feat: ten minutes.

Here is my explanation: my country is very big. And not very old. People from many places have come to live there. So our culture is pieced together like a quilt, from small bits of other places, which we now claim as our own. Yes, it’s true—my country is the opposite of this country in most ways. Which is probably why I am here now.

Of course, this last part remains unsaid.

After being treated to this insight, the eighth and ninth graders each stood up in turn to practice their “nicetomeetyou, my name is mumblemumble” on me. I shook each outstretched hand in turn, wondering all the while how I will EVER be able to remember all these kids’ names.

In one ninth grade class, though, there is a boy who was too shy to manage even this tiniest of English speeches. He would or could not look me in the eye, and after a long, awkward silence, Mr. Tao came over to rescue us from each other. “I’m sorry,” he said. “He is just so nervous.” The boy sank back into his chair and stared hard at his desktop for the rest of the hour, one leg crossed gracefully over the other. When I pass him in the hall now, he resolutely stares at my shoes or out the window. His desire for me not to speak to him is so strong that it needs no translation. I wonder if I will ever win him over.


A few weeks ago, I was invited to go with the school PTA on their group outing to see some scenery and pick Asian pears. (Of course, they’re called Japanese pears here.) It was a lovely slow day of watching Kagoshima prefecture go by outside the bus window—rice fields tucked into the small flat spaces between sheltering hills, everything an amazingly lush damp green.

The orchard’s owners slip a paper bag around each pear when it is still small, to keep out the bugs and ensure that it grows perfectly. When you pick them, therefore, it is blindly, feeling the shape of the hidden fruit through the bag, looking for the biggest (which promise to be sweetest).

Late that night, I sat on my couch with a bowl and a knife and a cold pear, peeling the skin off in long brown strips and watching the sumo wrestling tournament on TV. Asian pears in Asia. What more reason do we need to travel, really?

Two and a half

Earlier that day, the PTA’s chartered bus carried us up a winding mountain road. We slowed once to pass a group of people laden with backpacks and walking sticks, hiking up to the top.

We looked at them, thinking of the wet, heavy heat outside. “Wow. Badass.”
They looked at us, thinking of the air-conditioned ease inside. “Wow. Cheaters.”


The newly arrived English teachers of the prefecture were sent to the woods for a week of Japanese language training camp earlier this month. We spent the mornings memorizing nouns and practicing dialogues, the afternoons learning about the tea ceremony and local Kagoshima history, and the evenings emptying the beer vending machine and amusing ourselves in whatever ways we could invent. Which took the form of a New Zealand table rugby tournament, a toga party, and one truly epic game of charades.

Late Thursday afternoon, Mike, Leon, and I went for a ride on three of the training center’s rusty bikes. It had been raining all day, and the sky still hung grey and low above us. We quickly ran out of bike trail, and rather than take on the impossible hills of the highway, rode huge lazy circles around each other in an empty parking lot, relishing the no-longer-taken-for-granted fluency of English.

Next door to the training center where we were staying, there is a small museum. When we rode past, we noticed that the lights were on and there were people inside, so we decided to investigate. Inside, the single display room was full of clothing and musical instruments and toys from all over Asia. And best of all, there were signs inviting you to play. So we happily banged away on the xylophones of four countries, played cymbals and pipes and Indonesian tiddly-winks.

One of the museum staff came over with a clipboard and asked us to write down our names for their guestbook. She asked where we were from. So in our variously-accented Japanese, Mike said, “New Zealand,” and Leon said, “I’m English,” and I said “America, Oregon state.”

The woman, who had been smiling and excited, suddenly became somber. She said something I could not understand, bowed to us, and turned to go. It was September 11, and she, standing in the center of a room full of toys, was expressing her condolences to me, on behalf of my entire country. After a week of being part of a majority again, happily anonymous among all the other English teachers’ round eyes and pale faces, I had become a symbol again. Something much larger than myself.

We rode back to dinner, the bikes’ tires humming softly over the wet pavement.


At the end of the first week of the school term, the staff of the Board of Education invited me to go bowling with them. Sadly, I failed to impress anyone with my superior American bowling skills. (Someone asked, “Have you ever done this before?”)

