Thursday, December 29, 2011

US Post Office: Threat or Menace?

You know how

  1. Andrew Sullivan sometimes says something real dumb and then 
  2. takes it back after weeks of having his mistakes pointed out to him and then
  3. he tries to defend himself by noting that the blog is a record of him "thinking in real time" and then
  4. you scream at your computer that you were thinking in real time also but, magically, you got to the right answer weeks ago and he's an old privilege-kisser who can't see past his benighted biases?
Well I have biases of my own, and one of my big ones is the US Post Office: I'm for it. The USPS is second only to the DMV in terms of getting shit on by stand-up comedians and sitcoms. You can picture the set-up from almost any TV show: lazy postal employees shooting the breeze while hard-working people on their lunch-break wait in line. When was the last time we had a heroic postal worker--outside of David Brin's The Postman? (And with defenders like that!)

Part of my bias is that, when people talk about the post office, to me, it sounds like conservatives talking about the evils of government. So that's one reason why I'm biased and it's a bad reason: I like the Post Office because the rhetoric against it is boilerplate "drown the government in a bathtub" nonsense.

But here's my secret: I've almost never had a bad experience with the post office. People I know have lots of classic stories--the unmoving lines, the surly help, the lost packages, the opened envelopes... Actually, now that I think of it, no one I know has an "opened envelope" story. And just today, we got packages that were supposedly lost by the mail--but it turns out that the sender had our address wrong. So that's another victory for the post office.

We have lots of data about how the post office reaches more people more of the time than FedEx or UPS or the other private carriers that conservatives get so hot about, but maybe we need some more happy anecdotes and heroic representations.

Or what's this bias for?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mutant registration act: threat or menace?

RadioLab did a recent piece on a customs loophole whereby human-shaped dolls get taxed at 12% and monster dolls get taxed at 6%--which led Marvel lawyers to argue that their mutants action figures were not human. Jad and Robert overreach and try to make a connection between human-mutant relations in the comic and in the customs tax bracket.

But they did get me thinking about the Mutant Registration Act, which seems a) like an invasion of privacy that might be warranted in the case of child molesters--but not in the case of innocent people--and b) maybe not such a bad idea.

I say this because Marvel's X-Men has been used as an allegory for various real-world prejudices, like anti-Semitism, Civil Rights-era racism, and homophobia--and a registration act for those would be pretty ridiculous, right? Has anyone--even the most terribly prejudiced--ever recommended a registration act to keep an eye on homosexuals in our midst? (Wouldn't that also force many anti-gay activists to admit that being gay was a state, not a choice. After all, a registration act for people who choose to wear plaid would be pointless and constantly shifting.)

But why would a registration act for mutants be potentially useful? Because each mutant is an individual, with individual powers. (Which, if you think about genetics that underpins their mutant powers, is kind of weird.) It may be useful to know what powers are out there.

But we still run in to that whole "privacy" issue and that whole "innocent" issue--mutants aren't guilty of anything other than being mutants, so by what right could their privacy be abridged?

Oh, shut up, my bread machine is done making bread.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ben Nelson retires, nation mourn-celebrates

Ben Nelson announced today that he would not seek reelection, meaning that Nebraska might elect a Republican for Senate.

(A: Incumbents usually do better and races with two aspirants are more a toss-up; B: Nelson announced this now, leaving Democratic officials with less time to find a replacement; C: Nebraska isn't the most Democratic-friendly state.)

Now, there's not a lot to love about Nelson as a Democrat, so part of me is happy to see him go--but will his replacement be any better? Time for some postulates!

  1. A guy who votes with you sometimes is better than a guy who never votes with you.
  2. But optics matter, and a "Democratic supermajority" that can't do its job damages the Democratic brand. So a "Democratic supermajority" made up of Nelsons and Liebermans is a potential net-loss--they may vote with you sometimes, but make you look bad the rest of the time. 
Which is more important? Nelson's occasional votes in support of the Democratic agenda; or his damage to the Democratic Party as a whole by blocking Democratic bills while under the name of Democrat?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Notes for a future post on cyberpunk

I'd like to say that my political awakening was probably somewhere between Alien/Aliens (corporations will kill you for a profit) and Neuromancer (corporations will remake you to suit their needs, but man, do they have cool stuff!); so, naturally, when the fun podcast Writing Excuses attempted to define cyberpunk, I was bound to have some serious thoughts on the matter.

