Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Behold the mysterious wonder of Suburban Kids With Biblical Names:
"Rent a Wreck"
We shall be forever grateful, Mr. O.!
Simon, at Ballardian, offers a post on a series of German car-crash test photos that I had sent him.
Our insidious influence spreads...
But it seems that George Monbiot beat me to it.
Cormac McCarthy's book The Road considers what would happen if the world lost its biosphere, and the only living creatures were humans, hunting for food among the dead wood and soot. Some years before the action begins, the protagonist hears the last birds passing over, "their half-muted crankings miles above where they circled the earth as senselessly as insects trooping the rim of a bowl". McCarthy makes no claim that this is likely to occur, but merely speculates about the consequences.
This is, in fact, one of the strong points of McCarthy's novel: its vagueness about the crises that led to the bleak, ash-covered world through which his protagonists travel. (However, it seems to most closely resemble a nuclear winter.)
The Road was my first McCarthy novel, and I have to say that I'm impressed. The spare, restrained language is grimly beautiful. The hushed stillness of a world that has -- except for islands and instances of horrifying brutality -- effectively come to a standstill makes even the smallest gestures of its characters somehow significant.
Having looked around a bit, it seems that there are interpretations of the book which see it as a story of religious faith and redemption. I have to say that I disagree. I admit that the ending left me a bit confused (and perhaps disappointed) at first, as it seemed to betray the novel's hitherto relentlessly hopeless logic.
However, thinking about it in retrospect, the conclusion is far more ambiguous than it at first seems. Rather than salvation, I think the novel's denouement might equally be seen as a mere prolongation of the horror.
Furthermore, its final passage, following immediately upon a character's expression of theistic hope, suggests what might be the author's more grim naturalism:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
It is perhaps too simple, as Monbiot does, to see The Road as simply an 'environmental book'. It is a haunting book about the end of the environment and the collapse of, essentially, everything.
But in a wide-ranging and intriguing essay on the novel at the New York Review of Books, 'After the Apocalypse', Michael Chabon observes,
Horror fiction proceeds, in general, by extending metaphors, by figuring human fears of mortality, corruption, and the loss of self. The haunted house (or planet), the case of demonic possession, the nightmare journey to or through a charnel house, the transubstantiation of human flesh into something awful and foul, the exposed wolfishness of men, the ineradicable ancestral curse of homicidal depravity—all of them tropes to be encountered, in one form or another, in McCarthy's work—trade on these deep-seated fears, these fundamental sources of panic, and seek to flay them, to lay them open, to drag them into the light.He concludes:
What emerges most powerfully as one reads The Road is not a prognosticatory or satirical warning about the future, or a timeless parable of a father's devotion to his son, or yet another McCarthyesque examination of the violent underpinnings of all social intercourse and the indifference of the cosmic jaw to the bloody morsel of humanity.Chabon is right that the book is not simply about either of these, and his own focus on the novel's expressions of specifically parental fears is correct enough. But I think that in itself might be too limiting, and a strong element of that latter trope Chabon mentions is obvious: the book is not only about where we might be headed but also about whence we have come and, thus, about who we are.
'There is no God and we are his prophets', says one of the few characters the father and son protagonists encounter on their journey: 'People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didnt believe in that. Tomorrow wasnt getting ready for them. It didnt even know they were there.'
That's the thing about the universe that many people seem to have a hard time grasping: it doesn't care about us. Human relationships and imagination do, on the other hand, provide meaning, as the book effectively and movingly expresses. But these are fragile things.
I plan to read more McCarthy soon, probably No Country For Old Men, which, I see, is soon to be a film by Joel and Ethan Coen. The trailer looks...well, terrifying. (Considering that McCarthy focuses on the intersections between masculinity and violence, I'm surprised it's taken me so long to pay attention to him. I think this was because I had him pegged as a 'western' writer, and that's not a genre that has typically appealed to me. Time to reconsider...)
One other association occurred to me while reading The Road. It called to mind somehow the music of Tom Waits, in particular his album Blood Money. (If ever there were a soundtrack to the end of the world, Tom Waits would have to be on it.)
The opening track, 'Misery is the River of the World' contains lyrics which could have served as an epigraph for McCarthy's novel:
All the good in the world
You can put inside a thimble
And still have room for you and me
If there's one thing you can say
There's nothing kind about man
You can drive away nature with a pitch fork
But it always comes roaring back again.
And it also contains the beautiful song, 'All the World is Green', which, in the context of The Road, comes across as a fitting lament for a lost world:
The moon is yellow silver
Oh the things that summer brings
It's a love you'd kill for
And all the world is green
He is balancing a diamond
On a blade of grass
The dew will settle on our grave
When all the world is green.
(Tom Waits, 'All the World is Green', live on the David Letterman Show, 8 May 2002.)
Friday, October 26, 2007
The Tellers, "Second Category"
Jens Lekman, "You are the light"
("You are the light by which I travel into this and that"...love it!)
A good weekend to you all. Well, to most of you anyway.
So, sports history is being made. And some players seem to be taking it as a real learning experience.
Miami Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder has admitted not knowing people speak English in London.
The NFL player might want to check a map before he gets on board a plane for Sunday's prestige game against the New York Giants at Wembley Stadium.
Crowder, who comes from Atlanta in Georgia, may be praised on the field, but confessed geography was not his strong point.
Humility, as we know, is the first step on the road to knowledge.
He admitted he did not know until now where London was - or that Londoners spoke English.Well, at least he learned something. Although this part was interesting too:
"I couldn't find London on a map if they didn't have the names of the countries," he said. "I swear to God. I don't know what nothing is. I know Italy looks like a boot. I learned that."
Yes, Mr. Crowder, that must be the answer.
Crowder added: "I know (Washington Redskins linebacker) London Fletcher. We did a football camp together. So I know him.
"That's the closest thing I know to London. He's black, so I'm sure he's not from London. I'm sure that's a coincidental name."
In particular, he discusses one Matt Ridley, who was not only chair of Northern Rock but is also a well known author of several fascinating books on human nature.
Silly me, I've never made the connection before. (But, then again, I have a difficult enough time remember whether it's Matt Ridley or Mark Ridley, let alone checking on the political allegiances and possible bank chairmanships of the zoologists I read.)
Monbiot gives Ridley's (quite astoundingly radical) libertarian philosophising a good drubbing, but the more interesting bit is where he brings up evolutionary psychology:
I studied zoology in the same department [as Ridley], though a few years later. Like Ridley, I am a biological determinist: I believe that much of our behaviour is governed by our evolutionary history. I accept the evidence he puts forward, but draw completely different conclusions. He believes that modern humans are destined to behave well if left to their own devices; I believe that they are likely to behave badly. If you belong to a small group of intelligent hominids, all of whom are well known to each other, you will be rewarded for cooperation and generosity within the group. (Though this does not stop your group from attacking or exploiting another.) If, on the other hand, you can switch communities at will, travel freely, buy in one country and sell in another, hire strangers then fire them, you will gain more from acting only in your own interest. You'll have an even stronger incentive to act against the common good if you run a bank whose lending and borrowing are so complex that hardly anyone can understand what is happening.In general, I tend far more toward Mobiot's arguments on this issue, even if I think he should avoid the use of the word 'determinist', particularly since so many evolutionary psychologists have been struggling to free themselves of that label and have rightly emphasised interactions between genetics and environment in describing behaviour.
Ridley and I have the same view of human nature: that we are inherently selfish. But the question is whether this nature is subject to the conditions that prevailed during our evolutionary history. I believe they have changed: we can no longer be scrutinised and held to account by a small community. We need governments to fill the regulatory role vacated when our tiny clans dissolved.
But the larger point that becomes clear is the utter diversity of political views that can emerge from taking human nature seriously.
I note this aspect of Monbiot's reply partly because I have more than once run up against an assertion that evolutionary psychology more or less automatically entails some version or other of radical laissez-faireism and/or the creation of social policy that is 'conservative' in all kinds of undesirable ways. ('Undesirable' from the perspective of the generally liberal people with whom I have had these discussions.)
This is, as I think Monbiot nicely demonstrates, not the case, and I think he is right that the bulk of the evidence on human nature does not lead us to the conclusion that people -- left to their own devices -- will necessarily act in ways that are good. He is right that, for instance:
Human welfare, just as it was a million years ago, is guaranteed only by mutual scrutiny and regulation.Precisely what the parameters and means of 'mutual scrutiny and regulation' should be is, of course, the tricky bit. Nevertheless, I think there's enough evidence from enough quarters to suggest that what is arguably the most successful form of human social organisation so far (with all its faults and shortcomings) -- i.e., liberal social democracy -- is not Homo sapiens's default state.
There are a lot more things that could be said on that, of course, but just to be brief, Monbiot's article has gotten me thinking about libertarianism again since it's something, actually, with which I have a not entirely hostile but somewhat conflicted relationship.
On the one hand, there are many ways in which I find libertarian thinking and commentary to be very insightful. For a while, for instance, I became a regular reader of Reason, with which I typically found myself in, alternatively, nodding agreement and seething disagreement. (In many ways, they're interesting for asking the right questions if not necessarily coming up with the right answers.)
