Saturday, August 30, 2008

From the New Yorker

An excerpt from this recent interview with Palin:

Before she was running against him, Sarah Palin—the governor of Alaska and now the Republican candidate for Vice-President of the United States—thought it was pretty neat that Barack Obama was edging ahead of John McCain in her usually solidly red state. After all, she said, Obama’s campaign was using the same sort of language that she had in her gubernatorial race. “The theme of our campaign was ‘new energy,’ ” she said recently. “It was no more status quo, no more politics as usual, it was all about change. So then to see that Obama—literally, part of his campaign uses those themes, even, new energy, change, all that, I think, O.K., well, we were a little bit ahead on that.” She also noted, “Something’s kind of changing here in Alaska, too, for being such a red state on the Presidential level. Obama’s doing just fine in polls up here, which is kind of wigging people out, because they’re saying, ‘This hasn’t happened for decades that in polls the D’ ”—the Democratic candidate—“ ‘is doing just fine.’ To me, that’s indicative, too. It’s the no-more-status-quo, it’s change.”

I can see the Obama ad now.

Thoughts on Palin

Sorry, Gale, but McMain is a wise man - who wants to think about the convention now when all the buzz is about Palin?  So, some first impressions.

The experience issue.  I sure hope this sinks the McCain/Palin ship (reports from the Republican homeland indicate this may be a deal-breaker, especially among male fiscal conservatives), but if the pundits on the right start arguing that Palin has nearly as much experience as Obama, I'm going to be very upset.  Obama's experience in political office may not be great, but he has had his head in weighty national and international issues for decades.  In stark contrast, reports that Palin hasn't even thought about the most pressing foreign policy issue of this election: "I've been so focused on state government, I haven't really focused much on the war in Iraq."

Social issues.  Palin is a nightmare when it comes to social issues: staunchly pro-life, proponent of intelligent design curriculum, NRA member.  The question is whether as VP she will be visible enough and hold out enough promise to mobilize and turn out the socially conservative base and the religious right.  And what of the uber-conservatives who believe women should be subservient to their husbands?

Women.  I could be totally off here, but I really don't see Hillary supporters defecting to support a pro-life, evangelical, NRA member.  But then, I never knew any of these supposedly bitter, Obama-hating women and continue to believe that they are a media-generated myth.  All the Clinton supporters I know are loyal Dems who would never ever support someone like Palin.

Swing workers.  Maybe the greater threat could be her appeal to moderate workers who don't feel strongly about social issues but feel alienated by Obama's supposed elitism.  (Have I mentioned that I hate David Brooks and his stupid speech to the delegates?)  Nevermind that the whole reason McCain's POW days are so well documented is that the North Vietnamese considered him an elite...

Also, who the hell names their kids Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper, and Trig?!?!  

Just my uninformed first thoughts.  What do y'all think?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Thoughts on the Convention

Impressions? What part did you like best? What will the GOP have to do next week?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Follow up on Separatists

This article in the Times today lays out some of these conflicts in a handy graphic.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Breakaway Republics and Nationalisms

I thought I would move up the discussion of nations, nationalisms, and disintegrating empires up from the South Ossetia post into a new place. I've always been rather unconvinced with nationalist arguments against separatist groups, although I realize that the chaos caused by a national schism is almost always violent. Here are my rather unpolished musings on the subject as I tried to brainstorm examples of relevance. It seems to me that if the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were all about the rise of nations and the decline of empires, we are now dealing with the beginnings of some kind of post-nationalist moment.

Related to Spain, for example, I think that the Spanish government should allow those regions who claim to have their own language, culture, etc. split - they'll be tiny and economically weak, and I bet they'd come back to Spain eventually. Or else perhaps the way Europe is going is toward a complete reorganization of its borders so that all ethnicities and linguistic groups will relate via the European Union rather than to national governments.

