Sunday, February 27, 2011

marked bodies

Whenever I think about Jamelle Bouie's contention that currently non-white, non-black ethnic and racial groups will likely become culturally coded as white in the next several decades or so, I think of this passage by Wesley Yang, from his piece "The Face of Seung-Hui Cho" (which is not online):
...physiognomy is a powerful thing. It establishes identification and aversion, and all the more so in an age that is officially color-blind. Such impulses operate beneath the gaze of the supervisory intelligence, at a visceral level that may be the most honest part of us. You see a face that looks like yours. You know that there's an existential knowledge you have in common with that face. Both of you know what it's like to have a cultural code superimposed atop your face, and if it's a code that abashes, nullifies, and unmans you, then you confront every visible reflection of that code with a feeling of mingling curiosity and wariness. When I'm out by myself in the city-- at the movies or at a restaurant-- I'll often see other Asian men out by themselves in the city. We can't even look at each other for the strange vertigo we induce in one another.
It's hard to say that Jamelle and I really disagree with each other, as we are both, necessarily, speaking in generalities. And I do agree that he is right to insist that American blackness is different than any other racial encoding, as we'll get to in a bit. But I think that, on balance, he is too sanguine about the ability for the corporeal, physical distinctions of race to be sublimated into the cultural understandings of whiteness. Absent a significantly more pronounced "beiging" of America-- absent an intermingling of genes so pronounced that people are literally unable to identify classical racial identifiers-- I don't think most Hispanic or Asian or Pacific Islander people will be consider white. Not in 2050. Probably not in 2150.

Matt Yglesias has been admirably upfront in saying that, despite being Cuban and Jewish (in other words, having an ethnic and racial heritage that tends to signify more in American history than being Swedish and Dutch does), he is white. But look at Matt Yglesias:



Yes, that's a white guy, like me, in the sense of what is visible and easily culturally signified. Now look at Danny Trejo:


This is not a white guy. And it's not a guy who's going to be white in 40 years. I seriously doubt he'll be white in 140 years. His physical difference-- the unavoidable and corporeal manifestation of what we talk about when we talk about race-- will still exist. And until and unless there is a far greater amount of racial intermarriage and interbreeding, that won't change.

I led with an excerpt from Yang's piece (which is by turns brilliant and inexcusable) because in speaking so frankly about the racial essentialisms pushed onto Asian faces, we see the perfect incongruity between the social integration and economic success that we associate with racial assimilation and the continuing reality of racial signifying. Because Asian people are at once very successful in our system, and yet as Yang's piece so brutally describes, they are still members of a distinct minority, onto which all kinds of assumptions-- about their masculinity, their virility, their intelligence, their drive, their emotional attachments and passions, their sexual beings, their values-- are foisted by the unmarked white majority. On a whole host of demographic metrics, Asian Americans are the "model minority." Indeed, Yang references the fact that Asians have been referred to as the "new Jews" or even the new white people in American life. They have, in context, high incomes, high levels of education, low rates of criminality and incarceration, and so on. Yet there is no sense in which this kind of success means that the physical manifestation of their racial heritage doesn't invite stereotyping. Indeed, the Asian example shows quite the opposite; there are now widespread and persistent stereotypes about Asian people that seem to stem from their success. (They are all logic, no emotion; they are brutally competitive; they are overachievers to the point of being soulless, etc.)

Someone I know once said, in an unfortunate and unguarded moment, that she was never surprised to find an individual Asian person without a foreign accent, but was always surprised to encounter groups of Asians without accents. This is, indeed, thoughtless and out of step with reality, she apologized for it, and yet I think it reflects a certain honesty about the continuing miasma of our thoughts and attitudes towards race, immigration, and assimilation in this country.

I agree with Jamelle that American blackness is a wholly separable and unique phenomenon which will always have its own troubled place in the American consciousness. The history of mass slavery is not assimilable. And, as I have said many times, both white supremacists of the "send them back to Africa" camp and black nationalists of the "let's go back to Africa" camp misunderstand blackness in precisely the same way; American black people are not African. Not in any way whole or simple enough to make the designation meaningful. American blackness is a hybrid, defined both by the presence of a dominant common ancestry and by the innumerable mixings that deny it the condition of "purity." I agree with this post by Ta-Nehisi Coates entirely except for, well, the very first sentence. It doesn't make sense to say that a black person is 30% white because the presence of 30% Caucasoid genealogical history is in no sense disqualifying of blackness. As Coates quotes, "Thirty percent European biogeographical ancestry (likely derived through oppression and sexual violence), doesn't change my identity." Indeed, American blackness is what it is in no small part because of this intermingled genealogical reality.

The question, though, isn't whether any other racial subgroup will have the status of blackness. The question is whether they will achieve the standard of whiteness. I can't agree with Jamelle, on balance. I agree that whiteness is a moving target. But when people point to the history of, for example, Irish people being denied the status of white and then eventually gaining it, they are being willfully ignorant about the fact that there aren't obvious physical manifestations of Irishness. The absence of physical markers are no guarantee of true assimilation or lack of bigotry; the story of American Jewry is the story of a people not obviously physically marked but still subject to consistent and pernicious oppression for centuries. But physical manifestation of racial or ethnic heritage insists on the continuing presence of racial and ethnic essentialisms.

The phrase of art within the university is "marked bodies." I take it that this is the kind of lefty academic speak that drives many people crazy. And yet I think it is perfect term. You cannot unsee racial markings. I can't. And I also can't pretend that, as much as I want it to be true, I have identical subconscious or instinctive reactions to people regardless of their racial makeup, particularly in contexts where we are conditioned by our culture to feel racial danger. (In the city, at night, in poor neighborhoods.) I lived in Hartford for years. Even how I felt in the context of the almost entirely Hispanic Park Street area was different, in subtle ways, from how I felt in the context of the almost entirely black North End, even though they were both poor, blighted areas in the same depressed small New England city. And, I'm sorry to say, my private, uncontrollable thoughts were not entirely enlightened in either context, although on balance, I think I was alright. The existential philosopher in me insists that what matters is not our thoughts or feelings but their expression in our actions, and I am totally dedicated to acting consistent with racial equality. The pragmatist in me knows that my actions can never be truly untouched by the sad reality of my unchosen racial prejudices. So. I work on it.

After the election of Barack Obama, many forcefully mocked the people who claimed that this is a post-racial society and that they "don't see race." They insisted-- I insisted-- that no one is truly capable of being race blind, and that asserting that we are a race blind society ensures that we won't react effectively to persistent racial inequalities. Saying "I don't see race, I'm color blind" became the kind of tic mocked on Saturday Night Live. I agreed and agree with that fundamental thinking, and yet as time goes on I am more troubled. There was something unseemly about the whole business, something so self-congratulatory. Because the thinking seemed to be that you can't not see race, but that you can see it and act entirely enlightened anyway. Those who claimed to be race blind were naive and self-aggrandizing, but we, their critics, knew we could see race, but were confident that we could see it and not have it affect us at all. And that seems to me, in some ways, just as naive and unreal an assumption as the idea that we can achieve color blindness.

If my fears are correct and we can achieve neither color blindness nor entirely equitable attitudes towards the racial differences that we observe, then where can we turn for optimism? I'm not sure. I'm not a defeatist and I don't mean to lapse into tragic pessimism. Our duty is to improve our racial problems, whether easy or not. But I wonder.... For a long time, the idea that we will eventually turn American into a truly multiracial melting pot of beige/light brown/whatever people, racially unmarked because their racial signifiers have been occluded through intermingling, has been mocked as the worst kind of multiculti optimism. And yet I wonder if that isn't, in the end, our best hope for a racially equal and just America.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

What does it mean for a movie to be experimental and daring?

This Oscar season has something for everybody. Those who prefer The King's Speech will be happy to see it win; many of those who prefer The Social Network are the kind of people who would secretly much rather complain about the wrong movie winning than getting to see the right movie win. The King's Speech is exactly the kind of movie that fits into this narrative: it's a middlebrow period piece filled with actors with British accents giving warm and whimsical performances. You couldn't invent a better movie for justifying complaints about Oscar bait.

It's bogus; the Oscars haven't rewarded that kind of movie for years. Nowadays Oscar bait involves an Indiewood imprint of a major studio, stories about a remorseless sociopath, minimalist scores, and bad lighting. And The Social Network is no kind of challenging avant garde.

Personally, I think the situation is ripe for some True Grit upsets.