And there have been various other places where I've found some intriguing thinking from the libertarian corner, particularly by those who seek to develop that thought humbly and consistently (i.e., not just screeching about low taxes and free-enterprise but advocating the passing of liberal immigration laws, the ending of the intrusive legislation of morality and the increased protection of civil rights).
Indeed, I would say that, along with social democracy and naturalism (by which I mean recognising our animal natures and connection to the ecosystems in which we live), libertarian principles of freedom form an important source for my -- admittedly perhaps somewhat ramshackle -- worldview.
Unfortunately, many (though not all) of my personal encounters with real, existing libertarians have tended to be rather negative. They have often held strangely simplistic (ranging to naive and fundamentally ahistorical) perspectives on the world and a relentless (ranging to bug-eyed and ranting) distrust of any concept of social or community good beyond (typically very narrowly conceived) individual interests. Libertarianism in these cases seems to only be an ideology for successful entrepreneurs: what it offers for people don't fit that category -- either because they are not entrepreneurs or because they are not successful -- tends to remain either unclear or be quite obviously vicious.
These, furthermore, have often been accompanied by two things.
1) A tendency toward hyperbole (e.g., 'all taxation is theft', sensible gun control laws are 'oppression' and the UN/EU/WTO/IMF/ATF -- and their fleet of black helicopters -- are plotting a tyrannical world government) and a slightly shouty form of unpleasantness
2) Almost limitless self-aggrandisement (i.e., seeing themselves among an extraordinarily creative and productive self-sufficient elite that, obviously, would thrive in the radically privatised world they envision creating). (The latter I blame partly on excessive reading of Ayn Rand, but that's another topic for another time. Or, preferably, for never).
Strangely enough, I have also encountered precisely these same two characteristics in many discussions with the radical left (mainly Trotskyists for some reason I'm not interested enough to speculate about). So, rest assured, I'm quite capable of being equal opportunity with my scorn.
Oddly enough, just about all the libertarians I've met have identified themselves as right-wing, even though a lot of the things that dominate right-wing parties (whether in Europe or America) these days -- xenophobia, religion, militarism, a strong desire to regulate morals -- are anathema to what I would see as 'real' libertarian thinking.
There's not, of course, anything inherently 'right-wing' about the notion of 'freedom' or about being suspicious of the state, or of emphasising forms of voluntary self-organisation to provide mutual assistance. These have long been elements in anarchist and some socialist thought, and the European green movement ('neither Left nor Right: Green' being one of their early slogans) has also long had the libertarian notion of decentralising power as one its core principles as well, even if at times it has been emphasised rather less than more. (Just to note one of the more obvious practical examples: green thinking on energy focuses on decentralised, even household, power production, freeing people not only from the centralised power of the state but also from the concentrated power of large corporations.)
Of the two general strands of thought that emerged from the 60s (and which have in various ways been around for long, long before that of course) -- i.e., 1) making a new world and 2) being left alone to do your own thing -- my own emphasis has been shifting toward the latter: partly because it's increasingly clear to me that the first -- whether in its left or right-wing form -- generally leads to Very Bad Things. (NB: Making a better world is, I think, still on the table though.)
Now, I know there are a lot of reasonable and very insightful libertarian ideas out there. (And I know that the Left has its own ideological silliness to answer for.)
Thus, it is encouraging to see, as Dale has pointed out, a thoroughgoing libertarian argument for tackling global warming published recently at Black Sun Journal.
In response to what seems to be a rather unhinged critique of the science of global warming, the journal notes:
Actually, it is the AGW [Anthropogenic Global Warming]-deniers who are the collectivists. They support allowing wealthy individuals and corporations to keep engaging in practices that essentially levy a heavy tax-burden on the rest of us. By depleting natural capital, the extractive robber-barons are externalizing their costs to other citizens and future generations. A true individualist libertarian would insist that everyone pay their fair share in the present-day rather than sloughing it off on their children, right? If you want to refrain from sounding completely ignorant and backward on this subject, you need to read and understand the concepts of Natural Capitalism, Externalities, Sustainability, and the Tragedy of the Commons. If you don’t, you have no business claiming to be a true Capitalist.This article follows another (here), which contained the following:
Let’s look at the nature of our situation: Aside from radiation coming from the sun and other parts of space or the occasional meteorite coming in, and whatever heat is reflected or re-radiated into space going out, Earth is a closed system. Each of the 6.5 billion people who live here therefore have the right (an inherent human right as opposed to an arbitrary legal right) to fully use 1/6,500,000,000th of its resources and atmosphere, which are decidedly finite. If Stelene or Matt Drudge or Michael [Crichton] want to use more than that share of atmosphere or non-renewable resource, they need to purchase it from the people whose share they are consuming. That’s the free-market, right? It’s a classic problem of the commons, and even smart libertarians recognize this.
I imagine there are a lot of things that the writers at Black Sun Journal and I would disagree about. (I'm far from a 'true Capitalist', and they have that Strange Affection for Ayn Rand that I mentioned before and that I Just Can't Comprehend....)
The longer I spend blogging, however, the more I find it is difficult to find anyone with whom I completely agree anyway. But I'm also coming increasingly to the conclusion that, given the enormous decline in the civility of political discourse on the internet (described well, if with a certain justified incivility, at Whiskey Fire here and here) that I have come to see even a reasonable disagreement as, somehow, something precious.
And I am pleased to see the folks at Black Sun Journal take on crackpot irrationalism masquerading as secular, rational and libertarian free-thinking.
There are enough serious discussions to be had, after all.
[Update:] Just after posting this I found (via Pharyngula) a link to China Miéville's recent critique of libertarianism in In These Times. Worth reading. (As is his science-fiction novel Perdido Street Station, which I read recently on vacation.)
Thursday, October 25, 2007
I've been meaning to draw attention to an excellent essay by Simon Sellars at Ballardian on the disturbing interactions he observes between J. G. Ballard's dystopian imagination and day-to-day life in Melbourne.
It sounds...well, grim.
Worryingly, inner-city Melbourne is becoming increasingly lawless. Each day brings newspaper reports of gangs attacking passengers on trams, bashings involving Sudanese refugees, drunk patrons of nightclubs targeted for muggings… The true sound of Australia is no longer ‘Advance Australia Fair’ but rather the sickening thud of a skull hitting the pavement. Well, that’s what you read in the papers anyway, and while I have never been one to trust the sensationalized Australian media for my eyes and ears on the world, my attitude changed once it started happening to me. In the past couple of years I have been punched to the ground, unprovoked, by a gang of drunken/drugged up men in the main street of Byron Bay, in full view of passers by, for the territorial crime of being a ‘tourist’. Minding my own business, walking home, I have been set upon by a group of football fans leaving the Melbourne Cricket Ground after I made the mistake of protesting when they tried to tackle me to the ground.And he hasn't even gotten to the part about the 'bicycle wars'.
In my view -- for all the psychological eccentricities of his fiction -- Ballard is quite strong on sociology. (In fact this is one of the arguments of paper I presented not all that long ago at a conference in Norwich which I hope will see the light of the published day at some point. We'll see.)
Along with many other things, Simon offers a different perspective on life in one of the world's 'most liveable cities'.
Great essay, Simon.
And be careful.
Yes, that's Mikhail Gorbachev (and a fragment of the Berlin Wall) starring in an advert for Louis Vuitton.
(At Mark Simpson via Geoff)
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
From the review:
An increasing number of brands manufacture in China. Those luxury handbags women crave? Mostly now invariably made in China, though manufacturers sign strict confidentiality agreements with the brands never to reveal this fact. Several Guangdong factories make bags for a range of brands you pay fortunes for – hence a nice 15% minimum margin on bags. Access Asia was recently in a Chinese factory where the same workers on the same production line were making US$2,000 bags for an Italian brand, and US$35 bags for JC Penney, at the same time. Ever wondered why Coach has so many stores in China? Easy – they make virtually all their bags here. Prada, LV, Furla – all now largely made in China. And that’s where the cost cutting starts, and then continues, with no linings and cheaper thread, glue rather than stitching, as well as cheap labour. Still feeling classy? And typical mark ups on bags once you move to China? Think roughly under US$100 to make a bag, which then retails for US$1,200 upwards. Still think you’ve bought status? And it’s also the high-end ties and scarves. About US$25 max to make in China, and retailing for somewhat more. Still feel exclusive? Or just conned?
And that thread was, cheerfully enough, on the topic of killing and/or being killed.
1. At Orion Magazine (which I only recently discovered and which seems to be generally quite good) Robert Michael Pyle, in 'Licence to Kill', considers nature, which he finds, indeed, to be rather red in tooth and claw. We are all, he also suggests, in some way complicit in the slaughter:
Thoughtful people can take fewer lives than those who stomp every spider without a thought, or worse. Yet there remains the matter of exerting our weight upon the earth, so richly populated with tiny lives. Of eating, whether cattle, pigs, or krill, grains, beans, or spuds, butchered or harvested by the diners or their paid proxies. Of clothing, since cultivating cotton and hemp means displacement (read: killing) of prior residents with pesticide and plow, and the harvest exerts its own toll. And of shelter, because putting up houses means taking down trees. Our transportation, whether Hummer or Prius, train or plane, mines living mountainsides for metals. Communications and energy? Try mountaintop removal for coal, open-pit mines for copper, salmon-stream dams, and the entire oil imbroglio, none of them noted for their nonlethal qualities.
