30 July 2010

Friday thought.

Just a quick one for a Friday before I head to the beautiful Maryland shore for vacation:

Is there a dumber pundit that smart people take seriously than David Brooks?


29 July 2010

Thanks for the hindsight, Prez.

So on that most hardhitting of "news shows," "The View," President Obama has declared that the Sherrod Snafu was nothing more than a "bogus controversy." He's right to an extent, but it was his administration's blind kowtowing to right wing race-baiting media, of which Fox News is the most prominent example, that raised its level from a minor incident to a monstrous ethical and PR blunder.

By this time the Obama Administration, and in fact any Democratic administration, should recognize Fox News as the public relations branch of the most reactionary elements of the Republican Party and the further right.

The Obama Administration appears to forget that it received the most votes in the last election and has substantial support, even if that support doesn't have a massive media organization that panders to it (the few talking heads on MSNBC don't make up in either their own numbers or in national ratings any sort of credible resistance to the Fox machine, which is running constantly during both news and "talk" programs). However, since taking office, Obama has backpedaled on or simply shelved his more daring initiatives, a strategy that Democrats seem to think leads to success.

Democrats would be wise to remember that they were elected not on the basis of their similarities to what used to be the now non-existent moderate wing of the Republican Party, but on a promise that they were returning to the bold initiatives that saw them offer true alternatives to the bankrupt laissez-faire, "winner take all," "kick 'em to the curb" mentality of the Republicans.

Unfortunately, the Sherrod scandal indicates that Democrats have learned little to nothing about the current state of politics and the media. Instead of sniffing out a brilliant opportunity to demonstrate Fox News' shoddy fact-checking and ideologically driven huff-n-puff, they scrambled as fast as they could to accede to the hate-mongers' demands.

It shouldn't be this way.

26 July 2010

No stone unturned.

During the Vietnam War, it became increasingly evident that television had changed the war. Not only did television speed up the home front's access to information about the war, but it also brought it vividly into everyone's evening news. Unlike the newsreels of World War II that were highlight clips available in movie theaters, the news reports from Vietnam showed reporters in the midst of firefights; the chaos of the war entered the living room.

Compared to nightly news reports, newsreel footage is quaint, sterile, distant, and downright naive:

In the decade and a half between the fall of Saigon and the opening of Gulf War I, the government and the televised news media learned some important lessons. For the government's part, they learned they had to control the message, so they released footage of "smart bombs" and held press conferences explaining exactly what was happening (or at least what they said was happening), and that information was dutifully lapped up and disseminated by the various news organizations.

News organizations, in particular CNN, had learned that war was not an event to be reported but a bankable commodity to be exploited. War coverage could be branded and developed: panels of experts could convene, pre-packaged pros and cons could be aired as if they were open debate, and occasionally an overview of the war, complete with military supplied footage and analysis, could occur. CNN saw the war as an incredible visibility boost, and of course marketed their coverage and references to their coverage to convince viewers that they were a reliable source for information:

More importantly, though, they branded the war. It became a show, complete with recognizable graphics and theme music:

But you don't have to take my word for it; you can read Baudrillard's excellent The Gulf War Did Not Take Place for a more lucid analysis of the media victory in the Gulf War I. While some illiterate morons believed Baudrillard was arguing that the Gulf War was a hoax (much like conspiracy theorists argue about the moon landing), Baudrillard's points consisted of a critique of the mediated nature of the event and whether the action actually satisfied the definition of war as opposed to massacre.

The advance of the First Gulf War was live 24 hour coverage and the development of stations devoted to nothing but news (which of course meant nothing but infotainment, since hard analysis doesn't sell and there's not enough news to fill 24 hours unless you repeat it, extend it, manipulate it, and turn it into an event). The advance of the Second Gulf War and the Afghanistan War (perhaps we could label both neatly as "Bush's Boondoggle" or "Middle East Adventurism") is the advent of the internet.

Digital recording has made (to use CNN's term) "iReporters" out of nearly everyone. Cheap cell phone images have fueled the cable channels' speculation shows, while higher quality hand held recording devices and widespread internet connectivity have allowed nearly anyone to produce and disseminate footage (and the accompanying phenomenon of "viral video" simply drives home the point that the production, dissemination, and consumption of images cannot be contained or controlled by the traditional media infrastructure).

