Sunday, October 31, 2010

Harry Reid is a "Mainstream American"

By Charles Murray's logic, that is. The UFC, one of the cultural touchstones mentioned in Murray's dumb, dumb opinion piece, has endorsed Reid, a former boxer, in the Nevada Senate race:

Some of the biggest stars in the mixed martial arts cage-fighting world have come out for Reid, most recently Randy Couture, aka Captain America, aka The Natural, Ultimate Fighting Championship Hall of Famer, six-time heavyweight champion and registered Republican.

Also in Reid's corner: Two-time champion Frank Mir, who once vowed to break an opponent's neck in the ring, has taped a television ad for the senator. Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell, the sport's elder statesman, appeared at a rally for Reid earlier this month, alongside UFC President Dana White.

I guess this gives him a fighting chance at success, heh heh heh.

Conclusive Proof That Rich Iott is Not Fit For Public Office

He's not sure if he would support John Boehner for Speaker of the House.

Loyalty is a highly overrated virtue in politics--George W. Bush's loyalty to Donald Rumsfeld played a large role in keeping Rumsfeld on until it became absolutely untenable--but at the very least you've got to show some gratitude to the only person not to bail after learning of your proclivities for Nazi reenactment. Rewarding supporters, at least when you're in a position of weakness, is Electoral Politics 101.

If Iott doesn't know how to play the game, though, he can always go back to playing dreSS-up instead.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

National Mallrat

One needed only step into an arriving Metro train this morning to know something major was afoot. Almost no one got out, and--nearing if not exceeding capacity--we took on more people with every stop. The Tea Partiers, ever so fond of Hitler analogies and now familiar from their own rally with such conditions, might call the coziness Auschwitzian.

I arrived at the National Mall around 10:45 or so, off of 7th Street. I thought I saw some Tea Partiers--as indicated by 'November is Coming'-type signs--hanging at the edge then. This one in particular expresses a common Tea Party grievance, although with much more cleverness than I've seen them capable of.

Now "at" the rally, I took a left, into the Henry Park area of the Mall, to get as close as I could. I pushed among what was already a packed crowd and got maybe a third of the way to the stage, at which point most of the crowd's forward movement dropped off. Knowing I didn't want to stand in one place for four hours I squeezed out left onto Madison Drive and went as far as I could go before getting stopped at the VIP zone.

I must halt my narrative in order to describe myself. I was Mormon-clad: black slacks, white short-sleeved collared shirt, tie. (The tie was red.) I did this in order to more credibly sell the sign I was carrying:

Up until this point, and with almost no exceptions after, everybody who saw me and my ridiculous sign "got" it. Most would chuckle, guffaw, take a photo; my sign must have been photographed a hundred times over the course of the day.

I stayed in character throughout, thanking people for their interest in abolishing such an unnatural and disgusting practice as the marriage of the elderly. One old man told me he was already married.

"You should be ashamed of yourself," I said. He laughed. Almost all of those I talked to laughed.

But as I stood at the attendee boundary, probably looking at someone else's goofy sign, a young woman came up and punched me in the chest and stomped off. I stood there agape and slightly wounded in esteem. (In the past two weeks, mind you, I've been almost mugged and nearly job scammed. I'm getting a bit sensitive to these violations of my space and identity.) 'She must really like old people,' I said to no one in particular. A minute or so later the girl returned with her friend and hugged me and apologized profusely for not having read my sign in full.

I find it slightly repugnant that she seemed contrite only for punching the 'wrong' person, but regardless I take considerable pride in having been her target. To be taken seriously is the highest compliment an ironist can be paid.

I wandered back up Madison and passed by some honest-to-god Socialists selling books with Malcolm X speeches and their newspaper, the Militant. Movement conservatives will probably point to this as "evidence" of the rally's "true" radical nature, and yeah, these kinds of groups tend to show up at big liberal events. But their earnestness was (radically?) at odds with the festive atmosphere of the event, hardly representative. And anyway, Malcolm X and Socialism are not nearly as scary as conservatives would have us think.

I ended up settling on the other side of 7th, and shortly thereafter the rally proper began, with immediate difficulties. Several of the participants were so enamored of their own cleverness that they refused to put their signs down. This was a problem, as our only glimpse of the stage up front was provided by several large screens that these clever people and their signs were blocking.

"SIGN-DOWN! SIGN-DOWN!" We chanted, to mostly good results.

The speaker system was also incredibly inconsistent, either too quiet or not on at all.

"LOU-DER! LOU-DER!" Thus did we rally to restore volume, with less success.

The exchange between Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert went fine. So did a pretty funny sketch about the crowd count issue I mentioned earlier, in which the Daily Show crew had audience members at the very front count off and state their ethnicity, in order to get accurate numbers and demographics. But by the time Father Guido Sarducci's (yeah, I didn't know who he was either) fake benediction came around the volume was on the fritz again, and I was getting restless--even after the police fulfilled our request to "Tear down this fence!" and gave us more space on the grass--and so I spent much of the rest of the time wandering around.

Around this time Jon Stewart started bringing out musical guests. His first: Cat Stevens, a.k.a. Yusuf Islam, who blamed Salman Rushdie for the fatwa put out on him. How the hell could Stewart and his crew, famously exhaustive in their research on news figures, invite Stevens without considering this very well-known latter fact?

Stevens played "Peace Train," interrupted by Ozzy Osbourne with "Crazy Train." Get it?

Shortly thereafter I saw some Truthers. Truthers, those cultish malcontents whose skepticism would make David Hume facepalm. A whole two of them, at this street-cramming and ostensibly moderate gathering. Amid the surrounding wackiness, I would say the joke was on them. Much more aware of their surroundings was the group of Communists hawking their wares a block away from the rally's epicenter. "Barack Obama is not a Communist, but I am, and I think you should be too!" the very good-natured barker said while distributing literature for the Revolutionary Communist Party. Again, these types are fringe and disproportionate in both number and impact. I mention them in fact because they were different and interesting.

Eventually I settled down at the Mall's southern edge off of Jefferson Drive, to hear the last Stewart/Colbert segment, and Stewart's closing speech (much more on those later). Once it was all done, almost exactly at three o'clock as scheduled, I wandered around a bit to look for my friends. I left a half hour afterward, a drop in a sea of other departing rallygoers that covered 7th Street as far as one could see. Only then did I realize how crazy the Metro would be. I bypassed the Navy Memorial and went further and tried the Convention Center and Chinatown, but they too were hopelessly congested.

Outside the Convention Center stop there was a fight about to break out between two middle-aged gentlemen, serious enough that a cop to had to intervene. A passerby noted the incongruity: "Come on, man, this was a peace rally!"

I ended up walking an alphabet of blocks to the U Street Metro station, where I stepped into a train car as sardine-spaced as that this morning. It's entirely possible that the people on it were the ones with whom I would have been in line at my previous stop a half an hour before.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Only eight hours to go.

I'll be down on the Mall, hopefully around 10 or 11 tomorrow, dressed up and with a STOP GEY MARRIAGE sign. For those who need a primer, see the inaugural post of this almost two-year old(?!) blog or just go to the Facebook page, which has a nifty image. The group has 73 members as of now, and hopefully I'll be able to rope in a few more.