I'm not entirely convinced by his essay's final argument to suspend our judgements of the choices others make in the broad spectrum of killing (I mean, there seems to be a somewhat broader distinction between using antibiotics or swatting flies on the one hand and lion hunting, say, or conducting medical experiments on apes on the other, and this gets a bit lost here). However, I do think his thoughts here are a useful antidote easy moralistic posturing on the matter.
2. Cruelty toward and the treatment of animals, of course, is an important issue. As Alex Renton points out in 'This is one happy cow' at the Guardian, more humane versions of cattle farming have also made economic sense.
It may seem screamingly obvious that there's a connection between the way you treat an animal and the taste and quality of its meat, but it is a notion that has taken a while to penetrate the cost-driven consciousness of the modern meat industry. 'What's interesting,' says Tom Gatherer of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 'is that what would seem commonsense is now being scientifically proven. It's true that the best-raised animals make better meat, and the industry is taking that on board.' Andrew Lane, one of the founders of Loch Fyne Oysters, and in charge of sourcing meat for the group's shops and restaurants, says simply: 'You can tell the mood of the cow by the taste of the meat.'The article still deals with slaughter, so it may not appeal to the more faint-hearted or convince the committed vegan; nonetheless, the practices he examines seem to mean a great improvement in the quality of life (and death) of the cattle in question.
3. In The Observer, Thomas Quinn goes hunting in the Scottish Highlands and kills a deer. The piece is somewhat interesting, even if its narrative framing as a city-boy-becomes-a-man-in-the-wilderness story gets a wee bit relentless by the, um, bloody end.
He's right about one thing though:
Telescopic sights aren't as straightforward as you'd think from the movies. Your eye has to be exactly the right distance from the lens. A half-inch either way and shadow obscures the view.
4. I also ran across an older (2004) article by Dave Cullen at Slate on the Columbine school shootings which is fascinating. Based upon FBI investigations into the massacre, it gives a clearer picture of what happened and dispels a number of inaccuracies and myths about the killings and the killers.
The killers, in fact, laughed at petty school shooters. They bragged about dwarfing the carnage of the Oklahoma City bombing and originally scheduled their bloody performance for its anniversary. Klebold boasted on video about inflicting "the most deaths in U.S. history." Columbine was intended not primarily as a shooting at all, but as a bombing on a massive scale. If they hadn't been so bad at wiring the timers, the propane bombs they set in the cafeteria would have wiped out 600 people. After those bombs went off, they planned to gun down fleeing survivors. An explosive third act would follow, when their cars, packed with still more bombs, would rip through still more crowds, presumably of survivors, rescue workers, and reporters. The climax would be captured on live television. It wasn't just "fame" they were after—Agent Fuselier bristles at that trivializing term—they were gunning for devastating infamy on the historical scale of an Attila the Hun. Their vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.
5. Also less than recent, an interview by Ron Hogan with Jim Crace in which Crace talks about his novel Being Dead, which centres on the murder of a couple on a beach and then traces their process of decomposition over several days.
I recently read it and found it to be incredibly engrossing and emotionally moving. Highly recommended. (A good summary is given in this Salon review.) And my enjoyment of the book is not diminished in the slightest by the knowledge that Crace had not -- as I at first thought -- done extensive research to make his book realistic:
RH: Uh-huh... One of the things I like about the narrative structure is the way that it not only peels back from the moment of death, it also goes forward, even before their bodies are discovered, to continually isolate what is happening to their bodies as they lie there. One of the most remarkable chapters is the one where you describe the animals discovering the bodies, and provide intricate detail on what happens as each species approaches the corpses to feed.
JC: And I have to tell you . . . I mean, I wonder where you're heading there, but of course it's not researched, and the description is bogus. If you're like me and you do any country walking or you do any beach walking, you encounter dead otters or a dead squirrel or a dead seagull, and you go up with your boot and you turn it over and you see what happens, you see what putrefaction is. You see how the body decomposes. You might even look, peer in and you might see all sorts of bugs there. It doesn't feel like a morbid analysis of death, nor does it seem disrespectful or undignified. It seems like part the natural world. So I wanted the bodies [of Joseph and Celice to just rot away and I could have gone and done some real research, but being the kind of writer I am, I made things up. None of the animals that you encounter going into their bodies are real animals. They don't exist. The detail is actually invented because this whole book is a narrative rather than a work of natural history. They [the insects] don't exist. I've invented them. Did you realize that?
RH: No, you had me fooled with that one, too.
JC: But it doesn't matter. It's only modern day conventions that make one feel nervous, that everything's got to be real if you read it in a novel. What a ludicrous reaction to the novel! Why should everything be real? Make everything up. This is the traditional way of storytelling. If you look at any of the old stories...the cyclops doesn't exist, the minotaur doesn't exist. The whole traditional way of storytelling always uses gross inventions, and I think that's the tradition that I'm part of.
Friday, October 19, 2007
The Wife, in fact, can sing most parts of the Bavarian state anthem, having been thoroughly indoctrinated at a tender and impressionable age. And a catchy little ditty it is.
Thus, nobody needs to tell us about the many attractions to be found and joys to be had in the state that I've somehow come to think of as Germany's Texas.
However, the Bavarian Ministry for Economic Affairs, Transport and Technology seems to feel that their homeland is unappreciated, and they've undertaken (no doubt at great expense) an ad campaign organised around the snappy slogan 'Bavaria, where progress is a tradition.'
Now, that's all well and good, and the region is certainly not short of either progress or tradition.
Nevertheless, they may wish to re-think the implications of some of their advertising materials.
Behold the exciting (yet somehow disturbing) interplay of text and image:
(Source: Bavarian Ministry for Economic Affairs, Transport and Technology, Bayern/Bavaria: Where Progress is a Tradition, München, no date, p. 22.)
Yes...'Bavaria -- where a holiday becomes an adventure.'
The kind that you'll never, ever forget.
Of course, there's more to Bavaria than public crucifixions. (And sexy political scandals.)
There is, as we said, the great food.
(From Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus)
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
I can imagine, 50 to 100 years from now, social-historians looking back at the closing years of the 20th century and saying, ‘My God, it opened with the flight of the Wright Brothers; halfway through they went to the moon; they discovered scientific miracle upon miracle. And then they ended with people sitting in their little fortified bungalows while the tele-surveillance cameras sweep the streets outside, and they watch reruns of The Rockford Files.’
It’s a nightmare vision.
See the rest in Damien Love's fascinating interview (from 1996) at Ballardian.
I'm not sure which part of that sentence I find more unlikely: that Bragg exchanged pleasantries with the Queen or that he had freely interpreted the words of Friedrich Schiller that Beethoven had used in the fourth movement of the Ninth, better known to many as 'Ode to Joy'.
Woody Guthrie, sure...but...Friedrich Schiller? Unexpected, to say the least.
And it seems that he not only met the Queen, but found her to be quite charming.
Bragg, it seems, feels he has some explaining to do.
Via the Daily Mail (thanks to Anja for the tip):
How could I - a life-long socialist who believes that God Save The Queen should be replaced as England's national anthem by Blake's Jerusalem - find myself shaking hands with Her Majesty?His explanation is interesting and well worth reading, not least since I have no doubt that there are a lot of his fans who will find this to be some kind of heresy.
After all, as a punk rocker during the Queen's Jubilee year back in 1977, I bought my copy of the Sex Pistols' anarchic God Save The Queen like all my mates.
Indeed, I woke up the morning after the performance to find columnists in the Mail wondering how a 'dyed-in-the-wool republican' like me could shake hands with the Queen.
I'm not one of them, though, and actually I find his commentary on the event convincing--indeed, even moving--for reasons both political and personal.
Actually, my reasons are probably more on the personal side, which requires some background.
Bragg and I go back a ways...in the sense that even though he has no idea who I am, I have been a fan of his since my mid teens (so the mid '80s), have seen him in concert more than a dozen times and once even had the pleasure of speaking to him after a show (in Washington, DC).
When I was first learning to play guitar (way back then), I made my way though his early catalogue, and for a while I could probably do reasonably good versions of nearly all his songs. My interest has waned a bit after the Guthrie projects, but I still have followed him occasionally, and have noted with interest his new career as author and advocate of left-wing patriotism.
My relationship with the Queen, in a sense, goes back to some of my earliest memories.
My mother, you see, immigrated to America from England in 1948 to marry my father, whom she'd met during the war. (No, in my family, we didn't have to specify which war, it was just 'the war'.)
Now, in my experience, immigrants tend to go either one of two ways: they either adopt fully the culture of the society they've entered or they cling to the memory of their homeland.
My mother, somehow, managed to do both.
