Monthly Archives: February 2011

A cool superpower

would be the ability to pause conversations while they were going on, so you could think about what you were going to say. I feel like most people would be about 60 percent wittier and kinder if they just had an extra second or two to think before they spoke. I know I would.

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Every Generation Throws a Hero Up the Pop Charts

This NYTimes Magazine profile of the hipster mayor of a Rust Belt small town is really interesting.

Here was a guy in biker boots bringing the Park Slope (Aspen, Marin, Portland, Santa Fe) ethos — organic produce, art installations, an outdoor bread oven — to the disenfranchised. “What was Braddock like before we took office? Braddock was a notorious community that was steeped in violence. But as of — knock on wood — today, we are now 27 months without a homicide.” The audience began to clap and didn’t stop for a long time.

The piece ends up revealing that the mayor doesn’t have any actual political power, and the only people he’s managed to attract to the city are big-city runaways who want to live as cheaply as possible, and have little interest in contributing to the betterment of the city. In sum, it’s an indictment of the idea that bringing fixie bikes, Barcelona chairs and PhDs to downtrodden areas is a recipe for upward mobility.

James Smith, a 32-year-old Braddock native, often hangs out in the dollar-store parking lot with a group of friends. A graduate of the local high school, Smith can find only temp work, like cleaning Heinz Stadium after Steelers games. The weekly farmers’ market in Braddock is O.K., Smith says, but even if he wanted to shop there, he couldn’t afford it. Jobs and public transportation to get to them remain in short supply.

Nothing that was happening in Braddock — not the green roof on the old furniture store, not the screen printing studio run by members of a socially-conscious arts collective, not beehives, not the Shepard Fairey art installation on a nearby wall, not the Levi’s ad campaign — has changed the most essential facts of his life: he is poor and without prospects.

When I was in Taipei, I randomly came across a copy of Tom Wolfe’s 1973 anthology The New Journalism. Since all the pieces were written in the ’60s, most of them are accounts of hippies and other lefty counterculture types.

I was really surprised at how moronic the hippies seem, reading about them 40 years later. The overall goals of racial and gender integration, breaking oppressive social mores and letting your hair touch your collar and beyond all sound great from far away, but not every  hippie thought deeply about these ideas and their implications.

One of the stories (the totally great ‘Charlie Simpson’s Apocalype’) follows some antiwar kids in the aftermath of one of their number killing four cops with a machine gun in the middle of a Missouri town square. The ‘longhairs’ refuse to condemn their compatriot, and offer lame defenses like ‘he’s fighting the system, man!’ It’s shocking to hear a bunch of pacifists (the good guys, dammit!) defend the murder of cops and citizens in cold blood, and about halfway through the article you realize these people are idiots.

I have to admit I had a somewhat similar reaction reading the Rust Belt mayor piece. I mean, what was this chick expecting, exactly?

Morrison grew up a few towns over and moved to Braddock from Brooklyn in 2008 after learning about its progressive mayor. Morrison, who is 33, was showing me the colossal bank building she bought almost three years ago for $125,000. At the time, Morrison wasn’t sure what she was going to do with it but figured it didn’t matter. She’d come to Braddock, and the spirit of the place would move her. Not long after that, the roof sprang a massive leak.

It’s sort of reassuring that our ideological fads are just as palsied as our parents’. I feel like they deliberately didn’t warn us, just so they could watch.

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If I was a journalist I would have a calendar

that I would fill with the objectives and completion dates of various government programs. And then, as they neared expiration, I would write pieces like this.

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The Obesity Epidemic and Teen Moms

Reading this little tiff in my hometown newspaper about fat acceptance, it struck me that it may be new in political history that we’re facing problems that we deliberately want to discourage at the societal level, but refrain from stigmatizing on the personal level.

With regard to the obesity epidemic, pretty much everyone agrees that at the societal level, having fewer overweight people is better for our economy, health, productivity and gross happiness. At the personal level, though, your weight is really none of my business, and the stigma against fat people is vastly disproportionate, cruel and counterproductive.

The UK is all debatey these days about social benefits, and the ‘culture of dependency’ that welfare for young, single mothers has created. Cash payouts to teen moms, the Coalition argues, only encourages behavior that, at the societal level, makes everyone worse off.

It seems to me that both obesity and teen pregnancy are things that, society-wide, we should be doing everything in our power to prevent. From bike lanes and subsidized veggies (obesity) to sex ed and community support (teen moms), governments are completely correct to advocate that reduction of these phenomena is a societal good.