I'll have my camera on hand, and when I'm not decrying the marriage of the elderly I'll try to take some photos. An account of my day should follow if not tomorrow night, then Sunday morning.

See you soon (figuratively and hopefully literally as well).

Prelude to Fear

My hosts tell me that the Mall area today wasn't nearly as busy as it was the day before the Glenn Beck rally. They acknowledge, though, that most of them are going to be arriving tonight and tomorrow.

And how:

As people began to realize the plane was filled with nothing but rally goers, no joke, we all cheered, spontaneously. The flight had much more energy than usual - loads of people chatting about Jon Stewart, politics, etc. It seemed most people on the flight were baby boomers. After all, who else is going to have the time and money to fly themselves in from Minnesota?

When we landed, a woman shouted, "Sanity has just landed in DC!" and we all burst out in cheers and applause.

I've got a friend who should be getting settled in as I type this. For myself, I'm putting together a sign. I still don't think it's going to make much of a difference, but considering how truly awful the next couple years are shaping up to be, one could do a lot worse for a last hurrah.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

'Gold Irony

Dave Weigel's account of a Russ Feingold rally is a real downer:

Feingold has an advantage that some endangered Democrats are lacking: He's genuinely adored by his base. The idea that he could lose is not just shocking but also cosmically unfair. Eighteen years working on campaign finance reform and the Supreme Court unspools his legislation? A lifetime of public service that's kept him poor, and he's being out-man-of-the-peopled by a wealthy industrialist? It doesn't matter that Democrats are actually withstanding the "secret money" onslaught with money of their own—it just doesn't seem fair.

I would add that Feingold, the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act and a consistent critic of the Bush and Obama administrations on civil liberties and executive power, is being swept out by a movement that is not only pro-torture and war, but also has the temerity to assume a posture of outrage about government overreach.

It's got the ludicrous tragedy of a Tom Stoppard play.

Gone Phishin', Ctd.

Another public interest post, some sound advice on how to avoid Craigslist job scammers.

Click Me With Your Best Shot

Der Spiegel has a really neat gallery of the Small World Competition, which centers on microscopic photography. This mushroom coral shot by James Nicholson...

...looks remarkably like the Marlboro, a recurring enemy in the Final Fantasy video game series.

The flea is something out of a nightmare.

No Logos

A majority of gays, I suspect, are not fans of Christianity. I, personally have a real problem with Christianity. With Christianity, you have a religion that says kill the gays, kill the infidels. It bothers me when a religion says kill the infidels. It bothers me a lot more when I am the infidel. Why do we tolerate adherents to an ideology that tells someone, go kill people for your religion and you will get to be with Jesus? I have always been curious about that. You would think that after a point, Jesus would have other things to do. Or perhaps they are going to be tricked into a form of hell, where they get to be with Jesus, but he's actually gay.

This is the argument, with a few swapped terms, that Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips is using in his line of attack on Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress. I hope Phillips will join me in ejecting the bloodthirsty and cannibalistic Christian ideology from our government.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reich Behind You

You'd think after Eric Cantor and the Young Guns (which would make a great band name) disassociated themselves from bad Nazi-impressionist Rich Iott that the GOP would have been content to leave him to electoral defeat.

You'd be wrong:

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) plans to campaign for House Republican candidate Rich Iott on Saturday in Toledo.

Photos showing Iott dressed in Nazi-style clothing threw his campaign into the spotlight earlier this month. But Boehner did not return the $5,000 contributions he made to the candidate, and Iott's campaign said there was no reason to.

Boehner represents Ohio, so I wonder if this one of those "I still love my crazy racist uncle" things. Iott's not a Nazi, of course, he just is willing to put the whole genocide thing aside because other than that the Third Reich's military prowess was so badaSS. And Boehner doesn't seem to have a problem with venerating war criminals either, so why not help a guy in need?

Electorally, though, it doesn't make much sense. Iott's district is historically Democratic, and Nate Silver gives him essentially Calvinist odds of success. Surely Boehner's political heft could be better spent in a competitive race where his presence could make a difference.

Sehr interessant.

[UPDATE: In the interest of avoiding what Jim Fallows calls ignorant incurious certitude, a quick Googling provides something of an explanation.

Leader Boehner will be rallying Republican volunteers at the Lucas County Victory Center to support the local Republican Party's get-out-the-vote efforts. Boehner has been on the road headlining rallies for Republican candidates in Ohio and across the country, and he'll continue his busy campaign schedule into the final weekend before Tuesday's referendum on Democrats' jobs-killing policies.

So just to be clear, it is an Ohio thing. I still note that John Boehner thinks Democrats' jobs-killing policies ought best be resisted by an SS LARPer.

UPDATE UPDATE: Forgot to tip my hat to absurdbeats for the Fallows link, which I had not yet read.

Gone Phishin'

Yesterday I sent off some job applications and then went out for the evening, came home, went to bed without checking my email.

Imagine my delight this morning when I found this in my Inbox:

Dear Applicant:

Congratulations, this is a tentative offer of employment for the available position with Fujitsu Limited.

As you know, this position pays a generous hourly wage, with benefits, and also provides potential to earn additional bonuses and incentives throughout the year. You are also provided with a full lunch every day, which is made by a local catering company. We are hiring rapidly at this time, and are fully prepared to make you an employment offer, provided that you comply with the rest of the recruitment terms.

This is a full-time position. You will be providing administrative support including, but not limited to, answering phones, completing reports, tracking shipments, and some minor inventory management. Some experience working as an administrative assistant is preferred, but not required. Full paid training will be provided.

To accept these terms and move on to the final stage of the recruitment process, you must provide us with a current copy of your credit report to go in your employment file. Fujitsu Limited has a zero-tolerance policy in regards to theft of company property. Your credit scores or payment history are not important to us; rather it is a means of verifying your identity, and will also serve as your acceptance of the position. Once you fill out the report, an email is automatically generated that notifies us of your acceptance of the position, that in turn will email you new hire paperwork and give you times for your orientation. Be sure to bring 2 forms of identification with you to the orientation.

Your free report can be obtained here:

This tentative offer will expire in 72 hours from the time sent. If you choose not to accept it, or have any questions, please email me directly.

We appreciate your interest in joining the team at Fujitsu Limited and hope you decide to come aboard!


Thomas Williams
Human Resources Executive

This message contains information from Fujitsu Limited that may be confidential and privileged. If you are not an intended recipient, please refrain from any disclosure, copying, distribution or use of this information and note that such actions are prohibited. If you have received this transmission in error, please notify the sender immediately.

A job! Already! Gainful employ! Huzzah and hallelujah! I leapt out of my seat and did a happy dance and did a victory lap and put on Angel of Death by Slayer and headbanged and announced it on Facebook and called my mom and all was right in the world. Then I hopped on Fujitsu's website and did a search for this Thomas Williams. It came up empty.

How unusual! I thought to myself. Then I googled '"Thomas Williams" Fujitsu USA.'

