Monday, December 17, 2012

shouts near tomorrow

Dear President Obama;

I write in your direction regarding the recent deadly shootings in public spaces in the United States, in a sense of spiritual and intellectual correspondence with the tenor of your memorial address Sunday night. I guess, in some ways, we are a lot alike. I have a family that I love very much, and that everyone else seems to really love too. I have a busy job with myriad stresses that keeps me out of the house a great deal, and when I get home, I have to summon a second side of myself in order to engage with my inspiring wife and remarkable young children, to enjoy who they are. I strive to navigate a world in which my decisions must reflect well on me as well as a small team of people who need me. I see my kids off to school each morning knowing I am loosing them into a swirl of inspiration and dejection; I can pick up toys off the stairs in my own house, preventing a tumble, but not out there. Sometimes the world around me is hellish or weedy or petty, but I have to cut a decent path through it. It’s a daily challenge. You probably have had similar experiences.

I write because, in these last days, I have taken stock of what exactly it is that I can do to ensure my children’s safety in the world beyond my house, as a new reality seems to morph beneath my feet. You mentioned this in your speech, pointing to a responsibility that must rest on a larger community of people. It was as close to a vindication of the ideal of citizenship as I have seen any president utter in my short lifetime. I felt that. So, I figured the best I could do was write to you to implore you to put some muscle into this fight, behind the shield of those artful words.

Publicly and privately, our nation invests fortunes into formulating strategies for various battlefields, some close to permanent and some chillingly remote. Experts live on payrolls of the government, corporations, and think tanks, honing our military might into a laser of equal precision and force. The results, though empirically muddy, are on a small-scale quite lucrative. Say it about Americans, we know how to assemble brain power to achieve an objective, however righteous or misguided it is. So why then do we not take this approach to what is undeniably our most dangerous domestic battlefield, where mentally unstable people have easy access to guns as well as a culturally hardwired blueprint for inflicting terror?

What I am suggesting is far more than a blue ribbon commission or some shifty testimony before Congress. We need funded institutions in this country that attack every tentacle of this problem. And there are tentacles: gun laws need a complete redefinition, the very system that ensures the care and security of those who suffer from mental illness needs to be nationalized and strengthened, the loudest talkers in our cultural hubs need to be calling for and emulating a new communal ethic. We have a boon of intelligent, driven people in America that need to be incentivized immediately to untangle this mesh of problems, and we need you to call them to action.

You and I both know that the will of the people is overwhelmingly behind you in this. The desperate among us are clinging to the idea that you now have nothing to lose. The optimistic among us tell ourselves that you have thought this way all along. It’s time to start the push out of the muck. What else can you or I do, except see our children out the door, and wonder what we’ve left lying around for them to trip on out there?


Evan Woodward

Monday, August 31, 2009

fight the realer enemy

When an addled Larouchie took mic in hand and asked Barney Frank why he supported 'a Nazi policy' of euthanizing the elderly to balance the Medicare budget, the clip of her subsequent dispatching was a Youtube walk-off. Watching an extended clip of that night's town hall revealed an even stranger trope that has bobbed repeatedly to the surface as the healthcare debate has worn on. How, the next questioner demanded of Frank, could private insurers expect to survive in competition with a federal insurance provider with an endless influx of cash at its disposal? Nevermind Frank's reply that the proposed program would have an initial lump of starter capital and is expected to remain solvent on its own, the oddity here is this humble private citizen taking up the concerns of one of America's highest profiting industries. Her appeal to the archetypal tenacity of the pioneering salesman struggling against the monolith of government elites manages to completely invert the reality of today's healthcare market, and it does so almost wordlessly.

The compulsion to marshal anti-elitist rhetoric in blind defense of corporatism may never appear as nakedly as it does in Charlotte Allen's LA Times op-ed titled 'Keep your self-righteous fingers off my processed food.' While the blindingly dumb headline, and a byline identifying Allen as the keeper of the Minding the Campus section of the Manhattan Institute website may be enough for you to write the author off as an anti-intellectual theocon, braving the full text offers a vivid example of how wrong one can go when searching for elites to rail against. Allen's strategy is to brand as "spending enthusiasts" a disparate brand of social critics arguing for the consumption of more locally-grown food and against the continuing market dominance of discount chainstores. Her reasoning for this begins and ends, it seems, with this: all of these critics advocate patronizing farmer's markets, and everyone knows farmer's markets are too expensive. In Allen's China-made straw man, critics of Wal-mart's low, low prices are simply elitists who don't want the poor to own televisions or afford milk.