Digitized material spreads beyond the control of its producer or its original broadcaster. Derrida argued that all text is "always already" beyond the control of its creator and especially so if it becomes public discourse (and you have to have a sense that Emily Dickinson understood that as well when she wrote that "publication is the auction of the mind"), and in the internet age the avenues of dissemination are simply multiplied and accelerated. They approach "real time," the "real" being more of a tease, a promise of revelation that often doesn't materialize or disappoints. Much like the CNN reporters of the 1990's (and present) who often stand around desperately trying to fill time in order to fulfill the promise of presence, the internet as entity promises everything -- unmediated access to information without respect to broadcast schedules, as well as an unfillable archive of everything that has ever happened.

Into this medium springs wikileaks, a site whose visibility depends upon its access to formerly secretive information; like most news sites, it's raw material is information, but unlike other news sites, it doesn't do anything with the raw material: it simply dumps it on the internet, making it freely available to anyone with an internet connection. Wikileaks represents the next watershed in the public relations of warfare, which is to say in warfare. Prior to the Vietnam War, the military and government could rely on a distance between the war zone and the home front; prior to the First Gulf War, the military and government could rely upon the dominant model of infotainment to spin their messages (and the embedded reporters of Gulf War II simply represented a tremendous advance, both in terms of control and in terms of PR victory, in the military's response to that model); however, the internet age represents a challenge that Lyotard first identified back in 1979 in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge: control of information will be the dominant field of warfare or interstate rivalry:
Knowledge in the form of an informational commodity indispensable to productive power is already, and will continue to be, a major --perhaps the major --stake in the worldwide competition for power. It is conceivable that the nation-states will one day fight for control of information, just as they battled in the past for control over territory, and afterwards for control over access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labor.
In other words, knowledge as commodity has always served traditional interests. Wikileaks represents a denial of knowledge as commodity, or at least in the traditional sense. However, the news outlets who have always made information their stock in trade will find no real challenge from wikileaks -- they have simply been given immense raw material with which to work; the real challenge is to the government and the military, who are now finding that just as battlefield television cameras brought their combat actions under intense scrutiny, wikileaks (and the internet in general) will now bring their internal discourse on war into the light and under the same intense scrutiny.


17 July 2010

I didn't think this guy was even alive, politically speaking.

Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, apparently has Presidential aspirations.

Who knew?

Since they guy couldn't get elected in his own state, I'm guessing he's not really looking to take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania, but would like to toss his shoe close enough to the stake to come up on cabinet shortlists, which is a scary enough thought.

For those who don't remember him from his first turn in the spotlight, Santorum was a mean-spirited, pretentious, hate-filled prig, whose foolishness got Pennsylvania voters to toss him out of office after two terms by a 59% to 41% margin. And Pennsylvania, whose most famous senator right now is Arlen Spector, doesn't have a reputation for tossing senators out -- Santorum narrowly defeated Harris Wofford, who was only in office because he won a special election in 1991 to replace John Heinz, a man who'd probably still be a senator if he weren't dead.

I'm all for Santorum getting a little closer to the spotlight, because it can't help but scare the living daylights out of rational people, and I still maintain the belief that the majority of Americans are, in the main, rational people.

It should be interesting to watch the primary season unfold, because I'm not sure how the Republicans are going to finesse the inevitable schism between the anti-government, pro-business rationalists and the anti-government, pro-business fantasists like Palin, Huckabee, and Santorum, who not only think the last word on science, morality, and the law comes from the Bible, but also think everyone else should have to accept that, too.

15 July 2010

Obvious Department: Tea Party is racist.

Why does it take the NAACP to tell everyone that the Tea Party is a bastion of racists?

Well, actually it doesn't, but I applaud the NAACP for taking off the kid gloves and calling out the baggers for what, as a movement, they are. Sure there are probably a few teabaggers who actually aren't racists, but as they say, even a clock that doesn't run is right twice a day.

Predictably, politicians whose national ambitions rely on racism, have cried foul. Showing her astute grasp of history, Sarah Palin argues on facebook (and no I'm not supplying a link to her idiotic meanderings) that racism is "in the past" and that anyone who doesn't believe so is actually part of the problem. It's perfectly logical, in the same way that arguing that someone noticing that it's raining outside is actually conjuring up the rain themselves.

However, middle of the road columnists like the Post's E.J. Dionne are trying to ameliorate the hard truth that the Tea Partiers are racists in really thin disguises. Here's Dionne explaining his position:
So let's dispense with the obvious: Most of the opposition to President Obama comes from people who are against his policies, not his race. The Tea Party is motivated primarily by right-wing ideology, not by racism.
I think Dionne meant "most of the opposition to Pres. Obama within the Tea Party..." and if he didn't, then he's putting two sentences together that shouldn't be together. Taking a look only at his second sentence, Dionne has done semantically in one sentence what the right-wing hasn't been able to do practically since...um, forever. He's separated "right-wing ideology" from "racism."