This post is not those serious thoughts, but only my initial thoughts/my dissent from what they said at Writing Excuses. In order:
  1. Yes, Mary Robinette Kowal is correct when she notes that the "punk" has to do with a gritty, street-level aspect. Things are not clean and perfect. In an interview, Gibson noted that the dirty sneakers in Alien was a big influence, and we can see how that's a serious change from our previous images of space travel.
  2. There's an argument about whether "cyberpunk" as a literary genre has more to do with hacker/anti-corp culture ("we'll make it ourselves") or not--and I definitely agree with Mary (again) that the "maker" culture that we live in now is only partly present in many of the foundational works of cyberpunk. For instance, Gibson's Neuromancer includes a lot of mods, but also a lot of brand-name stuff, stuff that they just collected--the military-grade "icebreaker" that they get is Chinese military, not something they made in their garage with their maker-bot.
  3. They discuss the East vs. West dynamic of cyberpunk, but that's only part of it; cyberpunk takes place in a post-industrial world, where capital is free to flow, so it's a world of globalization that extends beyond East vs. West. There's nothing really strange in doing African or Arabic cyberpunk, as all those elements exist in the foundation texts.
  4. Is there a big fear of corporations in cyberpunk? This is one of the standard academic lit readings of Neuromancer, that the corporations will do a number on your very being and we'll all end up programmable ROMs in the machine, like the Dixie Flatline construct. What that reading misses is a) how there are spaces beyond corporate control ("perversity" is one name for it, historical trauama is another); and b) how remaking of the self occurs in non-corporate settings (Dixie training Case).
  5. Similarly, does cyberpunk have a fear of technology? It seems more ambivalent to me.
  6. Does cyberpunk have a sense of wonder or a world-weariness? That's such a great question that I think I need to take a few days off to re-read "The Gernsback Continuum," which has a lot to say on this issue.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Stanhope vs. O'Neal: Charity vs. What's Owed To You

This is just a short note on Christmas Eve Eve in response to two comedians on Marc Maron's damn WTF podcast. (Is it just me or do other people feel like being subscribed to podcasts lays an obligation on one? I'm really trying to catch up in all my podcasts. More on that in the future.)

In his podcast interview, the late Patrice O'Neal talks to Marc Maron about the difficulties of being black in America; and in that talk, he says something about the difference between being given something as a gift and having something as a right: gifts that you're given aren't really yours--they can be taken away, they impose obligations on the receiver. (Hmm, come to think of it, I get those free podcasts kind of like gifts, so it's no wonder that I feel a little imposed on by them.)

Doug Stanhope, as a fine upstanding libertarian, notes that taxation is slavery (oh man, I'd love to have heard Patrice O'Neal rip into that comment) and that he likes giving to charity but doesn't like being taxed. (What would his account look like if he were paying for toll roads and bodyguards instead of enjoying our crumbling tax-built highways and police? Argh, libertarians.)

What Stanhope likes about charity (he gets something back by giving a gift) is exactly the problem that O'Neal identifies. I wish these two had had some time to discuss this issue.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What if we gave a War on Christmas and no one came?

Confess: you tear up when you think about the spontaneous Christmas truces of 1914. I do--there's something undeniably great about opposing infantrymen in the trenches coming out of the trenches and meeting in No Man's Land to sing carols, exchange gifts, and play football. Actually, I think a large part of my love for the Christmas truces is because of their spontaneity and mass motivation--this is an Occupy protest before Twitter (#OccupyNoMansLand).

But the only thing that makes the Christmas truces possible is the shared notion of Christmas. (It's interesting to note that German Prince Albert brought a lot of German Christmas customs to England when he married Victoria; so it's not completely surprising that the major truces on Christmas 1914 involved the British and the German forces. It's even less surprising once you remember that the French were still looking for payback for the Franco-Prussian War of 1870; so let's not overstate the role of culture here.) For instance, you couldn't have a Christmas truce during the Russo-Japanese War; heck, you couldn't even really have a Christmas truce on the Eastern front of WWI because the Russians (Eastern Orthodox) and the Germans (Western) don't celebrate Christmas on the same day.

All of this is prelude to my main interest, which is the ridiculous--and not so ridiculous--claims that there's a war on Christmas in America. We're all familiar with the standard Fox News outrage machine turning out perfectly identical claims that whites/Christians are under siege because someone is asking for "special" rights. On one hand, when you look at those claims, what you almost always find is that these other groups (Muslims, gays, blacks, etc.) are asking for the right to be treated equally under the law. So it's ridiculous to claim that there's a war on "us" (whites/Christians/men/Republicans).

But on the other hand, there's something not completely ridiculous about these claims. Because a lot of people who grew up white, hetero, Christian, blah find themselves unable to assume that everyone is like them anymore--and that leads to serious hardship.