Though she felt enormously proud of being American (she gained citizenship before I was born), it was always England that remained her 'home'. A particular version of England of course, one consisting of one part Finest Hour nostalgia, one part monarchist devotion, one part working-class earthiness...and a healthy dollop of kitsch. As a northern Irish friend of mine put it after a visit to our family home once: there were more Union Jacks in our house than he'd seen anywhere outside of a Unionist parade.
Hers was an idiosyncratic form of national identity, perhaps, but a heartfelt one nonetheless, and she went back as often as she could.
And though, toward the end of her life, she began to lose patience for the rest of the royal pack, she continued in some way to admire Elizabeth, who was born in the same year as she. They had, in a sense, grown up together, at least via newspaper pictures, newsreels and radio broadcasts. And to some extent, I'm quite sure that my mother's identification with the Windsor matriarch had more to do with sympathies of one mother (and grandmother) to another than anything resembling political theory.
This was something we often talked about over the years, just as we spoke about the class system in which she grew up (and so resented), the sacrifices and terrors of the war (somewhat softened by time and nostalgia) and the left-wing politics her own father had tirelessly -- if good humouredly -- promoted. (He was, as she informed me once with great solemnity, 'a socialite'. It never occurred to me to correct her.)
For all these reasons, then, I find it somehow poignant when Bragg comments on her generation:
Once [the House of Lords is abolished], I don't have a problem with having a monarchy that is symbolic. After all, the Queen already plays that role, especially for the generation who lived through World War II. They do seem to revere her more than the rest of us.I recognise, of course, that there is something soggy and soft and hopelessly sentimental about this, so there's no need to point that out.
So I believe that while there are still those among us whose loved ones fought and died for king and country in that conflict, then we owe them a debt of respect, not only for the sacrifices they made during the war, but for the legacy of the Welfare State, which they created and handed down to us. By respecting the Queen, we respect them.
I'm not, after all, trying to argue that he is necessarily right about the relative benignity of the monarchy in the grand scheme of things (though, to be honest, I think he's correct that there are more significant fights to be fought than republicanism as such...), but rather to get past the politics a bit into the personal.
My mother died earlier this year. Since it wasn't a surprise, she had had time to issue requests (well, orders really...) about what kind of music she wanted played at her funeral. Music was one of the most important things in her life.
Among her choices was Jerusalem. Now, there are different views on this song, but I have always found the combination of the music and Blake's poetry to be deeply moving. Played in a simple arrangement and without some of the bombast that sometimes accompanies it, it's a lovely, lovely song. And in some way inspirational.
Thus it didn't take me long to pick out the rendition of the song that Bragg had sung on one of his EPs to be played at her service. It actually fit in much better than you might have expected with the Vera Lynn and Bing Crosby versions of the other tunes she had requested.
In the end, apart from a few of the older bits of ceramic commemorating various coronations and jubilees, the vast collection of royalist memorabilia that my mother had accumulated over her long life went to other members of my family. Royalism's not my scene, really, and the whole idea of political sovereignty deriving from royal power (recall: it is, quite literally, still 'her majesty's government') is something that I find somehow perverse.
But, really, as long as it's not taken too seriously (and, really, for a long time, it hasn't been) then I think one would have to look elsewhere for urgent problems in British society.
Additionally, I have always found it difficult to dislike HRH herself. (This goodwill is not extended either to her husband or her children.)
And I can certainly think of a number of reasons not to begrudge Billy Bragg a nice night out with his family, his friends and...uh...his national figurehead.
As he puts it:
I could have been sniffy, I suppose, and refused to shake her hand, but she was good enough to come to my gig and follow my lyrics while they were sung. She even asked for my autograph.
Last Tuesday night was very special. I sat with my mother, my missus and my son while we listened to a great orchestra and a massive choir passionately sing my words to one of the greatest pieces of music ever written.
And afterwards, I got to shake hands with the woman who gave the World Cup to Bobby Moore. For a boy from Barking, it just doesn't get much better than that.
What can I say? The Queen charmed the pants off me.A questionable idiom, perhaps...but a sweet sentiment.
I've found that this is particularly the case in researching newspapers, which I've been doing rather a lot over the last couple of years as part of a project on crime in interwar Britain.
It has been a while since I've presented any of this historical by-catch; however, I thought the article below 'Turkey Without the Veil' would be of interest. (I have not bothered to transcribe the last quarter or so of the piece, as it ceased to be interesting at about that point...)
It appeared in the Daily Express on 10 July 1928 (p. 11), and was the second in a series of articles by H. J. Greenwall (Daily Express 'special correspondent') on Turkish life under the rule of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
In Greenwall's report (filed from 'Constantinople'), 'he deals', as the Express noted, 'especially with the position of women under the new regime.’
It was highlighted on the page by a bold line of type above it proclaiming 'How Turkish Women Use Their New Freedom'.
It is perhaps of interest not only for what it says about the position of women in Turkish society in the late 1920s--particularly when some appear to be re-discovering the headscarf--but also to that English outsider's perspective on 'Eastern' women.
Without further ado...
Paris Fashions Copied By All
By H. J. Greenwall
Daily Express Special Correspondent
How is the modern woman of Turkey reacting to the liberty which became hers when Mustapha Kemal swept away the age-long customs of the East and turned the face of Turkey to the West?
In the mosques I notice there are more women praying than there used to be before Kemal came, but the women one sees praying are not the modern women. They are rather the older ones, lost and quite bewildered by the new laws, and it is certain that they do not approve of what has happened.
The blow which emptied the imperial harem also made Turkish women discard the veil, shingle their hair, shorten their skirts, drink cocktails in night clubs, in fact, do all the things—except, perhaps, drive motor-cars and play games—that women in Paris and London do. The one thing they have not yet adopted is the ‘make-up’ of the West. Old Mother Asia causes them to retain the kohl-blacked eyes.
This freedom which as come to the women of Turkey has, I think, made them happier than they were of old, when they were jewelled toys behind latticed windows. The majority of the younger women accept what Kemal has given them, and are thankful for it. They approve the new laws of marriage and divorce.
Now that religion has been separated from the State, it is only the civil marriage which counts, but if the contracting parties so desire they may have a ceremony in the mosque as well. No longer may the Turk take unto himself four wives, as the Koran allowed him to do. The law to-day is: One Turk, one wife.
Divorce law in Turkey is based on the Swiss laws. No longer can a Turk divorce his wife by just making a statement before a witness. Now he must file a suit, alleging desertion or infidelity. In the eyes of the law the sexes are equal, and a Turkish wife can divorce her husband just as a woman of London can, but, in point of fact, the Turkish woman has scored heavily, because the new divorce laws have made her emancipation complete.
Turkish women, who always admired French culture above every other, have modelled themselves completely on the French women, and they try to reach as close to French chic as they can.
Hats, their dresses, their stockings, and their shoes are copied from Parisian styles, and the women copy so accurately that were it not for the Oriental ‘make-up’ it would be impossible to tell a woman of Constantinople from a woman of Paris. Removal of the veil, however, and all that this gesture implies, has removed all the mystery which used to make the Turkish woman such a romantic figure. A pair of black eyes flashing through a veil as the owner of the eyes stepped rapidly across the pavement, and beneath the jealous glances of the accompanying eunuch entered her carriage, is a far different thing from seeing a face topped with a Paris hat stroll from shop to waiting motor-car, driven, most probably, by a Russian refugee who was formerly an officer of the Czar’s Guard.
If the Turkish women have achieved freedom, they have achieved it only at the price of losing the adoration of the European admirers.
The remainder is concerned with the apparently awe-inspiring collection of ‘Osman jewels’ that could be viewed and which would make ‘Hatton Garden faint collectively’.
Friday, October 12, 2007
My brief elation yesterday at learning that Doris Lessing had received the Nobel Prize for Literature was almost immediately thrashed by the ‘mixed’ reactions of the literary establishment to this long overdue recognition.
In Der Spiegel, Marcel-Reich Ranicki, a German literary critic renowned for his condemnation of well nigh anything and anyone but himself, voiced his ‘regret’ about the decision. ‘I would have expected Philip Roth,’ he sulked with his familiar splutter, reminding us that the Anglo-Saxon world had so many more deserving authors to offer than Lessing – of whose 50 (50!) books he’d read about three.
In the same Spiegel article, Denis Scheck, a youthful literary doyen, called the committee’s decision ‘politically good, but aesthetically bankrupt.’ Scheck did not let us in on how much (or how little) of Lessing’s oeuvre he had deigned to ingest, though I assume that – given his youth and the vacuity of his critique – it probably wouldn’t amount to more than a light lunch.
I also have to add that until yesterday I’d never heard of Master Scheck, but I was pleased to learn from his Wikipedia entry that we not only belong to more or less the same generational cohort, but also that we both took to reading at about the same, early age (a significant piece of biographical information that I will make sure to add to my own Wikipedia entry once I have it up and running).
Reich-Ranicki and Scheck, although at roughly opposite ends of the age spectrum, share membership in the vociferous anti-Lessing league, which always returns, with a persistence that borders on the obsessive, to the same hackneyed and unfounded prejudices from which its members seem to derive carte blanche to go around rubbishing her work at every available opportunity. These prejudices are:
a) Lessing is a bloody feminist.
b) Lessing is not Virginia Woolf.