First result:

This is an employment phish for credit info correct? I got this for my wife this past evening the second of it's type in three days.

This is a phishing expedition I am assuming? Can anyone help me make heads or toes of this.


Dear Applicant:

Congratulations, this is a tentative offer of employment for the available position with Fujitsu Limited....

POP! goes the weaseling. My jubilance similarly deflates.

Moderator Dorothy provides the scoop:

It's an affiliate scam (though certainly some may add identity theft)...

We've seen several of them at scamwarners, and they have all worked the same way. The intermediate site leads to the real credit report site, as you already noted. You will get a "free" credit report, but you will have to give a credit card number and sign up for credit monitoring service as part of the deal. Of course you can cancel free of charge, but suffice it to say that there have been numerous complaints of people canceling and being charged anyway, or having to jump through so many hoops that they somehow weren't able to properly cancel.

Then, when your credit card is billed for the first monthly fee, the scammer collects an affiliate fee (last I checked it was $24 for for referring you to them.
A few hundred people falling for this makes quite a profit for the scammer...
They do the same thing with apartment rentals, too--place ads for gorgeous apartments at less than market value, then tell the "applicant" they need to get a credit report to be considered...

And again, there are possibilities of identity theft here too, though it appears that some of them at least are not going that far.

Edit to add:

For Freescore360

Affiliate Program Details:
Name: Credit Report - Free Score 360
Payout: $22.50 / Sale
Network: EWA Private Network
Landing Page: View Landing Page
Categories: Financial Services

So it's $22.50 per person who takes the bait.

A Portland Craigslist user also posted the email under the title JOB POSTING SCAM!!!.

Of the applications I sent off yesterday, all were to Craigslist offerings that did not provide a company name or a contact person outside the Craigslist email. I can't be sure which one baited me, but given the language they used in the posting and the email, I'm going to go with this one, which I'm posting in the interest of public awareness:

Office Assistant (Washington, DC)
Date: 2010-10-18, 10:55AM EDT
Reply to: [Errors when replying to ads?]

A vacancy exists for an Office Assistant with people and communication skills. Must exhibit a flexible hands-on and can-do approach. Job includes maintaining time sheet and tracking work progress. Full training given although some existing office experience is preferred. Start at $16.50 per hour including benefits. Opportunity for promotion.

Living in the big city is proving to be quite the education.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sore Wingers

Conservatives are freaking out about potential for voter fraud in next week's election:

For context, recall that Republicans are all but guaranteed to take the House and still have a fighting (if diminishing) chance of netting the Senate too. There are structural reasons for this--an unsustainably high Democratic majority, a weak economy in which the party in power tends to get blamed, historic trends of majority losses in midterm elections--and reasons particular to this election season. And yet listen to how hysterical Michelle Malkin is when she intones that "WE ARE ALL VOTER FRAUD POLICE NOW." (The manner in which she says this is uniquely suited to being transcribed in entirely capital letters without an exclamation mark.)

No pleasing some people.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Pearl In the Pipeline

I just a bit ago finished Steinbeck's The Pearl. It's an excellent little novella, one that I only learned about when I saw it at a bookstore that was going out of business. Analysis forthcoming.

Two's Company

About the only thing I can add to the discussion on the Juan Williams kerfuffle that I don't think has been pointed out yet: in taking a $2 million dollar contract from Fox News, Williams will be joining Glenn Beck, who made headlines a couple years before his star blew up, by making remarks on CNN Headline News expressing almost exactly the same general fear of Muslims. Except he did so to the first Muslim Congressman, Keith Ellison.

Beck was with CNN for two more years before joining Fox. Williams had already been a Fox commentator for awhile, but he was canned (too glibly and hastily) on the spot by NPR, and has been fully welcomed into the Fox and Friends family. It's progress, albeit flawed, and yet still we've come full circle.

Hating Mainstream, Ctd.

Slightly anecdotal, but some further evidence of the sloppy thinking at work in Charles Murray's New Elites piece from yesterday. Here's Murray (emphasis mine):

Get into a conversation about television with members of the New Elite, and they can probably talk about a few trendy shows -- "Mad Men" now, "The Sopranos" a few years ago. But they haven't any idea who replaced Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right." They know who Oprah is, but they've never watched one of her shows from beginning to end.

Talk to them about sports, and you may get an animated discussion of yoga, pilates, skiing or mountain biking, but they are unlikely to know who Jimmie Johnson is (the really famous Jimmie Johnson, not the former Dallas Cowboys coach), and the acronym MMA means nothing to them.

And here is Amy Gardner, on the front page Tea Party story from Murray's own newspaper and from which Murray's piece springs (emphasis mine, again):

"We're not wanting to be a third party," said Matt Ney, 55, the owner of a Pilates studio and a founder of the Pearland Tea Party Patriots in Pearland, Tex. "We're not wanting to endorse individual candidates ever. What we're trying to do is be activists by pushing a conservative idea."

Speaking for myself, I know dozens if not hundreds of people who share the views and interests of the "New Elite" and live in the Republican stronghold of Idaho, and even a few that watch UFC or (god help them) pro wrestling. I also know ardent conservatives with an interest in literature that extends beyond Left Behind.

Which is all to say that Murray's column amounts to a lot of hostile and reductive generalization. But for a man "truly and deeply in love" with Sarah Palin, so it goes.

(EDIT: I realize that last sentence smacks of hypocrisy, condemning Murray for generalizing while engaging it myself, but I would point out that Palin's tenuous connection with objective reality is well-documented, Murray's admiration for her and her fanbase is very real, and he has here been demonstrably lazy in his line argument. My closer is connecting a series of established dots, rather than making a picture and finding dots after the fact.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hating Mainstream

This Charles Murray column about the "New Elite" is quite dreadful:

The tea party appears to be of one mind on at least one thing: America has been taken over by a New Elite.

"On one side, we have the elites," Fox News host Glenn Beck explained last month, "and the other side, we have the regular people." The elites are "no longer in touch with what the country is really thinking," Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle complained this summer. And when Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell recently began a campaign ad by saying, "I didn't go to Yale," she could be confident that her supporters would approve....


...What sets the tea party apart from other observers of the New Elite is its hostility, rooted in the charge that elites are isolated from mainstream America and ignorant about the lives of ordinary Americans.

Let me propose that those allegations have merit.

Murray then goes on to give his definition of the New Elite, which is basically upper-crust Ivy Leaguers that come from and stay and marry within a high-income bracket, working in technocratic fields and having nothing in common with "ordinary people" because they don't know a bunch of white rural trivia, like who replaced Bob Barker on "The Price is Right."

This is all so much unnecessary work. We already have a working definition of an elite:

"Anyone thinks they're better than anyone else." That lives in Washington. And New York. It's elegant in its simplicity, like a four-letter word.

Murray also does the reader the courtesy of providing a quiz to discern if one is a mainstream American:

If you can answer "yes" for 0-2 questions, you're sealed in the New Elite bubble. If you can answer "yes" for 3-7 questions, you need to get out more. If you can answer "yes" for 8-10 questions, it doesn't matter if you went to Yale or live in Georgetown. You're part of the American mainstream.