Our games were over, and I was watching the last few groups to finish their frames when Chazono-san (Mr. Chazono) came up to me. He’s the one at the Board of Education who is neither my supervisor nor my boss, but the one who is in charge of helping the foreigner buy a car and pay her phone bill because he’s the one who speaks the most English. Which is not a lot. But he’s already vastly better than he was on the day I arrived—necessity breeds fluency. He’s been studying a little book of English idioms with my help, and that evening at the bowling alley he appeared next to me and asked very seriously, “Are we having a ball?” Which made both of us laugh until our sides ached.

Someone asked me recently what the best thing about Japan is so far. And that’s the story I told. I was out with a group of colleagues who I enjoy, and someone proved that my presence here has helped him learn something. And we understood each other, if only for a moment. And then we laughed really hard.

That’s the best thing.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Sad Panda

Human interest stories on the BBC are always the best. Like panda porn, for instance. A video of Qing Qing and Ha Lei in a rare panda mating ritual, as well as the coital act itself, is intended to arouse other pandas into more readily performing sexual acts. The reasons aren't new, we have a declining panda population and we thus freak out about it. As the article states, the global panda population has dwindled to about 2,000, with 250 in captivity. It's also extremely difficult to get pandas to mate since they're only sexually interested about 2-3 days out of the year. While I'm all for freaking pandas and conservation interests, I have to take a step back and look at the larger questions.

First of all, why do we not consider evolution and natural selection? In all logic it could very well be time for the panda to take a bow and exit stage left. Ah, but we meddled! There's the key. We destroyed the bamboo forests, we trapped them, cut them, traded them, and made cute blankets out of the pandas. Now we feel we owe them a few favors. Instead of acting in moderation, which humans are horrible at, we instead are cramming at the last minute of the panda, as if we were going to the dentist in a week and wanted to catch up on six-months' worth of brushing. We harbor this guilt toward our ill-treatment of the panda (we not only slaughter them mercilessly, but we also can't get it straight if they're a bear or a raccoon) and it seems that guilt alone fuels conservation efforts. The panda, after all, is the flagship emblem of the World Wildlife Fund and in general the mascot for endangered species.

But why do we care so much? Why the guilt? I'm sitting in my cozy office chair reading the news and think "Yeah, so?" Like I said earlier, species evolve or disappear. If humans didn't meddle it would be entirely up to the panda to find a way or go away. Along comes concept #2: FORCED EMPATHY. This is one that hit me the other day while musing over my vegan-ism. I live in a shoebox apartment that was constructed extremely poorly. When the weather changes a colony of carpenter ants moves into my bathroom from the laundry room next door. I got fed up one day and started a mass-genocide campaign against the ants. I tried any possible way to kill them and pondered the general efficiency of my efforts, even saying to myself "So much for being a good Buddhist." And that's when it hit me. On a broad, macro-level of compassion, why do I slaughter insects yet try to justify being vegan? I've stated before on here that my choices in being a vegan come from two reasons: the meat industry is appalling, and living in an affluent society fills me with the desire to spread the wealth to other critters. I've even gotten to the point that cutting up flesh for my pregnant wife makes me feel ill. I've never had a problem with it before and I obviously don't have a problem with killing ants. My conclusion is forced empathy. I am mentally commanding myself to evoke emotions toward others. And it makes me think, when is that not the case? How much of our empathy comes from being raised in a Judeo-Christian society? Is it religious doctrine that makes us donate our things, help feed the poor, walk an old woman across the street, and strap explosives to abortion clinics? It's a horrible reality, but the more I think about it the more I'm inclined to believe that empathy is a construct and not a natural inclination. Then there's times when driving a country road that I'll come around a bend to find a deer spilled all over the concrete, the life drained from its eyes, and feel absolutely horrible. That runs in the same vein as the pandas. I see what humans do to the surrounding world, how we ignorantly cease life to serve our short-sighted whims, and in those situations I feel regret. Or remorse. Or guilt. Or sorrow. Is it, perhaps, that empathy is something that resides deep inside, something that, when honest, comes out in reaction to our treatment of the surrounding world? Is it something that, when it comes time to eat or secure safety, is naturally suppressed by survival instincts? If nothing else it is worth examining your interactions with the surrounding world and questioning what is genuine and what is playing make-believe? Why do you pretend to listen to someone instead of stopping them mid-sentence and letting them know you're not interested in conversation? Is empathy a constant intellectual comparison of gains or is it a genuine consideration of others?

Please, share your opinions.