I do want to say something about this piece in Salon from Andrew O'Hehir and Matt Zoller Seitz, in its discussion of Black Swan. I liked Black Swan quite a bit, but I think what Zoller Seitz is saying is quite wrong. Say Zoller Seitz:
More! More! More films like this! I would rather see 10 more movies as "imperfect" as "Black Swan" than sit through "The King's Speech" again, and if I had my way, this movie would win best picture, if only to smack the entire industry across the face and say, "Look at this wild, personal movie. Marvel at it. It makes no rational sense. It is expressionist nightmare madness. It came straight from the filmmaker's gut. It's as mysterious and personal as a dream.  And it made a ton of money! Audiences responded! Not everything has to be conventional. Take some risks, for God's sake!"
Here, Zoller Seitz is embracing the "ambitious failure" kind of movie of which I am an unabashed fan. But Zoller Seitz is totally wrong to call Black Swan daring or risky. That's not a swipe. I appreciate many challenging and experimental movies, but I don't think those qualities are necessary for a movie to be great. Black Swan was, to me, the spiritual sibling of Machete: so unabashed and so unconcerned by its potential for goofiness that it becomes a really joyous experience. It's quite good, funny, moving, and at times incredibly beautiful. It sucks that this is going to sound like I'm slighting it. But Black Swan is nothing like risky. In fact, it's hard to imagine a movie that is at once less conventional but safer in its unconventionality.

To illustrate what I mean, let's consider it in relief with a movie that I am a fierce partisan for and which was actually risky: Richard Kelly's Southland Tales. A critical and commercial failure, Kelly's follow up to the critical darling Donnie Darko is now sort of a cautionary tale about unchecked ambition. But I love it, as deeply flawed as it is. And I think it says something about the real nature of daring in movies: risky movies are movies that take risks that don't flatter critics, which is not something that can be said for Black Swan.

Where Black Swan is populated by achingly hip ingenues, Southland Tales is filled with past-their-prime celebrities like Cheri O'Teri and Jon Lovitz. Black Swan's unconventional structural elements ultimately easily digestible and crowd pleasing; Southland Tales requires patience, effort, and long periods of misunderstanding. The symbolic elements of Black Swan are large-bore and obvious, inviting easy explication; those of Southland Tales are buried within its Byzantine, deliberately absurd complexity. Black Swan features the timeless orchestral music of ballet; Southland Tales is scored by Moby. In other words, at every moment when an artistic choice was made that represents a risk, the risk taken by Black Swan was in fact the choice that was most likely to flatter the aesthetic of people who meticulously curate their opinions on art and pop culture. Black Swan is a fine movie, but it's one perfectly crafted to be enjoyed by-- well, by people like Andrew O'Hehir and Matt Zoller Seitz. (And, evidently, me!)

In her review of Southland Tales, Manohla Dargis compared it to No Country for Old Men, saying  in language remarkably similar to Zoller Seitz
I would rather watch a young filmmaker like Mr. Kelly reach beyond the obvious, push past his and the audience’s comfort zones, than follow the example of the Coens and elegantly art-direct yet one more murder for your viewing pleasure and mine. Certainly “Southland Tales” has more ideas, visual and intellectual, in a single scene than most American independent films have in their entirety, though that perhaps goes without saying.
Consider the differences here: when Dargis  compares a little-loved, little-fought for movie like Southland Tales to perhaps the critical darling of the year (and the eventual Best Picture winner), she is saying something that is sure to be controversial to other critics. No Country for Old Men was one of those "fastidiously polished" films that Dargis comments on at a time when such movies were like catnip to critics. It was made by the Coen Brothers, two of the most rapturously reviewed critical favorites in recent history. It was a movie that at once excited audiences with its genre conventions and tugged at the experimental with its long philosophical digressions. In other words, it was the kind of movie that critics love to protect.

No such thing can be said for Zoller Seitz's target. As I've said, The King's Speech is a movie seemingly designed to reject the preferences of hip young critics. There's no skin in the game to compare it unfavorably to Black Swan. And the fact that this is true gives the lie to Zoller Seitz's contention that the movie is some sort of crazy risk-taking venture. Yes, perhaps in the eyes of the great American multiplex, it's risky. For winning plaudits in the pages of publications like Salon, it's as sure of a thing as a thing can be.

Like I said, there's no insult to the move in that. And it's no insult to Zoller Seitz's preference; aside from his absurd self-indulgence that we'll be talking about "Black Swan movies" twenty years from now (if we're talking about Black Swan movies next Oscar season, I'll be surprised), I have nothing but respect for his admiration. But in advancing a critical agenda that favors risk and personal weirdness in movies by citing a movie that is so meticulously crafted for an aesthetic just like his, he fails to see that a truly risky movie risks rejecting not just the general audience, but himself.

Friday, February 25, 2011

subversion and containment

From the Tumblr of Chris Mohney comes this image:



But note the whole story:



Yes, the arch social critic and subversive who made that image has set up his Tumblr to prominently display the amount of "likes" and reblogs he receives.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

IOZ on Reason's absurdity

IOZ wields his mighty pen against Matt Welch, Reason, and their incredible conflict of interest in discussing Wisconsin:
Management in any case has all the real advantages in a negotiation if management is willing to use them. But most of the time, managers are lazy negotiators and fail to do their work in advance. An unconquerable belief that unions are irrational combined with a childlike wonderment in the face of a bargaining unit that does not acquiesce to management demands with the supine, college-educated spinelessness of the at-will staff in the upstairs offices, leads managers to enter negotiations with functionally final proposals. A few union officials willing to start off asking for the sun, moon, and stars then move toward a more agreeable (for them) middle, which is still far from what management wants. But management just sat dumbly reiterating the points that it thought every rational person would naturally agree to. And in the end, managers are pissed that they got what they consider a bad deal, because it was not the shining deal they wanted, and they act like they had nothing to do with it, even though they were at the table the whole time.

You could of course try to do a better job negotiating next time, or you could try to make unions illegal as punishment for your or your predecessors' terrible tactics, absent strategy, and lack of acumen at the bargaining table. This is the lens through which you have to view various state efforts to make collective bargaining illegal and to decertify labor unions: management is trying to punish labor for management's own failures.
To suggest that capital could be culpable in any conflict with labor would cut against the Reason Institute's dedication to empowering the powerful and afflicting the afflicted. The rights to free association, free assembly, and the control of ones own labor power are apparently not the kind of rights Reason is in the habit of defending.

Welch calls Wisconsin a clarifying moment. I consider this a moment of rare insight coming from Reason, though of course Welch means it in the opposite sense that I do. It took courage and integrity for him to write this at a time when his magazine was doing everything in its power to keep poor Americans from getting access to health care. There is some dim hope, stamping and barking in the corners of my mind, that someone within institutional libertarianism will show similar courage and integrity and stand up for the elementary human, civil, and American rights that are being attacked by Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

Reihan and progressivism/neoliberalism/leftism

I happened about this post today. Reihan Salam says

One is reminded of the debate over PPACA. Many on the left saw the proposal backed by the president as a sinister accommodation with big business and a sure sign of bad faith, while others saw it as a politically achievable entering wedge to achieve a cherished progressive goal. It all depends on whether you’re willing to believe that your political opponents are cackling, mustache-twirling villains or that they are people who generally believe they have the public’s interests at heart and are trying to do their best to win a tough political battle.
I generally assume the latter is true, whether we’re talking about people on the left or the right.
I'll tell you: this is half right. When it comes to people on the right, Reihan reads with great charity. I would suggest almost too much charity; he seems almost unbelievably credulous about the good intentions of people who, most would say, have exhausted the assumption of good faith. You can see this most clearly in his contention, several years ago, that Karl Rove was unaware that he was stoking the flames of anti-gay animus when he made gay marriage a key campaign issue during the 2004 election. (This was shredded rather effortlessly by Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Orr.) This is the propensity that caused Matt Yglesias to say of Salam, "f you want to see impressive intellectual powers brought to bear on defending the indefensible, Reihan Salam is usually your guy."

But, look, what is or is not an appropriate credulity towards other political thinkers is largely going to be in the eye of the beholder, and I can't pretend that I am capable of separating my personal political opinions from that equation.

I'm more interested in the other half of the equation. Is it true that he assumes the best of people on the left? I think, actually, that Reihan assumes the best of market progressives and neoliberals. I would hesitate to call either of those kinds of writers and politicos leftists, but okay, in the binary sense, we identify them on the left-hand side of our politics. But, as I will insist on continuing to say, on elementary matters of domestic policy, the space between your average conservative, libertarian, and neoliberal is extremely small. And yet the claim that nominally divergent political philosophies all support the same policy is used as cover for a broad range of policy positions. ("Even the liberal X says....) I would say that Reihan actually reads with a great lack of charity when who he is reading is from outside of the narrow constraints of the neoliberal edifice. Of course, it is precisely the members of that group that meticulously build the rhetorical tropes of Very Seriousness, the cult of the savvy, and DC insiderism-- and these are exactly the people best positioned to create a consensus on issues such as Salam's political charity.

