Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Real Cost of Living

Deborah Connolly Youngblood, Ph.D.
Vice President of Research and Innovation at Crittenton Women’s Union. She is a cultural anthropologist.


In 1972, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it took a family of four about $7386 to achieve a “lower” standard of living, $11446 to reach an “intermediate” standard, and $16550 to achieve a higher standard. The budgets assume two healthy children and two healthy parents. The intermediate budget enabled the mother to purchase a new coat every five years, the family to buy a new stove or refrigerator every seventeen years and a used car every four years. It makes no provision for extended illness, unemployment, vacations or a college education for the children. And, it turned out, a majority of families were living at or below this intermediate level, since only 30% of families (of all sizes) had incomes of $15000 or more at that time.


Such a budget analysis provides us with far better information about the real cost of living for families than an abstract figure specifying a “poverty line”.  So what are the figures for today? We no longer have the Bureau of Labor Statistics as a source since the project was cancelled in the early 1980’s during the Ronald Reagan administration. One can only speculate as to why these policy changes were made.


However, we now have a study that updates this analysis for at least one state, Massachusetts. Just released on March 8th 2010 by Crittenton Women’s Union, a Boston based nonprofit, the Massachusetts Economic Independence Index (Mass. Index) is a measure of how much income various family types in Massachusetts require to meet their most basic expenses. 


In 2010, a single parent family with one preschooler and one school-age child requires $61,618 per year ($29.01 per hour) to make ends meet – approximately three and one half times the federal poverty level of $18,310.  A single adult without children working full time and earning the minimum wage ($8 per hour; $16,900 per year) cannot cover his or her basic living expenses. To be economically self-sufficient a single adult in Massachusetts requires an income of $27,084 per year, 60% higher than the minimum wage. 


The Mass. Index is a conservative budget. There is no savings component in the budget, not emergency savings, not savings toward home ownership, no retirement savings, nor savings for adult or child education. There is no money for any restaurant meals and you are assumed to be driving a fully depreciated small sedan for transportation, one with 170,000 miles on it. This is not a security budget but rather a budget that allows a family to get by without requiring public or private assistance. And one that builds in basic family well-being, children under 14 are assumed to require child care supervision and family members are assumed to require health care. Apparently these things are not considered essential in the federal poverty guidelines.


The Mass. Index is based on public federal, state and market rate data. And yet somehow the numbers still feel unreal to people. I presented the Mass. Index to group of front line social service providers and not surprisingly laughter rippled through the room. Case managers earn salaries in the $30,000’s. Many of them are parents, some are single parents. They know that they struggle to make ends meet, even while working hard, demanding jobs. But when you are living it, it can be hard to remember that the issue is structural, not individual. And it can be hard to imagine how things will change for the better. And these are the people who are working. The clients they are serving often live on more like $12,000 a year of public supports. Come to our homeless family shelters and I’ll show you what “getting by” looks like on that income.


The current federal poverty measure, with no corresponding actual cost based budgets, is now almost universally regarded as anachronistic and promotes the widespread idea that people can live on whatever wages we offer them. That somehow they can manage. And people do live at those levels, but at what cost?  The trade offs that people make in trying to survive in poverty have real social costs both to those individual families and to the larger society. Children left unsupervised and unsafe because there is no money for decent child care, health problems unaddressed until they reach crisis levels, housing deteriorating because there is no money to keep it up, and of course crime caused by the desperation of people continually placed in untenable positions that leave them without hope or possibility. And this just skims the surface.


At Crittenton Women’s Union, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting economic independence for low income women, we view daily the real cost of living and the real costs associated with not promoting opportunities for those at the bottom of the income spectrum. We address it with concrete social service programs but also with research and advocacy; research that demonstrates the inconsistencies in our social policies and the requirements if we are going to create pathways out of poverty for the millions of Americans who are trapped there.  Sharing what it really costs to make ends meet is the first step. Promoting policies and opportunities for individuals to be able to get there is the next.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Revisiting Israel as a Bi-National State


Steven Johnston

University of South Florida

The recent assassination of a top Hamas official by the Mossad comes as no surprise, not even its amateurishness. The security side of the Israelis state, though often resisted by Israeli dissidents, has a longstanding extrajudicial policy of liquidating its enemies. The Hamas murder, however, comes at an interesting time. As Fawaz Gerges argues in a recent essay in The Nation, there are signs that Hamas is undergoing a transformation, however tentative, even hesitant. It could well become the negotiating partner that Israel has often said it lacks. Hence the assassination? As Henry Siegman reminds us, in the same issue of The Nation, Israel has been painstakingly creating facts on the grounds since its founding, and the facts forged since the 1967 war have rendered a two-state solution effectively impossible. Thus apartheid has been the reality for some time now. Apartheid is what it means, borrowing Moshe Dayan’s formulation, to “live without a solution.”