The Tea Party Movement is a great reminder that those two items are so closely linked that they are, to borrow an analogy from chemistry, like reactants and catalysts. Racism has been used to bolster all sorts of reactionary movements, from union-busting to the Republican's "Southern Strategy."

Like a box of cracker jacks, not everything inside is a nut, but it's the nuts that give it the distinctive flavor...

10 July 2010


Why would the Post give this proto-fascist column space?

I blame the publication of the Unabomber's manifesto for such lapses in journalistic integrity as to print the rantings of unhinged antisocial assholes.

Yet, at least the Unabomber had claim to intelligence, even if put to evil use, sort of like a Lex Luthor but without the minions, money, and working plumbing.

However, Rick Barber doesn't have that claim, and his ignorant, insensitive, and downright insulting "slavery" ad should be proof enough of that. Agreeing to release such a tawdry and misguided ad demonstrates both a lack of judgment and a proud disdain for facts, neither of which qualities should be terribly attractive in a candidate, but we are talking about Alabama.

If I'm exceedingly kind to the Post, I can believe that they printed Barber's response to the criticism he's taking over his stupid ad as a way of handing him a shovel the better to dig a deeper hole, and he's certainly risen to that task, proclaiming:
Over the past 18 months, the federal government has sought to seize or has seized control of the health-care industry, the financial industry, the mortgage industry, the automobile industry, student loans, broadband Internet and the energy sector through cap-and-trade legislation. With never a crisis going to waste, each new seizure is rationalized by some new emergency.
Sure, the federal government has done all of those things...if you're either too damn stupid to understand what any of that legislation actually did or your definition of "sought to seize or has seized" is so uselessly broad as to include nearly any government regulation or oversight.

Of course, that's where Barber is coming from: the realm of cloud-cuckoo land, where things work magically by themselves and humans involved in business are naturally honest and honorable, seeking nothing but the best for their customers, yet this innate goodness in human nature doesn't extend too far beyond the world of the beleaguered businessman, given that Barber and his ilk seem to fear and distrust nearly all humanity.

Barber, for his part, embraces this fear, arguing that
Those on my side of the aisle seek to move the argument through fear of deficits, inflation, terrorism, socialism and the loss of individual liberty; those on the left through fears of global warming, poverty, racism, depression.
Whose side of the aisle? He's running as a Republican, yet he claims to be afraid of deficits. I suppose he missed the years 2000-2008, where the Bush regime not only dismantled the Clinton era surpluses, but also ballooned the deficit through its illegal war in Iraq and its nebulous and Orwellian call to an undefined and never ending "war on terror." Inflation hasn't been an issue since, well, since the 1980's, so I'm starting to guess that Barber's side of the aisle is the outside, as in outside of reality.

We could get deeper into Barber's rhetoric, but really, what's the point? Barber's arguments, if you can call them such, wouldn't rate a passing grade on a freshman essay in American government, economics, or comparative political systems. In fact, if a student of mine turned in this claptrap, I'd ask for a rewrite, noting that assertions are nothing without support.

Barber fears we're "well on our way" down a "road to serfdom," but he can't actually explain why. Apparently it has something to do with government preventing the good-hearted insurance companies from dropping sick clients for "pre-existing conditions" or minor and irrelevant paperwork errors.

Rather stereotypically, he repeats the time-worn canard that "liberals ... despise freedom of speech when the speech is conservative." I suppose he means liberals like the ACLU, who has consistently fought for the Constitutional rights of obnoxious groups like the KKK. Like most conservatives, Barber confuses two things about free speech: the right to free speech does not mean you can demand to be published in respected circles, and free speech does not mean you don't have to face criticism for your idiocy.

In other words, free speech means a newspaper can print what it wants (although libel law does put some reins on that horse), but it has never meant that a paper has to print the rantings of a lunatic like Barber -- yet they do. By the same token, criticizing your position, pointing out the fundamental inaccuracy of your arguments, and arguing that your speech reveals you to be a complete moron is not the same thing as "despising" freedom of speech.

It's the height of arrogance and blindness for Barber to be complaining about a violation of his freedom of speech rights in a column published not only in a national newspaper, but also in one of conservatism's favorite examples of the "liberal media."