That said, the minute a teenager gets pregnant, they deserve all the resources of the state to help them raise their child. Not only for their own basic dignity, but to break the cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity that drive rates of teen pregnancy in the first place. Those kids weren’t born to teen moms from any fault of their own, and they should have every opportunity for education, health and security.

The same paradigm should govern obesity: Try really hard at the societal level to prevent obesity, but accept that being overweight is significantly easier than not being overweight, and it doesn’t make economic sense to discriminate fat people out of the workplace, healthcare or beneficial social relationships.

The problem is that this strikes most people as a complete contradiction, and is really difficult to express in the precocious-fifth-grader vocabulary our politicians speak in. We can promote and we can stigmatize, but we have no way of saying as a culture ‘you shouldn’t be here, but you are. So let’s get to work.’

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Scientology is Good For You

There’s no point in arguing with stuff like this:

Some of the other students told [Anne Archer] that Katselas was a Scientologist, so she began the Life Repair program at the Celebrity Centre. “I went two or three times a week, probably for a couple of weeks,” she said. “I remember walking out of the building and walking down the street toward my car and I felt like my feet were not touching the ground. And I said to myself, ‘My God, this is the happiest I’ve ever been in my entire life. I’ve finally found something that works.’ ” She added, “Life didn’t seem so hard anymore. I was back in the driver’s seat.”

It’s easy to attack Scientology as bananas because of the aliens and the volcanoes and the shunning, but there’s no denying that it, like every other religion, has been a positive influence in a great number of lives.

The real problem, it seems to me, isn’t Scientology as such. It’s the wide range of purposes we expect religions to fulfill.

Pretty much every Western religion gives gives you four things at once:

  1. A moral worldview (In Christianity it’s stuff like the 10 commandments, the golden rule, etc)
  2. A narrative of how you got here (God created the world, Adam and Eve, the flood, etc)
  3. A program of self-improvement (strive to become a more kind and graceful husband, father, worker, etc)
  4. A community of like-minded believers (church potlucks, however you feel about Judeo-Christian religions, are off the chain)

We make fun of Scientology because of its historical narrative, but we forget that the bonkers-ness of its creation myth doesn’t disqualify it from delivering genuine benefits in the other categories. Reading this mammoth New Yorker piece, a lot of the self-helpy components of Scientology actually sound pretty Oprah: work hard, think positively, avoid negative influences, strive for self-defined objectives, etc. The whole ‘auditing’ thing, which sounds weird from far away, is pretty much the same as therapy or, for that matter, confession. Regardless of why you do it, you’re probably better off when you have someone to speak intimately and regularly with.

The problem with Scientology, of course, is that if you want the self-help and community stuff you have to sign up for the aliens and the OT levels and the culty ‘separate from your family’ stuff. You can’t pick out the useful parts and leave the counterproductive parts behind.

This  is what makes the atheist case against religion so difficult to make. In arguing against the bonkers stuff, you’re asking people to give up things that really do enrich their lives, give them meaning and make them better people. I’m not gangbusters about Born Again Christians at the societal level, but there’s a lot of people who managed to stop drinking or be better parents because they became one. Catholicism’s focus on helping out the most vulnerable in society  is a great principle and something more of us should strive for, and it’s really unfortunate that it comes bundled with the anti-evolution and misogynistic stuff from its other components.

It’s too bad that we haven’t managed to break off the components of religion into separate programs.  I would love to join a community of people trying to improve their lives and the broader society, for example, as long as I didn’t have to sign up for believing that the world hatched out of an egg or whatever. It’s my refusal to acquiesce to the moral and historical components that keeps me from getting the benefits of the others.

So we shouldn’t be arguing about whether Scientology is ludicrous. We should just encourage Scientologists to un-bundle the ludicrous stuff from the positive and community stuff. Christianity is still working on this after 2,000 years, so Scientology had better get started.


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Defending The Nutella Lawsuit

In the kind of news designed for talk-show monologues, a woman is suing the makers of Nutella for claiming that the chocolate-and-hazelnut goop is good for you.

There’s a tendency to look at these stories and have a kneejerk reaction against the woman filing the lawsuit. How the hell didn’t she know that Nutella is bad for you? Look at it! Taste it! Read the label! The comments on the article are almost exclusively of the ‘give me a break!’ variety.