First, that means philosophical/ideological hardship--if you know that there are other ways to live, then you have to question the way you live. (For another, and not generous example, we could think about the information-poor society of North Korea, where people don't really know that there are other ways to live--that's the life of a white, hetero, Christian growing up in America in the 1950s.)

Second, not being able to assume everyone is like you leads to some other hardship. For instance, if you have to think before you say "Merry Christmas," that's one more thing you have to think about. (And it's always easier to take things for granted than to think about them.) And if you have to shop around many places because you can't find something you need for your religious observation, that's another type of hardship.

Which is a long way for me to say that I live in a city of 90-100k people and I'm having trouble finding Hanukah candles.

UPDATE: I found Hannukah candles, but they're at this shop in the mall which seems geared towards the very Christian--which means that their interest in Judaica may be associated with the creepy right-wing interest in Greater Israel (Israel and its illegal settlements) as a stepping stone to the Jew-free world of Jesus's return. Maybe I'll go talk to them about that.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Should we have invaded North Korea?

Christopher Hitchens, Vaclav Havel, and Kim Jong Il--which of these was a threat to the world?

It seems clear that, among those three recent deaths, it's Kim Jong Il who leaves the world a better place merely by leaving the world. (At the very least, no more Kim Jong Il-directed films like his 1985 monster movie, Pulgasari.) I don't know what this will mean for North Korea (and it's nuclear program), but it seems like his son Kim Jong Un will take over with some disruptions. (This blog post at the New Yorker argues that the regime will probably survive with Chinese assistance, in part because China doesn't want a collapsing state on its borders. No word on how South Korea would react to a nearby collapse.)

But since Christopher Hitchens recently died and all his bad support for the Iraq War is getting a necessary airing, I wonder what he would say about Kim Jong Il's death and its potential to change that country without American soldiers and money. Because I liked Hitch best when he was excoriating religion, it's hard for me to imagine him as a foreign policy commentator. (Luckily, with Greenwald on the beat, I don't have to imagine what an idiot Hitch could be about Iraq and endless war on terror.)

But I don't need to imagine how Hitch felt about North Korea:
These conclusions of his, in a finely argued and brilliantly written book, carry the worrisome implication that the propaganda of the regime may actually mean exactly what it says, which in turn would mean that peace and disarmament negotiations with it are a waste of time—and perhaps a dangerous waste at that.
I like the way Hitch leaves the sentence with "disarmament negotiations with it are a waste of time," which slightly buries the lead--that "peace... with it [is] a waste of time." What a thinker! Who else would have the courage to suggest that peace is a waste of time? This is from a review written in 2010 and it sure seems like Hitch is gearing up for a war to remove Kim Jong Il--a mission which has been accomplished by time.

So, the world is better without Kim Jong Il--and maybe without Christopher Hitchens.

I especially like the way Hitch ends this review, with the note that the North Koreans are basically like Wells's Morlocks:
Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult: This horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.
What does it mean that "This horror show is in our future"? It sure does sound like the end of The Time Machine, where the bourgeois Londoners ignore the dangers of devolution; but it also nicely situates those who recognize the danger (i.e., Hitch, other warmongers) as having a super-temporal view of what needs to be done.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

How many pageviews is your good name worth?

This post is light on links because it's about linkwhores--and who wants to give them the satisfaction. In case you don't know, a linkwhore is someone who wants links; but I'm particularly interested in those who go ahead and write inflammatory material in order to get attention.

Recently, a writer at Forbes named Gene Marks wrote a ridiculously dumb piece about how, if he were a poor black child, he would overcome all his difficulties just by working hard and being better and using technology. And he rightfully got ripped all up and down the internet.

Now, there's a chance that Gene Marks is an authentically dumb person on the topic of race and opportunity. But there's also a chance that he wrote a dumb piece in order to get attention (i.e., links). After all, many contributing writers get paid according to the number of pageviews, so it's not impossible to think that our outrage is his financial gain.

Unfortunately for Gene Marks, things that happen on the internet tend to stick around, as teenagers on Facebook learn to their regret every day. So, how much do you think he'll ultimately pay for this?

Unfortunately, as Alex Pareene recently noted in his hacks of the year list, most hacks still have a job  being hacky--maybe because they're hacks, not despite that.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Whose success? (on team sports and Tim Tebow)

This will be very short because I know nothing about football or the football equivalent of baseball's sabremetrics; but it seems to me that people have the same problem discussing Tim Tebow that Andrew Sullivan does talking about successful and wealthy people.