All of this is only to say that Reihan has his opinions and I have mine. There's nothing illegitimate about him reading missives from people in broad disagreement with him in any particular way he wants. Certainly, I don't read right-wing economic thinkers with great charity; as I'm profoundly uninterested in the currency of being taken seriously by Cool Kid Club bloggers, I don't have any particular reason to make showy declarations of my bipartisanship. If the point were merely about Reihan, who cares, right-- he's a conservative and I'm not. But the important point here is that who is sold to you as reasonable, friendly, charitable, constructive, pragmatic, etc., by media insiders and the blogosphere establishment is usually a matter of how closely that person hews to the approved party line on economic policy. Ultimately this post isn't meant as a criticism of Reihan at all; it's just a caution not to trust the typical narratives which create certain writers' reputations.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

California

There's an article in the latest GQ by Eric Puchner, which doesn't appear to be online, about aspirational California, the author's father's dream of California, that's quite well done.

I like California fine, from what I've seen of it, and I'm sure I'll go again. I just find, on an intuitive level, that aspirational California, the symbolic, regenerative California people try to sell you on, is mostly bullshit. Not that I don't think California is a special place or that I'm out to criticize it or the people who love it. I'm just saying that you often get people talking about how California means regeneration and pilgrimage, etc., and I tend to find it ringed with the type of anxiety that makes you wonder who is supposed to be convincing whom. I've blissfully only found myself in the presence of bottle service a half dozen times or so, but every time I have been around it, been behind velvet ropes, what I observe more than anything else is the slight nausea of people trying to convince themselves they're having a good time. It's not even really about exclusivity, although certainly it's most pronounced and saddest there. The more the Animal House thing has become a touchstone the more I see people playing the role of partier and trying to convince people around them of their disinterest in society's convictions. Anyway-- when people speak of the mythical symbolism of California, I don't blame them or anything. I just worry that they are trying to make corporeal precisely what can exist only as long as it is intangible.

We're living in desperate times, I think.

good people are everywhere

I just wanted to add a little something to this great post by Jill from Feministe. One of the consistent ways in which feminist issues get undercut or marginalized is by framing them in facile, battle-of-the-sexes terms. You can find this sort of thing all the time; an issue of contentious and important feminist controversy is watered down into "hey, equal pay for equal work-- Venus and Mars, am I right? War of the Roses! Crazy." Forcing feminist issues into the terms of men vs. women, and particularly in the sense that they are all just happy battles in the sexual and romantic landscape, robs feminist critiques of their power. It suggests that these issues are not really about morality and equality but about romance, and it sets people up to view feminist controversies as the kind of argument where there is no right or wrong side, as we tend to do in the hoary old competitive view of romantic relationships.

So Jill is right to call Kay Hymowitz out for the way in which she is hiding some of the politics in her piece from the WSJ. She also does a good job of just calling Hymowitz out on her bullshit; broad generalizations about entire generations of men or women sweep away acres of complexity, and there are all sorts of reasons to disbelieve the idea that delaying the onset of marriage and "adulthood" are bad for traditional domestic roles, anyway. For example, broadly speaking, delaying marriage tends to result in less divorce. The common "starter marriage" phenomenon, where young people marry after a brief courtship and then divorce within less than five years, is often followed by long-term and permanent marriages. (Yet another reason why the divorce rate is bogus: people who marry once, divorce, then remarry and stay married until death have a personal divorce rate of 50%; could anyone reasonably call this a failure for the institution of marriage?) Clearly, marrying later is not then an impediment to successful coupling. If Hymowitz's interest is in preserving traditional domestic institutions, I'm not sure she's on track here.

We all want to look young and hot in our wedding photos, but c'mon.

Jill is also right to be frank about the power dynamics that are just below the surface of Hymowitz's piece. Marriage in a heterosexual relationship certainly doesn't have to be about the marginalization of the female partner's power and identity to the needs and desires of the male partner, but that is the traditional arrangement, and Hymowitz's desires seem to be in that spirit. Delaying marriage in that context means preserving the time period when young women are free to be independent and fully realized beings. As is typical, what is framed as a piece sympathizing with women ("poor women, no good men") is actually one that seeks to condemn them to narrow, traditional gender roles. Also, while Jill's post doesn't quite come right out and say it, I see a critique within of the attitude that success in life is a matter of working at a particular job, being a good capital producer and consumer. Traditional roles of domestic life within capitalism don't just have noxious imbalances between husbands and wives but also define life in reductive terms of capital  and material goods acquisition.

While we're on the subject, I do want to say-- there have been a lot of things lately which have provoked considerations of changing gender roles and evolutions in the "sexual marketplace." (ugh) The recession, Knocked Up, Hannah Rosin's "The End of Men," Blue Valentine, and on and on, each provoking spirited reactions about what our changing economy means for dating and relationships. I have opinions on this stuff (shocking, I know), but I do want to say that, in general, I think the stakes are dramatically overstated-- or, at least, that the difficulty in navigating these waters is overstated.

I don't doubt that the currency that really matters to people is sexual and romantic success. (In the case of many men, this is actually a matter of maintaining sexual privilege, but that's a whole other issue.) But I find that the big think articles and essays on these phenomena almost universally make it seem harder to adapt to a changing romantic landscape then it actually is "on the ground." When you take on these issues theoretically, when you're reading a magazine essay that is compelled by the usual pressure to be sensationalistic, it can seem daunting. But when you really are out there interacting in the actual social spaces, I think you'll find it much easier. Remember that people want to like members of the sex that they are attracted to. Men and women, gay and straight, people want to be attracted to other people. (I think one of the best things for straight guys who feel romantically undesirable to do is to understand that straight women like love and sex too.)

A lot of people feel like there is a conflict between their political or ethical commitments and their need to get laid or find a partner. And, sure-- on some level, it is indeed easier to be a cad or a creep than it is to try to operate in the romantic space ethically. (Since the average creep cares not about his rate or percentage of success in trying to pick up women, but rather just the number of times he is successful, it's to his numerical advantage to just keep throwing it out there and coming on to women as often as possible. It's a numbers game. If you feel resentful that creeps might be getting laid more than you, content yourself with the fact that doing the right thing is a higher order concern.) But it's always been that way, and it's not much easier for creeps. The idea that it is becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Just do the right thing, try your best, have fun, and you'll find yourself happier than you'd expect. Treat people the right way. Don't be a jackass doing magic tricks at a bar. Have fun. Seriously, the hype that it's a very tough landscape out there, or that it's newly difficult, is just the media doing what it does. Trust in evolution, your value, and our flawed but indispensable concept of romantic love.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

what I want

From an email, reprinted with permission:
I'm a fan of yours but I'm disturbed your recent zealotry. I agree that the stakes are high right now and I also think you are right to identify in Wisconsin a key moment for the future of working people. But I am afraid you are flirting with being unreasonably caught up in this particular fight, and I think you should be a bit more subdued in how you talk about it. I also would like a statement about what would satisfy you from conservatives and libertarians. Thanks.
First of all, I should point out that when I said that I am sorry for personal conflict that may perhaps arise from these conflicts, it's true; I am sorry about that. But if it's inevitable, it's also necessary. I don't think people understand just how much the tendency to ask for comity, "reason," and seriousness redounds to the benefit of establishment power. What is defined as neighborly or respectful discourse on the Internet is never just about form, but about content, and the assumption is always that what is to the benefit of the ruling class is somehow the position of the more reasonable man. And the constant social pressure to be a member in good standing of the Village Social Club or the Cool Kid Crew or however you want to define it is one of the central, immutable realities of the blogosphere.

I believe that we are facing transformational times in this country; I believe that the present order is incredibly unjust; and in that context I can neither be polite nor circumspect. Many disagree with me about the stakes. To assume my position away through some strangled definition of the rational position is to give the game away. For those who are new here, please understand that I am indeed an extremist and that if it bothers you, you might consider reading elsewhere, though I'm always happy to host disagreement in the comments section.

As far as what I want, it's simple: I want a economic and political policy regime that promotes the consistent improvement in the material conditions of the lives of the working class, as a class and in mass, and further that provides for the self-determination and power of the lower classes. Pity charity liberalism might provide the former but it will never provide for the latter. Conservatives and libertarians have systematically dismantled the mechanisms in our country that provided for mass improvements for the lower classes relative to those at the top. In their place, we are left only with the economics of the lottery ticket; if you are lucky enough, you might become absurdly wealthy. But you will always be doing so in the context of leaving vast swaths of humanity behind. The neoliberal policy platform has resulted in the capture of more and more resources for those at the top, and I believe that the time when decent people can let that go unchallenged is past.