08 July 2010


I'm changing my mind about A Fraction of the Whole. It's starting to become, as the Wall Street Journal review on the front cover would have it, "riotously funny." One of two things is happening. Either the book is actually getting much better or I'm paying better mind to it and being a more consistent attentive reader. Either way, it's been very enjoyable lately. Here's an excerpt:
Let's not mince words: the interior of the Sydney casino looks as if Vegas had an illegitimate child with Liberace's underpants, and that child fell down a staircase and hit its head on the edge of a spade. At blackjack tables and sitting in front of poker machines were tense and desperate men and women looking like droids, who didn't seem to be gambling for pleasure. As I watched them, I remembered the casino was famous for having its patrons lock their children in their cars while they gambled. I had read a news story about it, and I hoped all those sad, desperate people rolled the windows down a little while they put their rent money in the pockets of the state government, which rakes in huge profits and then puts half a percent of it back into the community for counseling services for gamblers.
There are numerous gems like the first sentence of this excerpt, one liners that are truly hilarious and odd juxtapositions of images.

Let's see how it goes.

07 July 2010

Dragging one out of the waiting room.

I was wondering where to go with my summer reading, and out of sheer laziness and a lack of decent book stores in my undisclosed current location, I decided to take up a book I'd abandoned last year (which I'd abandoned once before as well). The book is called A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz, and it was shortlisted for the Booker way back in 2008 I believe. That's when I bought it and originally started it.

I abandoned it the first time because the semester got in the way.

I abandoned it the second time because another semester got in the way.

On both occasions, I wasn't exactly displeased that I had to abandon the book. It's not that it's bad (otherwise I would have abandoned it completely); it's just that the story doesn't grip me. It is funny, I'll give it that. I don't know if it's "riotously funny," the way the front cover blurb, purportedly from the Wall Street Journal, claims it is, but it is funny. I also think that on page 329, I'm finally into the thick of things and the rewards are starting to fall my way. The novel itself is 561 pages, so I'm over halfway through, and I damn well better finish it this time.

However, the story doesn't hang on me the way that other books do, where you find yourself thinking about the characters or the plot in the middle of doing something else. These characters and the plot, such as it is, remain between the covers of the book. Jasper Dean is humorous enough, but not very lively at this point, and his father, Martin...well, for all his wackiness he really comes across as dull.

Well, here goes nothing...

06 July 2010

Coming in from the cold.

Everyone's acting like this Russian spy story is outdated, so 1970's. Like spying began and ended with the Cold War.

Of course, in today's news cycle, everyone's already forgotten about the Russian spy story. In fact, the news has so skewed towards entertainment, that the predominant reactions to the story has been to focus on the "beauty queen" spy, Anna Chapman, as if it's the first time an attractive individual has been a spy.

Great concern has been voiced over the possible boost this story will give to Angelina Jolie's latest vehicle, Salt.

Other than that, no one seems to care.

Now, it's true that these spies were pretty poor. I'm not even sure you can call them spies, really, at least in the classical sense. This point is being made by the Guardian's Alexander Chancellor:
One reason for this must be the complete futility of the alleged Russian operation. The FBI had not only been watching the suspects closely for up to a decade, but it had found no evidence that any of them had furnished Moscow with even a scrap of useful information during that time.
Perhaps, though, the mission was to discover the allure of suburbia, with its backyard barbecues, its well-manicured lawns, and its quiet desperation behind a privacy fence in a subdivision cul-de-sac.

But the time for the story has come and gone. Sure, it will crop up later, probably in two weeks when Angelina Jolie's movie opens, but it will sink below the surface rather quickly. Anna Chapman may find herself in a few years -- or as soon as her anticipated sentence will allow -- hitting the talk show couch circuit, flogging her story for a book or a movie, because one of the great secrets of American life is that we don't know how to handle anything as a culture anymore except through the tropes provided by the media.

Andy Warhol's laconic statement has proven not only to be true, but also to be descriptive of our attention spans and indicative of the triumph of the culture industry.

02 July 2010

Didn't feel like putting much effort into it today, so I go for low hanging fruit: Charles Krauthammer

You have to love Charles Krauthammer for writing bitter diatribes that are great for rousing the rabble, but particularly useless for understanding issues. Krauthammer's latest sally from moronville takes issue with the Obama Administration's reticence to use the term "Islamic fundamentalist" in describing the terrorists involved in recent actions here and abroad. The bitter windbag writes:
Indeed, Islamist fundamentalism is not only a risk factor. It is the risk factor, the common denominator linking all the great terror attacks of this century -- from 9/11 to Mumbai, from Fort Hood to Times Square, from London to Madrid to Bali.