Western Europe's old empires weren't all that different from its modern national boundaries (with obvious exceptions in the territory disputed in the two World Wars), but in Eastern Europe and in the Caucuses, the situation is obviously different with the historical Ottoman Empire and Russian Empire looming large.

Some places, like Lebanon, build incredibly delicate systems where sectarian identification divides up political rule - and then they just stop taking censuses for fear that new numbers might disrupt the existing order.

Others, like South Ossetia, emphasize their Russia-loving Ossetian majority over the Georgian minority. If so, why does Georgia want them so much?

Others look to the impossible question "who was here first?"

In China and Taiwan (or Chinese Taipei as Taiwan agreed to be called in the Olympics), it's a question of dueling political parties and how China and Taiwan both have connected past history to their national myths.

I think that as an American, it's hard to understand what's so difficult about living in a pluralistic society, and perhaps this is where my disconnect lies. So many Americans take diversity (even if it's just lip service) as our central identity. Yet the perennial controversies associated with immigration show that there are still fundamental knee-jerk ethnic ideas of who is and cannot be an American. I think there are like 90 history books written on this subject, so I'll just stop there.

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, Part II

I saw this in the Chronicle of Higher Ed . . . one response to the article posted by Laura a couple months ago.

Meditations at Whole Foods

This is SO funny. I am clearly one of the 78 dorky people in this country who think so. Be sure to read the original Hass poem, too. Ah, Obama, arugula, Whole Foods...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

South Ossetia

Just a quick query: has anyone come across thoughtful articles on the current Russia-Georgia conflict?  Having been preoccupied with moving and other sundries, I haven't had time to seek out decent commentaries, except for this thoughtful post on Crooked Timber, which I highly recommend to anyone worried about the situation and its broader implications.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Loss of the Real

As part of the customary rounds that I have to make around whenever I come back to Covina, California, I was taken to one of my uncles' last night, where I walked into an enormous and newly remodeled home, and, in the corner, my youngest maternal cousin stands in front of the television set, obviously engaged in a video game based on virtual reality. (I know there must be a technical name for this.) The game allows to you play different sports virtually: golf, bowling, even boxing. It is indeed a bizarre scene to watch the little boy fight a phantom - from a medieval point of view, he would be wrestling with a demon, as Jacob wrestling with the angel. My instinctive question, namely, why not go play golf, bowl and box in real life? dissipated as soon as I thought it, for I knew that the world in which this question would be intelligible is shrinking as we speak. Soon, the question as to why people would prefer virtual reality to real reality will be as absurd as the question "why not wash clothes by hand?" We have to face it: the decadence of art in the modern west that had begun soon after the Renaissance was largely based on the invention of "window into the world," whose logical consequence is the society consisting merely of windows into worlds, without showing how to step out of the house. Watching my little cousin play virtual video games has confirmed nearly every fear of the avant-garde thinkers whom I study: it is a civilization that continues to degenerate until it no longer has any access to the real real.

A discussion initiated by Laura the other time had to do with women and fiction, and it is true that the female reader of fiction in the late 18th and 19th century was an essential component to a changing literary world. The demand for fiction was higher than ever; poetry soon was hit with a rapid decline. Nowadays, the joke in the publishing and writing goes: If you are at a party with poets and writers, you can immediate recognize the poets as those who are talking about words and writers as those who are talking about their book deals, because poets don't get book deals. Poetry, because it is not fictional, lost its importance in a society hungry for more stories: not mythologies about mishappenings of strange gods, not fairy tales filled with enigmatic creatures and puzzles that remain closed unless the magic word is spoken, but stories about bourgeois life (romance, marriage, divorce, investments, bankruptcies, etc.), with characters like our meager selves (no fairy mothers, no carpenters, no kings, no princes, no talking bread...) What is so disturbing is that even in the world of children, we have been witnessing an "embourgeoisement" since the 1950s. Roland Barthes was shocked that we made toy version of Citroen cars for kids - were they not supposed to live in a more enchanted world than gas stations? They have the rest of their lives as adult to pump gas at gas stations, why deprive them of childhood? I experienced the same shock last night: why on earth is my 10-year-old cousin playing virtual GOLF?

