Tuesday, October 30, 2007

lazy legs returns

Last night the doorbell rang. Nothing could have surprised me more: no one comes to this house who does not live here. I was eating my noodles. I told S to go see who it was. Probably the neighbor, a lonely widow, wanting to talk to someone.

But suddenly I heard shouts, the sounds of a screen door pushing open, loud hugs -- and I knew it was my brother R, back from over 6 months on the Appalachian Trail. Lazy Legs is back! I ran out there and hugged him, and we stood back laughing and looking him over.

Later in the kitchen, his pack down and conversation going, I mentioned his beard. "Its powerful, its. . .flourishing," I said.

"Unfettered," he said, finding a perfect word. It was true. With his high, now bare forehead and dense red beard, he was a powerful, unfettered picture, like a stone summit rising from gnarled trees.

Look how happy S's face is in the first picture! I haven't seen him smile like that in a long time.

Friday, October 26, 2007

melty melty cheese

Here we have an example of marketers slipping infantilizing language into the mainstream. I have seen two separate companies use the word "melty" to describe the cheese on their products. This strategy works on several levels. First, viewers are addressed as children. Second, they are reassured in their regression: being children allows them to divert attention from their anxieties by feeding their narcissistic, escapist tendencies with physical substances. The gooey texture of melted cheese -- however awful the taste -- is to be associated with childhood textures, from poop to finger paints to macaroni and cheese.

Of course, the obsession with cheese among marketers of industrial food is a long time thing, of which I write in a long essay about Outback Steak House in a past month.

In any case, the use of the word "melty" makes me cringe. What other baby talk are we going to hear from companies in their campaigns to reduce us to mewling brats crying for their comfort foods?

The word is part of the "comfort food" offensive, which takes advantage of post 9/11 fears to sell crap food to people. political economy indeed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"sticker shock"?

The American people will experience "sticker shock"? Was that the best Rahm Emmanuel (sp?) could manage to criticize the CBO's estimate that the various wars we are funding in the Middle East will cost an estimated 2.4 trillion dollars over the next ten years? I don't know if the triviality of the language -- I think of a person buying a microwave or a television experiencing "sticker shock" -- should be attributed to Emmanuel's pandering, "ordinary guy" performance, or to the inclination of television news to pick out pretty little sound bites with which to decorate their reporting. In any case, wow. The words "sticker shock" are not what occur to me. More epic, cataclysmic words occur to me, like "criminal neglect" and "national collapse," words to convey the horrific events swirling about the national unconscious. But I guess the best we can hope for from our establishment opposition is to sound off with piddling quibbles and complaints.

An establishment opposition -- which means, for now, mainstream Democrats aligned with the DLC -- is fine and dandy. Until, of course, the entire establishment suddenly careens, Titanic-like, toward an iceberg of wars, and both parties are so wedded to the corrupt ways of power that neither can raise a hand to pull the wheel of the ship of state off its collision course. Which is the situation we find ourselves in now. Isolated voices in the legislature do not an opposition make.

So on we steam. "Sticker shock" ! Shall we refer to the Holocaust as "some really bad karma" or "a bummer"? People reach for language of their leaders, hoping to elevate themselves upon it to a position from which to see the world. What do we have now? Leaders reaching down to the common speech of the people, using it to curry favor with these people, a high school popularity contest on a large scale. I can say this: Abe Lincoln would never have been mediocre enough to be this cool. His stark, elegant language would never have passed muster with current politicians and their marketing agents. "Sticker shock"!? Are you serious?

Obviously not serious enough.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

news talk

Since when have television news anchors dropped verbs out of every other sentence? I guess it began when 24 hour news channels began, and anchors began ad-libbing. Their clipped non-sentences lend an air or urgency, as in: this emergency is so great I am leaving out verbs to save time!

"And now the firefighters exhausted from their efforts, obviously. Anne, what can you tell us about recent developments?"

"Well, everyone here very concerned over the situation as you can see, John. Winds not letting up even now, and the sky covered with smoke."

They are almost sketching with words, leaving out "to be." It is breathlessness of tone, translated to grammatical structure. Maybe they are speaking in headlines. It is curious.

bike in the rain

Last week I finally did something I had wanted to try for a long time. It was a small thing, less than a dream, but something. It was raining outside and I wanted to go to the supermarket. Since we live near town, I think starting up the car a waste of time, fuel, and muscle.

(Is there anything quite as inefficient as a several ton metal thing fired up just to move a 160 pound human through space at a few times faster than a 20 pount bicycle?)

