January 29, 2008

All The Way With LBJ

So a Kennnedy or two endorses Obama. This seems almost pre-ordained: a lot of commentators have compared Obama to the original JFK because of his youth, his enthusiasm, his vision (you know, the whole Camelot thing again). And it's tempting to, in turn, compare Hillary Clinton to LBJ; something, I suspect, that a lot of people would take as unflattering or even disdainful. But this skeptical Obamian would caution that (as Hillary herself has hinted) it was Johnson who got things done, Johnson who changed things for the better (mostly, anyway), it was Johnson who went beyond the Kennedyesque rhetoric (and attendant hypocrisy), it was Johnson who had the greatest real impact on politics. And not just because of the circumstances of LBJ's ascendance to the presidential throne.

(Incidentally, the sight of Ted Kennedy, of all people, standing in front of a series of "Change We Can Believe In" signs while endorsing Obama is, for me at least, brutally funny in a cynical sort of way. This one image alone has to be a real godsend to campaigning Republicans…).

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January 26, 2008

Blood And Soil

Mt. Shasta

I keep returning to this place, this river-strewn high volcanic landscape that's so different from the rest of Northern California, this Southern Oregon that's not the Oregon that seems to look towards Seattle (or at its own organic navel). It's a state of something, for sure, something that makes me feel deeply at home in the same way that the Mojave or the Owens Valley do.

But to acknowledge the State Of Jefferson as anything more than whimsical history or sentimental icon, you have to get past the cringe-making scrappy driven boosterism and inferiority complexes so often behind the idea, the right-wing rewrites of history and coded shibboleths that come with the gun racks and pickups or the creepy newage crystal shops glinting in the malls. It's a States Rights thing, basically, with all that that phrase can mean.

It's like a certain strain of Australian nationalism: motivated by a sort of charming or disarming bad faith and an inability to speak its mind because it's really all Id. It's no accident that the great State Of Jefferson is so often identified by its boosters as a state of mind.

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January 25, 2008

The Delta

Refinery exoskeletons through the mist and driving rain, the hints of steep hills in the distance, a lone hunter out with his dog and gun in a flooded field next to the freeway, low-hanging clouds, a military jet skimming the levees, isolated oaks on little rises, loping wires above the sloughs, long trains lost in the mist, everything unnaturally cold, unnaturally green, unnaturally grey…

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January 22, 2008

Identity Is (Not) Destiny

Obama may get lost in the confusion of identity and identification: his attraction for so many Americans is tied up in his identity (in the pervasive US identity politics sense) and the way he and his identity seem to redeem American racism and history, and the way he comes off as able to wear that identity lightly and unthreateningly. But identity's a fickle thing (largely because it's imposed and / or chosen, not especially inherent), and at best a double-edged sword, and once you go beyond the irritating vagueness of his policy messages, it sometimes seems that all you've got is symbolism, projection, and voter identification with a certain shifting transcendent identity (raceless, American). So many who share Obama's (underplayed) identity don't identify much with him; and those who identify strongly with him don't typically share his imposed identity.

All of which doesn't seem likely to go up well against the practiced policy-mongering and well-honed (primary) colour-coded identities of the rest of the field….

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January 18, 2008

Busy, Busy, Busy...

"LONDON, Jan 18 (Reuters) - London's Heathrow airport, the busiest international airport in the world, struggled to return to normal on Friday, one day after a Boeing 777 crash-landed, causing travel chaos but only minor injuries". (in a recent Reuters news article).

When I lived in London, there wasn't a Londoner on earth who didn't "know" that Heathrow was the busiest airport in the world. In Britain it's a "fact" that's repeated casually in news stories, conversations, documentaries, etc. over and over without the slightest doubt that it's true. But Heathrow isn't the busiest airport — or even international airport — in the world, not by a long shot (that would be Atlanta, followed by Chicago and sundry other US airports; even — sacre bleu! — Paris's Charles de Gaulle is usually busier). Sure, Heathrow might have the most international flights or passengers, but that's only because you really can't fly more than a short distance from Heathrow without crossing an international boundary. For a short while in the late 1990's even the airport I learned to fly at (Oakland International) was busier in terms of aircraft landing and taking off (etc.) than Heathrow (flying a small Cessna on busy approaches shared by 747s, 777s, etc. surely gave me a rather warped perspective on GA flying, but it's served me well over the years).

(I passively collect bogus instances of the "biggest | busiest | fastest | etc." things I see around me like this; the whole obsession started when, within a month or two, I passed signs advertising "the biggest IMAX screen in the world!" for cinemas in, respectively, LA, Sydney, New York, Denver, and Atlanta (if I remember correctly). My guess is they were all exactly the same size…).

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January 14, 2008

Buy Design

The late, great, Tibor Kalman (1989, quoted in number 47 of Michael Bierut's Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design) on the role of Design and designers: "We're not here to help clients eradicate everything of visual interest from the face of the earth. We're here to make them think about what's dangerous and unpredictable. We're here to inject art into commerce. We're here to be bad."