"American mainstream" here, of course, is code for rural white conservative Christians. One can find the Platonic ideal of this concept by considering the Tea Party's adoration of the buffoonish and manifestly unqualified Sarah Palin: proudly ignorant, contemptuous of nuance, militantly Christian. Also, the most unpopular political figure in the country.

To the extent there is such a thing as a mainstream, the conservative movement often wants nothing to do with it. Consider our pop culture, which conservative Christianity despises even as it seeks to emulate it. Or popular websites, of which they have created several alternatives. Conservative Christians don't consider Jon Stewart the most trusted man in America, and they consider the second most popular American political figure, Barack Obama, to be Hitler, the Antichrist, the Angel of Death, and more besides. These, to say the least, are not mainstream viewpoints.

It's all a framing game that easily excludes an egghead like Murray, which makes his shilling on their behalf especially rich. Conservatives have railed against liberal masochism, but I think in these times a look at the conservative version is in order. They seem to have a variant for everything else.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Geek Alert

I never realized how awesome the electronica-ish soundtrack for X-Men 2: Clone Wars for the Sega Genesis was until I stumbled across some of these.

Grim Laughter

Timothy Noah is wary about the Stewart/Colbert rally next weekend:

There's still a lot we don't fully understand about the Tea Partiers and the political independents who have lost faith in Obama. But one thing we should all be pretty clear on by now is that they hate, hate, hate anything that smacks of elitism. The spectacle of affluent 18-to-34-year-olds blanketing the Mall to snicker at jokes about wingnut ignoramuses and Bible thumpers will, I fear, have the effect of a red cape waved before a bull. Stewart and Colbert aren't supposed to want to affect the midterm elections, and for the most part I believe they don't. But let Republicans regain the House (and maybe even the Senate) in part because Comedy Central used mockery not merely to burlesque political protest but also, to some inevitable extent, to practice it—and I think Stewart and Colbert will be sorry they came. I know I will be.

I don't know that this is entirely Stewart and Colbert's fault. All along their gig has been reacting to the political event of the day, which for a couple years now has meant Glenn Beck. Responding to his moist and self-pitying August rally with two(!) of their own is a natural progression, albeit one that comes perilously close to shark-jumping.

The problem is us. Sarcastic comedy shows are not going to make our country a better place. Political engagement will. The liberal rally from the beginning of the month that hardly anyone heard about might have been a nice start. And going out and getting candidates elected that will enact progressive policies, that could work too. But gathering en masse in order to be ironic? That liberals are more excited for a joke rally than the elections that are coming a mere three days afterward is basically an admission of defeat.

And, yeah, I'll be there. I'm not begrudging anyone their shot of whiskey before a gruesome electoral surgery. I just don't want anyone pretending it's victory Champagne.

Close Encounter, Ctd.

Basically, I was lucky.

Lucky that I was already more than halfway home.
Lucky the kid was so weak.
Lucky it was just one.
And so on.

Vigilance played a role, too. Keeping aware, being ready and sober, etc.

I almost wonder if the kid was just pulling some punk stunt. Teenagers aren't as strong as adults, but his hitting me on the head didn't hurt when it happened and hasn't left a mark. He didn't make any great effort to come after me once I pushed him off.

It's confusing, kind of upsetting. It doesn't feel quite real, but I keep thinking about it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Close Encounter

I'm still catching my breath as I start to write this.

Just before 11 o' clock, I leave the Red Derby bar on Quincy and 13th. I went down there for a drink because I spent the day in front of a computer working on the Rushdie piece and a job application and my eyes were going to bug out of their sockets. I had one beer, Pork Slap. Just enough to unwind. I'm staying about a half hour walk away, northeast, and so I walk down Quincy, eastward.

I don't know when they started following me. I know a couple guys ended up not too far behind me at the Georgia Avenue intersection, just before New Hampshire, with a third person crossing to their side. Part of the sidealk is inaccessable because of some building construction, and rather than just walk in the road a short way and get back on the sidewalk I cross over, only to cross right back in order to head left up New Hampshire. I wonder as I do this if I'm making myself an easy target.

From Quincy to Grant Circle it's four blocks, Randolph, Shepherd, Taylor, Upshur. My hosts have told me to move like I have a purpose at night and to not talk on my phone or get distracted. I keep a brisk pace when I walk normally, and so this is easy enough. I pass a girl after the first or second block. I'm pretty sure it's after I pass her that I hear faint footsteps behind me. It could be another expeditious traveler.

Or it could not. Mel Brooks said, Hope for the best, expect the worst. Life's a play, we're unrehearsed.

I keep my pace.

It's just after the last street before the circle, Upshur, and not only have the footfalls remained, but I now see an approaching shadow in the corner of my eye. My hopes diminish, but in the interest of not making a scene I slow to let the person behind me pass.

A black kid in a black jacket walks by and I resume my walk, only for another one to come up by my side. He's most definitely a kid, a teenager. He's short and skinny, with hair buzzed, jacket red and black.

"Hey man, whassup?" he says. No one initiates conversation on the street at 11:15 at night.

"Not much," I answer. Then, "Just had a drink." I regret this instantly.

He puts his hand out. Some cars passed us moments ago, and there's porch and street light all along the sidewalk. Is this really going to happen?

"Give me five, man." (I don't know if he actually said that, since I don't know anyone who actually says 'give me five' anymore, but he stuck out his hand and said something, in any case).

If life's a play, then this is Kabuki. I act my part.

I put my hand in his, and he proceeds to try to put me in a headlock. When I start to resist he pushes me against a car parked next to us. (The first kid maybe does something, maybe doesn't. I don't remember. He's unremarkable. To my left, what was behind me, I see two or three other figures, and they're unremarkable.) The kid punches me in the head, (maybe) tries get into my pocket, but he's scrawny and young and not very strong and I push him off, this doesn't feel real, and I bypass the unremarkable kid and bolt away.

"Hey! Don't run!" The scrawny one yells. I wonder at the psychology of this. I cross the empty lane and the next one and chance a glance back. He's not chasing me.

There's a couple vehicles stopped at the circle and I wonder if I can make some kind of appeal. For what I have no idea. When I come up next to one, though, the driver doesn't seem to notice me. I decide not to belabor the effort, and keep running. Rounding traffic passes me as I traverse the circle. I make goddamn sure to turn off on the right street, and run the rest of the way home, stopping only once, to catch my breath.

It All Goes Back to Bom

No one can discuss Salman Rushdie without bringing up that infamous, fatuous, fatwa, so I may as well clear my throat now.

The fatwa episode’s significance to present-day relations between Islam and the West (expostulations on which I’ll leave to Christopher Hitchens) has made it the central fact of Salman Rushdie’s life, the pavlovian association in the public conscious. This is a shame, because Rushdie has managed to have a rich career in spite of spending a decade in hiding under threat of death, as a free speech advocate and an excellent and acclaimed novelist. What’s encouraging about Rushdie, though, especially in the latter regard, is how little the reaper’s shadow has changed him. One can see this by looking back to Midnight’s Children, which while technically not his first novel, is widely considered the start of Rushdie’s career as we know it. Many of its themes and tropes are embryonic iterations of what would come later in his fiction, revealing an admirable continuity of character.