I straddled my bike, pushed off, and as I left the garage I pushed the button on the umbrella. There is something ridiculous, but endearing, about seeing a person ride a bike with an umbrella in one hand. It is old-fashioned, and almost fastidious -- but not very practical. Americans tend to like technology that is total and practical, such as rain ponchos or high tech suits to keep nature out. Or simply, the car.

I enjoyed it, even the part when the wind nearly blew my umbrella away. I hunkered down behind it, like a shield, jousting with the wind.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

language quirks

The first is one word often spoken by A, an Italian-American woman in her fifties, who cooks at the nursing home where I waiter. "Na-uh," she says, responding negatively to comments. The banter is fast and furious when she is working, a torrent of mock abuse that reminds me oddly of the whip and the drum wielded by the captain of Roman galleys. She keeps the air swirling with belligerent comments, whether to amuse herself or prod others, I am not sure.
"That light is broke," says one of the waittresses.
"Your face is broke," says A, dishing up a plateful of ziti.
"Nothin' like yours," comes the feisty reply.

"Na-uh," says A.

The word is a kid word, a combination of "No" and "Uh-uh." In A's mouth it is a sign of play, a lazy backhand to whatever barb she happens to be fending off -- a barb she probably initiated.

In the town paper last week I glanced at an article on skin care for women. In the middle of professional-sounding verbiage, I caught the phrase, "Cleansers help soften ruff skin." Ruff?? Somehow the high pitched yelp of a scrappy dog had sounded, without warning, from the thickets of self-important words. I laughed a good one at the elbow of the pretty girl sounding "ruff! ruff!"

Iraq -- a colonial war

How long has this malodorous war lasted? How long has its reek seeped into our political life?

Today, more than four years after its brilliantly plotted beginning, I have heard the word "colonial" used in relation to the whole criminal mess. This is the first time I have heard the word uttered on mainstream television. The first time! This word, which captures so well what is occurring there, spoken only now. And how many times have I heard clever words like "embedded" and "surge" and "IED" and "Salafi" bandied about? How much hot air has been expended discussing tactics, and strategy -- "practical" matters, as if reality were just a thing out there independently of our own desires and acts, a thing easily measured, photographed, described, solved? Oh, the sophistry is beyond belief. Even I have gotten used to this state of affairs, of newsmen and newswomen busily rushing here and there, full of words, but always confined within narrow limits of discourse.

Carter's former secretary of State or Defense, the guy with the Polish name I cannot spell, spilled the beans on Wolf Blitzer's "Late Edition." I can only say this for people who think CNN is liberal: if it is, then why have I not heard the word "colonial" or "colonialism" used in connection with Iraq, until today? Blitzer, like all journalists on TV, simply borrowed other people's words to ask his question. According to so and so (Secretary Rice, maybe), Iraq will be like Korea, or Japan. What do you say to that? If this kind of feeble lack of position is "liberalism," then I am a monkey's uncle. And aunt.

Brzezinsky's answer was sensible and so damn easy: Iraq is a colonial war, begun to control another country. World War II and Korea were not. Those countries accepted defeat, accepted the culpability of their former leadership. I would point out that indeed the Koreans, many of them, have seen the US occupation as "colonial," within the context of the Cold War (read Bruce Cumings on Korean history). But in the main, he was right.

For all the people who say But -- but all those soldiers over there really want to help the Iraqis! All I have to answer is, Do you really think all the soldiers of colonial occupations past were brimming with hatred for the peoples they policed? Did not British troops in India fill themselves with pride for the good they wanted to do to the unfortunate locals? Individual good intentions mean nothing compared to the logic of the political system which, like a bridge whose supports soar above our heads, carries us to places we never intended or imagined. We did not go to war because all the soldiers -- excuse me my lack of reverence, "Warriors" -- got together and had a referendum that they wanted to "help Iraqis." They are there as servants of a political project originating far above their (and our) heads.

I am not holding my breath that this momentous utterance will spark a fire of truth telling. There is neither the courage (on the part of the Blitzers out there), nor the historical honesty (on the part of most political figures) to have a real discussion about the war. The conservative know-nothings, like South Carolina's Graham who appeared before Brzezinsky, repeat the lie that we can ignore the past and "move on" without ill effect. But such people are not interested in reality, nor their own un-innocent involvement in it. They are only drawn to the shaping of power, like sculptors enamored of their material to the point that it becomes their sole god, mastering them, making them tools of its own impulses.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

nonviolent resistance in palestine

The Christian Science Monitor has done a story on this important subject (see link below). Peaceful mobilization is the best and perhaps only way for them to continue their struggle. But I would point out one thing in the story, which is not emphasized enough: without the parallel path of Israel's civil courts, the village's years of protest would have been fruitless. For people to protest in Gaza now would have no practical effect, as it is in effect a giant cage labeled an "enemy entity" by Israel. Only by combining judicial means with civil disobedience can Palestinians hope to prevail in specific instances.