Fortunately, everything that I want to say has already been said with much more vitriol and force a century ago, by that courageous generation of artists and poets in Europe and then elsewhere who had the nobility of spirit to stand up and speak out against a mediocre and failing civilization, and moreover, to create feverishly more language and more forms than humanly possible, not so much to save Europe but so that whoever comes after cannot say that we were left with nothing. To have taken the responsibility for a civilization and a society to which they deeply objected is almost like assuming the debts left by a delinquent father: it takes courage, pride and the highest form of love, a love that goes against the grain of reality. That reality is tragic: we ARE left with nothing other than this bourgeois, capitalist life, we survive by feeding on virtual realities that range from mutual funds to video games to romance novels, and we believe in nothing (neither the "chef of the sky" as we Chinese call God and his kin, nor the "ancestral mother" as we Taiwanese call Virgin Mary and her kin), we will neither be condemned nor forgiven for our personal excesses (including the excessive frugality and austerity) and failings.

And yet, we cannot say with fairness that we are left with nothing. What makes this highly virtualized reality real nevertheless, somehow, is that not ALL individuals are uncaring, not ALL individuals are conformists. In the darkest of times in the 20th century, modernism and the avant-garde movements, Surrealism above all, had enough love going around them to share nothing other than a daring possibility, namely replenish an impoverished with dreams made out of its own material. It is a project that resembles a bridge I once saw in the mountainous village of Ronda, Spain, which links two sides of a canyon with the very stones carved out of those cliffs. In that way, nature and artifice are united: the engineers had taken stone from nature and given it back, as it were, in the form of a bridge. The avant-garde had shown us a way of taking materials out of reality and giving it back in human form, the goal being to replenish the world with more enchantments. This is the opposite of our virtual reality, which takes fuel out of reality, flattens it into an image and a few schematized action, and store them in the form of virtual data in a computer or television screen. The former adds to the world, the latter subtracts from it. The former creates, the latter consumes.

I know that this distinction is merely for me and my friends: the world shall go on as it is. But it does give me an extraordinary sense of decorum to be able to recognize these people (the way a Clarissa Dalloway recognizing the martyrdom of Septimus Warren Smith at the end of Woolf's masterpiece) as having truly done the thing, to have created, to have protested, to have fought heroically, and to have had this much love for the world despite all its failings.

Consumerism as An Art

I am writing from Covina, a proletarian suburb in Los Angeles county, where my immediate family immigrated and where my parents still live (along with all my maternal uncles, aunts and their children). In the past few days or so, I have been re-introduced to the great consumerist culture that is such an integral part of American life, which, to her credit, my mother and her sisters have mastered with incredible virtuosity. Since I am often the beneficiary of her activities, my critique of it is not and cannot be a complete condemnation. Here are some tricks that my mother, my eldest aunt and her daughter (my eldest cousin) have mastered:

1) Regular visits at stores such as TJ Max, Marshall's, Home Goods, which might be the most interesting sector of American retail culture, as they collect unsold merchandise from high-end stores and re-sell them cheaply. Some observations about TJ Max: even in Chicago (which cannot compete with L.A. in terms of racial and ethnic diversity), it seems to be frequented by an enormous number of foreigners, especially Italians, the French, Poles and Russians. Here in southern California, TJ Max stores are populated by Filipinos, Hispanics and Chinese/Taiwanese. I myself find that these stores magically embody several locales in one: you find, displayed in the format of the Ye-She (night market) in Taipei or the "brocante" in France, merchandises that belong to proper department stores like Nordstrom's or Galerie Lafayette. In other words, one hunts for bargains, and sometimes one even bargains, that is, verbally, because the goods are often unlabeled that prices are assigned to them randomly. It is, however, shocking to find items abstractly priced at $150 marked down to $19.99, suggesting that all these numbers are more fiction than anything else. Often, there is no material aspect in the item that tells us what its real value is, a very disturbing thought. (Footnote: I came to the realization that, for many sellers, the difference between $20 and $19.99 is that the latter marks the status of the item as being "on sale" - namely, even the price does not refer to the monetary value but to the "status." Mind-boggling.) At the same time, as my mother and aunts claim, it is the best value to shop there, and I am afraid that they are right.