To paraphrase Eugene Debs, I don't want to rise up from the ranks. I want to rise up with the ranks. Nothing else will satisfy me.

submitted without comment

An emailer to the Daily Dish:
Watching the yearning for democracy, for self-actualization, for freedom, sweep through the region, not dependent on US interference but proving by its very spontaneity how intrinsic the desire for freedom is, has been something that has brought me to tears daily.
Wisconsin already has democracy.
Steven Salaita:
According to liberal Democrats, alternate politics are impossible and thus undesirable. The Egyptian people do not share the same viewpoint. There was nothing pragmatic about what they did: it is never a reasonable idea to march into bullets, tear gas canisters, and police boots in order to upend a rotten political system brandishing the imprimatur of the world’s most powerful armies and politicians. But if the Egyptian people wanted a just political system, rather than the practical realities of theft and corruption, they needed to replace and not merely reform their government. To challenge bad politicians by electing more bad politicians is not serious political thinking; it is an inducement to apathy and intellectual frivolity.

Monday, February 21, 2011

welcome to lottery ticket America

Your child is born. Her father left months ago, part of a growing group of itinerant men, unable to find work and incapable of adjusting to a landscape of permanently poor employment prospects. You chose not to get an abortion. You never went to college. You made $9.68 an hour at a big-box store as a cashier, but you left the job. Your boss never came out and said that he was cutting your hours and messing with your schedule because you got pregnant, but you were, and he did. Your friend tells you that you can pursue legal action. You're scared so you don't.

Your child is three. Since she was born you have applied for 163 jobs. You got 12 interviews, three call-backs, and one offer. The job was an hour away. Between day care and gas and maintenance on your car, the money doesn't add up, so you don't take the job. The people at the unemployment office mark you "unwilling to work." Your credit is bad. They tell you employers are running credit checks on potential employees. You tearfully ask the unemployment office how you can fix your credit if you can't get a job. They don't reply.

Your town was a factory town. Your generation was raised by union parents. Many didn't have high school diplomas; almost none had college degrees. They owned homes and raised children in better conditions than they were raised in. The tariff walls were dismantled. The factory owners took tax breaks to stay. To pay for the tax breaks the state cut food stamp benefits and Head Start. Eighteen months later the factor closed anyway. The union was broken. When you asked about the factory in the next presidential election, you were called a nativist.

Your child is six. Your child is now in public school and you feel the relief of not having to pay for daycare anymore. You are now living entirely under what Mick Konczal has called "pity charity" liberalism. You cobble together an existence from food stamps and winter heating programs and subsidized housing. Your parents do their best to support you and your child. You got a job at the movie theater. You make $10.35 an hour. Your boss recently cut your hours from 22 to 16. You cried and he told you he wasn't running a charity. You live under fear of every election. Media liberals will not fight for jobs, in deference to globalization. They assure you they will protect your social safety net. Your state's Democratic congress members suffer a major ethics scandal. You are terrified of what Republicans will cut.

Your child is twelve. She is being raised by your mother and strangers and television. You're back at the big-box store. You have applied to every bank teller and assistant manager position in a 60 mile radius, but you have no degree. You know you need to go to school. Your local public university, which provided affordable education for decades, has had its funding cut again and again. Like most public universities its state funding now covers less than 10% of its budget. The tuition has risen and you know you can't go. You resolve to go to beauty school. You pay with your father's life insurance money. He worked for the state department of transportation. He made less than his private sector counterparts but he got health care, a pension. This month the governor moved to break the state employee's union.

Your child watches television after school every day. You wish she wouldn't but she's a kid and that's what she does. Every day she watches VH1 and E! and HGTV. She sees affluence and wealth that she can't imagine. She knows she is poor; the kids at school tells her. She sees summer homes as big as any four put together on your block. She sees a thirteen year old rapper brag about a pile of $125 shoes that he will grow out of before he can wear. She sees a pop singer say that the bill for champagne and alcohol at her birthday party was more than you made in the last three years. She sees a yacht with a helicopter landing pad. She is taught every day that to make it in America you must be a singer, an actress, a model, a CEO, an athlete. She comes to understand how her culture defines your worth.

Your child is eighteen. You work at someone else's salon. You still dream of opening your own someday. Like most barbers you make less than $30,000 a year. You make it alright, but car trouble and tooth aches and holidays are earthquakes. You have been priced out of some programs but not by enough to replace them easily with your own money. Self-described liberal bloggers say you are overpaid. They call you a "rent seeker." They want to end the beautician's license that you went to school for and raises your wage at least a bit. The bloggers live in Washington DC in townhouses and all own iPads. Your girl is smart but distracted. She does okay in school but not well enough. You tell her she needs to get an MBA someday. She tells you she loves theater. This month the big federal health care bill goes before the Supreme Court.

It is your daughter's high school graduation day. You are proud and afraid. She got a little money from the local public U; the rest she'll pay with student loans. You pray that the loans don't hurt her life too much. You've given up on that MBA. She is as excited for college as you've ever seen her. When she met her freshman roommate for the first time she waited at Starbucks; she was embarrassed to show her home. Her cap, gown, cords, and flowers cost you $75. You take lots of pictures. You still think of ways that you might do better for yourself and for her. Perhaps you'll write that novel, perhaps you'll hit Powerball, perhaps someday a kind and rich man will walk into your shop. This month your state's unemployment rate is at twelve and a half percent.

Your daughter's name gets called and she beams. Her principal hands her a rolled up paper. She is surprised to find it not a diploma, but a lottery ticket.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

another perfect opportunity

A commenter passes along an article that demonstrates the conflict as starkly as any I can imagine:
Business and real estate executives intend to raise $10 million in the coming weeks in support of Governor-elect Andrew M. Cuomo’s looming showdown with government employees’ unions over wages and pensions. ...
“Let’s put the stock transfer tax on the table,” [Ed Ott] added, referring to proposals to revive a state tax on stock sales, which Wall Street vehemently opposes.
Here we have it: the people and entities responsible for the financial crisis that has driven so many state governments and our federal government into fiscal insolvency, and caused massive hardship throughout this country, are found within the New York financial sector. As an edifice, the financial sector of New York is the single most culpable agent in the entire world for our recent downturn. No other agent in the crisis comes close to that level of blame. The stock transfer tax proposal-- which asks for a tax that is half what it once was-- could net the state and city $3.5 billion dollars. So who is asked to pay? Of course: union members.

We know where Andrew Cuomo stands, and shame on him. Will the deficit hawks in the blogosphere and media act seriously and support the stock transfer tax? Let's see.

what's before us

These are heady times and emotions are very raw. It's tough. What's being debated-- in Wisconsin and in the larger deficit push-- is not discrete questions of short-term and conditional budget shortfalls and entitlement adjustments. What's being debated is the fundamental question of how resources are distributed in this country, and what recourse working class people have to improve the material conditions of their lives. Look at this chart, and you'll understand what is being fought for on the streets of Wisconsin.

The question of the day is whether there is no limit at all to the downward pressures we are willing as a society to enact on workers. Make no mistake: that is what is being fought for on the streets of Wisconsin. Workers have been attacked for thirty years. The deficit warriors will tell you that they are fighting for even worse conditions for American workers because of this moment and its conditions. What they will fail to tell you is that every moment since the dawn of the Thatcherite/Reaganite age has had the same prescription: make things worse for workers. When things were good, we attacked the workers at the behest of the rich. When things are bad, we attack the workers at the behest of the rich. California's Republican governor devastates the state budget with flagrant fiscal irresponsibility; soon enough, California's public sector employees will be asked to pay for it, and the gatekeepers of fiscal responsibility will deem this mature leadership.This is the condition of our times. Whatever the time is to push the scales back in the workers' favor, that time is never now.

For this reason, because the stakes are so high, it's right that we should fight and it's right that we should fight passionately and angrily. It saddens me that it's difficult to maintain personal relationships when the issues are so big, but if that's the way it has to be then so be it. I hate that fights seem so personal but the consequences of our winner-take-all economic platform are profoundly personal for those on the bottom. When I ran that post about the blogosphere and the left, I got some emails that were generally supportive but said, "why did you have to name names? Why not keep it general?" If you don't name names nothing can change. It surprises me, the number of perceptive, thoughtful people who fail to see how easily this whole enterprise can slide into a morass of friendship and patronage, where principle is always secondary to relationships.

My beef with the progressives has always been about this: that politics is about orientation towards power, towards winners or losers, and they have refused to choose and to fight. I have heard the phrase "non-zero sum" enough that I hope to never hear it again. It's a pleasant fiction, but a fiction it is, and the harsh realities of all or nothing America reveal it every day. Perhaps the thing for me to do is to stop expecting people who don't feel as I do to take the stands I want them to. It's high time I realize that, for example, Matt Yglesias simply sees the world differently than I do. It's unfair to him to keep expecting that to change. On this issue, he chooses not to fight. That's his stance, and he's entitled to it. And just like on his belief that the work of liberalism is complete, that difference is irreconcilable. I wish him well, and it's time I looked elsewhere.