Many in the United States invested hopes in the Obama Administration, believing that it might depart from George W. Bush’s uncritical, knee-jerk support of right wing initiatives from Israel. Despite Obama’s initial, fruitless effort to secure a settlement freeze, as if the 1967 borders might one day prove relevant, these hopes were misplaced. Obama’s foreign and security policies differ little, if at all, from his predecessor.

Nevertheless, this is a good time to rethink the idea of a bi-national state. The goal here, to borrow from Martin Buber, is to set a direction, and the direction is the goal of a single state in the land of historical Palestine that would be the state of all its citizens. Buber worked and argued for much of his life for a bi-national solution. He insisted that the conflict between Arab and Jew was not a tragic one, meaning that it was not irreconcilable. He never wavered in this conviction, thus performing the solution he sought. Buber blamed politics for framing issues in a way that divided and incited Arab and Jew. The greater interests and loves the two peoples shared for the land were obscured, even erased, in the process.
This is not to say that Buber was without his own blind spots. Alert to the dangers of imperialism, he preferred to think of Zionist settlers as pioneers rather than colonialists.

Assuming that life entails injustice, he could argue for the taking of Arab lands in the name of necessity.  Still, Buber continued to pressure Israel after the founding, which he considered an ambiguous achievement and, more importantly, premature. Early in the 20th century, he had called for an organic process of settling the land. Buber, too, knew the importance of facts on the ground, but the ones he imagined were not devoted to irreversible, ever-expanding conquest. It was critical for two peoples to learn to trust one another. This could not be achieved by sudden influxes of immigrants without ties to the land, let alone by imposing a political solution. In fact, a declaration of independence and the creation of the state would prove self-subverting in the long run. They would inevitably engender resistance. Once founding became a fact, Buber argued that the Zionist ideal was betrayed by its incarnation insofar as the pursuit of state interests eclipsed the pursuit of the ideal of justice, as dictated by God. Israel could not be and should not aspire to be a normal state. The state of Israel was not an end in and of itself; it was a means to other, higher ends.

Perhaps this is where hope lies. As Buber argued, the fates of Arabs and Jews are linked, not just with one another but the region as a whole. Many Israeli’s understand this and Israel exceeds its conservative governments. Buber, for one, never lost hope, and he argued that Israel, once the state was instituted, was in a position to perform a novel moral act that would fundamentally alter, if not altogether undo, the injustices that Jews had inflicted on Palestinians. What kind of act? He did not specify. For justice to become a reality, for democracy to triumph, where the sovereign notions of majority and minority would no longer apply, the Israeli majority now has to overcome how it conceives of itself. As Tony Judt observed in 2003, Israel is a multicultural society—except in name. Thus it is an anachronism “because it is a Jewish state in which one community—Jews—is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place.”  Buber envisioned the work needed for rapprochement as open-ended, the labor of lifetimes and generations. Any so-called two-state solution, given the settlements, exorbitant Israeli security obsessions, and control over water resources, seems doomed to solidify and intensify a relationship of domination. A one-state solution, perhaps the de facto reality on the ground (wall or not), may provide the context within which Israel reinvents itself, a home for two peoples, one a victim of the most horrendous crime, the other the victim of that victim. That’s a commonality of experience and interests born of tragedy that Buber did not articulate, but might point to a new direction for a democratic state that recognizes the equality and differences of all.

For the “peace” process to live up to its name, Israel needs to make the first move and take an unprecedented risk—Mr. Netanyahu should start by tearing down that wall. It is the region’s superpower, possessing weapons of mass destruction. Its existence is not threatened by terrorists. Palestinians suffer from a much greater threat from state-sanctioned violence. For Buber, Israel’s success always meant enhanced responsibility. Success meant not the end of problems but the assumption of new problems. Israelis must come to realize that they cannot enjoy a way of life denied—that they help to deny—others, their fellow citizens, their neighbors, their victims. We must put ourselves in the place of the other, Buber counseled, and not despite the war and violence but precisely because of them. What would we do if the roles were reversed? Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science that “after a great victory,” the victor, now feeling rich, may be liberated from “the fear of defeat.” Defeat here might mean replacing one worthy ideal that has run its historical course without fulfilling its promise of justice with another democratic ideal that could realize the Zionist dream—which was always about two peoples and one land.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Lady Gaga And The Monstrous Art of Pop

Davide Panagia
Trent University










The issue is one of coming to terms with one’s relation to one’s culture.
Nothing less is what the intensity of Lady GaGa’s feats of the spectacular make available. Her songs and videos – and her artistic life in general – relentlessly pursue the limits of Pop, not as a representational genre but as a medium. It is in this sense that she is an inheritor of the Warhol legacy; but, I would say without reservation (though with an awareness of the unpopular claim I am about to make), she surpasses Warhol through her discovery of the medium of Pop. For where Warhol transformed art into Pop and thereby created a new representational genre, Lady Gaga has transformed Pop into an art with a set of aesthetic convictions, possibilities, and ambitions all its own.