Monday, February 18, 2008

In Defense of Rhetoric

Although the battle for the Democratic nominee is still raging away, it seems that the attack points employed by both candidates are the same old war horses that we've seen for months now. Hillary is an uninspiring wonk with poor judgment (read: Iraq) and too many tendrils reaching into the pockets of big business; Obama is inexperienced and makes up for his lack of policy specifics with passionate talk. This negative narrative has become conventional wisdom in the campaign cycle, and the more the candidates try to distance themselves from their opponents' frame of criticism, the more embedded they become in a race to deny while simultaneously highlighting exactly those qualities ascribed to them by their competitors and the press.

Since Obama's crushing victories in the primaries on February 9th and 12th, Clinton has been ratcheting up the intensity of her now familiar attacks on Obama's inability to get things done and "manage the bureaucracy." In particular, she has seized upon Obama's abilities to captivate an audience as - oddly - a negative. Yes, the man's talents in oratory are really just a shield hiding the candidate from real administrative skills. Echoing her husband's "fairytale" jibes, Clinton said last week:

Speeches don’t put food on the table. Speeches don’t fill up your tank, or fill your prescription, or do anything about that stack of bills that keeps you up at night.

The subtext for these comments and others like them emanating out of the Clinton camp is the notion that commanding, inspirational rhetoric is nothing more than empty talk. Instead of policy specifics and the nitty-gritty of governance, smooth-talkers like Mr. Obama hoodwink the masses - many of which are young - into a naive belief in "false hope." The message, as noted in a NYT article from 2/17: "My opponent gives speeches; I offer solutions." Much of this constructed dichotomy between talk on one hand and action on the other has been manufactured by the Clinton campaign to counter the irrefutable reality that Obama is the superior orator. Instead of accepting the nuanced reading that one can be both an effective administrator and a skilled rhetorician, Clinton has adopted a black and white perspective that works political marvels. Indeed, in Clinton's narrative, her inferior speech-giving abilities come off as an asset, for lesser rhetorical ability = greater administrative acumen. In Clinton's smart political framework, therefore, Obama's talent is a liability.

This perception is of course not lost on Mr. Obama, who has dealt with such accusations in two very different ways. In response to the rising urgency of Clinton's attacks, he has offered a very frank disclaimer: "Don’t be fooled by this talk about speeches versus solutions. It’s true, I give a good speech. What do I do? Nothing wrong with that." At the same time, however, Obama over the last week has shifted gears noticeably in his stump speeches. While the big applause lines have still had their show-stopping moments, he's begun inserting more policy talk into all the unbridled inspiration. As the Times put it, he's showing off his "inner-wonk." More than just change his approach as a response to criticism, Obama has dealt a political master-stroke: he is simultaneously defanging Clinton's argument (he's weak on details) while also discrediting it (it's not a good argument anyways).

The political maneuverings of the election cycle are not the topic of this post, however. The complex pas de deux that the Democratic contenders have been engaged in over the last couple months highlights an interesting component to the political discourse, and one that will be making many more appearances on the road to November: rhetoric.

The term "rhetoric" gets a bad rap. I would be willing to bet that if you asked a lot of news-watching, reasonably well-informed citizens on the street if "rhetoric" is a negative or a positive term, the majority would peg it as negative. Indeed, Clinton's attacks on Obama are just one front in the media where the idea of rhetoric is negatively cast. Again, our familiar false dichotomy is at play in these characterizations: if you talk the talk, then you probably can't walk the walk.

But what is rhetoric really? Simply put, rhetoric is the art of skillful persuasion through the use of language. It's a concept that has had a central place in Western culture since the Greeks, where it was actually afforded the status of an art. Aristotle even wrote a seminal treatise on the topic, complete with a detailed break-down of the various components of a good speech, many of which apply quite well to any of Obama's rousing performances. Good rhetoric, said Aristotle, should be composed of three central elements: to set the stage, a speaker must have the proper ethos, or background, perspective, and credibility; he must grab the audience's emotions (pathos); and he must appeal to reason and logic (logos). In later years, rhetoric developed into different schools of thought, and the Romans codified it further. For over a thousand years, it was a central part of the educational program, and during the Middle Ages it was part of the trivium along with grammar and logic; to study the higher liberal arts like philosophy, mathematics and music, one first had to master the trivium. And the importance of classical rhetoric didn't stop there; in addition to influencing the ways these societies communicated, it deeply impacted the arts. Much of the Baroque aesthetic in German music, for example, was formed by applying rhetorical rules to sound. Like a carefully crafted argument, it was thought that a piece of music should employ devices to both emotionally move and intellectually convince the listener. In this capacity, JS Bach was the Obama of his day.