One can start with the book’s premise: Saleem Sinai’s birth coincides with the Republic of India’s, linking his fortunes to his nation’s, and gifting him with telepathic powers that put him in touch with hundreds of other children born within that same hour. In this examination of Indian identity as opposed to the west are sewn the seeds of nearly every novel Rushdie has ever written. The Satanic Verses dealt with conflicts inherent in having an Anglo-Indian identity, and Shalimar the Clown illustrated in the fouling of Kashmir the struggle between tradition and the modern West. Even the Enchantress of Florence, set far back in Renaissance times, juxtaposed Mughal India with Machiavelli’s Italy. How better to start a conversation on the East-West relationship than exploring the decades surrounding India’s rejection of Western rule?

Like Rushdie’s other books, the capsule plot description is only in a limited sense what the book is “about,” as far as story goes. A reader expecting straightforward, lean plotting is terribly mistaken. For Rushdie’s yarns freely unspool a variety of narrative discursions. Large sections of The Satanic Verses, which is ostensibly about a building confrontation between two men transformed into an angel and demon, are long-form hallucinations by one of the main character, full stories in themselves. Shalimar the Clown is a ‘whydunnit’ that starts with a brutal murder and then leaps over a half-century backwards, using modern European and Indian history to explain how its characters got where they are.

This device of characters shaped by history who shape it in turn, is a refinement of what’s going on here. Midnight’s Children reaches back a generation or two to just to set up circumstances surrounding Saleem’s and India’s entry onto the world stage. Saleem, who is writing down this story while his body begins to literally crack (a ticking time-bomb that is surprisingly arbitrary considering the character’s bond with the Indian nation), begins not with his birth, but with the upbringing of his grandfather Aadam Aziz. Saleem himself is not even born until page 118. The long-term, longform storytelling presents literally dozens of vibrant characters, impressing on one the joy and fascination he has with living, breathing human beings that continues in the large casts of his fiction today.

In some of these personages can be found the irreverence that would raise Iranian ire a few years after Midnight’s Children’s publication. Aadam Aziz’s struggle and loss of faith occurs at the very beginning of the book in in an interweaving of the Shahada with the whips and scorns of his secular German friends :

”...Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Creation…”—but now Heidelber invaded his head; here was Ingrid, briefly his Ingrid, her face scorning him for this Mecca-turned parroting; here, their friends Oskar and Ilse Lubin the anarchists, mocking his prayer with their anti-ideologies—“…The Compassionate, the Merciful, King of the Last Judgment!..”

There is certainly interest in this material, given Rushdie’s subsequent relationship with Islam, and even more in Saleem’s lament at the changes that his sister, known as the Brass Monkey, undergoes as she becomes an adult:

…the Monkey, once so rebellious and wild, adopting expressions of demureness and submission which must, at first, have seemed false even to her; the Monkey, learning how to cook and keep house, how to buy spices in the market; the Monkey, making the final break with the legacy of her grandfather, by learning prayers in Arabic and saying thema t all prescribed times; the Monkey, revealing the streak of puritan fanaticism which she had hinted at when she asked for a nun’s outfit; she, who spurned all offers of worldly love, was seduced by the loe of that God who had been named after a carved idol in a pagan shrine built around a giant meteorite: Al-Lah, in the Qa’aba, the shrine of the great Black Stone.

One can see in this the mindset that animated The Enchantress of Florence, with its preoccupation with creating a place where a prayer and an argument are the same thing. (The Monkey’s rise to stardom as a singer and the Voice of Pakistan is also a prototype of sorts for Shalimar’s Bunyi Kaul, who becomes a beautiful dancer only to be ruined by her fortune.) But all told, religion is hardly a focal point of the book. As it was just one factor among many that go into defining the Indian subcontinent, partitioned as it was along religious lines, so it is but one of the many elements swirling about Rushdie’s literary confection.

These elements naturally receive expression in Rushdie’s legendary magic realist wizardry. Like The Satanic Verses with its immigrants turned into animals and Shalimar and the Iron Mullah, Midnight’s Children is rife with literalized theme and conflict. An icy husband’s loins are frozen, a reclusive doctor becomes a snake; even Indira Gandhi’s black-white hair part is interpreted as a reflection of the light and shadow sides of the Emergency. Many of these metaphors exist for their own sake, which is not as great a liability as it sounds. That the diversions and fancies of the journey undertaken are to Rushdie more important than the eventual destination, reflects well on his outlook on life.

This does, though, have the unfortunate effect of sidelining the Children of Midnight who, for being the basis of the book’s title, spend a great deal of time in the background. Saleem does not make contact with them until page 259, and only a hundred pages later they almost literally fall of the radar. It’s not until the last few chapters that their significance becomes apparent (the way it comes together is too good for me to spoil). So too does Saleem’s rivalry with his midnight twin Shiva only here come into full bloom. It is perhaps not as developed as the antagonism between Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha of The Satanic Verses, and Boonyi and Shalimar the Clown, but that’s hardly fair. Midnight’s Children as seen here was in many ways a warm-up for the literary exercises to follow. The fact remains it’s a fine exercise in itself, and more vigorous than those engaged in by a great many other writers of note.

Historical 'what ifs' are always an interesting exercise, and we of course will never know what Salman Rushdie would have done or written had the Muslim world not gotten so exercised about The Satanic Verses. But it is likely his output would not have been far removed from what we have today. It would have been easy and understandable had he become embittered by his first-hand experience with fundamentalism. But instead Rushdie has been as always has: a buoyant humanist, yearning to tell us the story of his beloved India and its multiplicity of people, with every trick at his disposal. He has become more direct in his approach to religious violence, but still. That his more recent material flows as easily from his early work as it does, shows he was asking the important questions all along.

Which is, of course, why he was targeted.

*I focus on The Satanic Verses and Shalimar the Clown because they are the Rushdie books I have fully read; The Enchantress of Florence I started before getting sidelined. These are useful, though, in that they are, respectively, the last book Rushdie published before the fatwa, and his two most recent titles.

Promises, Promises

Rest assured I'll have some substantive content soon. I'm working on an analysis of Midnight's Children of considerable length that I hope to have up... soon. I won't tempt fate by trying to pin down an exact time, but it is coming.

Meantime, a pit bull cleaning a bunny:

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Apologies to anyone who came looking, I was ready to get on and post something earlier, but the computer I'm using had to be used.

To make up for it, a peek at where I went today:

Bonus: my family's cat:

Out and About

My grandfather is visiting several memorials today with a veterans group, so I'm going to go downtown and say hello, and visit a museum or something(!) while I'm out. I'll have something up late this afternoon.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Quota, Unquote

Apparently the talkies need more memorable quotes:

“I’m at a loss, because the lines for a while were coming fast and furious,” said Laurence Mark, who had us at “hello” as a producer of “Jerry Maguire,” and is a producer of “How Do You Know,” which is written and directed by James L. Brooks and scheduled to open just before Christmas. (In 1987 Mr. Brooks mapped the media future in seven words from “Broadcast News”: “Let’s never forget, we’re the real story.”)