This experience shows that the comparison with apartheid South Africa is pertinent. When people who critique critics of Israel talk about Israel's democracy, they are only talking about one part of the land controlled by the Israeli state. The rest of the land -- that taken in 1967 -- has no part in Israeli democracy.

Unless the US and Israel get serious soon, the window of opportunity for the two state solution will have passed, and only the one state solution -- which I and many activists support, for its similarity to the South Africa solution, and for making ethnicity and religion irrelevant to citizenship -- will remain. Unless of course you count the nihilistic, pessimistic vision trumpeted by Zionists every time such a thing is mentioned: endless war. What pitiful cowardice! For peace one must embrace risk and face the other honestly and openly.


Friday, October 5, 2007

nice wheels


As I read conservative blogs and essays, I am reminded of the oddly humorous advertising campaign for HSBC Bank in New York from the early summer. They featured alternating photos of two objects meant to convey opposite sentiments, for example, a bulldog and a tiny chihuahua with a bow around its neck. One photo of the bulldog was superimposed with the word "love." The next photo, of the chihuahua, would have the word "loathe." The next pair would be reversed, with "loathe" over the bulldog and "love" over the chihuahua. The message was something to the effect of, whatever your preferences, our bank has something for you.

Most of the conservative commentary recently convinces me that they operate much more simply, and emotionally, than most people on the left, without the complex workings of logic. They see things that trigger either "love" or "loathe," and so it goes, back and forth, gut reactions that are developed out into world views, even theories. . .

Discussion of candidates, for example, is no more than insults of perceived personal characteristics. Policy is stereotyped: "socialized medicine," with no actual discussion of what socialism is, or why somehow "socialized police forces" are absolutely OK while government intervention in medicine is not. The key is, "socialism" equals LOATHE, the same way "military" equals LOVE. It is absolute and all the time, to the point that I get the feeling the nation is held to exist for the good of the troops, and not the other way around. If they are really "service men and service women," why, then, are we citizens supposed to serve them with total loyalty? Why if we critique war policy are we branded by the Patriot PC Police as hating the troops? Do they not realize that personal hatreds mean very little in the realm of rational policy discussion? We are concerned for the future of the country -- not some imagined "affront" to the tender feelings of people paid to defend us.

The problem with love/loathe/love/loathe is that this attitude gradually insulates its bearer from reality. One becomes lulled by habit into tuning out whatever is tagged as "loathe," and tuning in to "love." Of course this intellectual laziness infects leftists as well as rightists, with this major exception: while conservative causes appeal chiefly to emotions of love, loyalty, betrayal, and hatred, the left uses these emotions only as secondary to rational goals: medical coverage for all, etc etc. The anti-intellectualism of much of the Right -- which saw its triumph in the "know-it-all" label for Gore in 2000, while Bush's know-nothing swagger was painted as the attitude of a regular guy.

But I'll tell you one thing: nothing would bore me more on a road trip, or drinking a 6-pack -- the two scenarios which the media settled on as the key to the heart of the ordinary person in the election -- than someone with no interest in knowing more about the world. Can you imagine how long the miles would stretch with Bush?

"So, you been to China, I hear."


"What do you remember most about it?"

"The hotel. Good broccoli beef."

But lesser intellectualism does not mean these guys have more soul. That is a false equivalence. Intellect and soul are not a zero sum equation. For proof, look at Lincoln -- at his writings, at photographs of his face.

A road trip with Bush would bore me to tears. But this is not to say I would "loathe" him.

a hippie plot, 1969. . .

Thursday, October 4, 2007

a Christian army?

This article in the Christian Science Monitor reports on efforts to combat illegal evangelical activities within the US armed forces. The words of a General Boykin, who said that the US needs to conquer nations "in the name of Jesus," got some publicity a few years ago. It is clear that a strain of radical religious nationalism is present in and around our military, and must be combated. Otherwise, we will be dragged into "crusade" after "crusade" until we are a corrupt shell of a nation. After all, their zeal for warfare puts them alongside some pretty unsavory characters, such as the neo-Nazis and other racists who celebrate acts of brutality by our troops in Iraq (see my post "F*ck yeah, America").


corporate penny pinchers

I work as a waiter in an "assisted-living community" -- corporate lingo for a warehouse for the old. After every meal there is food left over, maybe enough for 3 to 5 more meals. Some cooks urge wait staff and dish washers to take some; others are more restrained.