So what is the value of rhetoric? Indeed, rhetoric has not been such a well-respected component of our culture for centuries because it teaches you how to mislead crowds, an argument out of Mrs. Clinton's book. It is important because how one communicates their ideas is a wonderful reflection of how coherent, organized, intelligent, and convincing those ideas are. Rhetoric is not only the art of speaking: it is the art of thinking. A master orator, then, is not merely dazzling the captive audience with empty talk - he is persuading them of the veracity of his ideas.

Take George W. Bush. I'm not going to list off all the mutilations of the English language that have poured from this man's mouth - the reader is no doubt familiar with many of these. But beyond simple mangling of syntax and vocabulary, Bush's talk is all too good an indicator of what's going on upstairs. It's an embarrassment watching Bush struggle through speeches (a failure of ethos), repeating himself time and time again on talking points that don't have one iota of substance ("Freedom" is a good meaningless word that destroys pathos through its opportunistic insincerity and annihilates logos through its very meaninglessness). We should have known watching the man debate back in 2000 that he would make an awful president. His lack of rhetorical command reflects his utter lack of curiosity, intellectual depth, and clarity of ideas. No wonder his advisers had such an easy time hijacking his mind to parrot their extremist beliefs.

But powerful rhetoric is more than a window into a candidate's mind. It is also an essential tool for reaching consensus within a large and fractious group. When Obama talks about "one America," I believe him, and according to polls, so do many Americans (he is the Democratic candidate most well liked by the Republicans). The strength of his nonpartisan convictions truly are inspirational, and they inspire because they offer a real, tangible opportunity to heal long-festering political rifts. I should make it clear at this point that I am not a Obama maniac: my support was originally with Edwards. Nevertheless, the "hope" in his message is real, and Americans are responding to it. Rhetoric is the driving force behind his momentum.

Skillful oratory also plays an important role in educating both the citizenry and the political establishment. As Jonathan Alter writes in this week's Newsweek, the president is "Educator-in-Chief" (Roosevelt's phrase) just as much as he or she is the Commander-in-Chief. Central to enacting big change is the tool of language itself. As Alter writes:

All presidents who achieve big change have been first-rate communicators in the theater of the presidency. No FDR "fireside chats," no New Deal. No "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"—and the Berlin wall likely stays up for a while longer, whatever Ronald Reagan's other efforts.

This point was also driven home on All Things Considered today by Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice. Brinkley pointed out that all great American presidents have been great speakers. Without a talent for rhetoric, how can one individual capture the attention of the nation and the world enough to make change happen? Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK...they were all master orators.

Where rhetorical advantage can lead a candidate astray often comes in the form of making promises that are unrealistic, a point of which Obama has sometimes been guilty. We should certainly be on the lookout for this. But inspiration is not a rhetorical fault. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, we should not undermine Obama's abilities purely because he inspires people with fiery pathos - if you go to his website, you'll find that the logos is there as well (although not as fully elucidated as Clinton's or Edwards's). Wonkiness just doesn't make for as electrifying a speech. And in the theater of politics, the speech is the thing.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I blog, ergo, I'm traumatized.

I think the relationship I have with writing is like my mother's relationship with olives.

My mother hated olives. She despised them. She wouldn't let pass even a single opportunity to spread slander against them. "They look like discharging eyeballs," she'd say, "Weren't there olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane? Jesus was captured next to an olive tree. Judas hung himself off one. Olives are the Devil's Testes! Don't even get me started on carrots."

Before I carry on, I need to clarify something: my mother's not a religious or carnivorous zealot. I know that may be the impression you now have of her. That might have something to do with something I once wrote. The point I may have overstated a little is that my mother didn't like olives. Now I feel rotten about having misled you into the impression you have of her do I fix this?

My mother is a sadomasochist - not the HBO-After-Dark-Special kind of sadomasochist: I'll thank you not to think of my mother that way. She's the asexual kind of sadomasochist who would put her asexual self and her spawn through immense asexual discomfort because she believed it was asexually good for us all. Asexually, you understand. To sum up, it was precisely because she hated olives that she would put them in her mouth and retch and gag. She thought she should like them. And after a while, she still didn't, but the misery made her happy.