If film lines don’t stick the way they used to, Mr. Mark said, it is not for lack of wit and wisdom in Hollywood. “What I don’t believe is that the writers are less talented,” he insisted. “I don’t think that’s true, I just don’t.”

Speaking by phone recently, however, Mr. Mark was hard-pressed to come up with a line that stuck with him in the last few years. “I will try my darnedest to think of one,” he promised.


Why so serious, New York Times?

It's because of pieces like this that I wish I knew how to quit you.

Oh, I'm sorry. Did I drink your milkshake?

Mystic Crystal Litigation

It's always terrible when someone dies, but I have to say, Marc Lacey must have had an awful lot of fun writing this:

SEDONA, Ariz. — There is negative energy in the air here, which the channelers, mystics, healers, psychics and other New Age practitioners of Sedona are grappling to identify and snuff out. It has to do with the recent dearth of visitors to this spiritual oasis in search of enlightenment.

Nobody is sure exactly what is keeping people away from Sedona’s four vortexes, swirling energy sources emanating from the earth, but the effects are clear: far fewer crystals are being bought, spiritual tours taken and treatments ordered, from aura cleansings to chakra balancings.

That an earthly power — the economy — is a culprit is not in doubt. But some do not discount the effects of an awful incident from a year ago that put Sedona’s New Age community in a bad light and that, to some degree, still lingers, despite efforts by metaphysical people to cast it away.

The problem just might be that a New Age sweat lodge ceremony held there killed three people and injured several others.

Another great bit:

Several months back, the Hamiltons made a spiritual appeal to end the lawsuits, e-mailing those who were suing them and asking them to consider the implications of what they were doing. “Let’s come together,” the e-mail said. “Let’s find a new way to do this.”

Their effort drew no takers, although it did rile the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Read it all.


This sounds awfully familiar.

Small trees are supposed to be keeping the Muslims out of Tekstilshchiki, a district in south eastern Moscow. A young man sets to work with his shovel, pushing it into the earth with a determined kick. Then he places a seedling into the hole and sprinkles earth over it. Using her watering can, Maria Sotova pours some water onto the seedling. "We want a park here and not a mosque or a church or anything else," says the mother who is here with her six-year-old son. There are about a hundred residents of Tekstilshchiki gathered on this lawn --and they want to prevent the start of construction on an Islamic religious center.

Since the American right wing is so keen on trumpeting how much better and more free America is than the rest of the world, why not use this as an opportunity to one-up the damn dirty Reds and end the posturing on Cordoba?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Killer Job Opportunity

I may have to make unusual job opportunities into a regular feature:

Funeral Preplanning

One of the most exciting & financially rewarding areas of funeral service. If you are interested in this emerging field that never has a recession, you owe it to yourself to join us. First year comm. & bonuses in excess of $50,000. Company leads provided at no cost. Ins. lic. req'd. Mgmt oppty. Marshalls FH. Fax resume to 301-736-5548

Emphases mine, natch.

The Job of Book

Whoa. (emphasis mine)

Ground floor opportunity for an experienced copywriter who has written successful direct mail fund raising appeals for Christian organizations. Fund Raising Strategies seeks a talented copywriter with strong list knowledge and extensive para-church connections. Must have a Colossians 3:23 commitment to excellence and be someone who enjoys working with others. Responsibilities include developing and writing for a new fund raising division serving Christian organizations. Send resume and writing samples to Bruce Eberle, FRS, 1420 Spring Hills Rd., #490, McLean, VA 22102 or

Colossians 3:23:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, 24since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

I'm trying to think if there's a secular or even achristian equivalent to this. "A Will to Power commitment to excellence," perhaps?

...[E]very specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (--its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement ("union") with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on...

"Of Course It Was Written By a Minority."

This was my immediate response to this Slate piece on unconscious bigotry. Just seeing the author's name, Shenkar Vedantam, spawned a nasty little thought, before I had time to scold myself.

I was essentially proving its thesis:

Our conception of prejudice is fearfully wrong. Psychologists Andrew Scott Baron and Mahzarin Banaji once conducted a study evaluating the conscious and unconscious attitudes of 6-year-olds, 10-year-olds, and adults. The 10-year-olds reported less prejudice than the small kids, and the adults reported no prejudices at all. But that was at a conscious level. At an unconscious level, the three groups had identical attitudes.

Other research has shown that at an unconscious level, huge majorities of Americans (including sizable numbers of African-Americans) are biased against blacks. Huge numbers of women, as well as men, value men's professional contributions more than they value women's professional work. Large majorities of gays, Arabs, and people with disabilities have unconscious biases against people from those groups.

I immediately thought of a nugget buried in Andrew Sullivan's response to Leon Wieseltier's accusation of anti-Semitism:

Look, I am not one to dismiss any notion of anti-Semitism in me or anyone else. I believe it is such a toxic theme in human history and such a grave strain in the human soul that no one should be sublimely confident that he or she is free of it entirely. I take the moral demand to guard against it very seriously. And I have indeed searched my conscience these past few years to take stock if anything like this is unconsciously entering my soul, as I try to guard against my many other sins. I certainly think I have written and thought some things about Muslims and Arabs over the years that are not always carefully parsed, conditioned or measured. I'm not immune to homophobia either.

Anyone is capable of such thoughts, but the issue is often what is done about it. Liberals can err, and badly, on the side of multicultural reductiveness (see: Crash). But more often today we see conservatives papering over their baser instincts by, for example, hiring a black leader, any black leader, to counter the opposition's black leadership, and think it's sufficient. Or, worse, they'll proudly voice their sub-rational prejudices and explain them away as just entertainment.

This is not to say humor does not have a role to play in dealing with these dark thoughts. In fact, it may be the best way. By drowning the malice in irony, one can turn a bigoted thought into an excoriation of bigotry, a harmless exercise in knowingly bad taste, like a dead baby joke. Stephen Colbert is premised on not taking what he says at face value. The same is not true of Glenn Beck.

In a way, its the same mode of thought at work in getting a thrill from lurid horror fiction, which Stephen King once described as 'feeding the alligators in the cellar so they don't get loose.' From this derives the appeal of South Park, and Dave Chappelle.

The knowingness that one has stepped over the line is also what elevates Bill Hicks' tirade against a female heckler over Michael Richards' meltdown:

Whatever strategies social science may bring about to mitigate the practical consequences of our vilest, most unconscious sentiments, completely vanquishing them may well be an impossible task. Best then to be honest with ourselves of the alligators' existence, that they may be defanged.

CARTMAN: Of course it was written by a minority.

Much better.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


I've arrived in DC and am settled in where I'll be staying while I look for employment. I'm hoping to continue posting material while I do so, but I'm still working out some of the when and how. But rest assured, activity is soon to resume.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Going to Fly

The Boise Airport was the TSA's 2009 Airport of the Year. Who knew?