Last night Anna was working. She told me to "make a plate for yourself." I did, and set it aside while I finished mopping the floor. As I was mopping Peter, the executive director of the place, came in. He opened up the tin foil around one plate of food, and glanced at my uncovered plate. "Where is Anna?" he asked. I thought maybe he was hungry. Someone told him she was in the bathroom.

A few minutes later she came in and said, "Make sure you eat that before you leave! Peter was asking me whose food it was, and I told him it was Carol's, that she had paid for it." The rule is that we cannot take food home, although we are allowed -- supposedly -- to eat on the job. "Peter thinks the cooks are over-preparing food," she said, "so we can take it home."

Making an issue over food that is eaten instead of dumped is downright immoral. To see a man who makes in the five or six figures sniffing around at left over food worth a few dollars at most -- food meant for the trash, whose loss is already counted in expenses -- shows the real character of corporate success. Not the sharp, dashing young men in suits and ties breaking with tradition and "thinking outside the box" as seen in so many commercials. Corporate success is guaranteed, rather, by compulsively accumulative, nitpicking, stingy behavior.

"There are people dying of hunger in this world," I said.

"Exactly," said Anna.

"We need to go union," said Lisa, the young dish washer. I resolve to research the issue. We need a counterweight to the compulsive, nannyish, undignified behavior of management.

According to most conservative thinking, "nannyish" as an adjective only applies to government. But I think corporate hacks illustrate this trait better. And their nanny-ishness is not mitigated by a wish to protect, better or help the worker: it is solely aimed at the security of their own fat asses.

Selfishness is the new virtue.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

"f*ck yeah, America"

I saw this video on a blog entitled "Train Wreck in Maxwell." It is a conservative blog run by a man named Kurt in Texas.

The video is captioned, "not for pantywaste libs or other Hate-America-First types."

I watched it anyway, non-pantywaste that I am, lover of American ideals that I am.

It is a video of clips of American soldiers breaking down doors in Iraq, pointing their guns at terrified inhabitants. While these scenes are playing out, a loud rock song plays, whose chorus is "f*ck yeah, America!" I think I heard a line about immigrants -- is it a racist punk song? Is there such a thing?

And I ask myself: so I, who oppose such brutality, am considered to "hate" America? If this is true, in Kurt's mind, then what is the character of the "America" I supposedly hate? An America which glories in violence, attacking others for the fun of it, an America turned on by the power of a gun in the hand?

This is not America. Or rather, it is not a part I tolerate. But it exists, a nationalist extreme right that hides its face behind the bland faces of mainstream conservative leaders.

One has to wonder how many supporters of Bush's war think this way. How many support this invasion and occupation, listening to the propaganda about helping and caring for the Iraqis, but all the while snickering with glee at the chance to kill and maim and get paid for it? How many such people put the lie to the government propaganda about this war? And yet, how many such "conservatives" (actually they are nihilists, radicals, not real conservatives) do not have the courage to speak up and tell mainstream Americans: this is who we are. This is why we love this war. This blood makes us happy.

Why do these people keep their racism and hatred veiled? Would Kurt have the courage to tell strangers on the street that he loves the feeling of American might raping Iraq? That he enjoys watching the fear in Iraqi faces as they are roused from sleep, bullied by men with guns?

Maybe if we had such honesty -- if the oily sheen of "humanitarianism" and "Christian compassion" were skimmed off the putrid water of extreme nationalism that lies below -- would Americans rouse themselves to end this immoral and cowardly war.

Unfortunately, too many veils cover this essential truth. The mainstream media, still obedient to this government, does not show viewers dead Iraqis or Americans. And the mainstream media does not show us the ugly truth of the many nihilists who make up Bush's base of support. Again, the media is complicit with the powers that be: they do not follow an ideology. They simply follow the dollar signs!

Gently, gently, are we rocking our way to the precipice. How the rocking motion lulls us, how our lullabies of ease and comfort mask the growing sound of water thundering over the edge. . .

dough baby

Tonight Mom demonstrated how to make bread, to my brother S and I. She and Dad are leaving on a mission in mere days, and this is one knowledge both useful and sentimental that I would like to acquire.