But do we really want to live in a country where a product that is less nutritious than a milkshake can be marketed as a reasonable breakfast food for children?  The government in this case failed to do its job of preventing a company from lying to its customers. This woman, and this lawsuit, are trying to fill that gap.

This is not an isolated incident. As Marion Nestle’s always pointing out at Food Politics, food companies are allowed to say all kinds of bonkers shit on their packaging. This cereal, for example, is at least one-third composed of marshmallows:

The fact that Nutella lied and that this woman is an idiot are not mutually exclusive. In cases where an ignorant individual is fighting against a dishonest corporation, though, I think our contempt should go first toward the one doing the lying, rather than the one who believed what they were told.

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Volunteers Are Not Employees

Here’s a cool speech by Philip Pullman trying to save the public library system in Britain:

Nor do I think we should respond to the fatuous idea that libraries can stay open if they’re staffed by volunteers. What patronising nonsense. Does [Keith Mitchell, leader of the county council] think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves?

And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose lives are so empty, whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities of any sort, and yet are so wealthy that they can commit hours of their time every week to working for nothing? Who are these volunteers? Do you know anyone who could volunteer their time in this way?

If there’s anyone who has the time and the energy to work for nothing in a good cause, they are probably already working for one of the voluntary sector day centres or running a local football team or helping out with the league of friends in a hospital. What’s going to make them stop doing that and start working in a library instead?

I spent six months last year volunteering at an asylum center, and I can say with certainty that volunteers are not a remotely adequate replacement for full-time, paid staff. Promoting altruism is a nice thing for governments to do, but suggesting that volunteers be given responsibilities over people and property is a recipe for some janky-ass libraries.

It’s also unrealistic and exploitative, and seems rather drastically unsound, economically speaking. I mean, isn’t the way out of an unemployment crisis to have more people getting paid to do stuff, rather than just the latter?


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Underneath the journalist-ese

this is disturbing and hilarious.


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I did it like this, I did it like that, I did it with a whiffle ball bat

I haven’t listened to The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill since I stole the cassette tape from my babysitter’s car in 1994. It’s still good!

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The Michael Pollan of Tourism

I had a meeting today with someone from an organization lobbying for ‘fair trade tourism’. They’re trying to promote hotels, tours and activities that don’t exploit the societies in which they take place, and lead to sustainable employment and development for nearby communities.

As we were talking, I kept thinking of the blurb I saw last night asking why there isn’t a Michael Pollan for clothing:

Fashion has parallels to food: most clothing is too cheap, that cheapness has tragic costs, clothing is an agricultural product, and we consume too much of it. Affordable designer collaborations are like the rise of the home gourmet, but now we should be ready for responsibility beyond taste and design. I’m looking for the textile version of Food Rules, some aphoristic guidelines that won’t make me feel evil when buying a shirt.

Tourism is another black hole for consumers. We all want to how our kiwis were grown, who picked them and what color the 747 was that flew them here.  We have ready access to the calories, fat and sugars in everything we buy.

In tourism, though, the only thing you know about your hotel is what it costs and where it is. You don’t know the wages of the people who work there or where they’re from. Or how the beachfront your hotel is sitting on was acquired. Or how much water the hotel takes from the local watershed. Or how many locals vs expats there in mangement.

I’m in Johannesburg this week, and most of the staff here are from Zimbabwe. I have no idea if it’s the case at this particular hotel, but I know the influx of something like 2 million Zimbabweans to South Africa in the last 10 years have pushed down wages and working conditions in hotels. The minimum wage for hospitality staff here is about $10 a day.

I’m amazed at the extent to which the sustainable procurement movement has skipped the tourism sector. In the four years I’ve worked for the Danish government, we’ve switched to recycled paper in the copier, fair trade coffee in the percolator and organic milk in the fridge. You always hear about private sector firms taking steps like switching their light bulbs, making everyone turn off their computers at night, etc. Consumers and workers accept that their purchasing decisions have social and environmental impacts, and they pressure organizations that purchase on their behalf to do so sustainably.

Yet the places we stay on business seem curiously immune to this trend. Considering I’m here on Official Bidness (for a human rights organization, no less), I think it’s reasonable to expect that I’d be staying somewhere that pays its staff a living wage.  Yet I have no information about this place beyond its star rating and buffet menu.

I’m sure if we got more transparency in tourism, we wouldn’t like what we saw. But 10 years ago, you could have said that about clothing. It’s about time we take the principles we use to decide what we eat and what we wear and apply them to where we sleep.


Filed under Denmark, Serious, Travel