That's masochism, right? I mean, you can't tell me that Sir Spankalot likes the pain at the very moment Lady In-the-rear's paddle strips the epidermis off his shaved ass. Then it wouldn't be pain. It's not the pain itself masochists like. It's that intangible something after. It's whatever endorphines or adrenaline does to minds used to numbness. It's an after-effect. It's what makes bulimics feel just alright after a good puke. It's what makes psychopaths feel at peace with themselves after a filleting. Just like my mother.

After a while she began to eat olives with regularity. Don't misunderstand me, she'd retch and gag. She hated them. But something new was happening. There was something about how she felt after spitting out that disgusting pit. There was something about transgressing against her heart and soul and taste buds that made her feel alive. Alive, I tell you.

As for the sado- prefix, she brought her olive-logic to the dinner table. She foisted our dislikes upon us. If one of us declared "stringy green beans are gross", we could be sure to find the vilest, stringiest green beans heaped on our plates for the next week. I'm positive she undercooked potatoes on purpose. We wouldn't get meat unless it was in identifiable organ form. Kidneys. Mmm. Tongue. Yummy. She really was quite inventive in her efforts to make us hate food. She once plonked down a rabbit carcass at an Easter-lunch. Do you understand how disturbing that is? First of all, you're eating a rodent. Second, it's like being served a chunk of Santa Claus on Christmas Day.

I think I've adjusted quite well. My mother cooked crap (maybe even literally, sometimes) because she wanted to make us happy the same way olives made her happy. It was out of love that we were traumatized as children. And, who knows, maybe it was good for us. For example, I think I write for the same reason she ate olives.

I don't like the writing process. I think I may even hate it. Right now, I'm miserable. I'm in between a thousand possible choices. It sucks navigating my way to full and effective sentences, pulling random words from a lexicon most of which I don't understand. I can't pretend to have control over this. God knows what you think. I'm a mess. You should see me. I think I may have soiled myself a little.

But then again, who knows? There's the possibility - best forgotten in the process itself - that something good could happen. The torture might be worth its while in the end. Something good could come out of this discomfort. But the discomfort's the thing. Were it not for the discomfort, I could never come away feeling like a bulimic wiping the bile from the corners of her mouth, or like a psychopath wiping the blade on his pants.

What more can I aspire to? One day I might even come away feeling like my mother.


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Aurora Borealis

The northern lights in Murmansk

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Lyrics Pep Talk

When it comes to popular music, there is quite a wide variety of quality of lyrical content. Don't get me wrong, I don't have any problem with songs that are light on lyrical luminescence. For instance, while "Won't you take me to Funkytown" isn't going to win any prizes for its poetry, that song's value lies elsewhere, namely in its ability to instantly trigger nodding heads and dancing legs.

But sometimes, when I have been listening to the radio for too long, I get depressed. I convince myself that there are no good songwriters out there anymore, that popular music is doomed to drown in a shallow sea of head-shaking but impotent tunes and beats. I forget that since the dawn of this new millennium, there have been plenty of great musicians who craft lyrics with care. My list of those musicians include people like Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie, Sufjan Stevens, Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls, and many more.

If you ever have the tendency to get depressed like I do, this post is meant to gather evidence for the lyrical potential of current popular music. In the comments section, post excerpts that you consider to be examples of great lyrics that have been written since 2000. Try to give complete information so that if others are intrigued, we can check the music out for ourselves.

I'll get the list started with a few examples that I think are well done:

"Our stepmom, we did everything to hate her
She took us down to the edge of Decatur
We saw the lion and the Kangaroo taker
Down to the river where they caught a wild alligator [...]

The sound of the engines and the smell of the grain
We go riding on the abolition grain train
Stephen A. Douglas was the Great Debator, but
Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator"

Sufjan Stevens, "Decatur, Or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother" from Come on Feel the Illinoise

"I roll the window down and then begin to breathe in
the darkest country road, and the strong scent of evergreen
from the passenger seat as you are driving me home.

Then looking upwards, I strain my eyes and try
to tell the difference between shooting stars and satellites
from the passenger seat as you are driving me home.

'Do they collide,' I ask, and you smile.
With my feet on the dash, the world doesn't matter.

When you feel embarrassed, then I'll be your pride
When you need directions, then I'll be the guide,
For all time."

Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, "Passenger Seat," Transatlanticism

"Dust in our eyes, our own boots kicked up.
Heart sick we nurse along the way we picked up.
You may not see it when it's sticking to your skin,
but we're better off for all that we let in.