That is, many people say that Tebow is a great quarterback because his team is winning; and others say that he's a terrible quarterback whose team wins only through their hard work and luck. So which is it--personal success or teamwork and luck? Or a little of both? There are numbers involved, so can't we just crunch them and get beyond opinionated arguments that keep veering into political/religious issues? Get on it, Nate Silver!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Can a dictator have good taste?

When the rebels got to Qaddafi's palace, there was a lot of pointing-and-laughing at his tacky and outlandish stuff, from jewel-encrusted guns to scrapbooks full of Condi Rice. There's a certain element of that which was just "how the mighty have fallen" and "how weird the mighty are"--the press ran almost the same articles about Qaddafi that they did about Michael Jackson's Neverland (even calling Qaddafi's compound "Neverland"). And with Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie, The Dictator, I feel like we're going to get a retread of Qaddafi's weird taste in art, in fictional form.

Which raises the question for me, is there some connection between power and a taste for kitsch?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Super Short Review Duo: Limitless (2011) and Friends with Benefits (2011)

As a break from all the heavy stuff the last few days...

There was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Data wanted to play as Sherlock Holmes on the holodeck--you still with me?--but the problem is that Data was so smart that he could solve the mystery immediately.

Limitless runs into that problem in reverse: it features a drug that makes people super-smart--but the characters still insist on acting pretty dumb. Sf author and critic James Blish would call this an "idiot plot": a story that only occurs because everyone acts like an idiot. There's probably an interesting story to tell here about addiction, motivation, conflict--imagine what Jason Reitman could do with a story about a dangerous drug and the people pushing it (or hoarding it). But while this movie is visually fun, it's the shallowest treatment of these topics possible.

And it's my fervent hope that, some day, a movie features that drug that will unlock the potential of the human brain--"we only use 10% of the brain, blah blah"--and then someone on that drug suffocates because they're calculating stock market fluxes in the part of the brain that should be tasked with breathing.

Friends with Benefits
Friends with Benefits has a similar issue, in that it's a surface-level view of the issues (emotions, sex, friendship, personality) with a nice sheen--whereas Limitless was visually interesting, Friends with Benefits keeps the story moving with fun dialogue. But no dialogue is so fun as to obscure the essential fact that this movie is product--plastic, rounded edges to make it seem more organic, high-caliber actors brought in for walk-ons with cliche traits (Alzheimer's dad, free-loving mom). I feel like this movie could have been written with a few spins of some story-wheel app on someone's iPad.

Recommended or not recommended? Not recommended.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Why Andrew Sullivan isn't a good source for economic morality

We've inherited a bastardized version of Adam Smith in America, a version which remembers "the invisible hand" but forgets everything that Smith ever wrote about moral sentiments and moral capitalism. And I think we need to get back to discussing the potential morality of capitalism since we seem to be stuck with capitalism for now.

So let's talk morality and capitalism, focusing on one particular person and his morally incoherent ideas about taxes: Andrew Sullivan.

Andrew Sullivan is a) not an economics expert; and b) not a terrible person (as far as I can tell). And yet, he can take terrible positions on economic issues (including economic rhetoric) because they seem the morally correct ones--and he needs to translate economics into morality in order to feel a certain mastery of the topic. Case in point, Sullivan's sticky-fingered hold on the concept of "the successful," which he cannot let go.

For quite a while, whenever Sullivan wanted to talk about the upper-class, he talked about "the successful" rather than the wealthy, the rich, the upper class, the %1 percent, etc. That was a rhetorical choice that expressed his worldview: people with money had worked hard to get it, so taxing them would be punishing them for their success. Even now, when he's altered his thinking enough to say "the wealthy and the successful," he won't let go of "the successful" and the rhetorical defense of low taxes on the wealthy that it implies.

He recently posted a video explaining his thinking for why he's holding onto "successful."

And here are the problems with his thinking on the subject:

1) No one is a self-made success
Sullivan's main complaint is that class war in America focuses on the immoral, lazy inheritors of wealth and not those bold, creative self-made men, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Now, let's accept Sullivan's argument that Jobs and Gates did something cool--but they didn't do it in a vacuum. Malcolm Gladwell makes this point in Outliers: for example, Gates was clearly dedicated to computers, but he had access to a computer only thanks to the work--and the taxes--of the people who came before him. Or we could go to Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward:
Was it not wholly on account of the heritage of the past knowledge and achievements of the race, the machinery of society, thousands of years in contriving, found by you ready-made to your hand? How did you come to be possessors of this knowledge and this machinery, which represent nine parts to one contributed by yourself in the value of your product? You inherited it, did you not?
Emphasis mine because the book is from the 1880s, but Sullivan still hasn't absorbed this. Let's call this problem "the apple pie from scratch problem," after Asimov's joke that, in order to create an apple pie from scratch, one first has to create the universe. In other words, no one is a self-made success. So one would think that those who succeeded (thanks to the previous work of others) might have a moral obligation to give back.