Having said that, even those who celebrate Lessing seem determined to get her wrong. Among the more defensive responses was an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which opens with the following line: ‘But for a few weak books, Doris Lessing’s biography is flawless – it is all politically correct. The Nobel Prize for Literature appears to be standing in for the Nobel Peace Prize.’
Drivel like this confirms my sneaking suspicion that many journalists are simply not the sharpest tools in the shed. A politically correct biography!? Doris Lessing? A former Rhodesian Marxist who dumped her boring first husband for a German radical, abandoned two small children to go and live it up in London’s literary set and subsequently dabbled in Sufism and Sci-Fi only to spend most of the rest of her life railing against any form of political utopianism from feminism to Islamism?
Methinks that someone out there has some reading to do.
Moreover, the author of that article apparently has a hard time distinguishing biography from bibliography.
No, Lessing has not been indulging in the facile pleasantries of political correctness, whatever Harold Bloom, who also had an opinion about the Nobel Prize committee’s decision, might say about her (thereby revealing his own intellectual limitations).
In fact, she has spent much of her career mauling the self-comforting, self-satisfied ethical certainties with which she is now being falsely associated. In a 2001 interview, she rejected the very notion of political utopianism and pointed out its close links with madness – very much to the disappointment of the interviewer, who apparently had expected different opinions from Lessing. (Susie Linfield, “Against Utopia: An Interview with Doris Lessing,” Salmagundi 130/131 (2001): 59-74).
In her novel published in the same year, The Sweetest Dream, Lessing similarly dismantles the political pretensions of which she herself was an early adherent. In a narrative sweep spanning three decades, her story depicts the fractious domestic banality underpinning the high-flying political ideals amongst some of the more irrational individuals on the Left, especially through her portrayal of her character Johnny Lennox.
An archetypal self-appointed Marxist guru (are there any other kinds?), Comrade Johnny is busy organising the world revolution while neglecting his children and sponging off his former wife Frances. His talk infinitely bigger than his walk, he has a particular talent for getting others to pay his commitments and to take the fall for his failures.
When the novel opens, we meet Frances pondering a promising telegram she had received from Johnny three days before:
SIGNED CONTRACT FOR FIDEL FILM ALL ARREARS AND CURRENT PAYMENT TO YOU SUNDAY.Experienced Lessing readers will know by the time they have finished reading the word ‘Fidel’ that the money he owes Frances will not be forthcoming. In fact, ‘Fidel’ is an efficient shorthand for ‘Johnny is an irresponsible bastard whose grandiose pseudo-revolutionary gestures conceal his real-world incapacities.’
A couple of pages later we meet the author of the momentous telegram in person, leaning ‘against the [kitchen] window, standing with his arms spread to take his weight on the sill [...] all bravado and – though he was not aware of that – apology.’
The image of Johnny ‘leaning’ against the window of course suggests his tendency to lean on others, an early hint at his pompously self-deluded personality that is the butt of Lessing’s sarcasm throughout the book – as it is here:
Around the table sat an assortment of youngsters, and [Johnny’s and Frances’s sons] Andrew and Colin were both there. All were looking towards Johnny, who had been holding forth about something, and all admiringly, except for his sons. They smiled, like the others, but the smiles were anxious. They, like [Frances] herself, knew that the money promised for today had vanished into the land of dreams (Why on earth had she told them? Surely she knew better!). It had all happened before. And they knew, like her, that he had come here now, when the kitchen would be full of young people, so he could not be greeted by rage, tears, reproaches – but that was the past, long ago.Johnny is a typical Lessing radical – all mouth and no … well, you know what I mean; like Jasper in The Good Terrorist (1985) – another fashionable commie – he is a political performance artist whose survival relies on other peoples’ credulity as well as their hard work and generosity.
Johnny spread out his arms, palms towards her, smiling painfully, and said, ‘The film’s off ... the CIA ...’ At her look he desisted, and was silent, looking nervously as his two boys.
‘Don’t bother,’ said Frances. ‘I really didn’t expect anything else.’ At which the boys turned their eyes to her; their concern for her made her even more self-reproachful.
She stood by the oven where various dishes were shortly to reach their moments of truth. Johnny, as if her back absolved him, began an old speech about the CIA whose machinations this time had been responsible for the film falling through.
Colin, needing some sort of anchor of fact, interrupted to ask, ‘But, Dad, I thought the contract ….’
Johnny said quickly, ‘Too many hassles. You wouldn’t understand … what the CIA wants, the CIA gets.’
As Johnny is going around spreading the word (and a not insignificant amount of his seed), Frances does the nitty-gritty: feeding him as well as a multitude of semi-damaged individuals sheltering in and passing through her home (including a daughter he had fathered with another woman). To his rather pathetic end, Johnny exists in a world of his own, oblivious to the consequences of his actions, while Frances, however ambiguous her self-abandonment, at least takes responsibility for others – at much cost to her heart and bank account and, often, against her better judgement.
There is nothing utopian or politically correct about Lessing’s protagonist. Frances is Everywoman, trying to make do in a world of radically different individuals with conflicting interests and expectations, only to realize that, however hard one tries, there will always be plenty of loose ends left over. It’s those with the grand ideas that have it wrong: the café politicos and middle-class feminists wasting precious time making molehills into mountains. Consider Julie, Frances’s right-thinking journalist colleague at The Defender, a leftish daily modeled on The Guardian, who flies into
a fit of tearful rage when hearing on the radio that it was the female mosquito that is responsible for malaria. ‘The shits. The bloody fascist shits.’ When at last persuaded by Frances that this was a fact and not a slander invented by male scientists to put down the female sex – ‘Sorry, gender’ – she quietened into hysterical tears and said, ‘It’s all so bloody unfair’ (226).Now, how many ‘politically correct’ feminist icons go around smacking the universal sisterhood upside the head with the more irrational bits of their creed? Like Lessing, Frances resists succumbing to ideology, although at the cost of being excluded from much of what is going on.
However, I would hate to give the impression that Lessing’s novels are all about petty conflicts and domestic squabbles. In The Sweetest Dream, as in other novels, Lessing takes the old feminist adage terribly seriously equating the personal and the political. The political silliness of Comrade Johnny & Co. has a catastrophic counterpart in a fictive postcolonial African country reigned by nepotism, corruption and empty revolutionary sloganeering. Where Johnny merely accumulates debts, those in charge of ‘Zimlia’ accumulate deaths.
The longstanding misjudgment of Lessing and her work, both by her supporters and detractors – with a few notable exceptions, such as Umberto Eco – suggests that this nomination for the Nobel Prize is more than well deserved.
Whatever the Reich-Ranickis and Schecks of this world might suggest, Doris Lessing is no intellectual, political or aesthetic lightweight: like the best writers, she resists labels and fashions and, far from being the chattering classes’ favourite comforter, has spent the last decades antagonizing precisely that stratum of society (often, it seems, without them noticing). The fact that she has done this without ‘playfully’ (how I hate that word!) fiddling with the fundamental precepts of reality and managed to resist the dogma of subversive metatextuality in favour of good old-fashioned realism, makes her all the more likeable and significant.
It is for precisely those reasons that we need Doris Lessing.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
The issue is a bit complex and involves the ever-exciting topic of American health-care policy, but it does seem to speak to a wider issue as well, so bear with me.
The background boils down to this:
There is a government programme (with federal money being administered by individual states) called the 'State Children's Health Insurance Program' (SCHIP). As the Baltimore Sun describes it,
Popular with the states, the health insurance program, also known as SCHIP, covers 6.6 million children from modest-income families that are not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid.(Note for non-Americans: Medicaid is the public health insurance programme for poor people.)
Democrats, with support from a number of Republican representatives and senators, passed an act (H.R. 976) aimed at making changes to SCHIP: the programme was to be expanded to include some 4 million more children at a cost of $35 billion over the next five years, the costs to be funded out of increased tobacco taxes.
President Bush signalled his intention to veto the act when it reached his desk.
In response, Democrats invited a 12-year-old boy, Graeme Frost, to deliver their response to the president's weekly radio address.
Now, I have my own qualms about this kind of emotive political message-making: I don't know why rational adults can't have a reasonable discussion about social policy without having to push the sympathy button.
But in the world of American politics, these sorts of things are standard operating procedure, something Republicans know all too well, and this has long been the case, particularly in issues related to education, families, and disability.
Then, too, perhaps 'putting a human face' on abstract policy questions isn't always a bad idea.
Context, after all, is sometimes helpful. (For example: $35 billion over five years is indeed a lot of money, but it pales in comparison to the as much as $190 billion which may be spent next year alone in fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a figure that itself excludes all other military spending.)
And Graeme, in this case, fit the role, as the Sun notes:
Graeme and his 9-year-old sister, Gemma, were passengers in the family SUV in December 2004 when it hit a patch of black ice and slammed into a tree. Both were taken to a hospital with severe brain trauma. Graeme was in a coma for a week and still requires physical therapy.
