Friday, August 24, 2012

why we say 'you' instead of 'thou'

'you' was originally a plural pronoun; the ordinary singular pronoun was 'thou' or 'thee.' but to show greater respect to another person, the plural 'you' was often used in 17th century England. Quakers, as a radical sect opposed to 'worldly forms' such as honorifics, rejected status distinctions in their 'plain speech.' in their view, all were equal before God, and so such distinctions were false. the fact that they raised the ire of non-Quakers was accepted as part of the suffering necessary to prove that one was following the Truth for the right reasons (ie, not to curry favor with other people). one ultimate result of Quakers insisting on the familiar 'thou' was many non-Quakers, in order to distance themselves from the sect, insisting on using 'you' exclusively.

in utah, july/august 2012

Thursday, May 24, 2012

eating 40 year old dreams

as the move approaches -- 3 weeks to go until we are out of my parent's house -- strange situations arise. my parents have stored emergency food supplies ever since i was little, some of it unchanged: large cans of dried peaches or potato flakes or margarine. they have no intention of lugging this 40 plus year old food to Utah, so we have begun eating it. yesterday i opened a large can of 'baco dices' -- bacon bits made of soy protein. there was a soft 'whish' of decompression as the can opener bit into the metal, and crisp, reddish, gravelly bits appeared. delicious! what an amazing sensation: eating something produced 40 or more years ago. even stranger was eating apple bits, soaked in water. to think that decades ago, this very fragment was part of a real apple hanging on a tree somewhere! the cheery advertising language on the cans reveals the old optimism about science and guaranteed progress of decades ago. 'life insurance in a can,' 'fresh taste,' etc. there was a kind of amazed bedazzlement, as if imagining that the country's rising wealth were solely due to an automatic bounty of science that would inevitably spread throughout the whole world: a utopian vision that know-how could surpass any natural limit. so the right technology could allow potatoes and margarine to taste the same today and 50 years from now: no old fashioned 'time' could get around american expertise, no worries about 'freshness' need trouble the house wife. food could be made impervious to time. timeless. in a way i guess such cans were one small example of the way science, manifested in consumer products, became metaphors for modern civilization as a utopia without limits of time and space. we still regard science with amazement. but with the decline of the american empire, and the degradation of the earth, we are well aware that science is not a panacea. in fact, science can be a destroyer, if harnessed to political and economic forces bent on short-term gain only. my wife will not eat the mashed potatoes with bacon bits. being chinese, she does not regard these products with amazement, but rather as bizarre and unnatural. for her, freshness is the chief guarantee of both flavor and healthfulness in food. for her food is a metaphor for a whole other set of ideas and emotions. she does not relate to that youthful exuberance of the 50s and 60s. she simply asks, 'why?' and she is right. what is the point of using science to divorce people from fresh, natural food and divorcing food itself from ordinary human contexts like cooking? where is the deeper value in it? and what sort of society is envisioned behind this odd product? while i agree with her, i can access that utopian wonderment of the previous generation. i can admit the project of freeze-drying food is odd -- but i can also enjoy crunching into those unnaturally red bacon bits.

Friday, May 4, 2012

sneering at 'hippies'

a couple of students in my undergrad anthropology classes have made sneering references to 'hippies' or 'dirty hippies.' i wonder what is behind this contempt. first, do the people referred to in this way also refer to themselves as 'hippies'? or is the term merely meant to smear those so designated? i wonder at the roots of this contempt. why is a group so intentionally and deliberately harmless nonetheless so hated by some? is this harmlessness and sense of openness threatening to those who adhere to another definition of what 'american' identity entails? is lacking a defensive, security-oriented attitude taken to be a betrayal of american values? a couple of nights ago, a young man walked down wall street in madison, carrying a couple of sticks of lit incense and loudly reciting something -- song lyrics, maybe -- to the silent house fronts. he perfumed the air as he walked. seeing me and my son, he quieted, greeted us, and began shouting again once a safe distance away. declaim on, gentle sons of the night!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

congratulations, connecticut

connecticut has just abolished the death penalty. this is excellent news. governments should not be in the business of killing people outside of wartime. the death penalty just doesn't work. those states with the death penalty do not have lower crime rates. the death penalty does not deter. all it really comes down to is the blood lust for vengeance. which might be acceptable, if honestly stated (which it usually is not). except for the tiny detail that the creaky legal system is unable to prevent innocent people from being convicted and, probably (in a few known cases) executed. congratulations, constitution state.