Certainly, the 'foodie' culture that has risen alongside the work of legit critics like Michael Pollan and Ellen Ruppel Shell requires some unpacking, with its attendant fetishization of rare edition esoterica, small batch snake oil, and far-flung regional specialization. Such unpacking, ironically, would most likely bring one to Whole Foods, the grocery chain currently run by libertarian and anti-health care reform CEO John Mackey, whose propositions to improve public health in the US included 'shopping at Whole Foods more often.' Unfortunately, and lazily, Allen lumps local food advocates like Pollan together with such Whole Foods 'foodies', but only the farmers come in for the abuse:

Dire economic circumstances don't seem to faze these spending enthusiasts, who scold us for shopping at supermarkets instead of at farmer's markets, where a loaf of "artisanal" (and also "sustainable") rye bread sells for $8, ice cream for $6 a cup and organic tomatoes go for $4 a pound.

To take it from Allen, farmers decide to charge these amounts on a whim. Maybe the number 8 just looked nice and symmetrical that day. Maybe the farmer is just an asshole, out to scam some burgeoning foodie tourists. What clearly doesn't enter into Allen's calculus, however, is any kind of sober look at the true costs of quality food production on a small scale, and the hidden costs of Wal-mart's mass production and distribution. A superstore shopper may be able to get a loaf of bread for $1.50, but if that loaf of bread has a neutral or negative impact on its consumer's health, what exactly makes it a better buy than that loaf of $8 bread? The IKEA shelf she praises for it's affordability may have cost her $25, but when it falls part during her next move and she has to buy another one? Allen refers to her mother's sage maxim, "If you don't care for the quality..., you get what you pay for." What if you can't afford quality? Say, because you live in a small town where an influx of Wal-marts and other big box stores has contributed to an overall stagnation in wages? Allen's answer to this question would undoubtedly contain the word 'artisanal'.

"Meanwhile, Professor Pollan, eat all the "plants" you like -- but don't try to pry me from my Häagen-Dazs dark chocolate ice cream. I bought it at Safeway, and it's sitting on my IKEA kitchen table."

It's always hard to pin down exactly what is so revolting about libertarians, but I think this about does it. Allen rages against those imaginary spendthrifts who would curtail her to two pairs of sneaker purchases a year and take away her Häagen-Dazs as elitist tramplers of liberty seeking to deny her her utterly mediocre existence, but the swarm of Wal-marts metastasizing throughout the land, leveling prices, wages, and innovation in their wake? No problem at all.

While we're keeping track: the last time I checked, a pint of Häagen-Dazs was about $4.50.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

that's what i want

With infidelity - to spouses and to offices - so currently en vogue on the relatively crazier side of the political aisle, one would think the bumblers running the right-wing brain churn would refrain for a moment from the sanctimony they last rubbed raw in the 90s. Not so. When a G8 photo op appeared to show Obama leering at a young girl passing him on the steps, the slumbering grotesques down at Fam'ly Values PD jolted awake (having been alerted by their crack Schadenfreude detail, who have slept in shifts since January).

Perhaps the most embarrassing reaction was that of Ann Althouse, who strung together some pseudo deconstructobabble in a sad attempt to explain Obama's "moment of as-yet-unconstrained pursuit".

The foot closest to the woman, like Sarkozy's, is planted and aimed forward, but the other steps off in the direction of the woman, bending the knee upward into a bit of a crotch-squeeze and forming the base of a dramatic tilt of the entire body into a flexible S-shape that leans toward the woman. ... His neck is craned out and around so that the line of sight is directly at the ass. His mouth is open as if to say: That's what I want.

The video, naturally, absolves Obama in a way in which only Obama could be absolved: not only was he not ogling, he was waiting up to offer another woman a hand. No word from Althouse on what vertices of Obama's torso bent into "crotch squeezes" during this sequence of events. In fact, faced with the video, she sticks to her guns, standing by her "analysis" of the photograph. In a later post, she stubbornly refuses to accept the Zapruder film, preferring to stick to her analysis of the still photograph that shows Jackie killing JFK with a mental deathray.

In their expert dissection of a dossier of soldier's photography from Abu Ghraib, Errol Morris and Philip Gourevitch point up an essential truth about pictures serving in a political context: "The picture transfixes us because it looks like the truth, but, looking at it, we can only imagine what that truth is." Unsure of the truth, we fall back on the crutches of familiar narrative tropes. One blogger referred to the supposed gawking as Obama's first "Clinton moment", that spasm borne of some peculiarly Democratic tendency to womanize. (He failed to mention the incident in which GWBush, unbidden, placed his actual hands on a female head of state; perhaps it slipped his mind.) Sarkozy was in on the ogling too, naturally, for, as anyone who takes their cultural cues from decades-old cartoons knows, that's just the way the French are.

