June 25, 2008

Signs Of The Apocalypse

Oakland Middle Harbor

The air over the Bay's a murky reddish orange, thick with the smell of burning from Northern California's eight hundred uncontained wildfires; close to home, both Cody's and De Lauer's close permanently within a week of each other.

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June 21, 2008

Behind The Image

In the cavernous old Wells Fargo bank in downtown Berkeley the clerk behind the desk looks up at me looking up at the huge photo murals by local lad Ansel Adams on the wall behind her (not the usual Saint Ansel images, but the more subtle and interesting stuff you don't normally see in places like this); when I look down again she smiles and says quietly that she wished they'd put photos of photographers up there instead of the photos themselves. She says she's rather see who's behind the photos than the photos she sees every day, she wants to see people instead of rocks and buildings (later, she shyly admits to being a photographer herself).

It's unusually hot and sunny outside, and in the Milano they've opened up the roof and the entire folding front wall, and the place is full of light, soft breezes, bright Conjunto… and a smattering of students, studying for summer courses (one of the reasons I've kept coming back to the Milano is that it's so often full of hard-working students clacking away at laptops or earnestly discussing molecular structures or l'Hospital's rule over lattes and bagels — such a contrast with the Mediterraneum, which is always full of aging loud damaged hippies and boomers talking at the top of their voices about stale politics and dead icons). Outside on the street, Mars is telling us it's "Cheap But Not Easy"; beneath the Mars sign there's an old homeless guy splayed face-down across the sidewalk asleep next to a carpet of glass, totally naked except for an old pair of embossed cowboy boots and a small beach towel someone probably placed across his arse. I don't have the heart to take a photo. A few minutes later there's a flurry of police and an ambulance, and a short walk later there's nothing to see at all.

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June 19, 2008

The Addiction Spiral

Yesterday W. proclaimed that the cure to the US's oil addiction is to frantically search for more oil (in places like national parks, forests, the wilderness, etc. that have until now been off-limits to this sort of thing), while simultaneously "portraying Republican lawmakers as imaginative and forward-looking" for supporting the addiction. As I've said before, surreal. The main aim seems to be to scramble around for ways to make gas (temporarily) cheaper rather than to break the addiction by making it less central to daily life. All around me here there are increasing calls to reduce public transport funding, often enough as a result of there being less money available for it because gas prices have gone up. No one here spends much time talking about a unified Bay Area transport authority or extending BART so it's useful or articulating any sort of vision for public transport as a cure to oil addiction. No, we just (at best) witter on about more fuel-efficient cars (not a bad short-term idea, but then you should have seen the huge idiotic hybrid SUV on sale up the road the other day…); more commonly, we rage on and on about how the little people are victimised by the predictable consequences of an unsustainable lifestyle most of us actively chose and supported.

I live in a large metropolitan region that's a natural for public transport (and in many ways has some of the best public transport in the US), but in reality it's also a case study in how not to do public transport, and is in danger of losing what little it already has. Public transport is simply not an option for the vast majority of commuters in this region, and that's the result of explicit planning over the past fifty years to make that so. Public transport here (where it exists at all) is run by a set of Balkanized and under-funded authorities that (at best) only grudgingly cooperate with each other (to get the trivial distance to my main San Francisco digital imaging service shop from where I live I need to use three entirely separate transport authorities who do not coordinate schedules, let alone honour each other's tickets — and these three agencies are generally thought to be among the most cooperative in the region; the trip can take hours if the stars are misaligned), and who are forced by political realities to do whatever they can to cut back on services and to got to war against the other agencies.

Bush's solution? More of the same until the addiction kills us. Now that's forward thinking!

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June 16, 2008

Carrots Scream Too

"It's hypocritical, too, to pretend that existence is not violence. It's hypocritical — the way vegetarians are hypocritical. They think they aren't harming anything, but a carrot screams too." — from "Let us hold high the banner of intercommunalism and the invincible thoughts of Huey P. Newton minister of defense and supreme commander of the Black Panther Party", in one of the interminable official Panther communiques / newsletters collected in a recent celebratory history.

You can't go far in Oakland without hitting a living ghost of Huey or the Panthers, especially if you've got more than a smattering of local historical knowledge. Even if (like the vast majority of Oaklanders nowadays) you have only a vague idea who Huey or the Panthers were, you can't miss the murals and the place names, and, above all, the surviving attitudes. And that mixture of mordant realist humour and strident turgid authoritarian self-importance, especially, still marks so much of Oakland's African-American and "Progressive" politics, serving much the same purpose it always has: to mask powerlessness and to make damn sure nothing actually gets done (or at least to ensure that nothing gets done without referral to a massive round of self-important committees). But history and demographics seem to be passing Old Oakland by, and, in common with a lot of inhabitants nowadays, my Oakland's largely Hispanic, and the politics and culture don't refer back to the golden age of the Panthers (who, to be fair, had some truly positive social programs in West Oakland, especially), but to something maybe a little sunnier and more forward-looking. And in a part of the world where identity is so often defined in terms of resentment, that's leading to a deep backlash from the older identity politicians as Oakland slowly turns from being a black-majority city to being a hispanic town. A subdued Viva la evoluciĆ³n from me, I guess.