As absurd as this might sound to those lackluster critics who will (and do) insist that Lady GaGa is all style and no substance, the simultaneous release of two major concept albums – The Fame and The Fame Monster – prove the extent to which in our contemporary condition style and substance are incompossibilities of one another. And before readers think that I am claiming that the incompopssibility of style and substance means a kind of postmodern irony at the heart of Lady GaGa’s performances, please allow me to correct any misapprehensions of the sort: the claim about the irony of performativity wants to grant purpose to multivalent objects of aesthetic worth and thus betroth to them an intelligibility that makes them accessible and available to our understandings. My point, instead, is that what defines an aesthetic object is its ability to place the listener or viewer (in this case, both) in an uncertain situation where one’s capacity to give priority to either style or substance as the ground of judgment is disoriented. This, because our modes of sensorial apprehension are discomposed by the experience of the object. Aesthetic experience, in other words, occurs at the dark precursor, somewhere between sensation and reference. And the incompossibilities of sensation and reference are the tools of Lady GaGa’s art.


But I digress.


As we are incessantly reminded, Lady GaGa’s music follows a line of descent with and homage to some of the more relevant music and videos coming out of 1980s MTV pop culture, most notably the rhythmic flows of Madonna, the dance hooks of Michael Jackson, and the lyrical voicings of Cindy Lauper (though, as a note of personal insight, I would also add the profound influence of Cameo’s “Word Up” song and video). “Dance in the Dark,” from her recently released The Fame Monster, is most explicitly indebted to Madonna’s lyrical montage with its free-flow rambling in the middle of the song that revisits Vogue’s “Rita Hayworth gave good face” moment:


Marylin, Judy, Silvia
Tell him how you feel girls
Ramsey, Lamont, White, Liberace
Find your freedom in the music
Find your Jesus; Find your cupid
You will never fall apart
Diana you’re still in our hearts
Never let you fall apart
Together we'll dance in the dark


But her successful partnership with the Swedish director and video artist, Jonas Åkerlund, betrays another line of descent in her aesthetic stylings found in some of the more progressive of the current Swedish synth-pop disco bands; including (I would say) Fever Ray and The Knife, but also ABBA (listen to “Alejandro” and you will hear “Fernando”) and Roxette.


Like her collaborations with the recently deceased Alexander McQueen (who premiered Lady GaGa’s “Bad Romance” in his Spring 2009 show) and the Italian installation artist Francesco Vezzoli (at the 30th anniversary celebration of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles), the videos that Åkerlund has produced and directed for Lady GaGa screen her insistence that what is crucial to our contemporary condition is our capacity for interface: that is, that our handling and beholdings of the objects of our culture speaks to our willingness to handle and behold one another. The simultaneous release of the song and video “Telephone” (on March 11, 2010) is a case in point.


Telephone’s lyrics are about a young woman at a dance club who does not want to be bothered by people calling her on her cell phone because she is too busy having a good time. “Stop callin’; Stop callin’; I don’t want to talk any more! I left my head and my heart on the dance floor”, proclaims the ritornello. Simple enough.


The song, however, announces something different than the lyrics. Upon first listening to it, I was disappointed by GaGa’s use of Auto-tune, something I didn’t think she needed given that she has an excellent voice. Auto-tune is the controversial audio processor (used by many in the music industry) that allows anyone to sing at perfect pitch by adjusting off-key performances through the use of a phase vocoder – it is the device that made Cher’s altered vocal effect in “Believe” possible and catchy. Upon second listening, however, I realized that the placing of the Auto-tune alteration in “Telephone” is not intended for pitch correction, but is an attempt to mimic through voice the sound of a ringer and to give emphasis to the artificiality of everyday life. The prominence of Auto-tune and the fact that “Telephone” lyrically and melodically swings to the beat of a busy dial-tone makes available our integration with multimedia technological culture so that the “Stop callin’” of the ritornello isn’t merely a request but is also a marker of our cultural interface: there is no naturalness to voice, especially in the digital age.

Åkerlund’s music videos are known for their mock movie-trailer stylings. And though at times humorous, their real effect is not one of parody but of intensity. The colors, contrasts, and close-ups throughout the “Telephone” video, for instance, are exaggerated to the point of the monstrous. It’s almost as if Åkerlund is trying to show the viewer what a video can do, and not simply what it can represent. And, indeed, with “Telephone” this disconnect is especially palpable given the fact that the video has nothing to do with the lyric’s themes of being in a dance club and not wanting to answer one’s phone. 