We've lost friends and loved ones much to young,
with so much promise and work left undone,
when all that guards us is a single center line,
and the brutal crossing over when it's time.

I don't know where it all begins,
And I don't know where it all will end
But we're better off for all that we let in."

Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls, "All That We Let In," from All That We Let In

Thursday, February 14, 2008

International Edition

Mirth and Matter is quickly generating a reading audience from around the globe, particularly from Russia and Japan. We want to encourage these readers to get involved in the site by giving you the option of posting comments in your native languages, which will then be translated into English. Therefore, without further ado, we introduce the international edition of Mirth and Matter!

(translation courtesy Zorro):
Приветствуем Вас в «Mirth and Matter»!
Этот блог посвящен обсуждению злободневных проблем, интересных мыслей или наблюдений и, конечно же, всякого рода любопытным дискуссиям, отвлекающим от работы. Мы надеемся, что блог органично соединит в себе и дело, и потеху – все то, с чем мы сталкиваемся каждый день, - от проблем мирового значения до забавных курьезов повседневной жизни. Не бойтесь делиться мыслями, которые Вас посещают, и у нас завяжется увлекательная беседа. Политика, культура, печать, музыка и книги – мы говорим на любые темы!
Кстати! Вы можете оставлять свои комментарии и на русском языке. Мы сделаем все возможное, чтобы Ваша мысль была понятна всем участникам блога.

ようこそ“マルス アンド マーター”!ここの毎日のブログには我々が本当の仕事の代わりに今日の諸問題についてしゃべて面白いことを話します。政治と文化と写真と音楽とか:なんでもあります。会話に参加することが出来ます。もし何かのことを書きたかったら"Comments"というボックスに記して下さいませ。それで我々は英語で翻訳してあげます。そうしたら書くことを楽しみましょう!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Book Review: The God Delusion

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins (Mariner, 2006)

One long hot summer when I was 10 or so, I went with a friend to an afternoon of Bible camp. Having not grown up a believer in any religion, the experience was fascinating and a bit terrifying. The organizers were ultra-conservative Evangelicals with a very literal, fire and brimstone sort of interpretation of scripture. Everything was "heaven" this, "hell" that. I was one of the younger kids, and I remember that, despite all the talk of being a good and righteous person, the older boys were little tyrants. Rather, I played the Canaanite to their Israelites.

We also sat for prolonged periods (at least to a 10 year-old) in silent prayer, silently communing with God. I remember that the rest of the kids closed their eyes, so I did too. I couldn't stop thinking about snack time, and opened my eyes a few times to see if anyone else was distracted. Sure enough, goodies were more popular than God; kids were shifting in their seats and looking around impatiently as the adult leaders looked on, gently chastising the hungry kids for being kids and not saints.

Since I was young, I've always been suspicious of organized religion. Now, nothing was ever clearly thought out, and my objections were never based on any sort of theological understanding; nevertheless, I couldn't shake the intuition that the whole thing was just a little silly. This early memory was one of many childhood experiences in my largely-Christian little Oregon hometown that gave me cause to doubt the truth of the faith. It just never seemed to make sense, as much as it would have behooved me socially to believe. There were a lot of cute Christian girls, after all (a topic I will return to shortly).

For all of us who have had lingering doubts about religion, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion is the long-awaited proof that justifies our suspicions with lucid argument, comprehensive research, and wry wit. As a writer, Dawkins is capable of articulating difficult concepts; as a scientist, he is capable of demonstrating that our understanding of reality no longer needs the old-fashioned superstitions of religion.

Dawkins's work comes as part of a three-prong assault on religion that was initiated a couple years ago along with Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. It is also (admittedly) a text of conversion: it is his attempt to change people's thinking with the book, and to make atheists who have been in hiding come out of the closet and exclaim their pride in who they are (the parallels to the Gay Liberation movement do not go unnoticed by the perspicacious author). While this goal of transformation is perhaps a bit grandiose (a charge that has been leveled at Dawkins before), I must say that I can't imagine reading it and not being challenged, not having your ideas forced upon the grindstone and made sharper as a result. Simply put, it is impossible to ignore Dawkins's reasoned plea. The argument is too powerful and too urgent to ignore.