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June 12, 2008

Wall and Piece

Kennedy Street, Oakland, CA


I've got a real soft spot for Banksy. (Assuming "Banksy" is a "he", and is just one person, which seems a dangerous assumption, but never mind) his stuff is smart, witty, funny, thoughtful, clever, well-targeted, visually appealing, and (for me, anyway), motivated by just the Right Stuff. As he puts it in Wall and Piece, "Mindless vandalism can take a lot of thought". And that's kind of the key, no? Living in a neighbourhood increasingly suffocated by gang (and wannabe-gang) graffiti, his stuff often makes me ache for something other than the omnipresent thoughtless scribbled dog-piss graffiti 'round here.

He says "People look at an oil painting and admire the use of brushstrokes to convey meaning. People look at a graffiti painting and admire the use of a drainpipe to gain access." (in his "Advice on painting with stencils"). Well, maybe. Of course, 'round here people look at graffiti and wonder whether it means they're in norteño or surreño territory, or whether that little bit over there is E14th gang graffiti or A-town Runners graffiti, or wonder whether the huge gang sign graffiti repeated endlessly along the wall on E 7th means there's a hope in hell their car won't be graffitied the next night, or wonder why they have to clean the graffiti off their windows every damn week for the rest of their lives...

"Crime against property is not real crime." (ditto) But a lot of graffiti isn't resented by the graffitiist's targets because it's a property crime (the most graffitied neighbourhoods rarely have many property owners who are directly affected by it), it's because it's a visceral reminder that most of us have little control over our external visual environments, and a scary sign that gangs control the streets late at night (I'm guessing Banksy doesn't live in a place where gang-related gunshots are heard every night, but never mind, it's the thought that counts, right?).

Graffiti's no more inherently subversive than painting (or, for that matter, Frisbee golf). Graffiti's a medium, not a coherently-motivated and targeted act. It's OK to take a positive or at least indulgent attitude to graffiti when it's either thoughtful and clever (think "Banksy", of course…) or somehow subversive, but when its intention is simply to make us feel unwelcome or intimidated in our own environments, or to mark territory, it's a little disingenuous to proclaim it as a revolutionary or liberating thing as such. Sure, there's graffiti and there's Graffiti, and I sometimes long for the witty (or at least provocative) political and anti-commercial graffiti that used to pop up in inner-city Sydney and London, but that's not the reality most of us live.

(There's just no way to write something like this without sounding Pooterish or school-marmish, is there?).

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June 08, 2008

One Of The Boys

There's a slightly pitiful and rather revealing full page of short opinion pieces from pundits and supporters on What Went Wrong for Hillary Clinton in today's NYT opinion section. There's the usual claustrophobic mixture of self-pity and delusion occasionally leavened with a bit of insight, but the overall tone from her supporters is still a mixture of denial and "we wuz robbed!", a sort of nascent "if you can't be a victor, be a victim!" mentality (it's still all about Hillary, isn't it?).

The sad truth for her supporters, though, is that she didn't just lose — Obama won, and won because to so many of us he looked like the future, and she looked like the past. Voting for the past works for a lot of voters, for sure, but that past ensured she lost in part because she was One Of The (Old) Boys, a well-connected Establishment figure who in every sense could only offer up just more of the same while going on and on about her outsider status and fresh approach (i.e. the same old same old). Even the tenacious self-pity of her supporters feels traditional.

Maybe a blast from the past is what it takes to win the presidency against that other blast from the past, John McCain; I don't know. We may never find out; but we're unlikely to ever hear the end of the second guessing from across the great divide….

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June 03, 2008

What Now?

So Obama just scrapes in (sort of, anyway, or at least he's declared victory), while Clinton doesn't quite concede and threatens to keep dragging things out, and the whole bitter divisive and destructive Democratic primary season looks likely to keep going on and on and on with Clinton not-so-subtly threatening and blackmailing from behind all the way to Denver. I'm so alienated and tired of this race at this stage that I think I just want to scream (instead of celebrating two interesting and compelling-in-their-own-way candidates).

One of the most irritating things about this campaign has been the insinuation — and, often enough, outright accusation — by some pretty vocal Clinton supporters that the only reason potential and actual Democratic voters don't support Clinton is a mixture of rampant misogyny and denial of reality. It says a lot about the accusers, I think, that they can't imagine that it's possible to look at Clinton and see someone deeply flawed as both a politician and a candidate (more flawed than her opponents), a person who (for example) not only made a fatally-wrong decision on Iraq (which is somewhat forgivable, having been almost universal in this country, despite it being clearly wrong at the time), but who also subsequently dissembled and even appeared to lie about the decision and her reasons for it (which is unforgivable), and who took a deeply-unprincipled and hypocritical stance on the whole Michigan and Florida primary delegate issue. As someone who'd originally (it seems a long time ago now) been quietly positive about a Clinton candidacy, I found myself increasingly repelled by her cynicism and win-at-all-costs burn-the-bridges take-no-prisoners campaign, by the combative self-pity that she seemed to encourage so many of her supporters to wrap themselves in, and by her overwhelming sense of entitlement: almost everything about her campaign until the final months was premised on an arrogant assumption that she was the natural and rightful candidate, and that everyone out there really knew this deep down in their hearts (if only they wouldn't keep getting distracted by that biased media and flash-in-the-pan candidates like Obama).

Can Obama win the presidency? I don't know, but I'm deeply pessimistic (I'm always pessimistic about things like this, but I'm also often wrong about things like this). I originally pegged this as a Clinton vs. McCain race, with Clinton losing (the character thing would have weighed heavily in that race in McCain's favour); I really can't tell what'll happen this November, but elections rarely go my way (hell, it's rare that there's a candidate who comes anywhere near being even vaguely compatible with my politics in this country, but never mind, it's the thought that counts, right?).

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