Bonnie Frost works for a medical publishing firm; her husband, Halsey, is a woodworker. They are raising their four children on combined income of about $45,000 a year. Neither gets health insurance through work.
Having priced private insurance that would cost more than their mortgage - about $1,200 a month - they continue to rely on the government program. In Maryland, families that earn less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level - about $60,000 for a family of four - are eligible.
So, the story so far:
1. there's an established health care programme;
2. a bill has been passed through both houses with bi-partisan support to expand it in response to a real social change;
3. the president threatened to veto it;
4. the bill's supporters presented a family as an example of the kind of people who might be assisted by this bill and their son appeared in a radio broadcast.
So far, so good.
However, the president (who had proposed increasing the funding for the programme by only $5 billion over five years), made good on his promised veto.
Which is bad enough.
But the really disgusting part of the story is the hateful campaign by the more wingery-nuttery right-wing bloggers to smear the family.
Think Progress summarises the sort of bile being spewed:
Very good antidotes to this toxic brew are available from Joe Gandelman, Whiskey Fire, Lawyers, Guns and Money, Atrios, Ezra Klein, and John Cole.
Conservatives have more recently turned their targets on young Graeme Frost himself. A poster at the Free Republic propagated information alleging that Frost was actually a rich kid being pampered by the government. Among other bits of information, the post by the Freeper “icwhatudo” asserts that Graeme and his sister Gemma attend wealthy schools that cost “nearly $40,000 per year for tuition” and live in a well-off home.
The smear attack against Graeme has taken firm hold in the right-wing blogosphere. The National Review, Michelle Malkin, Wizbang, Powerline, and the Weekly Standard blog have all launched assaults on the Frost family. The story is slowly working its way into traditional media outlets as well.
I've browsed around in the links provided by Talking Points, and really, you have to shake your head.
There is a lot of discussion, for instance, among right-wing bloggers about how this family is 'not really poor' and a great number of snide comments along the lines of 'ah, they can send their kid to private school but they need assistance getting health insurance' and speculation regarding their house and small business.
A lot of this has involved just plain lying, as TP points out:
Here are the facts that the right-wing distorted in order to attack young Graeme:
1) Graeme has a scholarship to a private school. The school costs $15K a year, but the family only pays $500 a year.
2) His sister Gemma attends another private school to help her with the brain injuries that occurred due to her accident. The school costs $23,000 a year, but the state pays the entire cost.
3) They bought their “lavish house” sixteen years ago for $55,000 at a time when the neighborhood was less than safe.
4) Last year, the Frosts made $45,000 combined. Over the past few years they have made no more than $50,000 combined.
5) The state of Maryland has found them eligible to participate in the CHIP program.
It is also noted there that:
Right wing bloggers have been harassing the Frosts, calling their home numerous times to get information about their private lives.
One of those apparent blogger-stalkers, it seems, is someone called Michelle Malkin, who has gone probing around the Frosts' property and who, at her blog, makes all kinds of unfounded speculations about them. I've never heard of her before but she's a nasty piece of work, and undoubtedly for this reason she seems to have become some kind of right-wing super blogger. And part-time cheerleader. Or something.
But if this is what passes for investigative journalism on the right, then I'm very disappointed.
Leave that family alone. What the fuck is wrong with you people!?
But in a revealing comment, Mark Steyn points out that--despite the enormous amount of almost psychotically obsessive energy he and his cohorts have used in trying to expose the sinister truth behind an ordinary lower-middle-class family who are having difficulty with paying the health bills--none of this really matters:
But one thing is clear by now: Whatever the truth about this boy's private school, his family home, his father's commercial property, etc, the Frosts are a very particular situation and do not illustrate any social generality - and certainly not one that makes the case for an expensive expansive all-but universal entitlement.A more basic point is made very robustly by Kathy Shaidle: Advanced western democracies have delivered the most prosperous societies in human history. There simply are no longer genuinely "poor" people in sufficient numbers. As Miss Shaidle points out, if you're poor today, it's almost always for behavioral reasons - behavior which the state chooses not to discourage but to reward. Nonetheless, progressive types persist in deluding themselves that there are vast masses of the "needy" out there that only the government can rescue.
Interesting: how does Steyn know that the Frosts don't 'illustrate any social generality'? And how can he say that, having determined that the truth about them doesn't matter? That seems logically impossible to me.
Moreover, pointing out that nobody in the West lives like a medieval peasant, while true, is...well, sort of bizarre.
There was no shortage of commentators in the Victorian era who said exactly the same thing about poverty as Steyn (i.e., not that it is often caused by personal failures or inadequacies--which any sane person knows--but that it has only that sort of cause), while at the same time there were millions of people who were living in a situation that most Republicans (maybe even Steyn) probably recognise as wretched. But in many ways, the poor of nineteenth-century Manchester were probably living better than many human beings who had gone before them. However, the value of that statement is completely lost on me. What is the timeless and unchanging definition of poverty Steyn would use?
More to the point: why is he making that point when what is under discussion here is not giving the Frosts some kind of free luxury car, but helping them to pay for affordable health care.
But I don't think Steyn is really interested in poverty. Not at all. In fact, I'm quite sure of it.
And here a further insight into this mind-set, from the 'robust' Ms. Shaidle whom Steyn cites so approvingly:
There is definitely something to appreciate here: witness the true voice of blinding anger that motivates a large segment of the right-wing without all that sweet vaporous talk about 'compassion'.
That's why I don't care about the poor. They're no more real than Bigfoot. Those we and these lefty Christians call "poor" are "poor" because they've made a series of stupid choices; spend all their (actually, my) money on lottery tickets, beer, tattoos and manicures; are suffering from undiagnosed but easily treated mental illnesses; had too many kids too young; smoked behind the gym while I spent recess in the library, etc etc etc.I grew up with them. They were jerks and losers.
Ah, the moment of clarity.
In all their bug-eyed fury, though, the point that she, Steyn and all the rest seem to miss in this particular discussion is that CHIP is (rather explicitly) not aimed at 'the poor'. Were the Frosts 'poor', they might be eligible for Medicaid.
Moreover, CHIP is aimed at the children of the families to which it would apply. (The act mentioned above would remove most adults from eligibility in those states that have decided to include them, targeting it more clearly at children.) I'd be interested in knowing how they can be blamed for their predicament. (Perhaps all that time spent enjoying recess.)
The political philosophy, if we can call it that, of Shaidle and many other like her seems to add up to this: 'I'm doing fine, so fuck you!'. It's a sentiment that nicely encapsulates the growing right-wing contempt, not only for the long-term (and maybe even multi-generational) poor, such as the legendary 'welfare queens' of yore, but also for any kind of failure whatsoever.
While it might be obvious that if you're irredeemably dysfunctional enough, you will likely end up poor, I'm not sure why it is necessary for right-wing pundits to drone on about this at such length, unless it's just to allow them to feel all good and superior about themselves by looking down on other people.
Liberals already know that not all the poor are noble.
It is, however, also possible to spend your recesses in the library, not take drugs, avoid teenage pregnancy, and work hard all your life and still end up, at some point, losing out or being blindsided by one of life's many nasty little surprises (illness, injury and unemployment most obviously among them).
As I've noted before, anyone, can point to instances of people who land in poverty through bad choices. Big fucking deal.
I've also known many people (and known many more people who've known people) who have ended up in difficult financial situations--too much debt, no health insurance, crap job, no education, whatever. Some of these were bad choices, some were bad luck. Most were some combination of those.
But even if someone is struggling to get by (even on a Western lower-middle-class level that puts them well above the quality of life in the stone age) due to 'bad choices', I don't see the point or value or morality in denying them--or their children--access to medical care.
The weird caricature of reality offered by Steyn and Shaidle is intriguing though: The right-wing used to just demonize the presumably idle poor; now it seems that they are offering a more big-tent version of hatred, taking aim at those who work but nevertheless are finding it difficult to make ends meet. They think that if you find yourself in such a difficult impasse and seek any variety of public assistance you are, by definition, a loser.
However, the notion that social problems are simply based upon 'behavioral reasons' is absurd. In an economic slowdown, for instance, unemployment and poverty go up: is that simply due to an increase in loserdom?
As the New York Times reported earlier this year, the numbers, for instance, of the uninsured in America have been growing steadily, and the fastest growing group are 'solidly middle-class people'. A mad outbreak of loseritis? A generation coming of age that is suffering the after-effects of smoking behind the gym rather than sitting in the library at recess? A sudden plague of irresponsibility striking the land?
Or maybe--just maybe--it's a sign that there is something wrong with the way health insurance is supplied and that an incremental expansion of government assistance in some cases might be in order.
Or consider the wide variation in the percentage of people without health insurance across America: in the Midwest it's about 11.4%, in the South about 19%. Are Southerners simply 66% more loserish?
