Tag Archives: america

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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‘After All These Years, All We Are Sure of is the Insufficiency of Explanation’

That’s a line from The Virgin Suicides. I can’t remember if it’s from the book or the movie or both, but I always think of it whenever a tragedy like last week’s in Arizona strikes in the United States.

The media and politicians have spent the week since the shooting of a Congresswoman and 19 others in Tuscon doing what they do best: Engaging in unfounded speculation disguised as informed debate.

Little beyond rumor is known about the shooter. Trolling his various internet profiles and interviewing his acquaintances hasn’t yielded many concrete conclusions beyond ‘wow, what a disturbed young man’. And we already pretty much knew that from his actions.

Much of the speculation has centered on the role of ‘the political climate’ in his act. It’s no secret that political polarization and overheated rhetoric are at a perceived apogee in the US, and people like Sarah Palin and the Tea Party have been blamed for encouraging the kind of ‘give me my country back!’ rhetoric that could inspire someone to take up arms.

The problem is, there’s no evidence linking the shooter with any of this rhetoric. It doesn’t appear he listened to talk radio, attended Tea Party rallies or engaged at all with radical political rhetoric of either stripe.

It’s probably true that political figures need to tone down their rhetoric. But this particular shooting doesn’t appear to be evidence for that.

Incidents like this highlight what is maybe the greatest weaknesses of the American media: There’s just too much space to fill. A tragedy of this kind has a lot of unknowns, and little new information comes out on a daily basis. Nonetheless, the TV stations have to fill up 24 hours of airtime, and the newspapers have to fill a chunk of their front page every day until public interest wanes. The only way to do this is to present nonstop speculation and rumor, which, like all gossip, impersonates fact the more it is repeated.

The days and months after the Columbine school shootings, for example, were papered with ‘debates’ on violent video games, neo-Nazis, goth culture, Marilyn Manson, and the ‘trenchcoat mafia’, all of which were blamed for the rampage.

Months and years later, though, none of these things appear to have exerted anysignificant influence on the shooters. The closest thing to an explanation we have is that the shooters were a psychopath and a manic-depressive, respectively.

Whenever a sudden tragedy strikes, I wish the media could simply release a statement saying ‘Understanding this week’s events requires a great deal of factual detail and analytical expertise. Until we can gather the information required to separate fact from fiction, we will not be publishing any information on the killer’s background, motives or influences. We will publish conclusions when they are warranted by the amount of available information.’

The media marketplace being what it is, however, I don’t see this happening anytime soon. The least we can do for now, though, is accept that information is likely to be incomplete for a long time to come. And explanation will always be insufficient.

 

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Fat-Flation

As if it wasn’t hard enough to be skinny nowadays:

I love the audacity of lying about something that is an objective measure.

Apparently, there used to be a law in Egypt that said if the temperature got above 40 degrees, work had to be canceled. Every time the temperature got up that high, the government just lied and said it was 39 degrees, even when it got up to 45 or more. This shows the same dictator-grade head-in-the-sanding.

This should be a lesson to all those free-marketeers out there. You want to give more societal responsibility to organizations that won’t even be honest about what an inch is? At least the communists only lie in words, not in numbers.

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Conscience Do Cost

By coincidence, I read the following two articles back to back on a plane last month:

Charles Fishman, “The Wal-Mart You Don’t Know.”
Michael Pollan, “An Animal’s Place.”

The first one is about how Wal-Mart almost singlehandedly  incentivized American companies to move their production abroad. Companies making products to be sold at Wal-Mart were told over and over again by their biggest customer that they had to drop their prices. If you stick-and-carrot efficiency for long enough, pretty soon you can’t justify paying a bunch of Americans 5 bucks an hour to do something a Chinese dude will do for 1.

If Wal-Mart doesn’t like the pricing on something, says Andrew Whitman, who helped service Wal-Mart for years when he worked at General Foods and Kraft, they simply say, “At that price we no longer think it’s a good value to our shopper. Therefore, we don’t think we should carry it.”

Wal-Mart has also lulled shoppers into ignoring the difference between the price of something and the cost. Its unending focus on price underscores something that Americans are only starting to realize about globalization: Ever-cheaper prices have consequences. Says Steve Dobbins, president of thread maker Carolina Mills: “We want clean air, clear water, good living conditions, the best health care in the world–yet we aren’t willing to pay for anything manufactured under those restrictions.”