The irony in all this, in case it isn't obvious, is that in pretending to take up the burden of objectified women, all these scolds have truly done is focused the attention of millions on this underage girl's posterior. I could go on pontificating about how the anonymous, faceless female form has long been the blank slate on which the Western male gaze projects its desires, seems that this photograph has already inspired far too much armchair analysis.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

time out of joint

Grand Watchmaker - and New York Times' Holiday Party "Roundest Glasses on Staff" award winner, 8 years running - David Brooks uncorks this magical statement to open his latest column:

Sonia Sotomayor had bad timing. If she’d entered college in the late-1950s or early-1960s, she would have been surrounded by an ethos that encouraged smart young ethnic kids to assimilate. If she’d entered Princeton and Yale in the 1980s, her ethnicity and gender would have been mildly interesting traits among the many she might possibly possess.

Were this a blog in which I posted topical photographs, I'm sure I could come up with a number of photos capturing "young ethnic kids" in the late 1950s "surrounded by an ethos". The Little Rock 9, for example. I'm sure Ms. Sotomayor worries herself to sleep each night, wondering just how different her life would have been we're she brought up in this encouraging era.

Unfortunately, Brooks gives up the game of Choose Your Own Adventure as the column goes on. We don't get to find out what would have become of Sotomayor were she transplanted, say, Twain-like, into 6th century Britain. Would she have adopted such empathetic notions about the sub-human plight of dragons? He doesn't hazard a guess.

He does make another point, though. Multiculturalism = yucky. If only America could have skipped from the 50s, when Latina women thrived at Harvard and Yale, apparently, to the 80s, when all race-, gender- and class-based oppression ceased entirely to exist, slayed ceremoniously by a dragon. Problem solved, and none of that enforced reading of African authors that goes on in public schools to this day.

And surely there's no need for multiculturalism in our society still today. Those who decry Sotomayor's icky "patina" have clearly got the differences between Buddhists, Asians and Hispanics allllll figured out.

Friday, June 5, 2009

i was born in kowloon bay!

Obama has them swooning at a journalist roundtable after his Cairo speech, and there's something familiar in his ability to hit all the right notes, all the time.

"I would be surprised if when I came to Asia I did not stop by my old home town of Jakarta. And I'll go visit Menteng Dalam and have some bakso -- nasi goreng. These are some special dishes here that I used to eat when I was a kid."

Ah, now I get it. He's the Rob Lowe character from Wayne's World.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

running a fever while waiting for my war to end

In America, a culture of forgetting has developed not merely out of the usual avenues of repression, censorship, and distraction; its a forgetfulness of the refresh button (or F5, depending on your platform). Much is made of the internet's rising tide of information; raising all boats, elevating discourse, metastasizing policy debates, and so on. It has also had the effect of burying the recent past, and eliminating the spaces where we would perform reflections on and resolutions toward our hideous deeds.

I am pushed towards this reflection by the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic's essay "Why I have not returned to Belgrade," published in the Serbian newspaper Publika in late February to considerable controversy. In it, she ponders the responsibility for the Serbian people to confront their complicity in the state's brutal repression of Bosnian Muslims and Kosovars of the late 90s, and ultimately, if hesitantly, places this burden upon the current generation of Serbian youth. While they are not the torturers and collaborators who performed the deeds of the 90s wars, it is they who must take their parents to task, and they who will bear the brunt of the global community's scorn until some demons are properly exorcised. Drakulic, a Croat who nonetheless identifies with a fragile pan-Yugo consciousness borne, possibly, from years of emigre life in occidental Europe, has faced vigorous criticism from the usual suspects: nationalists who conclude that Serbia must just not be for her, and tell her to keep away.

Their refrain is familiar; let the guilty parties find their punishment, the rest of us will move on. While it's lazy to simply relate the Balkan wars of the 90s to the recently laid-off War on Terror, the post-war situation in both Serbia and America has a few parallels. The War on Terror's central premise, that the American way of life was under assault, is a foundling version of the culture of Serb victimhood, nurtured since the 14th century. Both have some roots in justification but have been wildly manipulated by war-making zealots, both have employed the notion of the preservation of a society as the excuse for the destruction of another.