Of course, on a literal level, he's right. These attackers did share a belief that they were waging a holy war, a crusade even, against the infidels, the Great Satan, what have you. Western civilization.

And, as usual, here's where Krauthammer's hard rhetoric reveals the simplistic, hateful mind that crafts the words. In Krauthammer's world, it's always going to be us v. them, an unending conflict of cultures between the civilized West and the barbaric Orient; the only thing different between now and the late 19th century is that it's no longer the "yellow peril" we need worry about (although without Islam, Krauthammer would most likely be focused on the "rising tide of color" led by China), but rather this amorphous blob called the Islamic World. But don't take my word for it. Krauthammer actually deploys these terms in his column:
It trivializes the war between jihadi barbarism and Western decency, and diminishes the memory of those (including thousands of brave Muslims -- Iraqi, Pakistani, Afghan and Western) who have died fighting it.
Ah, note how clever the great deceiver is...he includes the "brave Muslims" fighting the "jihadi barbarism" that elsewhere he simply wants to call "Islamic fundamentalism." And that's where he fails and is perhaps too blind to see his own argument unraveling in front of him.

Let's play a little language game. Let's switch "Islamic" for "Christian." Forget about linking any Christian fundamentalists to terrorist acts like assassinating doctors or planning to take out police officers, but just consider the amount of people covered by the term "Christian fundamentalist." Now, let's imagine further that certain sects that identified themselves as Christian armed themselves, preached death to the government, carried out assassinations and other crimes, and the government started to talk about the scourge of "Christian fundamentalism."

How would that fly?

Now imagine you had to deal with countries, and in fact included some among your allies, that called or considered themselves Islamic. It might put you in a bit of a delicate situation to explain to them why you were impugning a rather broad segment of their population with such sloppy rhetoric.

I really can't overemphasize that enough. Krauthammer suggests sloppy rhetoric as a positive. It's not a positive and would only serve to impede cooperation between governments in Muslim dominated nations. And it's not as if there isn't precedent for this sort of linguistic sensitivity. It may seem decades ago (because it largely is), but the U.S. never referred to the Irish Republican Army as "Catholic terrorists" or consider it motivated by "Catholic fundamentalism." Oh, certainly some more radical members of the Unionist movement made that connection and used that language, but those are the same groups, along with the Republican splinter groups, who assuage their being shut out in the cold with occasional outbreaks of violence (thankfully usually only rhetorical).

Now with this analogy, I accept that there's no perfect correspondence, but as they say, all analogies limp. However, the point is that language is much more complex than Krauthammer gives it credit for. Even his closing argument is a pathetic bait and switch, infinitely worse than my analogy, because he manages to bring the Nazis into the equation:
Churchill famously mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. But his greatness lay not in mere eloquence. It was his appeal to the moral core of a decent people to rise against an ideology the nature of which Churchill never hesitated to define and describe -- and to pronounce ("Nahhhhzzzzi") in an accent dripping with loathing and contempt.
Yes, the Nazis. An actual defined organized group in charge of a country. What Krauthammer forgets is that we do have an equivalent today, and it's called "Al Qaeda." Sure, they don't have their own country that we can invade and occupy, but they are a real group with a fairly clear mission statement. Krauthammer's example should also give us another reason to understand the counterproductive nature of his demands: especially in the post-war years, it was crucial to de-link the larger signifier of "Germans" from specific crimes of the Nazi regime. Therefore, one doesn't really talk of "German fascism" or "German war crimes": one talks of "Nazi war crimes."

01 July 2010

Out of the ordinary.

Today I did something that's unfortunately becoming rarer and rarer: I spent an hour lying on my back next to a pool feeling the sun go in and out through the clouds that were so big and fluffy my daughter was sure they'd burst.

She's in camp and my wife's a counselor there, but this afternoon she had to be elsewhere. Schedules being what they were and with the camp making a field trip to the nearby state park, I decided I'd go early, hang out a bit, and take her home from the park.

She swam for about twenty minutes, but it was a little cold and she's only five years old and she decided it was time to get out and wrap a towel around herself. In order to accomplish that last task, she lay the towel carefully out on the ground, making sure to get each corner stretched straight. then she lay down in the middle of the towel and pulled the sides around her.

And I put my hat down over my face, lay my head on my backpack, and just let the clouds drift.