In any event, I know some people hoped that 2011 would put the angry battles of 2010 in the past, but the fight is just beginning. I am sorry for whatever personal rifts are to come, but the order of the day has made this nation into nothing more than a machine to siphon more and more resources to those at the top, and it can't endure. I am a pessimist by nature, but it is necessary to define the conflict: the people will reverse the tide and stop the flow of wealth from the many to the few, or they won't. What bloggers and journalists and pundits must come to realize is that one way or the other, they are choosing sides. To choose, and to know that you are choosing, grants you the ability to write clearly and, at times, approach poetry in taking your stance. To try to not choose is to sacrifice that gift.To attempt not to choose is to choose by default. I know where I stand. I don't know what's going to happen.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

by the way

Incidentally, this is the moment for libertarians to demonstrate their independence and their principles. I am constantly told by libertarian friends that Cato and the Reason Institute are not, in fact, under the thumb of the Koch brothers, even though they are so incredibly dependent on Koch money. I am also constantly told by my libertarian friends that the ideology is not, in fact, wholly devoted towards the interests of the richest and most powerful against those of the poorest and least powerful.

Well, this is an absolutely perfect opportunity to demonstrate those ideas. The issues at stake here are libertarian issues. What the governor of Wisconsin is trying to destroy are the elementary rights of free association, free assembly, and control over one's own bargaining power. These are absolutely, non-negotiably first principle American, civil, and human rights. Defend them now and send a message that libertarianism is not in the pocket of the Koch brothers and the GOP. What's more, the larger issue of pensions involves essential property rights. A pension represents fairly negotiated, previously earned compensation. It is not a bonus, an extra, or a gift. It is not obtained through the largess of the employer but through the fair, just, and mutually agreed bargaining of the employee and the employer. To raid pensions, public or otherwise, is no different at all from stealing money from the bank account of an employee after you've paid him or her. Those who defend property rights have an obligation to defend pensions.

I believe in the integrity of many individual libertarians but am quite cynical about libertarianism as an entity and surely about the institutions of libertarianism. Prove me wrong. Here's the perfect issue that we've be waiting for, an economic issue where libertarians can side with the less powerful, the less moneyed, and the workers against the more powerful, the richer, and the corporate interests.

the Atlantic and the working class

In its coverage of Wisconsin, the Atlantic-- a magazine now seemingly entirely of the affluent, by the affluent, for the affluent-- has largely ignored the fact that the argument that the Wisconsin union is responsible for the budget deficit is simply not credible. (Incidentally, the average Wisconsin public pension is for less than $25,000, the large majority of which the employees have paid themselves.) Neither Andrew Sullivan nor Megan McArdle nor Clive Crook has seen fit to tell their readership that, on the deficit reduction level that they say is the impetus for their feelings, the union has indicated its willingness to concede to the governor's demands. (Sullivan, in his usual admirable way, has let his readers do some of the talking for him.) This is to say nothing of the fact that Wisconsin's public pensions are among the healthiest in the nation.

The union is holding out against the governor's absurd, antidemocratic opposition to the elementary rights of free assembly, free association, and the right to negotiate the conditions of ones own employment. Additionally, the naked partisan nature of this bill has gone unreported at the august Atlantic; they fail to inform you that police, firefighter, and other public sector employees have been exempted from the bill. Groups perceived as Democrat groups are being punished, groups perceived as Republican are getting a pass, and yet the illusion of "deficit reduction" is maintained at the Atlantic. I maintain respect enough for Sullivan and Megan to ask... what is going on here?

For these bloggers to have rested their arguments on the notion of deficit reduction and failed to make central that the union is not responsible for the deficit  is charitably a great oversight; uncharitably, an ugly act of intellectual dishonesty. For them to praise the governor for his supposed toughness as he exempts his political constituents is a frankly incredible omission. .

If you want to close budget deficits, of course, you know where the money is: the rich people have it. As Robert Reich points out, "[i]f the earnings of the 13 top-earning hedge fund managers were taxed as ordinary income, instead of as capital gains, the revenues generated would pay the salary and benefits of over 5 million teachers." But to advocate taking money from those who already have more than they need would be to walk back from the magazine's recent commitment to standing as a vehicle purely dedicated to the desires of the ruling class.

I have read the Atlantic for the entirety of my adult life. There are some ways in which I still believe that it means something as an entity. In the cynical world of blogging, I fight for my right to remain capable of being inspired. But the process through which all elite media is captured by the ruling class has never been more obvious and apparent than in this case. People who know things tell me that bloggers in the Atlantic's stable do very, very well for themselves financially. The magazine is owned by an absurdly wealthy individual. It's blogging stable consists of one truly, unapologetically left-wing voice, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and he very rarely writes about domestic economic policy. The other nominally "left" voices at the Atlantic are precisely the kind of market-worshiping neoliberals who will constantly attack the ability of working class people to improve their lives.

Andrew Sullivan has been better to me than I could possibly have asked or expected any figure in the media to be. But I fear he is danger of revealing himself to be a man with limitless sympathy for Middle Eastern workers and none whatsoever for American workers. Look to Wisconsin: the Koch brothers and their cronies enrich themselves beyond the dreams of any thousand ordinary Americans, then do everything they can to prevent working class people in their state from improving the material conditions of their lives. And I want to ask the people at the Atlantic: where does it end? Workers have taken it on the chin for thirty years. Where is the limit? How much of this society's bounty can be captured for the very few? What possible recourse do working class people have to pursue what we once called the American dream under these conditions? And why are journalists and bloggers entitled to tony apartments and townhouses in DC, while teachers in Wisconsin should give up their retirement benefits and health care?

This is not just an important moment. It is a foundational moment, and one that reveals the basic character of the people who talk about it. I may just be foolish enough to believe that the magazine and the people who work for it have the integrity to prove me wrong.

Friday, February 18, 2011

what do you stand for?

photo via Muhammad Saladin Nusair

What do you stand for? Who do you stand with? The Koch brothers, endlessly conspiring against the working class? The US Chamber of Commerce, dead set against unions and the elementary rights of free association, assembly, and the right to control one's own labor power? The governor who created a debt crisis with his own recklessness and then attempted to use that crisis to destroy his political enemies and the enemies of the sickeningly wealthy who control him?

Where will you stand, professional journalist? Professional pundit? Professional blogger? Safe in your sinecures at think tanks, newspapers, and magazines, risking absolutely nothing for yourself, will you push workers even further down after 30 years of a coordinated and unapologetic effort to punish them? Will you, "progressive," continue to hide in the idea that there are no competing interests in this country, that you never have to choose sides, that right now is not a time when you are being forced to decide if you will afflict the already afflicted or comfort those who need comforting?

Do you really believe that this is about a debt crisis? About "austerity?" About protecting the interests of the next generation? How blatant do they have to be in attacking their political enemies before you realize what this is about and who this is for? How many times can the same people abuse your trust again and again, fool you again and again, trot out the same tired old rhetoric and happily use your support to siphon even more money from the working class to the ruling class? What would it take to open your eyes?

How long can a country that calls itself free participate in a conspiracy against those with less, again and again, at the behest of those who need and want for nothing but always ask for more? How long can you speak a phrase like "the pursuit of happiness" under these conditions before the rank obscenity of such a thing makes you silent? How many times can you avert your gaze from the people who have had every prospect for self-improvement systematically whittled away, and still presume to speak about an American dream?

What do you stand for?

I think I'm out on 30 Rock

Spoilers, I guess.

I just can't take any more of the "Liz Lemon is absurdly, comically unattractive and unlucky in love" plot lines. It's simply too incongruous with Tina Fey's beauty, Liz's smarts, and her position as a successful, prominent head writer and producer of a major network television show.

A lot of people seem to get mad about this line of reasoning. They offer lots of arguments why it isn't valid. Some people point out that Tina Fey isn't Liz Lemon, which is true. But Liz Lemon definitely looks like Tina Fey, and I assure you, a woman that looks like Tina Fey will be approached at a bar. Some people say that Liz Lemon's odd personal quirks and poor fashion sense make it understandable that she's alone. Sorry, no. If I saw a woman at a bar that looked like Tina Fey, drinking a bizarre mixture of Sprite and white wine and ice, I'd say, "look at that gorgeous woman." If I saw a woman at a bar that looked like Tina Fey, wearing an old hoodie and a fanny pack, I'd say, "look at that gorgeous woman."

Some say that it's part of the fictive makeup of the show, and that while the actress playing her is beautiful, her character isn't. The problem here is that 30 Rock is a good show for its willingness to have regular characters who aren't conventionally Hollywood TV show attractive. No offense to the actors who play Pete, Frank, and Lutz, but they aren't boy band material and the show makes that plain. How am I suppose to synthesize their looks with Tina Fey's? Some have said that the point isn't that Liz Lemon is physically unattractive, but that simply doesn't survive scrutiny. (On last week's episode she was called a "lipless middle aged woman.")

What about the fact that she was just involved in a long relationship with an airline pilot that looks like Matt Damon? Isn't that an example of a person that only someone of value is likely to be dating? Yes, they show lots of ways that Damon's character is dysfunctional. But plenty of dysfunctional attractive people with desirable occupations are romantically successful. I don't know how to reconcile a character that ends it with a guy who looks like Matt Damon and then goes to the bar assured that no one will hit on her.