Correction: Lady GaGa is in a club of sorts – a rough trade women’s prison in the middle of a desert – and we can surmise why she ended up there if we think of “Telephone” as a sequel to the other GaGa/Åkerlund collaboration, “Paparazzi”, wherein Lady GaGa kills a boyfriend who, in turn, had tried to kill her by throwing her off a balcony. A further disconnect: GaGa’s collaboration with Beyoncé in the song “Telephone” is turned into a “Thelma and Louise” partnership when the two ladies – in full dis/fashion regalia (including makeup whose colors recall the pastels of their automobile) – board their “Pussy Wagon” (the pick up truck that Uma Thurman had used to escape the hospital in Kill Bill, Vol. 1) and go on a highway diner killing spree. Once again, a monstrous disconnect that is perfectly in-line with the theme of The Fame Monster – the ugly side of fame where makeup is transubstantiated into black tears, or even spilled blood. 

That Lady GaGa has made a concept album with both The Fame and The Fame Monster worthy of a Patrick Bateman monologue is a notable achievement; even more remarkable is that this conceptual artifice ties into some of the best instances of American popular culture, especially the pulp crime genre that Robert Warshow had written so elegantly about in the 1940s. In “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Warshow claims that “What matters is that the experience of the gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans.” (The Immediate Experience) It is universal to Americans, he goes on to explain, because Americans react to it immediately, at once sympathizing and dissociating themselves from it: the gangster, Warshow says, “is what we want to be and what we are afraid we might become.” 


The persona of the gangster is morphed, for Lady GaGa, into the persona of the Fame Monster (notably, a trope Michael Mann has also explored in his most recent film, Public Enemies): the fashion icon/victim, the doer and the sufferer, the one who projects an image and is defeated by that same projection. And isn’t this what we all do? Do we not all project images and bear the weight of others’ projections? Facebook, the iPhone, wi-fi, and 3-G (soon to be 4-G) wireless networks are not merely the ornamental contexture of contemporary culture, they are the instruments of interface with it; they are the mediums through which events of relata emerge in our contemporary condition, they are the objects we handle and behold when we handle and behold one another. It’s in this sense that Lady GaGa has provided Pop with an aesthetic ambition. Through The Fame and The Fame Monster she has made the claim that Pop commands an immediate attention that no other medium of art can pretend to or duplicate, and it is precisely the immediacy of her stardom, and Pop’s availability through it, that marks for Lady GaGa one of the cornerstones of our contemporary condition: our interface with culture as opposed to our usurpation in it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hyperobjects and the End of Common Sense



Timothy Morton
U.C. Davis

In the liner notes to Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne wrote “Nuclear weapons could wipe out life on Earth, if used properly.” The brilliant fake naivety of this seemingly obvious remark should make us pause. We have indeed created things that we can hardly understand, let alone control, let alone make sensible political decisions about. Sometimes it's good to have new words for these things, to remind you of how mind-blowing they are. So I'm going to introduce a new term: hyperobjects. Hyperobjects are phenomena such as radioactive materials and global warming. Hyperobjects stretch our ideas of time and space, since they far outlast most human time scales, or they're massively distributed in terrestrial space and so are unavailable to immediate experience. In this sense, hyperobjects are like those tubes of toothpaste that say they contain 10% extra: there's more to hyperobjects than ordinary objects.

Plutonium, for instance, has a half-life of 24 100 years. That's far, far further into the future than it's possible to think that anyone meaningfully related to me could still exist. Will the future people even be human in the currently defined sense? 24 100 years is over twice as long as the whole of recorded human history thus far. Here it is: plutonium—it's really here, take a look.











Pu 239 aglow with radioactivity

It will outlive your descendants' descendants far beyond any timescale in which the idea of descendants (sharing my genome, my taste in music, my politics) is significant in any way.

This means that we need some other basis for making decisions about a future to which we have no real sense of connection. We must urgently construct some non-self ethics and politics to deal with these pernicious hyperobjects. No self-interest theory, no matter how modified (to include my relatives, my nearest and dearest, my cat, my great grandchildren's hamster's vet) is going to cut it.

As well as being about mind-bending timescales and spatial scales, hyperobjects do something still more disturbing to our conceptual frames of reference. Hyperobjects undermine normative ideas of what an “object” is in the first place.

Let's consider the fact that hyperobjects disturb our habitual ideas of time and space by stretching them and by distributing effects across them. The trouble with global warming is not just that it's real—the trouble with it is that it deals a deathblow to “common sense.” Palin and the Tea Baggers may have taken up this phrase precisely to forestall the victory of the hyperobjects (and the related issue of the death of Reagan, which happened in October 2008 when the stock market crashed). Common sense tells you that things you can see and feel like snow are more real than things like global warming, which must be abstract and thus vague. But global warming turns this false immediacy inside out. Global warming is far more real, while things like weather—things that appear to be immediate in our experience—are actually the abstractions! Local weather is a kind of snapshot of larger processes, a snapshot that's pretty much out of date by the time you notice it.