Putting my hands in the dough was a curious and wonderful sensation. As we took turns pressing and rolling the dough into loaves, for it to rise in the pans, I was put in mind of the link between bread, women, and fertility in so many parts of the world: women both make babies and make bread, and the rising of the dough is a cultural analogue to the conception of a child. "She's got a bun (or a loaf) in the oven" is a joking English expression for pregnancy that illustrates this heritage.

One might think that cultures without bread historically would be without such metaphors. But this is not the case: in Asia, there is linkage between rice production and human reproduction. Among the highland Yi of Yunnan Province in China, Erik Mueggler, an anthropologist, has documented how the growing and transplanting of rice seedlings into the paddies is made analogous to the female and male sides of conception. On the festive day, a man takes a plow into the paddy to "inseminate" it. Women then take over, caring for the growing "baby" seedlings. So the connection between food production and birth is worldwide, and not limited to "bread cultures."

I was thinking this over -- particularly Pierre Bourdieu's amazing description of the Algerian Berber calendar, with its "masculine" and "feminine" phases, and its connection of birth, planting, and bread making -- as I handled the dough. S made his first loaf, sloppily but diligently pinched at the ends, and placed it in the pan. Mom, standing by, cooed, "Oh what a cute little bread baby!"

We had been recalling happily the way we kids used to ask her for dough to play with as she made bread so long ago. We would roll it out, or eat it, patting it into various shapes, imitating Mom's actions.

So Mom's exclamation showed how alive the ancient linkage between motherhood, bread, and babies is, even now, in her: with that tender affection for the soft, pudgy "infant" patted out on the counter top.

Erik Mueggler, The Age of Wild Ghosts.
Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice.

a nuke free world?

I have not been impressed with Barack Obama. The theme of his campaign is the cliche that he will remove politics from politics and inject it with "hope." The problem with American politics is not that it is too political or too uncivil but that there is a lack of courage in challenging the power structures. He has become extremely cautious, far removed from the articulate, passionate activist he was. He is overly "receptive" to the approaches of lobbyists, on whom he depends for money. I can even see him adjusting his strong opposition to the Iraq war to a nuanced approach more in line with the "needs" of American power in the region.

I see also a Kennedy-like obsession with appearing stylistically masculine and competent, evident in his love of authoritative-sounding words. When asked about withdrawal from Iraq, for example, he says he will withdraw "about one brigade a month," rather than give a number. After all, how many ordinary people know how much a brigade is? What lingers in my mind is the word "brigade." His clean, handsome face uttering that word impacts the viewer with an image of military professionalism. It recalls Kennedy's ability to "out-hawk" the Republicans in 1960 with jargon such as "missile gap." Such obsession with style undercuts, in my mind, the talk of hope and bipartisanship and idealism. Hope is not about style, my friends. It is about the courage to take on the system.

But today Obama impressed me, for the first time. The New York Times reported his proposal to abolish nuclear weapons from the world. In my opinion, the very existence of these weapons is the greatest immediate danger facing the world. Their exclusive possession by a few powerful countries is hypocritical, spurring smaller nations to attempt to develop them. As for offering protection, they fail in the age of terrorism. In fact, their use is the terrorist's greatest hope: if we can by suckered into wiping out some part of the world seen as threatening to us, we offer them excellent propaganda. We do not deter the terrorists with them, since we do not know who they are. Even if we do know, will we wipe out a city to kill a man? Of course not. Finally, they can be stolen. In short, their existence only helps the terrorists and only threatens us -- and the innocent people of other countries.

I have been amazed at the lack of courage and vision of all the presidential candidates. Have none of them considered these simple points outlined above? Are they all in the pockets of defense lobbyists?

Thank god, Obama has made this statement. The mere fact of bringing the issue to wide public consciousness is important. And along with Clinton's lock-step support of AIPAC and her gullible belief in Israeli "intelligence" about Syria's supposed nuclear program (another step toward greasing the wheels for attacking Iran), this important stand makes me suddenly tilt toward Obama as the compromised candidate with something to redeem him.

Of course, this is not to say I think him a better candidate than Richardson, Kucinich, Gravel, or Edwards. But he is the most obviously positioned to challenge Hillary and the corporate "moderates" of the party (those would be the moderates who supported the moderate attack on Iraq, with all its moderate costs in human life and in money). And with his statement on a nuclear-free world -- something the US committed to long, long ago, during the Cold War -- I find something to praise unique to him. I can begin to forgive him for his stylistic obsessions.