I want to stress that this isn't just a case of a character being considered unattractive. The plot of this episode, aside from a weak B and C plot, is that she's so unattractive, getting her laid involves an elaborate conspiracy by her friends to set her up with a Swiss prostitute.

This is well-worn territory, of course. You could say that I just need to suspend disbelief to enjoy the show, and you'd be right. But the fact that the suspension of disbelief is necessary to enjoy something doesn't mean that I have to do it. I think I've found the place where I'm just not willing to suspend disbelief with this show anymore, as talented as the cast and writers are.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

wisdom of the ages



Incidentally, if I could have created any scene in movie history, it would have been the Future Council scene from Bill and Ted's.

reality check-- senior poverty

Since my post from the other day, I have read emails, comments, and blog posts that are essentially proving my point: there has been a lot of vague, anecdotal insistence that Social Security cuts won't hurt anyone. Sorry, but no: 8.9 percent of American seniors-- 3.5 million people-- lived below the poverty line, in 2009's numbers. The poverty line for an individual senior citizen in America, as calculated by the Census Bureau? $10,289. For a year. For a two person householder, it's $12,968. (You think the average professional journalist or pundit spends more than that just on entertainment in a year? I'm guessing yes.)

So those who want to talk about how they "look around and see rich old people" might want to catch a clue and look at the data. And these figures are to say nothing of the vast number of seniors who are technically above the poverty line but barely scrape by. So what, exactly, are you proposing, Serious Blogger? Serious Journo? Have the guts to confront the consequences of your policy preferences.

What's so galling about all this is that it is precisely an inversion of what those calling for harsh cuts but naming no victims say the situation is. They say people who aren't showily demanding deep cuts are being unserious, and that they want progress without pain. But if you refuse to say who you're going to be hurting when you call for these cuts, you are unserious. You are calling for progress without pain. You don't get credit for your toughness if you are shielded from what makes the choices tough in the first place. You don't get to talk about austerity when your own lifestyle is so far from austere. And if you want to be serious, you start by actually looking at ugly reality.

Update: Updated the post to include newer figures.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

actual seriousness

Today has been the day for bloggers and pundits everywhere to decry Obama's lack of "seriousness" for failing to enact harsh budgetary measures. (And, in doing so, continuing to punish poor people for a financial crisis inflicted by wealthy people.) Nobody has been more vocal or more consistent than Andrew Sullivan, who has been stamping around, letting out the energy he built up during his illness, I guess. I admire Sullivan's willingness to change his mind on Obama, to upset some of his readership, and to attack a leader he admires. But something is very askew, and it is indicative of a glaring flaw among almost everyone lambasting Obama over his budget.

Sullivan maintains a belief that perhaps some Republican-- some serious Republican-- will come along and take advantage of Obama's supposed weakness and put forth a budget plan that is serious. Well, hope springs eternal in the human heart. You would think that a man who has spent the last decade meticulously following America partisan politics would be immune to getting inspired by a Republican politician, but apparently not. What any actual Republican deficit strategy will amount to is yet more signaling of who is "good" and who is "bad" in the conservative mind. Why go after funding for the arts, when that's such a tiny sliver of federal spending that it's almost entirely symbolic? Because fags and weirdos make art. That's why.You can bet, though, that any proposal that is deemed sufficiently serious by Sullivan and any host of other conservative bloggers will be one that hurts the least well off. That's the shorthand that's being used here, after all. What's serious is what trims poor old people from the Social Security rolls and poor sick people from the Medicare rolls.

Here's what you won't find at the Daily Dish, or at the Corner, or in any of the other places showily demanding seriousness: the actual, human, negative consequences of harsh entitlement cutbacks. I mean, from reading online today, you'd be hard pressed to know why we have Social Security and Medicare at all. I'll tell you why: because our winner-take-all economic system leaves defenseless, impoverished people in its wake. We have Social Security because the sight of so many elderly people left literally homeless and starving , too old and weak to work, was unseemly to an earlier generation that was willing to take less for themselves to provide for others. We have Medicare because it is an obscenity for a country responsible for the atom bomb and the moon landing and the Hoover Dam to allow suffer and die from lack of health care access due to the vagaries of birth and chance. That's why those programs exist.

Cutting them will lead to human misery and death. It will. Cutting Social Security will mean the difference between subsistence and a pitiful existence for untold thousands of senior citizens. Cutting Medicare will mean some people won't get the health care they need when they need it and will suffer the physical pain and indignity that comes with that. That's just the way it is. Yet I keep reading all of these very serious people today failing to mention this reality at all. It's as if we have entitlement programs for no reason.

Phony, showy seriousness is built on complaints, vague talk about thrift and national virtue, and a studied, preach-to-the-choir attitude where well paid journos and pundits see who can outdo each other in advocating measures that will be painful to others but painless for them. Actual seriousness means wrestling with the very serious and real costs of the harsh measures you're advocating. You don't get to show your courage in being ruthlessly pragmatic if you aren't willing to show who you are being ruthless against. The first step is showing the victims. Perhaps if Sullivan gets the deficit-reducing budget he wants, the Dish can start a "Homeless Grandmother of the Day" feature. Democracy needs that sort of thing; it's far, far too easy for people to operate in generalizations that preserve the illusion of painlessness.

It goes both ways, though. Me, I'd like to see our insane military budget cut severely, and you start by pulling almost all of the troops out of the 155 countries we have them currently stationed in. But the defense industry employs a lot of people.... That's the problem with austerity measures; they kill jobs. I hope the people asking for these sweeping budget measures are ready for 12%-15% unemployment....

Update: Sullivan responds. I feel compelled to note that this response is the most explicit he's been in acknowledging this reality since the Obama budget came out.

Monday, February 14, 2011

TGS Blogging



I have not quit blogging about Tyler Cowen's new book! I'll get back to blogging it soon, sorry, just been very busy. In the meantime, here's a conversation with Dr. Cown and macushla.

higher standards and higher graduation rates are contradictory goals

One of my continuing frustrations with the current fad for criticizing the American university is that very often, without acknowledgment of the tension involved, critics will at once complain that the academy is lowering standards and inflating grades, while also complaining that drop out rates are too high. But restoring standards and raising graduation rates, broadly speaking, are contradictory goals. And they are particularly in tension when combined with a push to extend college access to more and more people.

Complaints about lowering standards and grade inflation tend to made with limited evidence and are usually buttressed by the classic, "everything is getting worse" attitude that is a permanent fixture of discussion of youth and education. The concerns embedded within this complaints are real, though exaggerated. Mathematically, grade inflation does not negatively impact the ability to use grades as a sorting mechanism. If you simply feel that there is some such thing as a Platonic "A" and that today's students aren't doing enough to earn them, that's fine, although you're making an assumption about what grades are for that is largely unfounded historically and philosophically. One of the bad assumptions underlying complaints about declining standards is the notion that any class should have some sort of a bell curve distribution of grades. This is a mistake, though. If our interest is in instruction and knowledge transmission, rather than living up to some unreal expectation of what it means to be "tough" academically, then some classes are going to have generally high grades. Your average first-year writing class, taught at almost every college and university in the country, tends to have a lot of grade clustering-- several students who fail, because they don't show up and don't do their work, and a lot of clustering in the B and B plus range. Taken out of context, this smacks to some people of grade inflation. But it is largely a reflection of the fact that the goals of most first-year writing classes are (admirably) modest, and while students from certain populations struggle, most freshman are capable of learning the skills and doing the work required. That's called success. The students who become English and writing majors will go on to courses where their skills will be challenged and their grades will be lower. Students destined for other majors will use the skills they've acquired to satisfy the writing tasks required of them in whatever field they choose.

So  you see the dilemma for those of us actually involved in college instruction, as opposed to those merely sniping from outside. If we don't do our jobs well and transmit the necessary skills, we are told we are failing our students and that it is scandalous when they drop out. But if we do our jobs well, transmit the skills required in a first year writing class, and have grades clustered in the higher range, this is supposedly a mark of the scourge of grade inflation. Bell curves and other arbitrary distribution schemes contradict a flat reality: it's entirely possible for many students to rise to meet the same standards. If it wasn't, there would be no such thing as education standards at all. If you choose to complain that standards are too easy, you can't then turn around and complain that too many students fail to meet those standards and then drop out. You can't have both.

I am not arguing that, on the margin, there is no room for both improving student outcomes and maintaining or restoring standards. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that I have dedicated my life to that service. (Although whether I will ultimately get credentialed and find employment in that service is beyond my control.) But large scale public policy pushes don't work on the margins, and there can be no major push to dramatically raise graduation rates that doesn't result in lower standards.