Repeat after me: climate is not weather. It's sort of like how momentum is not velocity. If you're tied to a train track, and a train is coming towards you with constant momentum, it doesn't matter if it slows down—you will still be dead.

You can't see climate, but it's more real than wet stuff under your boots. This sudden turnaround has a weird effect on all of us. Think of those conversations you can't have any more with strangers, about the weather. You can't have them because at some point one of you mentions global warming, or the conversation trails off into an awkward silence (because of global warming), or, heaven help you, the other guy says “See! This global warming thing is a crock!” The conversation loses its redundancy, its nice, comfy, just-passing-the-time-of-day feel.

This loss is part of a more general loss of a sense of a neutral background against which human events can become meaningful. In a globalized world of hyperobjects, there's no background anymore—and so there's no foreground (you have to have one to have the other). This sudden loss of meaningfulness is dreamt up in countless sci-fi fantasies—our hero arrives at the 13th Floor, only to find that “reality” outside the window has become a horrifyingly blank zone of uniform gray… The realization of climate change is just as disturbing. The meaningless background of weather, our everyday experience of the world, now means something. Climate change represents the possibility that the cycles and repetitions we come to depend on for our sense of stability and place in the world may be the harbingers of cataclysmic change.

We now have instruments that can perceive hyperobjects. We now have computers that can model climate in real time, but this takes terabytes of RAM per second (a terabyte is a thousand gigs). From the less than tiny to the vaster than huge, we humans have discovered and unleashed things that go way beyond our everyday frames of reference. Geiger counters can perceive radiation and atomic clocks can perceive relativistic effects—the effects that make you realize that E = MC2, the reason nuclear bombs explode the way they do. These effects are happening all around us but our regular “common sense” perception can't compute terabytes of global climate information or sense nanosecond timescales. Most mornings I can't even find the coffee grinder.

The fact that we need these devices to see hyperobjects, objects that will likely define our future, is humbling in the same way Copernicus and Galileo brought humans down to Earth by insisting that the Universe wasn't rotating around us. In their era, common sense told you that the Sun went around the Earth once a day. Common sense also told you that weird old ladies offering herbal remedies who didn't drown when you threw them in water should be burnt, because they're witches. Common sense has a lot to answer for.

It's ironic that the machinery of modern life is creating the materials that are modernity's undoing—materially, philosophically and even spiritually.