That sounds more like a manifesto for selling Design to designers, for selling self-importance to the insecure, than a serious attempt to answer the Big Question. Face it Tibor, Design's for selling, for deflection, for distraction. Design is aesthetics and visual rhetoric in the service of sales — selling a product, an ideology, a state of mind, an idea, an individual's weltschmerz, a corporate image…. If a design's not tugging you by the cuffs and whispering (or screaming) "Buy! Buy! Buy!" in your ear, it's just not doing its job (or it's Art).

(Bierut's book's a lot of fun, and he gently rips into the rather fatuous Adbusters manifesto of some years back, but he's pleasingly elliptical about his own answer to the question, "What is design for?". He seems most engaged when discussing what we might call Heroic Design, i.e. design selling the idea of Design (to clients or to other designers); but that may be a little unfair).

(And Kalman's mini rant's actually an ironic breath of fresh air compared to Cheryl Towler Weese's recent muddled, earnest, and unintentionally funny Design Observer piece "Is Apple Soft On Crime?", a piece that's likely to pass into history as a classic of its type. Danger and unpredictability are all very well until it's by design, right?!).

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January 11, 2008


No one's ever accused me of being a sports fan, and I haven't surfed since I was a teenager, but something about the Maverick's competition held here really appeals to me. Apart from the surf and the great surfing — 50 foot waves and a break across a bunch of exposed reefs, surfed by two dozen hand-picked best Big Wave surfers in the world — look at the videos from 2006's competition — well, apart from all that, I'm intrigued by the way it's become locally so well-known so quickly, a strong part of local Northern Californian folklore that people think of as being a tradition 'round here, something quietly celebrated, and attended well-enough to cause a traffic jam on the freeways without any advance notice (it has no fixed schedule; the surfers get 24 hours' notice if they're lucky). But the competition's only been going for a few years, and no more than a handful of people outside the big wave community even knew Maverick's (the break) existed until Mark Foo was killed on the reef there a dozen years ago. For years it was considered a basically unsurfable combination of sharp rocks and huge waves, but it's now a fixture on the competition circuit, and the old Woy Woy / Umina Beach boy in me still just grins when he stands on the bluffs behind the shoreline and sees the break.

Tomorrow's the big day again….

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January 07, 2008


I can't help feeling that the main attraction Barack Obama has for a lot of Americans isn't so much his newness, his freshness, and his youth (although they all play really well against Clinton and against most Republican candidates), but the way he makes them feel good about America. Watching him stand there smart, articulate, successful, and black in front of adoring totally-white audiences, you almost have to feel better about race and possibility in America (and thence yourself as an American, I guess).

(Yes, I'm an Obamaian, or at least passively and rather weakly so in this attenuated field. But then I'm not American, am I? Like Adrants, I rather like Jetpack's comparison of Obama to the iPhone. But then I own an iPhone, don't I?).

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January 04, 2008

We Feel Your Pain

Once again pundits across the US wring their hands and loudly bemoan their helplessness at the surreal sight of a few thousand atypical voters from a grossly unrepresentative state getting the chance to determine for the rest of us the early course of the US presidential elections. And once again the rest of us out there in UnAmerica wring our hands, grit our teeth, and bemoan the painful and destructive spectacle of a few tens of millions of deeply atypical voters from a grossly unrepresentative country getting the chance over the next year or so to determine for the rest of us much of the course of international affairs for the next few years or more…. Pundits, we feel your pain. Or rather, you feel our pain. A little.

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January 03, 2008

That Iraq Thing, Again

I've got some flak for what some people seem to think is my stance on the whole Iraq Thing: that the US should not pull out of Iraq (or at least that's what they seem to get from some of my articles here over the past couple of years, judging by the email).

But that's never been the issue for me: the issue I go on (and on) about is the total self-absorption and naked self-interest of the typical US position on Iraq from nearly all sides of the debate, a position that articulates the case for staying or pulling out (or whatever) almost solely in terms of US interests. The Iraqis and their interests rarely enter into it here except as an afterthought, if at all (John Edwards was able to spend last weekend stumping for the primaries with a message on Iraq that didn't mention the Iraqis at all except as a vaguely-defined bunch of people who'll take over from the US somehow, somewhere, whenever the US feels like it, i.e. as soon as possible).

But treating the Iraqis as anonymous janitors sweeping up after the American party's over, or as a backdrop for US exercises of power, or as ungrateful recipients of US help, is a repellent position: the US and its allies invaded Iraq (on, as it happens, false pretenses), and the US and its allies are largely responsible for the mess that's Iraq now. Iraq isn't about the US, dammit, it's about Iraq and the Iraqis. What do they want or need? That's the determining factor for a pullout or not. And again, I have no position on an immediate withdrawal or not: I just don't know enough about the situation in Iraq and what the Iraqis think to have a strong opinion.

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