2) The use of coupons: sometimes even expired ones, sometimes even one coupon per item to get the maximum dollars off. Seriously, why does it make sense for stores such as Bed Bath & Beyond to aggressively send off coupons to all its potential customers? Might it not be more efficient to simply lower the prices? Or is the point to encourage visits? Also: apparently it is possible to buy coupons on e-bay (totally mind-boggling for me).

3) e-bay: where my mother and her sisters shop for their favorite brand of Italian bags and purses, which is not on sale in the United States. Since they are all devoted e-bay checkers, my eldest cousin Charlene always courteously informs the rest if she plans on bidding for an object, thereby avoiding competition and price-jacking. But again, it seems virtually surrealist to me that one could "buy" coupons on e-bay, meaning that one is buying a discount. Is the stock market this complicated? The latest masterpiece: My mother gave someone a penny on e-bay for a secret (we are literally back in the world of Indo-European fairy-tales, aren't we, when secrets have to be bought), namely, how to get a discount coupon from Crate & Barrel. In other words, the man did not sell her a coupon; he sold her the advice as to how to obtain one. Now should I speak, or perhaps I will save this secret to sell on e-bay?

All in all, it would seem that shopping in the US is quite an art, the way it is not in the Old World. Paris, for example, is a tempting city, a city filled with beauty that can be purchased. Although I could resort to the excuse that I am an art historian and therefore in the business of beauty, I wonder if there isn't something much more primitive at work, something that drives species of bower birds to collect blue objects or rats to take home shiny buttons - in short, it is difficult (for me) not to follow the trace of a glimpse of shiny stones, lovely tea pots, enticing book titles, pretty dresses, etc. But shopping in the Old World is also old-fashioned: one goes out with a purse, takes money out of the purse, buys the object and goes home. Since one is likely to have tried on the dress, discussed it with the salesperson, looked at it together in the mirror for half an hour, commented on whether it looks alright, perhaps being offered to tailor the dress to one's size (if you are difficult like me), one is likely to be pleased with the purchase - they don't take returns any way.

Things are hardly this simple in the United States. The first week after my repatriation, during that week of my ecstatic reunification with Chicago, I strolled into Macy's/old Marshall Field's since I thought that my perfume is nearly out, I could get a second bottle. As soon as I came up to pay, I was bombarded with an "option": Would you like to apply for a Macy's credit card to get 20% your purchases today and tomorrow? I was dumbfounded - how could I say no? The lady, with her very heavy Polish accent and beguiling smile, asked me if I liked shoes, since the store is having a big shoe sale upstairs... Thus, the irresistible Sirens of Sales lured me into the labyrinth of consumer goods, and though I slayed the Minotaur and accomplished the task that brought me there (that re-charge for the perfume) I also came out with other victims. The incredible thing is that the episode is not over. Macy's has my address now and has started aggressively to court me by more sale's coupons and offers in the mail. The long psychological battle between me and Macy's has begun, until I take that inevitable initiative to break up: by canceling my credit card.

My feeling is that consumerism in the US is truly an epic battle, and it is no longer between the merchant and the buyer. My family, as old-world people tend to be, were good at verbal bargaining, and now with immigration to the US they have transformed that skill into different kinds of tricks in order to out-smart the consumer's market. If capitalism is clever and manipulative, let us try to out-smart it by its own poison - seems to be their attitude. And it is this obligatory engagement in the epic battle of buying that is the predicament of middle-class life in the US. It is mentally exhausting and sometimes morally humiliating - why on earth should I occupy my mind with such matters as calculating pennies? But we have just had a discussion about race in America, and to turn the discourse slightly, doesn't it seem that consumer culture is what brings whites, blacks, Asians, Filipinos, Hispanics and the rest all together? Never mind slave-holders and slaves, Catholics and Protestants, indigenous or colonials, English-speakers or non-English speakers, we all understand that it is good to pay $400 for something that is sold elsewhere for $800.