Tuesday, March 16, 2010

New Wars, New Warriors

Jairus Victor Grove
  Johns Hopkins University


I stumbled upon a little book a few weeks ago. It was, in fact, its shape and color that attracted me to it. I was in a used book store and it was a tiny, hardback, Everyman edition from the late 1940's, no more than half an inch thick. The title was small and faded and too hard to read against its navy blue binding so I picked it up and examined it more closely. It was Hiroshima by John Hersey. It sounded familiar. I think I may have read it as part of a class on the Cold War I took as an undergraduate but I cannot be sure. It was, if only as an object, interesting enough to buy and take home.
I had no recollection of what it was. I assumed it was an account of the first atom bomb. It was. But the first few pages were something different. The book begins with an account of the morning proceeding the bomb. I study and teach about war so I have read the papers and documents surrounding the Manhattan Project. I know the details of the blast, the kilotonage, the side bets between the scientists regarding the risk of igniting the earth's atmosphere. I didn't know that for weeks every conventional B-29 attack on Japan had flown by Hiroshima on the way to its target elsewhere. That night after night the inhabitants of Hiroshima had listened to air raid sirens wondering if the B-29 was just passing through or if this time it was their turn to be fire bombed. According to the author, the anxiety was unbearable. Hiroshima was as of yet untouched and people assumed with each siren their time must have come or worse yet that the Americans were saving something special for them.
    Of course we were. The bomb was dropped, 140,000 people were killed, and the world changed forever. Although what struck me about these few introductory pages was that the dropping of the bomb was not in no way the first act of violence, it was for some a perverse sense of finality. As many people disagree about the reason the bomb was dropped as whether it needed to be dropped, but for the next few paragraphs that is not what concerns me. It is the interminable panic, the slow, seemingly endless terror, a sick feeling in the gut, that at any moment the sky could fall and there is nothing you, as a singular person could do about it, that makes me sad for our world. To paraphrase Norman Mailer, nothing you do, nothing that you are, will change the fact that in an instant you can be reduced to little more than a few teeth or other grizzly remain to be cataloged or counted in some post-mortem ledger.
This, of course, has nothing to do with the atom bomb per se. Airpower, cruise missiles, the "Prompt Global Strike" initiative, can all accomplish this task without a nuclear warhead. What keeps me up at night is not the magnitude of the weapons but the event without warning that strikes like a lightening bolt. More to the point it is the inequality and the regularity of the inequality with which these weapons strike such that only a few populations in the world truly live with the daily dread that they or their loved ones could be next.
I don't believe for one second that this is the tragic inevitability of war. Nor do I believe that this is just some flaw in the mortal condition. Death from above is different than someone kicking in your door or invading your city. There is no countermeasure, no response, no resistance, no possibility for combat. If the bomb arrives there is only what I imagine is a few seconds of shock, sadness and then maybe even relief that you do not have to bear another day of waiting to be visited by the bomb.
   This is all a long of way of saying that, for me, the debate over continuing the war in Afghanistan elides a question much more troubling that is not even being asked on the major news networks, much less openly by the Obama administration: Will we continue to send drones to shoot 'Hellfire' missiles into villages between Afghanistan and Pakistan and beyond? Will more or less troops even have any bearing on the decision to increasingly automate the war? So far there seems to have only been a steady increase in drone attacks since the so called Afghanistan surge. Is it possible that future troop reductions in Afghanistan and Iraq will lead to an increasing reliance on this prosthetic means of warfare?
For all of the changes in strategy, diplomatic posture, and real commitments to a better world in both word and deed by the Obama administration, the first drone attack took place January 23rd 2009, just a few days after Obama was inaugurated. I remember because I had just returned from the Obama Campaign's Staff Party when I read the news update on my computer. Even then in the haze of one of the best nights of my life the news made me sad. So much had changed and yet this continued unabated, seemingly without pause. Since then the attacks have become more regular. In fact the Obama administration has already authorized and ordered more Predator attacks than the Bush administration did the previous year.
    I have no idea what a drone sounds like. I imagine it to be like a remote control airplane. Something high-pitched, like an airplane but shriller. What I do know is that every child in the territory of Waziristan must talk about it constantly. In an area of the world in which indoor plumbing and consistent electricity would be 'the future' the boogeyman is not a vampire or some disfigured monster as it was for me growing up in the Texas suburbs. It is a polished, faceless, white UFO armed to kill and operated by remote or automated control.
   I am sure, in fact I know, that the statistical success of these weapons is unimpeachable. If the question is do they work than the answer is yes. If by work you mean they, in the words of the Revolution in Military Affairs, 'hit to kill'. I can't argue with the numbers.
However I can't help wondering what the world will be like in ten or twenty years, not just in Waziristan, but in every country we deploy these weapons, if the United States of America becomes synonymous with this faceless, bringer of death. It will not be those maimed or killed that all Americans will have to answer to but the millions that couldn't sleep, that woke up drenched in sweat, or simply wanted to die because they could not stand the waiting. What must it be like to start every day wondering if you are next. If the plane you hear in the distance, the buzz you thought you heard, the unholy dread of a sudden stillness, the oppressive weight of silence, is the arrival of precision American engineering.
    War is hell. This is slow sadistic torture. Every flash in the sky, the low hum of an engine, the constant sense of unease, all of it is a waiting game that would make me wish for hell's certainty and finality. This cannot be the best we can do.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Car Culture and Global Conflict

John Buell
Author of Evil Doers: Demonization and the End of Civil Debate in American Politics (New York University Press).


This ad (herein condensed) did not make the SuperBowl roster, but Sarah Palin probably likes it:


My name is Ram And my tank is full. I’m fueled by optimism. Driven by passion and stopped by nothing. I’m a can-do spirit in a get-it-done body. All brawn. All brain. I’m built not to last, but to outlast. Not to achieve, but to overachieve. I’m built to reward the doers who climb behind my wheel every day by working even harder than they do…I carry reputations. I carry livelihoods. I deliver the goods without fail…The road ahead of me is long but I know my destination…I will not downshift. I will not coast to a stop… Full Text and Video


Michael Klare, author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, remarks that plentiful oil spurred the development of an auto culture, which is one of the defining characteristics of US society and an example to other nations. We feel we are entitled to cheap oil and gas- guzzlers. The risk of violent energy conflicts, however, is growing as more nations compete for diminishing reserves. Nationalism is intensified, making energy conflicts even more intractable.

David Campbell, author of “The Biopolitics of Security”, agrees that Americans regard cheap oil as a birthright, but suggests that oil’s iconic status cannot be explained merely by its historic abundance. Oil became one of the ways by which we have sought to define ourselves as a people and to validate that definition. Oil is crucial to one of the central values of this culture, mobility. Mobility is a consequence of and contributor to another key US value, technological prowess.