I think we have to decide as a society what exactly our priorities are. If we want to turn college into the new high school, where if you stick around long enough and don't burn the buildings down, we'll eventually give you a degree, then people are going to have to deal with lower standards. If you want a college degree to actually mean something, then students dropping out is a fact of life. I have sympathy for them, and trust me, I have ideas for how to better provide for their interests, but all of the good intentions in the world are not going to change the fact that (yes, folks) there is such a thing as ability and such a thing as dedication.

You can see a great example of the lack of perspective on this issue in this report from CAP. I suggest you read the whole report, but the summary is enough to get an idea about what we're working with here. There's an awful lot to dislike-- online classes have been implemented with gusto for over a decade, and have not had nearly the kind of impact constantly predicted; the university doesn't need a new business model, it needs to stop trying to operate as a business and treating its students as customers, which directly leads to rising tuition costs and lower standards; struggling students are precisely the least equipped to operate in an online class environment-- but there's one sentence that distills most of what is wrong with journalism's current vogue for academy bashing:

"Graduation rates have stagnated despite a long track record of serving increasing numbers of students over the past half century."

First, this seems to be a sentence that is unaware of what a "rate" is. But more importantly, the word "despite" here simply makes no sense. Graduation rates have stagnated because of a long track record of serving increasing numbers of students! Yes, for a long while, the push to incorporate more and more groups of students into the college system was a matter of merely erasing systematic exclusions and historical oppression, such as the centuries-long conspiracy to exclude Jews. But in the last several decades, efforts to expand college access to more students who want it has necessarily meant expanding access to students who lack basic skills, ability, or drive. Colleges are struggling to educate students who, fifty years ago, would never have thought to go to college and never been given an opportunity. Yes, it is a struggle, but then it is a monumental task.

It's this single fact, that colleges appear to be struggling because they are taking on a massive new challenge-- educating students who are much more difficult to educate-- that I wish could find voice in the conversation. But I find that this idea really hasn't penetrated the bloggy bubble.

I am dedicated to the task of attempting to educate this new crop of students, and I believe in the essential justice and value to society of that task. But I refuse to be unrealistic about what a vast challenge it is. What's more, I insist on blaming the essential dynamic that is responsible for this: America's unskilled labor market has been absolutely decimated over the last several decades. Faced with the collapse of the job market for uneducated workers, and convinced by this culture's incessant propaganda that they must own a house and two cars and a flatscreen TV or else be a loser, students who would not have once attempted college now are trying to. Some of them will succeed brilliantly. Some of them will struggle because they lack basic skills and prerequisites. Some will struggle because (as anyone who works in a college can attest) they don't actually want to be there, are aware that they don't really want to be there, but can see absolutely no future for themselves without a bachelor's degree.

That dynamic-- a fundamental change in the employment situation in this country, funneling vast swaths of new students into the university-- simply must be understood and discussed if we are going to have anything resembling an adult, productive discussion about this. But to tell that story would be to lay blame elsewhere than merely at the feet of college educators, and that is against journalism's current goal, which seems to be to maintain whatever narratives most criticize and degrade those working in universities. As long as that's the case, bloggers and journalists are not engaged in a good faith effort to fix things. They claim to speak for students and society, when the people actually dedicated and working tirelessly to address these issues are inside the very institutions they condemn.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

are we destined for more form factors?

(If form factor is in fact the term I'm looking for here.)

So for awhile, there's been this idea floating around tech circles, I think called "convergence." It's the idea that the number of devices people own is going to shrink, as more and more features and power are crammed into smaller and smaller packages. As many, many people have reported, a decent smart phone houses so many features that even the term "phone" is reductive. Single-function devices, the conventional wisdom goes, are dead, dead, dead, and that means less devices for everyone.

But is that true?

Speaking anecdotally (and if you are averse to conjecture in this context, this post is not for you), I don't think it's true, or at least, it isn't true in the sense of resulting in less and less devices for each consumer. I think the Ipad should be taken as a sign of things to come: not less form factors, but more, and in direct response to market saturation and the need for tech companies to expand their product lines.

Think of your average techie who has some money to spend. For young, fairly affluent people, it's entirely ordinary to have a smartphone, tablet, eInk ereader like the Kindle, notebook/laptop computer, video game console (or two!), desktop computer, and HDTV. It's not that uncommon for someone to even add a netbook to that list, and streaming media boxes/media center PCs are growing more and more common.Yes, your smartphone can do a hell of a lot of things, but people still want more, and certainly, companies want to sell you more.

People have been predicting the demise of the desktop computer for as long as I can remember, but it never happens. Desktop computer sales remain strong, as well as desktop OS sales. I think that the realities of the gadget and tech press make this narrative endlessly attractive to tech writers; there is competitive pressure to both predict major changes in the future and to speak as sweepingly and boldly as possible. There is just so much tech media out there on the Internet, only the loudest claims get listened to. But it turns out that people still like to do things like play the latest games, use a large monitor for photo editing, encode and encrypt DVDs and Blu-Rays, and use powerful professional audio and video editing systems. So the desktop survives.

Anyway, why haven't we seen the expected convergence of all tech into one device? A few reasons. First, it's important to say that no matter how much software progresses, there are physical limitations on technology that are difficult or impossible to breach. Not all tech issues can be resolved through time and Moore's Law. The perfect example of this is screen size. For years, in cell phones, the push was smaller, smaller, smaller. But the Droid X and EVO 4G each made a splash by going larger, specifically in screen size. When a phone is only used to make phone calls, more size is a disadvantage. When a phone is regularly used to watch YouTube or surf the web, size becomes a commodity. But that involves a trade off. Until we come up with some sort of next gen projection tech, you either choose the most pocketable, portable device, or you choose the best screen to look at. It's exactly for this reason-- the desire for portability combined with the desire for more screen real estate-- that tablets have emerged in such a public way.

This is also true of other issues, such as physical controls. The fact that people still buy netbooks, aside from their affordability compared to tablets, stems from the reality that (propaganda aside) typing on a touch screen simply isn't as easy, accurate, or comfortable as typing on a physical keyboard. Or consider the Nintendo DS and its multitude variations. The DS, a device used almost exclusively for gaming, is exactly the kind of single-function gadget that tech-head CW has insisted will die out. But the DS has something an iPhone, iPad, or most Android smartphones and tablets will never have: physical buttons, d-pads, and analog sticks laid out and specifically devoted to gaming. The advantage of this should be obvious to anyone who has played your average iPhone or Android games, which (Angry Birds notwithstanding) are terrible, generally speaking. Many major genres and types of game simply aren't meant for touch controls. That's why third-party weirdness like this exists.

Incidentally, one of the places where the tech media pushes a narrative to the point of dishonesty is in the app-market triumphalism. Major gadget and tech sites constantly report the number of apps sold and downloaded, rather than the price of those apps or the profit that they generate, as the essential information for the success of app stores. This is misleading because of how many apps are free or a dollar, and also how many are barely used. A quarter of apps downloaded are used exactly once and never again. Compare to Nintendo's unprecedentedly strong  DS platform; games typically sell for $30. That's got to matter for a consideration of who "rules" gaming. (A consideration of game quality would be nice, too.) But the narrative is that downloaded apps are the future and physical games are the past, and as is their habit, they push the stories that they feel best fit the narrative, rather than trying to honestly assess the state of the tech world.

I digress. The biggest reason form factors proliferate, I think, is simply that businesses need more devices to sell, and for that reason I want to talk for a minute about the iPad.

I want to preface this by saying that I have quit arguing PC vs. Mac cold turkey. (Although, if arguing PC vs. Mac is my alcoholism, then Andrew Sullivan's recent "Apple and Our Culture" series was like learning an ex-wife was getting remarried. To my brother. On Christmas. In a distillery.) But the way that the tech media interacts with Apple and its products is really important. Here's what I think happened with the iPad: I think Apple put out a device in a form factor that was almost entirely niche, and the tech media was immediately ready to accept that form factor as a serious contender.

Remember that, despite its reception as a revolutionary device, tablets as expressed in the iPad represent an idea that has been around for quite some time. Notoriously, Bill Gates predicted the iPad by years and years. So it's not like the iPad idea was particularly game-changing. Rather, the fact that it was Apple that put it into practice gave the form factor immediate legitimacy. I've probably played with an iPad for a total of 15 minutes, so I'm not the best to judge, but it does seem to me that Apple has realized the concept quite nicely. But that isn't why the iPad created immediate legitimacy for the form factor; it only took the Apple name. Again, I'm not denying the accomplishment of Apple, only trying to be honest about what the mechanism was that legitimized the tablet in the eyes of the media. The widespread mocking of Bill Gates in the tech media for not implementing his idea doesn't reflect the simple reality that even an identical Microsoft iPad would have been met with a far harsher, more skeptical critical evaluation than the exact same device as presented by Apple. That's just the reality of the gadget blogs and media; Apple has an enormous advantage in a credulous and sympathetic press, in comparison to Google and certainly to Microsoft. Whether that's a product of their track record, their advertising/propaganda machine, or both is a matter of debate.