I don't think that I am being cynical, only realistic. From the point of view of a capitalist society, to get different people to shop in the same shops might just be the communitarian feat. This is not to say that they actually understand each other; only, from the point of view of the social, what ELSE would count as a sign of them having understood one another? What ELSE is there for Asians and whites to understand about one another, for example, that would actually be meaningful to American society? I don't think Asians and whites "understand" each other - they don't need to. They shop at the same places, and the new immigrants aspire to a vulgarized version of WASP lifestyle. (Thanks, Gale and Jeremy, for illuminating me to the fact that I've been living in a nest of WASPs!) All this is pointing to something like an internal leveling mechanism based on income and consumer habits. What I would find interesting is if the topic of race can actually put some pressure on this way of conceiving the American life, because, from the point of view of consumerism, the only excluded group would be the group that does not purchase and has little purchasing power, skin color matters not.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The "conversation" on race in America

I've just published an entry about this on my blog but it's something a feel pretty strongly about so I thought I might write about it as my first entry here at a common fire (hello!). It seems that all the cable shows on politics are fixated today on the question of the supposed "playing" of the "race card" in the presidential campaign, and whether Obama or McCain played it. I think this very metaphor may be a distorting and unconstructive one. Can one be serious about race in America by using poker metaphors? I suppose. But the figure of speech itself is trivializing. Even using it to talk about politics demeans political discussion.

Mike Barnacle on MSNBC just said again that the race issue is "tedious": he had earlier said he was "tired" of it. It's strange to hear this repetitious mantra from white commentators that seemingly unanimously agree that it's bad for Obama if race is in any way whatsoever spoken of in connection to the campaign. (From what I've seen, black commentators are of the same opinion.) So the issue is tiresome, tedious, etc., and we (we white commentators?) would prefer if it just went away, or -- a more precious view which I heard Heidi Harris offer on MSNBC -- we wonder 'Didn't we get past all this already?', and yet still categorically say that if there's any talk about race at all, well, that's bad for the black candidate. What does all of that taken together mean? It seems to be a pretty unequivocal admission by everybody that has this rather privileged position as a face and a voice on the cable networks that race is in fact a major factor in American life, so much so that the Obama campaign ought to do everything in its power to make sure it disappears. (I know I probably overestimate the talking heads as a measure of whatever the actual state of opinion about these things in America is).

How can people who hold that view then say the issue is tedious or tiring? It's silently an absolutely definitive one if it has that much power. As I said on my own blog, as I watched the rather loud and emotional exchange between Leo Terrell (black) and Heidi Harris (white) I was struck by the uncomfortable and sad realization about how childish we Americans are as a people regarding race in our country, both its past and its present. I don't mean to sound superior about this. I know we are all often rather childish about sensitive issues, even (perhaps especially) in our own personal relationships--I've been married for two years and I feel like I know very well that I often fail to really act how I imagine a mature adult acts. Yet it is even more important with respect to something that socially divides so much of the citizenry to be able to at least, say, half of the time, be able to talk without raising our voices and outright yelling at each other: which some of our leading lights in public discourse can't seem to manage for five minutes. I believe I've seen maybe one actual, intelligent, respectful discussion of these issues. If I remember right it was on some show on PBS; probably the Jim Lehrer News Hour. Which we all know is so representative of the American public.

A bit disappointed,

P.S. I've just read through some of the old entries y'all have written here, and I'm relieved to see that race has been a topic here already. I look forward to reading some more of what's been said here. Greetings again, everyone!