2) Can you tell the successful from the wealthy?
If the government were able to tell the successful from the wealthy, Sullivan might begrudgingly support a higher taxation on those who merely inherited their wealth. (If only there were some form of... inheritance tax.) See, in Sullivan's mind, the successful have a greater moral right to their wealth, whereas the wealthy probably do not. So maybe if we could separate them, we could treat their money differently.

But let's take Jon Huntsman, Jr. as an example of how hard it is to tell those two things apart. Huntsman is probably a smart, hard-working guy. But as Colbert pointed out, Huntsman had a meteoric rise to Chair of the Huntsman Group from the lowly position of... Vice President. Was it Huntsman's success that helped him be born into that family?

Or take Sullivan, a first world success story both as a blogger and as an HIV survivor. How much of his success is due to his talents and how much is due to the luck of being born at a particular time and place? If, after all, luck plays such a huge role in his success, can he claim to have a moral right to the fruits of his success?

3) Incoherence much?
Sullivan moans about how higher taxes are a punishment (because money is good); and then he wants to elicit sympathy for the hardships of being rich (because too much money is bad): "that kind of money is a horrible curse in a way to a life of ordinary living and to real living." Leave aside the weirdness of "real living" and just note the incoherence of that: You can choose one or the other--money is a reward for hard work that we can't morally tax or money is a curse that we should feel sorry about--not both. If too much money is a curse, then taxation isn't punishment  but relief.

Also, notice that Sullivan talks about work as if money is the only or primary reward. There's no remembrance of Adam Smith's moral questions about economics, about how capitalism was meant to improve the world.

4) Objectively pro-wealthy
Sullivan comes from a different culture, and he pisses and moans about the British left, so he might feel that "class war" is the worst thing in the world. But to paraphrase Sullivan (who paraphrased Orwell when he said that people who objected to the war with Iraq were "objectively pro-Saddam"), if you wash your hands of the class war, then you're objectively pro-wealthy. If there's a car and a dog on a collision course, and you don't take a side, then you're ensuring a dog-free world.

5) Feelings--nothing more than feelings!
Sullivan includes that old line (much mocked over at Balloon Juice) about how we need to celebrate the wealthy because they are... what? Job creators? Morally superior to the rest of us? This line helps move the conversation from numbers and economics (which Sullivan doesn't understand) to questions about affect and feeling. And this line exposes Sullivan's confusion between charity (giving something that you have no obligation to give) and taxation (paying back for the things that you have benefitted from or that you want to benefit your children).

Sunday, December 11, 2011

I don't want to go to Zion (part 3)

So let's say you care about Jews (unlike the end-times Christian Republican support of Israel, which has nothing to do with Jews as Jews and only cares about Jews as pawns in their Christian worldview); and let's say you've realized the ahistorical (i.e., bullshit) nature of the arguments about Jewish authenticity that underlie a certain pro-Zionist argument.

That is, we reject the argument that you can only really express your Jewishness in Israel; but conversely, that doesn't mean that my brand of Jewishness--bagels, Woody Allen, shiksa girlfriends--is more authentic. (My brother and I are both our parents' kids, but we've developed differently. Is one of us more authentically inheritors of our parents' legacy? In order to answer that nonsensical question, you'd have to define what our parents' legacy was, which would be a process of highlighting certain aspects and downplaying others--and who's in a position to make that call? Authenticity-search is a game with no winners.)

Which is why, if some people feel the need of Zion to express their Judaism, then more power to them. In that way, I'm a Zionist. Bet you didn't see that one coming.

But I'm a limited Zionist, a two-state Zionist. Because if you claim the right of self-determination (as Zionist Jews do), then you have to accept the right of other people's self-determination, like the Palestinians.

(Which is why Newt Gingrich and others like to refer to the Palestinians as an "invented" people--he can accept self-determination ("a People should have a homeland") and still deny it to the Palestinians ("not all people are a People").)

The concept of Zion-for-Jews relies on self-determination; and no self-determination can overpower another person's self-determination. (That is, your self-determination can't include subjugating another people's.) Which is why the only coherent Zionism these days is for a two-state solution.

Or for a single state that treated everyone equally. Because, honestly, Kosher and Hallal can get along pretty easily (hold the yogurt sauce) and everyone likes falafel.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Netanyahu's Army (on Zionism)

OK, so, let's say you think Jews are more than just pawns in a Christian fantasy of the end times--what do you do about Israel?