The greatest danger, Drakulic warns, is that we will resist the lessons afforded by these violent adventures, and indeed, this appears to be unfolding today. Despite the accepted wisdom that the Iraq War was botched in its initial execution, we have allowed the redemptive rhetoric of the Surge to paper over the fact that many urban areas in Iraq are either still held hostage by sectarian conflict or subject to the false pacification of ethnic cleansing. That the war has seen the deaths of nearly 100,000 Iraqis and displaced nearly 5 Million refugees, is underacknowledged into oblivion; the numbers, like bailout figures, simply too large to comprehend. Rather than an honest conversation about the perils of nation building when our own nation is in such rough shape, rather than frank remonstrances against the conflation of noble pursuits abroad with those of empire, and rather than a thorough accounting of the torture policies knowingly adopted by the previous administration, we have instead a new official dialogue on Afghanistan that looks frighteningly similar to the incrementalism of CPA-era Iraq, and endless handwringing over torture memos. Obama's pragmatism is certainly refreshing, but it is not enough to replace a regime that bumbled into quagmires with malign intentions, with one that does the same thing under the auspices of humanitarianism.

The election of Barack Obama was said to have heralded some moment of newness, when our nation's political death sentence would be commuted. It was to be a splash of cold water on the faces of our media elites, a warning that a considerable portion of the populace had acquainted themselves with harsher realities. We were ready to face down the bad news. We no longer had any use for the "let us look forward, not backward" platitudes, or for the condescension from those well-heeled Bush enablers, content for so many years to flout the law, now hiding behind its sacred obligations. It's not clear, unfortunately, that this new position has won out.

Monday, March 9, 2009

mottled in the cosmos

Opening to any randomly chosen page in Tom McCarthy's Remainder is sufficient to capture the novel's excruciatingly pristine depiction of the resonant spaces that dwell in daily life. Following an accident our narrator cannot recall (and a settlement, the details of which he cannot disclose), he goes about methodically re-enacting minor events, repeatedly staging the ephemeral experiences normally catalogued in one's subconscious throughout a day's routine.

My building was in there, being carried along somewhere in the complex interlacings. I caught glimpses of it as it slipped behind another building and was whisked away again to reappear somewhere else. It would show itself to me then slip away again. The belts were like magicians' fingers shuffling cards: they were shuffling the city, flashing my card, my building, at me and then burying it in the deck again. They were challenging me to shout "Stop!" at the exact moment it was showing: if I could do that, I'd win. That was the deal. 

"Stop!" I shouted. Then again: "Stop ...Stop!" But I timed each shout just wrong...

What the novel works at, with its formless protagonist honing in further on these unseen machinations of the urban fabric, is the continuing effort to shout Stop! at just the right moment. He worries at tokens of the ineffable until they are well-worn: small talk with a neighbor in the hall, a pianist neighbor making a mistake, then slowly playing through again, the smell of cooking fat wafting through a window. It is only when these events recur with a certain singular exactitude that our man can feel any pleasure, but this pleasure is pure.

This plot conceit would be a tiresome meddling under the hood of the postmodern psyche were it not for McCarthy's rendering of the protagonist as something of a reborn child. As he recovers from his accident, we watch him enduring physical therapy, relearning actions as simple as eating a carrot as a series of micro-moments; muscles clutch and release, joints tense and flex, limbs move through air. Seemingly scrubbed clean of any self-consciousness, our man experiences these coordinations free of their typical context. He is an outside observer in his own body. As he moves out of the clinic and into the outside world, he continues in this way, acutely aware of everyone around him putting on airs, going through their inauthentic movements. 

But he does not stop here, at this intersection of Sartre's phenomenology of dread, Gombrowicz's playful repurposing of the inanimate,  and the alien body capture narrative of sci-fi. Our man's fixations deepen, his re-enactments incite stronger reveries, he becomes ever more demanding and insistent on his actors getting certain details just right. As Zadie Smith puts it, he "seeks to dominate matter, the better to disembody it." His mind unable, or unwilling, to associate the objects he sees with their everyday usage, they instead become infused with a portentousness. A crack in a plaster wall becomes an evolving cipher, a map; a bit of parking lot tar which cannot be destroyed; a liter of windshield fluid, which, upon disappearing inside his car, becomes a metaphor for transubstantiation; a carpet's wrinkle becomes the axis on which an entire room rotates. Normally heavily relied on by most novelists to supply meanings, people are, on the other hand, interchangeable. Some are so insignificant as to be little more than space occupiers; they are told to say nothing, and wear blank masks. They are hired and arranged, then replaced, or worse.