These values have been validated by viewing as threatening those who appear to have different values or who have characteristics that can be portrayed as anathema to our core values. Thus in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Native Americans, perceived as having no concept of private property and no interest in technological betterment, were portrayed as shiftless, and aggressive. Today environmentalists who have qualms about at least how we achieve mobility are often portrayed as effeminate, soft etc. These portrayals in turn have often encouraged and been sustained by bellicose nationalism. Critics of rapid natural resource exploitation are viewed as dupes of foreign influence. Recently, nonviolent protestors of energy exploration have even been vilified as “environmental terrorists.”


Well guarded geographic borders express and reinforce the sense of the mighty and self-sufficient US machine, but these borders are breaking down. Immigration is widely highlighted, but capital goods, money, diseases, media messages, and financial capital all cross geographic borders even more rapidly. Climate change and energy wars, perhaps nuclear, loom as the ultimate cross border challenge. All limit our options and reshape our expectations. We are as Campbell says, part of complex networks.

In the face of flux, many strive to reseal our geographic borders but others seek to shore up conventional identity through various cultural means. The auto, the way it is advertized and even designed, is an attempt to secure new boundaries The SUV is portrayed as security in a world of crime, dangerous traffic, a reminder of US military triumph and thus an antidote to the “Vietnam syndrome,” and a means to and expression of individuality. Like gated communities, the Ram and the SUV are capsules that appear to seal us off from challenge but actually increase international oil conflict and risks at home.

We can’t, however, stop Alaska drilling merely by pointing out that little of our total needs can be derived from there. “Drill baby drill” has a compelling, cheerleader resonance, speaks to a visceral anger toward environmentalists from a squeezed working class experiencing flux. Drilling now bespeaks a take-charge mentality.

Ending this vicious circle requires willingness by environmentalists and social justice advocates to engage the core values and identity anxieties central to car culture. One counter is to ease immediate economic burdens and foster jobs that recognize the talents of displaced workers. We might also address critics in more respectful ways by acknowledging we too hold core values we can’t fully prove. We might tap and/or respond to other interests working class critics themselves may find undervalued in this materialistic culture, such as time with family or enjoying the wilderness rides those SUV’s were supposed to enable.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Winter of Hate, Taking Tea Baggers Seriously




Thomas Dumm
Amherst College



In a recent post at the Salon website, Michael Lind asserts that the rise of the Tea Party movement is countercultural. Rather than building counter-institutions as the neoconservatives did during the high water mark of the Great Society, he suggests that Tea Partiers and their enablers at Fox News, especially Glenn Beck, are not interested in power or governance but, like the countercultural denizens of the Sixties and Seventies, are more interested in enclosing themselves in the reassuring “truths” of their radical ideology, without even trying to make any claim about what to do programmatically to advance a political cause. The counterculture of the right, like that of the left in the sixties, Lind suggests, refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the game they have lost, and finds itself in a dreamlike world. Rather than the Summer of Love, he wittily asserts, the Republican radicals find themselves engaging in the street theatre of a Winter of Hate.


As a consequence, Lind suggests, the fragile Democratic ruling coalition has been granted a reprieve, in the form of a retreat into cultural politics by their Republican opponents. After all, no one who is serious can take Beck, Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity and the like seriously. They are buffoons, Abbie Hoffmans of the new millennium. 


The problem is, last I checked, Fox News was the number one cable news network, and while some may deride their claim to hegemony by pointing out that their largest audiences usually can be numbered in the hundreds of thousands as opposed to millions, it doesn’t take reading Bill Connolly on the capitalist/Christian resonance machine – though it surely doesn’t hurt – to realize how effective their politics of affect is in influencing political debate. While the Tea Party may have begun as a hollow, Astroturf movement by corporate funded right-wing institutes, it is no longer simply a product of Dick Armey’s fevered imagination. When CPAC held its annual convention last week in Washington, DC, the Tea Party was hailed by Republican members of Congress and “serious” presidential candidates. One didn’t ever see anything like that occurring in the Sixties. Indeed, the media then, as now, condemned those on the Left counterculture much more than they now condemn those on the supposedly parallel right counterculture. Moreover, back then, police brutally attacked denizens like Hoffman, shot and killed protesters, and generally suppressed them as much as they could, with the backing of Democratic establishment politicians. (Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland documents this paranoia and repression from above quite well.) We don’t see attempts to marginalize Glenn Beck on the part of the GOP. We don’t see gun-toting Tea Partiers wrestled to the ground by police outside of Presidential events. Instead, we see the politicians of the right falling all over themselves to corral the discontent of the Tea Partiers to further their corporate goals. 