to a student supporter of empire

how are you? there was something i meant to mention to you today, but forgot. remember how, a few weeks ago, you commented about the seemingly frozen nature of the country's political system? ie, the government seems unable to get anything meaningful done, sort of like China's one-party system? then i was recalling what you said at the beginning of the semester, about how you thought having an empire was a good thing. do you think it possible that some of the stagnation and incompetence in DC is due to the weight of the empire? my view -- my personal view only, which i tell you because you might be interested -- is that the empire (ie, the massive complex of military, intelligence, and industrial components, with their politician backers) is harming the republic fiscally and politically. fiscally, because it is draining funds for purposes very tangential to the needs of ordinary americans -- that clinic in iraq might be of use to iraqis, but is it helping us? politically, because this entire complex is unelected, and essentially influences politicians to support it at all costs. after all, there is a massive amount of money in the empire and its bureaucracies -- and how many politicians are beholden to it? money-wise, just look at the 'Joint Strike Fighter' -- already 10 years behind schedule (!!!) and predicted to cost 1.5 trillion dollars over the life of the jets, far more expensive than the planes we already have but only marginally (if that) better than our current planes. politics-wise, look at all the low-hanging policy fruit Obama could have done something about, were he really as serious about dealing with real issues as he is with managing the workings of our bloated empire. foreclosures -- nothing, or almost nothing done. tens of millions affected. and the money needed to deal with that issue? peanuts, compared to the money sucked up by the military-industrial complex. the empire is not the only problem, not by a long shot. but look at history: what happens to all empires, and the governments that struggle to shoulder them? eventually, massive cost overruns, and huge mission overreach, because the government is unable to limit what it (the military apparatus and its allies) is doing. spain fought dutch independence for, what, 80 years? was that war really necessary to the interests of the spanish people? no more so than our many wars (no longer declared or managed by congress) are necessary to us. institutional paralysis. aren't we doing what they did? in a recession, yet the military budgets grow every year. hundreds of bases in most countries on earth! all necessary? i doubt it. is it because we are more threatened than at any point in our history? of course not. al-qaeda, that diminishing gang of thugs, more dangerous than nazi germany? no way. the empire is just taking what it wants, and the politicians can do nothing about it -- most of them are in on it! (even liberals! look at joe courtney, in the 2nd district). for sure, welfare entitlements (medicare, etc) are also huge fiscal factors. but at least that money is going to ordinary americans and is cycling through the economy, not fattening defense industry bottom lines or the campaign coffers of the politicians who support them. and medicare doesn't corrupt the democratic process the way the imperial apparatus does. money aside, morally, what do empires do to republics? they ruin them. look at rome. it went from being a republic with some democratic traditions to a plutocracy run by noble families. which is where we are now, or pretty close to it. just my opinion, of course. some food for thought. (right at the moment when you are ready to stop thinking for a while, probably. sorry about that). congratulations on graduating, and good luck to you,

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

the fantasy of control

the visual focus of our market-guided society leads to an obsessive focus on control of one's surface image. in other words, control and manipulation of one's body, especially how it looks, is the aim to which successful people aspire. this aspiration reached, we congratulate ourselves on having achieved a state of alienation from ourselves: we see ourselves from the outside, as an object. control is reached as a symptom not of inner strength, but of inner terror and insecurity. a recent Lexus commercial (for a 2013 model) reminded me of this negative facet of our culture. it used a camera technology which aims the camera at the front corner of the car -- one of the headlights -- and captures the car's progression across the city. what is amazing about the images is how still the car is, even while the city around it, the lights and buildings, dance in frenetic motion. the contrast is mad, captivating. i think this visual trick is a good metaphor for the contemporary ideal American self: an eye in the storm of history. of course this controlled stillness is an utter -- and destructive -- fantasy. what we need to liberation from the cage of the self. it has become merely a platform from which to sell ourselves and our 'brand.' to hell with that!