Well, first, let's separate out Jews from Israel--which is not easy: A lot of pro-Zion forces like being able to call anti-Zionists anti-Semites; and some anti-Zion speech treads close to traditional anti-Semite rhetoric. This is a hard issue, in part because the founding story of Israel relies on a lot of philo- and anti-Semitic ideas: Let's remember, when Herzl proposed Israel, he wanted a place for Jews to get back to the land and away from the European traditions of money-lending, urbane Jews.

But what if those traditions have come to be at the heart of your Jewish identity? This reminds me of Ralph Ellison, in his review of An American Dilemma:
But can a people (its faith in an idealized American Creed not-withstanding) live and develop for over three hundred years simply by reacting? Are American Negroes simply the creation of white men, or have they at least helped to create themselves out of what they found around them? Men have made a way of life in caves and upon cliffs; why cannot Negroes have made a life upon the horns of the white man’s dilemma?
Herzl didn't ask himself this question; and though Herzl eventually settled on jettisoning this life that Jews created for themselves upon the horns of the European Christian's dilemma, one of his previous plans was for Jews to jettison their Judaism by converting to Catholicism. So, Herzl: a little too quick to throw things out.

Which is one main problem I have with pro-Zionist forces who argue that you can only really be a Jew in Israel. (Did you see Netanyahu's government's recent ads (now canceled) on how Israelis shouldn't marry American Jews because they're not real Jews?) We could call these "hipster Jews" since they're obsessed with a notion of authenticity; but what they really are is eminently ahistorical, as if Jews/Judaism were a fixed notion throughout time--as if we got the tablets from Moses and immediately made matzah ball soup and told our children to become doctors.

So, when I was in Israel, I enjoyed the fact that everything shut down for Shabbat; and then everything seemed like a party after Shabbat, when all the restaurants opened up and we went out for dinner at a time that's probably past my bedtime now. But that particular observance of Shabbat is merely one type--not the only available expression of Jewishness.

Oh, boy, this is going to be a three-part argument about Zionism. And every part will have an Elvis Costello song (modified) as a title!

Part 1: Conservative Christian support is a poisoned pill that supports Zion but denies agency and worth to Jews.
Part 2: The pro-Zion argument that Jews need Israel to be authentically Jewish is ahistorical.
Part 3: ?

Friday, December 9, 2011

What's so funny about peace, love, and Zionism?

The two major types of podcasts I listen to are (1) those that bore me and (2) those that anger me. So: NPR's Science Friday--boring; On the Media--aggravating.

CBC's Ideas usually bores me (and, to be fair, has some occasionally interesting things to say), but recently--and how jealous is Science Friday now!--made that coveted jump to aggravating me with their two-parter on Zionism.

I don't mean that I was angry with the show, which ultimately falls into that safe spot of saying "it would be better if we could just talk openly about this." (Bleh, but sure, let's.) I was more aggravated by the people who were interviewed, almost all of whom were professors. ("Man on the street" reporting may be unrepresentative, but "man in the ivory tower" is by definition unrepresentative.)

So you know what time of year it is: bells are ringing and angels are heralding--it's beginning to look a lot like time to discuss Israel and the position of Jews in America.

It doesn't help that the Republican Jewish Coalition hosted the GOP fail parade presidential hopefuls falling over themselves in declaring undying allegiance to Israel--and then going out to say that it's a shame that Americans can't say "Merry Christmas" to each other. (Seriously, did no one at the RJC want to discuss Rick Perry's ridiculous ad that avers that there's a war on religion? Especially because it's clear that for Perry, "religion" = "Christianity.")

Can we talk about that now? Republican support of Israel has a few motivations--and none of them is "self-determination of a religion or ethnic group." There's the enjoyment of seeing brown people be oppressed and there's the eschatological aim of the religious right. (Remember: the end-times Christian support of Israel has as its goal a Judenfrei world. That's how Perry can say that he supports Israel as a Christian: in that religious worldview, the Jews are pawns meant to fulfill a specific role before exiting stage left--assuming stage left leads to Hell.)

But let's put aside the self-serving and anti-Jewish support of Israel from the Christian right/Republicans. How should the rest of us feel about Israel, those of us who care about Jews? More on that tomorrow.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Conservate hate machine

When I started this blog, I told myself that I wouldn't let it become too much of an end zone-dance celebration of conservative failures. (Although, my second post was about how Rick Perry and Christine O'Donnell reacted dumbly to being questioned, so you can see how far I got with that plan.)