The problem with analyses like Lind’s is that they minimize the importance of culture. Over and over we are told that culture is less important than politics, as though the two are separate entities. A counter-establishment, not a counterculture, he suggests. But the truth throughout American history has been that the battles of cultural differences are the crucial political battles. Culture includes economics, as is becoming clearer all the time (even to economists). Precisely because it is evoking strong claims about cultural differences, the Tea Party needs to be taken seriously for what it is – a racist, know nothing, proto-fascist movement. Those who seek to dismiss it, but especially those who attempt use it, may well find themselves with a tiger by the tail.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Climate Change, Spirituality, and Neoliberalism

Bill Connolly
Johns Hopkins University


The evidence in favor of homo-economic sources of climate change is overwhelming, even if the details remain contestable. But, as we see every day on Fox News, resistance to it is intense. What fuels that intensity? There is the self-interest of oil, power and (some) auto companies. There is the desire to retain established habits of consumption. There is the conviction of many (but not all) evangelicals that it is sinful to say that man rather than God could change the climate. Tom Delay contends, for instance, that it is “arrogant” to say so.


But these self-interested and spiritual sources, while pertinent, do not suffice to explain the phenomenon. Enter neoliberalism, by which I mean a creed insisting that the market is a self-organizing, self-regulating system. It optimizes freedom and benefits IF the state confines itself to adjusting the money supply, waging war, and punishing crime, and IF it sets severe limits to the organizing power of consumers and labor. 


Neoliberals often treat the market as a unique self-regulating system. That is their first conceit. If you extend your gaze, however, it becomes clear that the world is full of open, self regulating systems of multiple types. All display some powers of self-maintenance, though to different degrees. And all--if you accept the time scale appropriate to each–-periodically pass into stages of sharp disequilibrium, often created by conjunctions between internal perturbations and new intrusions from outside. There is thus the self-sustaining habitat of animals, the systematic character of ocean currents, the self-maintaining magnetic field surrounding the earth and supporting its cloud cover. There is the self-maintaining capacity of a hurricane, after being organized from the confluence of weather, ocean currents and warm water. There is the interstate global system, with a degree of self-maintenance. There is the human organism, and, of course, there is the climate system itself.




The market is thus not unique. It is, rather, one of several open systems of different types, each with its own powers of self-maintenance. Each contains tendencies toward self-equilibration; all are imbricated with others; and all go through surprising shifts from time to time.


To say merely this much is already to blow neoliberalism out of the water. It paves the way for pursuit of a new ecology of politico-economic life. Not exactly pursuit of a deep ecology in which nature is assumed to tend toward a unique, stable harmony to which we must adjust. But an ecology of multiple open systems of different types, each periodically taking a new turn; with several interacting and intersecting in complex ways at this or that juncture. The connection between climate and economic life now becomes less shocking, when you think this way. And the spiritual and ideological stakes of the current struggle begin to be more clear. (I use the word “spirit” here to mean the most fundamental disposition to existence an individual or constituency adopts). 


So let’s skate past the existential resentment of a world of becoming discernible in the utterances of Tom Delay, Glen Beck, and Sean Hannity, while remembering how these extremists provide cover for more “reasonable” minimizers, evaders and deflectors. Consider Alan Greenspan. In The Age of Turbulence, 531 pages in length, two pages are devoted to the climate issue. Thus his first tactic is minimization of the issue. He has “little doubt” that climate change is real and human induced (p. 454. But he offers merely one proposal to address the issue: an increase in the gasoline tax to protect America’s energy “security”. No commitment about the need for state investments and subsidies to recast the infrastructure of consumption in the zones of transportation, housing, and power production; no urgency to cooperate with other states and international organizations to protect the earth’s forest and ocean systems, though both are key absorbers of carbon dioxide. No exploration of how changes on these fronts could also empower constituencies who seek to foster a positive and timely austerity of material desire. Hence, his second tactic is evasion, because a robust engagement would throw his key assumptions about market control of investment, consumption, and work into disarray, and he would have to think more carefully about the need for new relays between collective patterns of consumption and state policies. What is his explicit reason for such a tactic? He says that the worst climate effects are scheduled to occur after the period he has “selected” for analysis, from today to 2030! Hence, the third tactic: deferral. 


When you combine corporate self-interest, evangelical denial, and neoliberal minimization, evasion and deferral, the multiple forces ranged against an eco-nomic response to climate change become clear. They are as spiritual and ideological in character as self-interested. Indeed the quality of the first two elements slides into the very conceptions of self interest people and institutions elaborate. This spirituality displays a hubris about the unique powers of the market that would make Adam Smith blush; they also express resentment against any evidence that belies the beauty of their market model; and they express a spiritual willingness to run grave risks with the future of humanity to protect this image of the world today.  


A positive response to climate change will mean the demise of this spiritual-neoliberal combine. That is indeed why supporters of the combine are so intense in applying these strategies of denial, minimization, evasion, and deferral. The market model is the last refuge of those who insist that humans can master the larger world rather than seeking to enter into complex negotiations with it on several fronts. The defeat of this combine will require the emergence of a new pluralist assemblage, consisting of multiple constituencies who forsake hubris, cultivate positive spiritual affinities between themselves across numerous subject positions, and amplify their voices on the old and new media.