Finally, the vehemence of the right-wing attacks is all the more bizarre, since, as John Cole points out, the Frost family appears to have all the characteristics most Republicans say American families should have:
If you look through this family’s dossier, it appears they are doing everything Republicans say they should be doing- hell, their story is almost what you would consider a checklist for good, red-blooded American Republican voters: they own their own business, they pay their taxes, they are still in a committed relationship and are raising their kids, they eschewed public education and are doing what they have to do to get them into Private schools, they are part of the American dream of home ownership that Republicans have been pointing to in the past two administrations as proof of the health of the economy, and so on.Or, as a commenter at Whiskey Fire eloquently put it:
In short, they are a white, lower-middle-class, committed family, who is doing EVERYTHING the GOP Kultur Kops would have you believe people should be doing. They aren’t gay. They aren’t divorced. They didn’t abort their children. They aren’t drug addicts or welfare queens. They are property owners, entrepeneurs, taxpayers, and hard-working Americans. I bet nine times out of ten in past elections, if you handed this resume to a pollster, they would think you were discussing the prototypical Republican voter. Hell, the only thing missing from this equation is membership to a church and an irrational fear of Muslims and you HAVE the prototypical Bush voter.
Apparently, the only thing the far-right can come up with in fighting this issue is to launch a scummy personal attack on a family and indulge in a lot of back-patting self-aggrandisement that seems to have resulted more from reading Atlas Shrugged than paying much attention to reality.
PZ Myers has also joined in, with a post that is particularly relevant to residents of Minnesota.
Bitch Ph.D. (I'm linking to the main site so you can track updates) has lots of constructive political-action type info for anyone who wants to assist in overturning this veto.
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
Not that it's a debate I avoid, exactly, and it's something about which I've got my own strong views.
But I've increasingly noticed that these kind of discussions tend to generate far more heat than light, not least since the notion of what constitutes the 'good life' is a highly personal one.
Moreover, when two people on opposite sides of the issue come to rhetorical blows, the statistics flow fast and furious, regardless of their relevance, comparability, or ability to answer the question of which place is 'better'.
(And there are so many things to pick from: GDP, productivity, gini coefficients, social mobility, homicide rate, trade deficit, currency value, home ownership, health insurance coverage, life expectancy...etc., etc...)
What is more, partisans on both sides tend to exaggerate both their praise and their criticism. Perry Anderson may be right, for example, to puncture the 'illimitable narcissism' and 'political vanity' of some of the more high-flown rhetoric of Europe's recent boosters, even if I think that his recent LRB article is far too nitpicking and gloomy about the EU in general.
But given the volume and venom of its detractors from abroad (particularly by the American right) and the constant jeremiads from within (in Germany anyway), I have to say that I've found at least parts of the more recent wave of pro-European assertiveness to be a very welcome balance.
This has been more the case with Will Hutton's relatively down-to-earth (if dry) analysis than Jeremy Rifkin's more stratospheric philosophising, and in the end it is probably only in some middle ground between The New European Century and Eurabia that we are likely to find that pesky thing known as reality.
However, one of the even more fundamental problems with this discussion is that it tends to go somewhere over the heads of everyday experience--focusing relatively too much on ideological abstractions and large-scale institutional frameworks while giving rather too little attention to life as it is actually lived.
As I've suggested, for those Americans who even think about it (which is maybe a minority in any case), Europe really doesn't exist, except as a blank screen for the projection of their fantasies and nightmares. If you're a liberal, you admire (selected) bits of it; if you're a conservative, you find (selected) bits of it abhorrent.
(Part of this, it occurs to me, might have something to do with the difficulty of translating political language across the ocean. In Germany, for instance, the party which most assertively advocates far-reaching free-market reforms and smaller government is not 'conservative' but rather 'liberal', while conservative parties tend to remain relatively statist and corporatist. For their part, the environmentalist 'greens' have, as far as I can tell, nearly as many conflicts with the left as they do with the right (though they have tended to lean leftwards on cultural issues) whereas greenish Americans are almost certainly to find their home amidst the Democrats.)
A similar lack of understanding occurs when Europeans look at America, of course, as I realised when I taught German university students about American culture in my former incarnation as a language teacher. For instance, I had previously not been aware that America 'has no welfare state' or that 'most Americans have to work 3 or 4 jobs just to get by'. To teach is to learn, as they say. (Of course, there were the opposing views: students who had spent a high-school year in New York City or San Francisco saw 'America' through their own set of utopian goggles...)
With this somewhat elaborate prologue in mind, then, I was pleased to read Georgetown professor Patrick Deneen's positive, clear-eyed and reasonable evaluation of European lifestyles that appeared--and here I was surprised, I must admit--in the Dallas Morning News.
There are several things to like about Deneen's article, 'There's a lesson in Europe's gardens, woodpiles and chickens'. (Via the excellent Atlantic Review; however, you might read the comments section for an example of just how exhausting the debate about the transatlantic qualities of life can be.)
One very worthwhile point is that he eloquently and succinctly sums up what I was saying above, about Europe being effectively non-existent for many (perhaps most) Americans, by noting that views of Europe have become caught up in America's 'culture wars':
According to the progressive left-wing view, Europe is the ultimate "blue state." Progressive in its taxation, generous in its health policies, loose in governing marriage and euthanasia, it is praised as a nirvana of easygoing libertarianism.
According to the right-wing narrative, Europe is in the throes of cultural suicide, a statist nightmare with its churches abandoned and cradles empty, incapable of dealing with the threat of eventual Islamic domination given dwindling birth rates.
Deneen also puts his finger on (and then helps to counteract) a further problem:
According to both narratives, Europe is largely reducible to Amsterdam, Brussels and the Hague.In facing this view, Deneen usefully draws attention to a different kind of Europe, the provincial one that most Americans too often overlook.
It also happens to be the one I'm most familiar with, having lived in it for more than the last six years, in various smallish towns (and one small city) in southern Germany.
And in that rural and small-town Europe, Deneen finds many everyday (and perhaps easily overlooked) things that are worth considering:
Nearly every household seems involved with the land in some way or another, whether through a small garden and wood stand or a larger farm. In the back yard of many homes, one still finds chickens that roam free; fruit trees that are now bearing apples, pears and cherries that will be made into jam; water barrels that catch rainfall with which families water their plants. Nearly every yard has an enormous pile of wood, stacked carefully and in perfect symmetry.
Also in nearly every yard is a compost heap. One pays for garbage by weight, so every incentive is to avoid creating or accumulating trash. Individuals must pay for plastic bags at supermarkets, an expense most people avoid by bringing their own canvas bags.
The Europeans I have seen are light years ahead of us in energy conservation and will weather the storm of rising energy costs better than we in America. Indeed, the combination of local economies, nearby productive farmland outside every town, viable public transportation and widespread use of alternative energies points to a culture that has never abandoned sustainable communities in the way that America willfully and woefully has done over the past 50 years.
There are points at which one might protest that Deneen's vision itself is just a bit too rosy, where it comes across as an almost Walden-esque dream that sees only the green landscape and overlooks the IKEA or hypermarché that blights it. Also, there are undoubtedly rural communities in the US where at least some of these factors are also present.
And that's true.
Still, having read his essay I considered our own provincial European life (that is, the one that The Wife and I share), and it was something like looking into a mirror.
Now, we don't have a chicken running freely in the yard (though I'm now sorely tempted to get one); however, we do have a woodpile (its symmetry rather imperfect, I must admit), a rain-barrel, a compost heap, fruit trees and a small-but-productive garden (this year's highlight--all to the credit of The Wife--several kilos of delicious tomatoes and some excellent green beans).
Moreover, our town is rather densely zoned and there are three supermarkets within easy walking distance and, normally, we do walk. Our rubbish--as elsewhere in Germany--is divided up in half a dozen ways, and thus the amount of Restmüll (i.e., that which cannot in some way be recycled or put in the compost heap) is incredibly small. The bottled drinks we buy come in deposit bottles which are re-used. Although only home to about 25,000 people, the town is well-served by public transit and the winding bicycle paths passing through the vineyards and fields around us, meaning that you could commute rather a long way by bike without having to risk confrontations with auto traffic.
We don't have a clothes dryer (this will become a more significant point somewhat further down), nor do we have air-conditioning and our fridge is (quite literally) laughable by American standards.
Now, don't get the idea that I'm patting myself on the back here as some kind of noble super-green exemplar. Not only would I not do that, it's not the point.
The interesting point is that while a commitment to this kind of lifestyle would likely mark you out as some kind of tree-hugging-hippie-freak in most parts of America, across at least a significant stretch of provincial Europe (at least the German-Austrian-Swiss bit that Deneen notes) it would be considered a normal way of life. It is just assumed that this is a good way to live. And much of that assumption has (relatively) little to do with 'politics'.
As Deneen writes:
In a revealing moment, my father-in-law pointed to the solar panels and the wood piles and the gardens and the compost heaps and told me that they were conservative – meaning that they represented the effort to conserve the goods of life, to preserve a community that can sustain itself and to pass on a cultural inheritance that has been bestowed upon them.
In America, it is our liberals who praise the liberties of Europe while overlooking the conservative impulse of its self-restraint. Meanwhile, our conservatives condemn the statism of Europe without understanding that efforts to conserve – to be conservative – require the active support and laws of government in order to combat the tendencies of markets to produce waste and undermine thrift.
And here, perhaps, is a useful lesson in transatlantic relations.