But I have to comment on Erick Erickson's "confession", in which he confesses that he breathes oxygen. No, wait, he confesses that Newt Gingrich makes him uncomfortable--which is like confessing that he breathes oxygen. Don't we all feel a little uncomfortable around Newt. Exhibit A:

We could discuss Erickson's fetishization of character--what makes Erickson uncomfortable with Newt is his history of marital fidelity, not Newt's questionable political history. But what I particularly liked in this confession was Erickson's paean to Rick Perry:
I hope for a Perry rebound. He’s on his first wife still and has the most consistent record of conservative policies. And we hate the same people and institutions. We have the same general world view. 
Emphasis mine, because--my god--how could I not emphasize that Erickson's political leanings seem to be motivated by affect. Maybe that's an attempt at humor (which doesn't mean it's not true); and maybe he doesn't feel the need to elaborate what he hates since this is on (where everyone knows what he hates--Commerce, Education, and, uh, the third one).

But can you imagine a worse way to run a movement than (1) to fetishize character ("on his first wife still")--especially in a form that has so many factors. (I mean, where's the wife's agency and personhood in Erickson's formulation? Or is marriage just an expression of the husband's character?); (2) to ignore policy deficits while lauding conservative consistency (what about Perry and the children of undocumented immigrants?; what about vaccinations for children?)--which is just another way of emphasizing character over politics; and (3) to found your support on undefined hate.

Actually, maybe hate wouldn't be such a bad foundation for a movement; only I always get the feeling that conservative hate is poorly directed--fine, eliminate Commerce, but what about the Census?--and so often defined as "liberals like X, therefore I hate X."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Can Arabian-themed fantasy help people get over their Islamophobia?

I don't even know, but I'll take anything to help. In 2007-8, I started hanging out on conservative forums to figure out why people supported Bush, and I found a lot of Islamophobia, usually of the sort that goes "I'm tolerant of religion, but Islam is a type of political organization." Or "I'm ok with moderate religions, but Islam isn't moderate!"

Nothing I could say seemed to alter those people's thoughts on the issue; but recently I've been listening to some of Saladin Ahmed's Arabian-/Islamic-themed fantasy stories, and I wonder if that's a way to inject some appreciation and tolerance into the discourse.

My hopes aren't up on this, of course, because I don't expect these hard-core Islamophobes/racists to pick up any fantasy with the word "crescent" on the cover. But might these works help the borderline racist/intolerant accept a particular type of real-world difference by cloaking it in fantastic form?

Monday, December 5, 2011

What's the same between New York and Texas?

Dead deer on the side of the road. That's what New York and Texas have in common.

To get my laptop checked out at an Apple Store, I drove from San Angelo to Austin--200 miles for a two-minute diagnostic. On the plus side, I also stopped by the Austin Whole Foods and a Chuy's where Sarah and I got a good meal a few years ago--and that definitely helped me decide to drive to Austin rather than--gasp--San Antonio.

Austin felt a little different than San Angelo, but today I want to talk about the apocalyptic hellscape in between the two cities. I'm really looking forward to making that trip again, with more time so that I can stop to take pictures of detention centers, signs advertising local stores ("Venison World"!), and houses in the middle of fields, totally alone, but lit up with Christmas lights.

Sure, "hellscape" isn't accurate and neither is "apocalyptic"--I should probably say "post-apocalyptic." Not the day after the End, with fires still burning and scarred survivors reduced to cannibalism or venison, but a few months or years after, when there aren't people left and when the green is well on its way to taking back the world. Except in Texas, it's not so much green trees and grass that cover everything, but a mix of gray and green and brown. (The landscape was probably more green and alive-looking on this trip because it rained the whole time I was on the road.)

In a way, the Texas roadscape reminded me of the trip to Bard College, especially at night--dark, rural spaces crossed by empty roads. Except not totally empty, because the roads were popular hang-outs for suicidal deer (or teenage deer who think they'll live forever). On this trip to Austin, I saw three deer carcasses, which is probably about the same deer/mileage in upstate NY.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Wildlife of San Angelo (including a manger scene)

1) Dogs and dogshit:

Do you remember the part in Barcelona where one American says to another that he loves dating Spanish women because he can be a jerk and blame it on cultural difference? Sure, wasn't there a moment back there when everyone watched Whit Stillman movies?

Anyway, I always remember that scene when I come into a new situation where I can't tell if there's a cultural difference or just a personal lack. For instance, at the apartment complex where I live in San Angelo, there's a lot of people who don't pick up after their dogs. 