Trying to summarize all the key points in this 420-page book would be an arduous task and would probably begin to feel like homework for the tenacious reader. Instead of itemizing the major arguments of the book sequentially, then, I will bring up a few of the fascinating points that are made in no particular order.
  • Religion has gotten a massive free-be over the years. To prove a case in court, the prosecution needs evidence; it can't simply base the argument on belief. In every aspect of modern society, we are governed by evidence, reason, and sound logic. Religion, on the other hand, is given a free pass on all of these hallmarks of modern thinking. It is not held to the same level of intellectual rigor as science, law, or scholarship. And this, Dawkins says, is a major problem. Religion should be held to the same standards as every other facet of our society. So with exacting reason, Dawkins approaches the idea of religion just like you would any other idea: as a theory.
  • Debunk #1: The faithful often argue that scientists will never be able to prove that God doesn't exist. Dawkins turns this argument on its head and exposes it for the sophistry that it is. In a memorable turn, he suggests that we will never be able to disprove the existence of the tooth fairy, or of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (proudly, Pastafarianism was created by a fellow Oregonian). Saying that something cannot be disproved is nonsensical to the extreme - there are plenty of imaginable things that can never be disproven.
  • Agnosticism is a cop-out. There is no reason to even entertain a belief unless there is empirical evidence or blind faith - agnostics, lacking both, try to have it both ways.
  • Many people argue that religion and science are two totally separate realms of experience and should be kept that way. This notion has been called "non-overlapping magisteria" (or NOMA) by Stephen Jay Gould, connoting that science cannot be brought to bear on religious issues and vice versa. Dawkins firmly rejects the idea of NOMA on the grounds that is is popular purely because there is no good evidence for the God Hypothesis. To keep the religious masses from rising up again scientists for their presumed arrogance, then, many scientists have taken this stance of non-involvement. To Dawkins, this is an act of intellectual cowardice.
  • Debunk #2: Pascal's Wager states that, in the absence of evidence of God, it's best just to believe because the penalty if it is true (everlasting damnation) far outweights the penalty if it isn't (you die). I've heard this argument a lot from exasperated Christians. Unfortunately, if you don't believe something, you can't force yourself out of fear of a potential negative outcome. Wouldn't the omniscient God surely see through this sly stratagem?
  • Debunk #3, The Boeing 747 Sophism: Creationists claim that the extreme complexity that we see around us could not possibly be the result of random genetic mutation and natural selection over billions of years. That, they say, is like a Boeing 747 being assembled out of a junk heap by a tornado - the probability is simply too remote to consider. This argument, however, suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution: indeed, evolution is a process and not a sudden random act. In addition, Dawkins points out, how come this same argument never applies to the ultimately complex being, God? If the probability of coming up with a 747 randomly is remote, what's the probability of coming up with a God?
  • Debunk #4, The Anthropic Principle: There are, as Carl Sagan said, billion and billions of stars in the universe. Only a minute portion of these could sustain the development of life. This fact leads many to claim that, of course God exists because we're on one of these rare planets. Again, they phrase it as an issue of probability: the chances of us simply being here at all are too low for random processes to have generated. This claim is refuted by a simple twist of logic: if we were not one of the few species to have evolved on one of these rare planets, we couldn't make this observation to begin with.
  • Debunk #5: "If you don't have a God telling you what is good and what is bad, how can you be a moral person?" This argument implies that the only reason people are good is because an angry father figure is watching over them and coercing them to act this way. There are plenty of real, biological reasons to exercise a degree of morality - we don't need scripture to tell us not to kill our neighbors.
  • Getting back to my aside about cute Christian girls: we should never refer to children as "Christian children," "Muslim boys," or "Jewish little girls." To Dawkins, this is a form of child abuse, for children don't have the judgment to believe or disbelieve anything. It is pure indoctrination, and it saddles children with religious identities before they have they mental capacities to judge for themselves.
There are hundreds of other provocative arguments here, but I vowed to myself to keep this review short. Of course, there are reasons for maintaining faith that Dawkins does not get into, such as the strong community support that it often provides. It is never his intent, however, to debate the absolute value of religion: he easily recognizes that a little Biblical knowledge goes a long way when reading Western literature, for example. Although he views religion as a huge net negative for human happiness and civility, the book does not advocate throwing away our whole Judeo-Christian cultural lineage: rather, it simply encourages us to question the God Hypothesis a little more voraciously. For us natural questioners out there, it comes as a welcome suggestion.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Six-word political commentary: On the tenor of this evening's post-primary speeches

Clinton: "I."
Obama: "We."
McCain: "Them."