Three birds are flying around inside. Curious.

I don't have much to say, nor much time to say it. I'll be boarding my flight not too long from now, first to Salt Lake, then Atlanta, and then DC. I should be in around 9:15 PM, Eastern. Then the fun begins.

Fare thee well, Idaho.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


I'm meeting up with people, saying my fare-thee-wells, and tying up loose ends these next couple days, so expect light posting. I'll do what I can.

Oh, these life-altering, cross-country relocations. But when you've gotta move....

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

One More Note on McCain

This really should have occurred to me earlier.

I think part of the reason John McCain is so uncomfortable with Rovian smears and bullshit artistry, even as he engages in it, is because he himself was once on the receiving end of some of the absolute worst that Rove had to offer.

Rove, you will recall, is widely believed to have been behind a South Carolina push poll that implied McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child, in reference to his adopted Bangladeshi daughter. It lost McCain the Republican nomination to George W. Bush in 2000.

It also served for him as an education of sorts in how to get ahead in electoral politics. Hence his hiring of Charlie Condon, the man who organized Bush's South Carolina campaign.

All in a day's work in Crazy Baseworld.

He Had Them at 'Hell No'

The selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate was easily the lowest point of John McCain's career. Whatever infighting there may have been behind the scenes, McCain has never publicly acknowledged the cynicism and cravenness of that decision, and has since then been content to splash around in the most shallow and muddy of politics.

Doing whatever he can to get elected makes McCain a most cynical politician, but what makes him probably even more despicable is that on some level he is completely aware and ashamed of this amorality. His maverick reputation was always something of a media creation, and he could be genuinely cruel, even to those he loves. But there have been certain moments where he was visibly uncomfortable with the electoral nastiness into which he had gotten himself. There were his belated attempts to quell the ugly tone and rhetoric of his supporters during his presidential campaign, and his
classy concession speech, delivered to a crowd of Tea Partiers-in-waiting.

Most telling of all are his comments at the beginning of his descent. It's hard to believe now, but once upon a time McCain was one of Jon Stewart's favorite and most frequent guests, due to his moderation amid his party's gross abuses of decorum, power, and responsibility. But in the very early stages of the 2008 presidential campaign--which is to say, the very early stages of the 2006 midterms--he began to reverse himself on the matter of Jerry Falwell, whom he had dubbed an "agent of intolerance." McCain scheduled a speech at Falwell's Liberty University, and Stewart, smelling a rat, brought him onto the show to explain himself.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Straight Talk Express Rerouted
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

"You're not freaking out on us? Are you freaking out on us?" Stewart asked.

"Just a little," McCain said.

"Cuz if you're freaking out on us and you're going into the crazy base world ... Are you going into Crazy Baseworld?"

"I'm afraid so."

Though few if any knew it at the time, it was a Rubicon moment for McCain. There was some hope that conceding to the religious right would be temporary, a box to be checked on the road to nomination, whereafter he could play to the center, as he had been the past few years.

The political winds had turned against the Republican brand by then, though, and so McCain's only chance at viability was to bear to the right as much as possible. But the base has never trusted him, and for good reason. So like a lover nervous about getting dumped, McCain has born an affectation of affection and constantly showered them with gifts to prove his loyalty, the best of which, Sarah Palin, keeps on giving.

Karl Rove is cynical enough to blast Obama for deficit spending after having gone on record saying "deficits don't matter." McCain knows better, but he engages in the ugly farce anyway, perhaps for the greater good, perhaps to save his job, perhaps because for him there is no difference now between the two.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Going Rogues Gallery

People should read this Foreign Policy profile of Geert Wilders, the right wing Nederlander MP who has built a career on bashing Muslims and is now in a position of considerable power in the Netherlands' new coalition government, and is now gaining influence in the U.S.:

Several Dutch media outlets have delved into ideological and financial ties between Wilders and American archconservatives such as David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, and Jim DeMint. In an article this May, the respected Dutch NRC newspaper reported that Horowitz had brought Wilders over for a "conservative conference in California" at the end of 2009, attended by DeMint and Liz Cheney, among others. It also quotes Pipes as saying that he had gathered a "six-figure sum" to defray Wilders's legal costs*.

Wilders's American connection caught the international public's eye at the height of the controversy over the Park51 project in New York, the so-called Ground Zero mosque. He was the keynote speaker, invited by [Pamela] Geller and her Stop Islamization of America campaign, at a much-hyped rally against the project held on Sept. 11.

Jim DeMint is a Senator of the United States, whose Constitution explicitly protects freedom of speech and religion. Liz Cheney, daughter of Dick, has all but accused lawyers representing Guantanamo Bay detainees of treason. Pamela Geller is almost single-handedly responsible for the furor over the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" that so degraded our national discourse this summer.

These individuals are courting the good will and counsel of an illiberal scoundrel who has called for the Koran to be banned, referred to Islam as "the ideology of a retarded culture," and wants to end all immigration from Muslim countries. His values are completely in contradiction with those enshrined in the First Amendment.

This is far from an isolated case of the American right finding common cause with with extremists from other nations with fewer legal restrictions.

Mark Steyn, who has been screeching for several years about an impending "Londonistan" based on dubious demographic methodology, currently writes for the intellectual hub of the conservative movement, the National Review.

Pastor Alexey Ledyaev of the New Generation Church in Latvia, and Scott Lively, author of a book that purports that Hitler was gay and homosexuality is responsible for Nazism, founded the Watchmen on the Walls, a violent Russian and Ukrainian hate group linked to anti-gay violence. Ledyaev was invited to President Bush's 2006 National Prayer Breakfast. Lively also heavily promoted anti-gay ideology in Uganda, several of whose MPs in attendance took his cue and drafted their infamous "Kill the Gays" bill.

And just to prove that no one is too odious to side with in the battle against liberalism, the Creationism-pimping Discovery Institute sent speakers to Turkey as part of a broader Creationist effort taken in cooperation with Muslim fundamentalists. Dinesh D'Souza, who explicitly advocated an alliance with fundamentalist Islam in the fight against modern decadence, would be proud.

All of this bluster about sensitivity to 9/11 victims, or protecting the children, or questioning scientific authority, is a smokescreen for a bronze-age ideology that is as much at war with itself as it is with modernity. Geert Wilders, for instance, points to Muslim violence against gays as evidence of its barbarism. But at this point in time--the new Creationism wars peaked in 2005 with the Pennsylvania Intelligent Design trial--such nuances are conveniently elided in order to find common cause in demonizing Muslims as a whole.

This also leads to people who really should know better--Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris--finding themselves in the company of demagogues (Christopher Hitchens has tried to keep his distance, even though he shares many of their assumptions about Muslims).

Over-sensitivity, intimidation, and retrograde values are real problems in the Islamic world and even among western Muslim populations. But they are symptoms of deeper problems--poor immigrant integration policies in Europe, for one--that Geert Wilders and his blowhard cohort only exacerbate. Violent Islamism must be resisted, and Western values defended. That includes religious tolerance. Those whose views we find troubling but are still amenable to civil discourse, should be engaged. Bomb-throwing, rhetorical or otherwise, is not constructive.