Now, I could end here...indeed, I intended to.
But then I was plagued by some second thoughts: maybe, I was thinking, just maybe I'm overdoing the European-American differences when it comes to everyday life.
Maybe, just maybe they're not so different after all...
...and then I saw a television report about a struggle being carried on by various people in different parts of America. A struggle for freedom and for energy efficiency. A struggle, indeed, for 'conservation' in the sense that Deneen's father-in-law would understand.
They want to hang up their wash on clotheslines.
Yes. That's it.
If you think hanging up your clothes to dry should probably be the greatest non-issue of all non-issues, then I'm with you.
But, believe me, dear reader, last Sunday evening I was sputtering obscenities at my television screen like I haven't in a long, long time. (A few of which, you might note, have also seeped into this blog.)
Because, dear reader, it seems that there are parts of America where hanging up your laundry is Against the Rules.
I was flabbergasted. Was this some kind of health-and-safety thing gone wild: were they concerned that children (their brains perhaps addled by playing with the latest leaden toys from China) were becoming tangled in the wires? Was there an epidemic of toddlers choking to death on clothespegs?
No. It turns out it is a lot...weirder...than that.
I'll let the hippies at the Wall Street Journal explain it (emphasis added):
To Susan Taylor, it was a perfect time to hang her laundry out to dry. The 55-year-old mother and part-time nurse strung a clothesline to a tree in her backyard, pinned up some freshly washed flannel sheets -- and, with that, became a renegade.
The regulations of the subdivision in which Ms. Taylor lives effectively prohibit outdoor clotheslines. In a move that has torn apart this otherwise tranquil community, the development's managers have threatened legal action. To the developer and many residents, clotheslines evoke the urban blight they sought to avoid by settling in the Oregon mountains.
"This bombards the senses," interior designer Joan Grundeman says of her neighbor's clothesline. "It can't possibly increase property values and make people think this is a nice neighborhood."
Yes. A clothesline 'bombards the senses'. That's very interesting Ms. Grundeman. (Knowing that you think that, I'd be interested in seeing what kind of 'interiors' you 'design', actually.)
Now...I like to think of myself as a sane, tolerant and reasonable person. But, really, what kind of over-sensitive, arrogant, puritan, yuppie bullshit is this? I'm sorry, anybody who thinks that way--even an interior designer who just wants to live in a 'nice neighborhood'-- is a complete and utter fuckwit.
'Urban blight'? What has happened in America?! No, really I want to know.
Listen, I grew up in a Chicago suburb that, while far from posh, was definitely respectable. My parents, like most of our neighbours, were certainly house proud: the lawn was regularly mowed (didn't I know it...), the garden was well-maintained and the house regularly painted.
And, twice a week, like clockwork, the laundry was done and, if the weather was right (and even when it was kind of iffy) that laundry would go 'out on the line' in the backyard. Back in the 50s my father had even sunk posts in cement in an ideal, sun-bathed spot to make this possible.
But my own memories do not stretch back to some forgotten era: I'm not even 40 yet, and it was often one of my chores to hang up the wash. That might be the reason that this whole thing gets me so much.
You see, we had a dryer. We were not in the ghetto.
It was just that my parents (people who --growing up on different sides of the Atlantic--remembered the depression and had been old enough to participate in winning the Second World War) thought that it was better to have all that fresh air out there drying our clothes. Why use the dryer when you have the sun? For free. This involved saving energy, of course, but, more importantly for both of them probably, also saving money. And they just thought the clothes and sheets smelled better.
They would have seen the point that something like 6% of household energy usage goes to drying clothes, but for them--Reagan voters...Nixon voters...Goldwater voters for christ's sake --this was just a sensible thing to do.
To save. To conserve.
And this is where I think this issue returns us (at least those of you who are still along for the ride) to the 'lesson' in Deneen's article.
Across the street from our house here in Germany, for instance, is an old (1930s) apartment complex, and during the summer we regularly have our senses 'bombarded' by our neighbours laundry hung up to dry.
Do you think that I have ever, once, even for a fraction of a moment given this a second thought? No. People who do worry about such things have way too much time on their hands and/or too few problems in their lives.
A person, perhaps, like one of the figures in the television report I saw: Penny Lewis, from Poughkeepsie NY, where you can be fined up to $100 for hanging out the laundry. Having taken it upon herself to enforce the rules of her community, Lewis regularly drives around (yes, of course she drives...and as it turns out, I think she was driving some kind of enormous fuel-guzzling truck...) to look for people to report, even heaping verbal abuse on those she happened to find in the process of hanging up their laundry.
What is somehow so galling to me is not just the energy issue, or a lack of respect for a certain kind of sensibly traditional, even 'conservative' way of life. (Even if those do bother me.)
No, it's also what seems to be a growing trend in American life. The WSJ:
Nationwide, about 60 million people now live in about 300,000 "association governed" communities, most of which restrict outdoor laundry hanging, says Frank Rathbun, spokesman for the Community Associations Institute, an Alexandria, Va., group that lobbies on behalf of homeowners associations.
'Association governed' has a nice kind of 'town-hall democracy' ring to it, but in some ways, it seems to me that they have mainly served to create a small-minded tyranny of the majority via a suburban commissariat whose main goal is to enforce conformity to ridiculous rules.
Curiously, I have no doubt that many of the people living in those communities would bellow rather loudly about their American 'freedom', while at the same time threatening their neighbours with legal action for violating 'covenants' (are they really called that?? Jesus...) stipulating that no toys are left in the front yard of all those houses that must be painted in matching 'medium to dark tones.'
Call this what you like, but the American spirit (at least as I understand it) it ain't.
Consider the case of Susan Taylor, reported in the Journal article and also featured in the Weltspiegel report I saw on Sunday:
Ms. Taylor in Bend had always used a clothesline before moving to the subdivision in 1996. Awbrey Butte's Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions, established by local developer Brooks Resources Corp., require that "clothes drying apparatus...shall be screened from view." Not an easy task in a community where fencing is also "discouraged" in the covenants.
The clothesline ban gave Ms. Taylor pause when she moved here, she says, but she and her husband decided they could live with it. Then, in May, she heard an environmental lawyer on the radio who "talked about this narrow window of opportunity for us to respond to global warming," Ms. Taylor recalls. "I said, 'Dang it, that's it. My clothesline is going up.' "
Then the trouble started. One neighbor asked if it was temporary. Next came a phone call -- and then a series of letters -- from Brooks Resources. The first letter, dated June 12, warned that "laundry lines are not permitted in the Awbrey Butte Subdivision," adding that "many owners in Awbrey Butte take great pride in their home and surrounding areas."
Ms. Taylor responded two days later with a letter asserting that the rule is "outdated." She requested a change in the rules to "reflect our urgent need and responsibility to help global warming by encouraging energy conservation."
The Awbrey Butte Architectural Review Committee "appreciates your desire to make a difference for the cause of global warming," responded Brooks Resources Owner-Relations Manager Carol Haworth. But she pointed out that homeowners agree to the rules before they buy their homes, "and therefore the ARC is required to uphold those guidelines as they now exist."
The letter more sternly asked "that you discontinue this practice by July 9, 2007, to avoid legal action which will be taken after that date."
Ms. Taylor responded by pointing out that the subdivision is "blatantly full of noncompliant owners" who display everything from plastic play equipment to exterior paint colors that don't meet the requirement of "medium to dark tones." She added: "Who am I hurting by hanging clothes out to dry?"
Brooks Resources repeated its threat of legal action, and then advised Ms. Taylor to "develop a plan to screen your outdoor laundry and submit the plan to the ARC for review." It also suggested the possibility of formal proceedings to get the rules amended, which would require 51% of homeowners' support in writing.
The following month, Ms. Taylor constructed a fabric screen to conceal her clothesline. The committee, which included Brooks Resources Chairman Michael P. Hollern, gave it a thumbs down. "It doesn't blend with the home or the native surroundings," says Ms. Haworth.
Mr. Hollern says, "Personally, I think people probably ought to screen their laundry from other people's view. If you feel differently, you should probably be living somewhere else."
Perhaps she should.
All of this bodes rather ill for the future.
Think about it: if tens of millions of Americans are so aghast at the merest possibility of catching a glimpse of their neighbour's underwear fluttering in the breeze that they're willing to pass ordinances and enforce 'covenants' against one of the most simple, traditional and pleasant means of saving energy, what chance is there for them making any other, more onerous efforts in the same direction?
Moreover, I find something worrying in the trend toward 'association governance'. One of the much storied American ideals--indeed, one of the ones that I feel I've absorbed and continue to admire--is that of living in a place where people leave you basically the fuck alone and allow you to do your own thing. But it seems that although my countrymen and women will immediately fly off the handle at the very thought of the guv'ment telling them what to do, they are increasingly happy to let their neighbours ('housing associations') and private companies ('HMOs') do exactly the same.
Well, I've got some laundry to do. And some freedom to express.
Note: Patrick Deneen blogs at What I Saw in America. And for your radical and socially subversive laundry efforts, The Clothesline Shop seems to cater to every conceivable need.