Rethinking the Global War on Drugs

Reflections on a talk given by Ethan Nadelmann at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine
March 20, 2007

Legalizing marijuana? Government-endorsed use of heroin? As a child of parents who attended art school in the late 1960s and compensated for their youthful drug excesses by instilling a strict anti-drug rhetoric in their progeny, and figurative child of the “Say No to Drugs” campaign, these ideas seem almost sacrilegious. Before going into Dr. Nadelmann’s presentation, I admit that I thought he was an entertaining leftist with unrealistic goals. But what was conveyed through Nadelmann’s live talk, which did not come through in his myriad newspaper publications nor his appearance on “The Daily Show”, is the absurdity of some of the origins of American policy, particularly in the realm of healthcare.

Why is marijuana illegal? And heroin? Really why? As a child and teenager I believed that these drugs are “bad” and did not question further. I subsequently went off to New York University, then ranked #1 for weed smoking in the country and full of privileged prep-school students able to afford not only Marc Jacobs shoes (my particular point of jealousy) but experimentation with a cornucopia of drugs. The vast majority of my peers did not become consumed with “sin, degradation, vice, insanity and debauchery”, as a 1950s-era anti-marijuana poster in my roommate’s bedroom claims. This is a point that Dr. Nadelmann made, with more solid evidence, not only as pertains to marijuana but even heroin, hence the concept of methadone clinics. This leads me to question how our drug policy did evolve, if it was not a direct result of public health concern.

The story of cocaine is eye-opening. The first anti-cocaine laws were passed in the Southeast, particularly directed at blacks working on the docks because whites feared the unpredictable “negro fiends”, stories of whom stem from yellow journalism.[i] The first anti-heroin laws were passed in California directed against Chinese immigrants. Drug policy is therefore historically tainted by racism, not so much scientific proof. What should save current policy, however, is that there is a close relationship between crime and drugs, so campaigning for fewer drugs and arrests of people with drug possession will lower crime. What did not occur to me is that the deviant culture surrounding these drugs is propagated and upheld, at least partially, by their very illegality and lack of government control. Indeed, 18% of Federal inmates commit their crimes to obtain money for drugs.[ii] Dr. Nadelmann’s ideas for cleaning up crack neighborhoods, i.e. controlling drug use and purging the powerful drug dealers and black market drug economy, does make sense. This is akin to current HIV/AIDS prevention issues in Africa, where the U.S.A. has allocated $15 billion but with certain restrictions, such as mandating that 33% of prevention funds be used for abstinence-until-marriage-only programs and deemphasizing the importance of condoms in HIV/AIDS prevention in all but the highest-risk groups.[iii] All this in the face of clear, sound global health tactics showing that condoms are the most effective preventive tool and that marriage does not necessarily protect from transmission.[iv] Yes - in a perfect world no one would have sex outside of disease-free, monogamous relationships, just as no one would even try drugs much less become addicted, but to ignore reality for idealism is lunacy. It just doesn’t make sense, and the losers are the poor.

The crux of my ruminations on this subject tend toward the following: in a time of growing mistrust of our government, eroding domestic social programs, and lessening sense of security, I am questioning the way America does business. I am questioning to what extent our laws, supposedly set in place to promote a civilized and democratic society, in fact serve to keep certain groups of people down. While I cannot predict what the American people will do about disparities in drug or HIV/AIDs policy, I can predict what my actions in my medical career will be. What Dr. Nadelmann’s talk underscored, more than the specific challenges facing new approaches to drug policy, is that there exists a context for medicine and it should not be forgotten. Just because particular laws and procedures are in place does not mean that they are the best nor even helpful ( our current health insurance system may be a case in point). The genesis of drug policy may have been derived along racial lines, but what may be a bigger problem, particularly in Miami, is the all-too-easy stigmatization of drug addicts seeking help, as well as their limited options.

[i] Williams, Edward H., “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ New Southern Menace,” New York Times, February 8 1914.

[ii] Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Veterans in State and Federal Prison”, NCJ 217199, May 2004.

[iii] UNAIDS. (2005a, accessed 2007, June 30). AIDS Epidemic Update, 2005. [Online].

[iv] Engender Health. (2005, accessed 2007, June 30). Women's Health in Jeopardy: Women and HIV. [Online].