What's interesting is that this isn't necessarily a bad thing for the industry. If you define success in terms of beating Apple, sure, it's a bad thing. But look at all of the myriad tablet options out there. Some will be profitable, and some won't be, but they're all entering a marketplace that exists in large part because Apple decided to create it. In the short term, that's probably good for the industry as a whole. In the long run, we'll see if it's a healthy dynamic or not. I don't think it's going to change; I can't imagine a situation where the tech press's baked-in preference for Apple products takes a hit.

So look forward into the future. It's hard for me to imagine a new form factor that people could desire. But two years ago, I never would have thought that there would be room for a device inbetween the smart phone and the laptop, and yet tablets have exploded. There's a clear reason for this: if you are a tech company, what good does convergence do you? If you actually could cram every tech need into a smartphone, you're putting all of your eggs into that basket. Even if it's clearly the best smartphone on the market, you're setting a certain threshold for how many devices you're going to sell in a quarter. Sure, people will upgrade eventually. But people only have so much money to spend on phones, and of course, the two year contracts that subsidize expensive smartphoness are an essential element of the basic economics of the industry.

If you're a tech company, it seems to me that the opposite of what you want is convergence, and the iPad demonstrates that. It's true that single function devices the MP3 players seem less likely to emerge or endure, but total devices, I conjecture, are going to rise. This leads to a lot of redundancy-- you can listen to music on your phone, on your ereader, on your tablet, on your notebook, and on your desktop. But people love to buy gadgets and companies love to sell them.

So while I can't imagine a new form factor, my guess is a new one is coming. And if you want a prediction of which will get the blessing of the gadget press, look to Apple.

totalitarianism in a paragraph

Devin Friedman of GQ, in praising Silicon Valley:
This isn't just the place where they invent this shit; it's the single place where the life that's advertised is lived. Where the adoption rate, if the product is right, approaches 100 percent. Where the world has been mapped out by the inquisitive people with GPS-equipped smartphones and Foursquare, and difficult technical questions are answered by friendly experts you don't know. (It's hardly a coincidence that the one area of Quora that's already fleshed out is the part about how to build thingies.) It's like that because it's a small world, filled with highly educated people with similar interests and a deep philosophical understanding of what the point of all this stuff is. That it's the perfect social network doesn't just mean Silicon Valley is more efficient at making stuff. It affects the products they make. Products that promise to, if we can work together, systematize the world. It's a place where there's a deep belief that human society can be perfected. These people, the Ashvins, are optimistic not only because theirs is the last ascendant American industry but because implied in all those products is the idea that the human problem can be solved. They're working in a world—the Internet—that's wholly manipulable, that behaves according to rules. A world like a geometry textbook. And that way of thinking bleeds out into how they design stuff for us to use.
God save me from such sentiment and such people.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

representation

Remarking on the costuming controversy regarding the film Black Swan, my brother writes
In movies like that realism is key, and the better the costumes, the more invisible they will be. They have to act subliminally. You have to make a conscious effort to notice details like clothes that seem to be slept in, or one character wearing slightly different things than another in a way that communicates subtle differences in class or taste, but these are exactly the things that call for the greatest skill for a costume designer.

But everyone notices wild extravagant costumes, or elaborately distressed and filthified costumes, in period pieces or sci-fi. And in a movie like Black Swan, everyone notices the ballet costumes. They’re “pieces”, separated from the world we know, and they announce themselves as costumes

I'm not educated on the specific question of costuming, but it's clear that there are some obvious issues here that reflect on the broader issues of movies, art, and realism. (Or, if you prefer, "realism.") Oscar season is a time for perpetual consideration of whether the role of filmmakers is to reflect reality as closely as possible or to make reality more outsized in order to entertain and make artistic statements. Obviously, here, I'm not so much interested in grand spectacles like Avatar, although it's interesting to think of what a movie like that thinks of as being more "real" as it pursues ever more advance 3-D, computer graphics, and visuals. I think the real question is in the world of drama, and movies that are trying to more or less portray events, characters, and places that could exist in the real world.

Is the regard for Daniel Day-Lewis a product of his ability to disappear into a character and show us what real life is like? Or is he a beloved ham, who wins the plaudits he does because he gives us the thrill of the scenery chewing we secretly love? It's the old "presentational/representational" school, if I'm getting those terms correctly. It's often discussed when considering the divide between British and American acting-- you hear the line sometimes that Britain makes actors, America makes stars. Embedded in that, I think, is both an acknowledgement that good acting should in some sense be antithetical to a star system, but also that what people pay for, being entertained, often involves transcending being a realistic depiction of life. Of course, Oscar has long ago thrown in his lot with capital-A, showy acting; the Academy seems like it will always prefer bravura, meaty performances like Sean Penn in Mystic River over quieter, naturalistic performances like Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson.

I shouldn't pretend that I'm neutral on this score; I tend to prefer the more sublimated style of acting where the actor seems to disappear into the character. It says a lot to me that Heath Ledger was rewarded by the Oscars not for his quiet, wounded, and complex portrayal of Ennis del Mar but for his madcap turn as the Joker. (Of course, Ledger's death probably has something to do with this too.) It's not that I'm asking a Batman movie to showcase restrained character portraits. It just seems to me that while the Joker portrayal is more fun for the actor and has more obvious, look-at-me-moments, the performance in Brokeback Mountain is a great accomplishment.

However, there is something that complicates my feelings on this issue: I like almost the opposite in fiction. Obviously, there's a world of difference between realism in writing and realism in acting. But I've always preferred novels and fiction that were unafraid to move beyond the cramped definition of realism. One of the many virtues of Ben Marcus's notorious takedown of a certain absurdly narrow definition of good fiction is that it called into question the basic assumptions of what "realism" really means in the first place. It's an interesting challenge to myself: why do I want fiction to transcend traditional form, but movie acting to remain a matter of representing real life in a reductive sense? I imagine it's because of my dedication to the avant garde, and my natural, somewhat silly resistance to what is commercial. In fiction, what is prized as realistic in a narrow sense is also what most people buy and what publishers and the literary critical establishment insists is the only true way to write a great novel. In the movies, it's the quieter, more nuanced performances that are seen as belonging to an indie, art-house culture.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

long form, short message?

Just to riff a little bit on my concerns about our current ways of knowledge generation, I thought that this article on pornography by Natasha Vargas-Cooper in the Atlantic was a good example of a recurring problem with long-form journalism. Like a lot of essays that show up in places like the NYT magazine, the New Yorker, or the Atlantic, it is well-written, with lots of keen observations. But it suffers from a common failing the have, the tendency-- seemingly provoked by need-- to speak so reductively about its subject, here male sexuality.

So Vargas-Cooper writes often as if male sexuality can be explained in broad strokes, which is in inevitable tension with her observations about Internet porn: it allows men to explore the unspoken, darker sides of their desires, and then helps normalize trying those desires out. The problem here is that what is really interesting about men's desires is not that they are dark but that they are impossibly varied. Porn has not just grown in accessibility but in variety; the number of niche sexual preferences and fetishes is incredible. Men don't pursue these because they are extreme, or else everyone would be satisfied with the same extreme pornography. Rather, they pursue them (and drive a market for smaller and smaller niches) because their psychosexual makeup is so unique and non-generalizable. (Generally speaking, if the tag line for your magazine article teases that you're revealing "eternal truths," you're in trouble.)

Elizabeth Nolan Brown gets to the heart of this. She quotes Tony Comstock (who knows of which he speaks), "It’s a mistake to construe what aspects of human sexual experience that can be captured and distributed as a media product as a full-fledged proxy for human sexual experience."

I'm not blowing smoke that current long-form journalism is often very well-expressed and deeply thoughtful. The problem is that it often amounts to long, careful examinations of the consequences of reductive and sweeping observations. Long form journalism is a necessary countermeasure to the proliferation of short, necessarily simplistic information delivery systems. My concern is that one of the real benefits of longer formats, the ability to explore complexity and to acknowledge the limitations of any new insight, is being squeezed out due to the market forces that compel journalists and writers to expresses their ideas axiomatically.

When competing against writing that can be read and digested in a matter of minutes, long form journalism-- which is always time-consuming and sometimes quite expensive, depending on subject matter-- needs to have a selling point or hook. Calling your magazine article "The End of Men" moves units. My issue is that what is immediately intriguing is often what most elides complexity. I have my beefs with n+1, but they do allow their writers the space to dig around without finding the buried treasure. Wesley Yang's long piece on Seung-Hui Cho disturbed me in some ways, and I disagree with some of it quite strongly, but it was admirable in its ability to say some interesting things about the world while not arriving at any pat conclusions.

Part of this, I think, is the difficulty all of us have-- journalists, academics, consumers of information-- with stopping at "I don't know."