In other words, we all want to live in a country where we can all have good jobs, beautiful nature and working infrastructure. But we don’t want to pay for it.

The second article doesn’t, ostensibly, have anything to do with the first. It’s about our food production system, and how it’s making us all sick. You know the drill: Factory farms bad! Micro-bio-loca-ganic farms good!

Salatin’s chickens live like chickens; his cows, like cows; pigs, pigs. As in nature, where birds tend to follow herbivores, once Salatin’s cows have finished grazing a pasture, he moves them out and tows in his “eggmobile,” a portable chicken coop that houses several hundred laying hens–roughly the natural size of a flock.

The hens fan out over the pasture, eating the short grass and picking insect larvae out of the cowpats–all the while spreading the cow manure and eliminating the farm’s parasite problem. A diet of grubs and grass makes for exceptionally tasty eggs and contented chickens, and their nitrogenous manure feeds the pasture.

A few weeks later, the chickens move out, and the sheep come in, dining on the lush new growth, as well as on the weed species (nettles, nightshade) that the cattle and chickens won’t touch.

This is self-evidently true and wonderful. If all farms in the Western world operated like this, we’d all be healthier, not to mention less morally culpable in the kind of animal cruelty that only Wal-Mart efficiency can inspire.

But, like the 8-hour day and the minimum wage, sustainability costs. Creating a food system that prohibits inhumane practices essentially creates workers’ rights for animals.  I’d be totally fine with that, but if all the factories have been shipped overseas by rising costs in the West, why won’t the same thing happen to all the farms?

To me, this is the central dilemma of the capitalism we’ve set up for ourselves. We as citizens want our chickens to be able to live like chickens, our cows to eat grass, our pigs to have bottomless slop to slip in. But as consumers, given a choice between happy chicken breast and torture-farm chicken breast, we choose the cheaper, every time.

It’s not just farms, of course. Our decision to choose cheaper, as pointed out in the Wal-Mart article, is why our countries don’t have factories for clothing or cars or IKEA anymore either. As citizens, we want access to jobs that let us buy a house and see our kids a few nights a week. As consumers, we want the cheapest option possible, even if it means a 78-hour workweek for that dude in China.

Economic theory says the middle class was created when Henry Ford started paying $5 a day. That was a huge salary in 1914, and it instantly transformed his workers into consumers. Maybe in the  last 20 years, that transformation’s finally complete. We’re so busy celebrating the victorious consumer that we forget his victory is over the worker. And that they’re the same person.

In other words, somewhere in Flint, Michigan, right now, an unemployed autoworker is trying to choose between two pieces of chicken.

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Why the American left drags its feet on gay rights

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One thing I couldn’t get over when I first moved here was how politically diverse the gays are. Some of them are left wing, some of them are right wing. Some of them are racist, some of them are patronizingly inclusive. ‘Jesus,’ I remember saying on one of my first weekends, ‘It’s like being gay doesn’t even mean anything.’

And it doesn’t, really. Gay marriage has been legal in Denmark for 20 years, and gayness has been a political non-starter so long that politicians have to be asked about it, and then they all give pretty much the same answer. Anti-gay sentiment isn’t completely banished, but you hear it come up about as much as you hear about, say, the flat tax in America. It’s there, but it’s not a divisive issue in many races or party manifestos.

In other words, gays have no built-in incentive to be left-wing. In America, gays are mainly limited to the blue end of the spectrum because the right wing wants to actively curtail their rights and reduce their quality of life. For gays, self-preservation trumps the economic and social issues that most other citizens vote on.

If gay marriage gets legalized in the States, after a few political aftershocks, I think a lot of gays would start to migrate rightwards. It would be slow, but in the long term gays might even be a reliable Republican voting bloc. Gays tend to be affluent, and eventually, the dimensions of self-preservation would warp to exclude Oppressed Minority and include Yuppie Wealth Preserver.

I wonder if American left wing politicians know this, and this is part of why they don’t grant full civil rights to homosexuals. As long as we’re second-class citizens and one of the parties is slightly better than the other, they can take us for granted. Giving us full marriage rights would effectively put both parties back at Go, and they would have to compete for our votes.

I’ve been wondering that this year, as the promises made during the presidential campaign haven’t materialized, and as the Democrats face the loss of the majority that would have made pro-gay legislation reasonably easy to enact. It’s about time we started asking whether it wasn’t the opportunity that passed, but the politicians.

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