(Thanks to kate_bee for encouraging the writing of this post and providing background links)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Squishy Culture Jam

Banksy's Simpsons intro is getting lots of attention. The video's been removed from YouTube, but here's a bootleg:

Depicting Korean slave labor grinding up kittens and chaining unicorns in service of producing the show's animation is supposed to draw attention to the plight of cheap foreign labor--an important issue I'm sure--but its effectiveness is questionable. Like fellow graffiti artist Shepard Fairey, Banksy's work, at least here, is steeped in irony and turning giant cultural forces against themselves. This is fine for taking the piss out of the powerful, but for advancing a positive argument the effect is muddled. Is he serious? one must ask. Even the master ironist Stephen Colbert breaks character when it comes time to actually make a point:

Irony can also lead to a certain infinite regress: The Simpsons mocks its own harsh labor using harsh labor practices!

It comes down to effectiveness: is this really going to make anyone sit up and say, "No more!" or will the viewer chuckle, concede that he's probably right, and then move on to the next cute animal montage on YouTube?

P.S. Clerks' Korean labor gag was funnier.

Getting A Head in Politics

Christopher Hitchens makes some good, if somewhat obvious, points about the political process scaring potentially good candidates away. Towards the end he pivots toward the Tea Partiers, whose claims of being a new presence in American electoral politics are greatly exaggerated.

As is his wont, Hitchens gets in a good zinger or two:

Populism imposes its own humiliations on anyone considering a run. How many times can you stand in front of an audience and state: "I will always put the people of X first"? (Quite a lot of times, to judge by recent campaigns.) This is to say no more than that you will be a megaphone for sectional interests and regional mood swings and resentment, a confession that, to you, all politics is yokel.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Nothing Stays the Same

I left home yesterday. I’m visiting some friends in the Treasure Valley area for a few days, and then on Saturday I will be flying to Washington, D.C. When I was in school I could be away for up to six months at a time, but I was always home for summer and Christmas break. This time I do not know when I'll be back, nor under what circumstances. Nor do I know what McCall will look like when I return, for it is a very different McCall than it was twenty, ten, even five years ago.

In 1990, when I was five years old, my family came to Valley County. It was and is a sleepy resort town, with a couple ski hills for the winter sporters and a lake that is wonderfully small enough that one can see ant-sized cars cruising around on the other side. Back then I was too busy pretending I was a velociraptor and doing other things kids do to take much note of the town as it was. But I can recall its broad contours: it was a laid back community; buildings and businesses came and went, the tourist seasons--Winter Carnival in late January and early February, and the Fourth of July most especially--instilled a provincial distaste for tourists, and everyone knew or knew of nearly everyone else. All of these are still true, but there is much that has changed in the meantime.

It began while I was in high school. A wine bar opened in 2001. The next year a coffee shop that specialized in music opened not far from my house. A few years into its existence its proprietors built an outdoor stage and started having bands from all over the U.S., and sometimes other countries, play. A pizza place that had started in the back of the breakfast-lunch cafe I worked at moved into its own space and started also having bands. Not all the change was good. The bowling alley closed. My then-boss decided not to renew her lease on the breakfast-lunch café I worked at. The movie theater’s lease was up as well, but they—and the town—did want to renew. The lumber company that owned the building that housed it, however, had plans to expand their business and refused. Construction was on the upswing, with new houses and condos going up all over town. Before I left for school I spent a couple weeks painting and staining boards for a house that was being built in a subdivision experiencing particularly explosive growth; I would pass eight or nine other houses being constructed on my way to work every day. This was alarming, but on the other hand McCall was a much more interesting place than it had been growing up.

While I was gone Tamarack Resort opened in Donnelly, and the resulting attention drew speculators like blood brings sharks. I returned the next summer to three story "cabins," open spaces and forest land ripped up for new developments, and ostentatious condominia that dwarfed the modest twenty-feet-or-so buildings surrounding them. The following year the City Council updated the building code, changing the height limit from 35 feet to 50 feet. This was extremely unpopular, and an attempt to build a five-story hotel on the lake provoked a protracted fight that was itself a proxy for the broader struggle to keep business interests from making housing even less affordable. The frenzied construction and speculation led to a rise in property values, and therefore property taxes, which climbed precipitously. I have no figures for Valley County available, but they were well in line with the rest of the nation.

As this was happening, artists and musicians continued to thrive. New restaurants were opening, many of them booking bands on a regular basis. It was not uncommon for several groups to be playing at the same time in a single night. There was also good money to be made, even for us grunts. At the wine bar, where I was now working, everyone went home on a Saturday night with no less than $70 in tips, and often over a hundred. One night, as we were about to close, the son of Tamarack owner Alfredo Miguel came in with his friend and some women and ordered nearly $450 in wine, from three bottles of steeply escalating prices (the most expensive was a large bottle that cost $250). He shared his wine with us and tipped me and my co-worker $20 each.

In 2009 Alfredo Miguel and the other Tamerack owners were sued for lack of repayment on loans and interest totaling $3.5 million.

McCall’s day of reckoning did not come unheralded. The customers of summer 2008 were stingy with their tips, as if they knew they couldn’t really afford to eat out but wanted to pretend that they could. It was the beginning of the collective realization that our raging housing market had been growing atop illusions. And so, consequences: Tamarack, in the midst of further construction, shut its doors and declared bankruptcy. Construction ceased, and the drinking class of McCall was no longer flush with disposable income. Unemployment in the off-season rose to 20%, second in the state only to Adams county.

There are signs of continuing vitality. Several restaurants—a coffee shop on the highway (which I worked at until the move), a brewery, a sushi bar—opened in the teeth of the recession, and the holidays are still typically a nightmare to navigate. But the damage to the town has been immense. The largest stretch of resort condos in the middle of town sits mostly uninhabited. A short walk away another such building is completely uninhabitable, having never opened, with water leaking its way through several incomplete floors. Many residents have moved to Boise, where job prospects are better. The music and coffee shop that opened in ‘02 closed its doors just last month, and restaurants that opened in the boom years are struggling to compete, with a diminished base and fresh competition, castaways caught in a receding economic tide. And there is still no movie theater.

Before I left for my second year of college I wrote a letter to the editor for the local paper, the Star News, about how much McCall had changed just in the year I'd been gone, and I wondered aloud what would be left of my hometown when I returned.
Even then it was obvious the construction boom was unsustainable, and so I made the (obvious) observation that when it went bust "there won't be a booming construction industry to accommodate the workers who are right now resorting to camping out all summer to make ends meet." McCall is still McCall in spite of its changes, but it is in an awkward state of transition, and the temptation to chase easy profits remains. Thus I will end this piece the same way I did the letter to the editor five years ago (with caveats on when I actually will come back):

"When I return for my Christmas and summer vacations, I want to have an easily available place to take my dogs out for a run where I won't be bothered. I want to still be able to recognize the town I grew up in. I don't want to come back to some empty second-home ghost town, devoid of an actual community and bereft of the natural beauty that made it attractive to begin with.”