So, is this a cultural difference between Illinois and Texas? (Something like: there's so much space here, it doesn't matter if you pick up after your dog. Or, more charitably: it's so hot here, that after a few hours, the dogshit has turned to dust.) Or is this a cultural artifact of small city living? Or is this a reflection of the type of person who lives in this apartment complex?

2) Birds of prey:

In Chicago, I once saw a peregrine falcon eating a pigeon on the Lakeshore path, which was pretty cool; in San Angelo, I just saw a hawk of some kind being harassed (in flight) by some songbird, which was also pretty cool. 

So, for birds of prey, it's a tie between Chicago and San Angelo.

3) Manger scenes:

Someone in my apartment complex told me that it was the first day of Christmas--on December 1st. Yesterday--to celebrate the second day of Christmas?--Sarah and I went to go see this manger scene, which might be up until... who knows when Christmas ends around here. It was a cold day with a light rain, so I was glad to see the cast changing. (The first angel we saw looked totally like a pouting teenager, so I'm sure she was glad to get out of there, too.) 

Beside the people (and their fake beards), the scene featured at least one donkey, some goats and something that might have been a small llama (filling in for the more climactically appropriate camels?). Also, very loud Christmas carols.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Why mic checking is like Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift

Occupy Wall Street got banged around a bit for its hand-signal method of deriving consensus, as if reporters couldn't tell the difference between alternative methods of communication and jazz hands. (It reminded me of this comedy sketch where this ancient Roman invents clapping while all the others--who still wave their togas to signal approval--are appalled.) Personally, I think OWS hand signals allow for a greater level of precision and participation than clapping; but I can understand that, from the outside, it might look ridiculous.

By contrast, I haven't seen as much criticism of the human microphone. (Exception: John Oliver did a Daily Show segment where he said the human microphone was annoying.) In Zuccotti Park, the human microphone seemed like a sensible way to get around restrictions on electronic amplification; and it's spread to other Occupy groups since it fits so well with the ideology: the human microphone is participatory, consensual (you have to agree to repeat what someone else says), potentially equalizing (everyone can potentially speak with the same volume), and group-oriented.

(Which makes me think of the "edge" scene from The Lady from Shanghai:
“A guy with an edge. What makes him [points to the jukebox] sing better than me? Something in here [points to his throat]. What makes it loud? A microphone. That’s his edge.”
“A gun or a knife, a nightstick, or a razor, something the other guy ain’t got. Yeah, a little extra reach on a punch, a set of brass knuckles, a stripe on the sleeve, a badge that says cop on it, a rock in your hand, or a bankroll in your pocket. That’s an edge, brother. Without an edge, there ain’t no tough guy.”
The human microphone might seem like a blunt instrument, but you could say that's the point--it removes edges.)

So we all love the human microphone at Occupy rallies; but what about the recent use of "mic checks" to interrupt speakers or politicians giving speeches? It still has all that participatory goodness; and it levels the playing field between people with microphones and people without. But even if it's a group activity, it's still basically heckling and shutting down someone else's ability to be heard.

I mean, we can all agree that Kanye West looked like a jerk interrupting Taylor Swift to register his dissent over her VMA win; so would he have looked like less of a jerk if there were a group of people repeating what he said? I think he'd still look like a jerk, whether he was borrowing Swift's microphone or brought his own.

So I'm not thrilled with the increasing number of mic checks, though I love the human microphone at rallies.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Cactus makes perfect (or "The Red State Blues")

Did you hear the news? I live here now:

This is actually San Angelo State Park, where the buffalo may roam, but are hard to spot. (In fact, there is a herd of American bison here and on the way out of the park, we saw one grazing on some dry grass.) Technically, I don't actually live in this park--though that is a suitable plan B.

But I do live in Texas now, which makes me think of the tagline for the old computer game Obsidian: "Your Rules Do Not Apply Here." I mean--my god!--they don't sell hard alcohol in grocery stores, as they did in Illinois. How's a person supposed to stand that?

I don't yet have any serious red state blues to complain of (I saw far more anti-Obama bumper stickers when I was here a few weeks ago, checking out apartments); as usual, misconceptions are like battle plans--they don't survive contact with the other side. So, what do you expect in Texas? A guy in a pick-up truck with a cowboy hat? Yeah, I saw that--but I also saw his Pomeranian in the passenger seat. Or what about cowboy boots and denim shirts? Yeah, I see lots of that--but I also saw this one guy in cowboy boots go get one of the frilliest coffee drinks I'd ever seen.

So let's see how this Texas thing goes; future posts on this topic will be marked "Cactus makes perfect," narrowly beating out my other idea, "Dismember the Alamo."