March 17, 2010


As a front-page headline in one of today's local rags blares out something like "How To Have An Authentic St Patrick's Day!" it's hard not to respond with a morose little vignette about sitting in a gloomy church somewhere in Cork having the priest note in passing that it's St. Patrick's day before passing on to more pressing things….

Authenticity? Overrated. Especially in a context of no context at all.

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March 10, 2010

Can't We All Just Get Along?

In some probably long-forgotten "Why Oh Why?" Grauniad commentary on the US culture wars I re-read recently, Timothy Garton Ash says "this war will not finish with a victory of blue over red, or vice versa. It will finish with the accepted, peaceful coexistence in one society of different faiths, value systems, and lifestyles — along the line laid down centuries ago by the classical liberalism of John Locke and others […]".

Well, he got the first part right in some ways: the US culture wars really aren't about left vs. right or red vs. blue (or green) — they're a struggle between people who believe in Timothy Garton Ash's tolerant liberalism and those on the right, the left, or wherever for whom that tolerance is the enemy, for whom True Belief is all that matters.

But the rest of that sentence is, for most of his opponents, equivalent to saying the culture wars will only be won when they lose — the whole point of most cultural warriors is to impose intolerance, to ensure that coexistence is impossible, to kill off or at least suppress the people who don't believe what you do. It's equivalent to TGA's saying "the culture wars will only be over when my side's won". Which may or may not be true, but it's not useful.

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January 29, 2010

Short Shameful Confession

Even now that Salinger's dead, I still can't bring myself to like or even admire "The Catcher In The Rye". I was forced to read it as part of a high school English course; back then, I remember thinking how specifically and annoyingly American it was, and just how alien to my own life as a teenager in Australia it all felt.

Nowadays, I think I'd add to this the uneasy feeling that the idea abroad here (in so many obituaries) that this specifically-American story represents something universal seems to be one of the most American aspects of the whole inflated TCITR phenomenon.

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January 09, 2010

Rights Rights

I have a little sideline in video making; some of these videos would benefit from music soundtracks derived from (or using as-is) classical or rap or whatever recordings. Unfortunately, while I'd be happy paying a reasonable price to use these tracks on public versions of the videos, there's just no easy way to get those rights, and no fair pricing setup. Around here you typically have to get at least two types of rights per song (sync rights and a master use license); but there's no single central place to find out who the original rights holders are (there may be many, and you may never be able to discover with any certainty whether the rights are unencumbered by other hidden rights holders through derivative licensing), and even if you find them, it may take months or even years of wrangling to get an agreement, which will inevitably cost an arm and a leg (think thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars with a reduction if you're just doing a film festival or you're a student or whatever). The system's set up for large-scale studio films and lawyers; it's hopeless for people like me who're only too happy to pay but have no mechanism for doing so that doesn't include paying more than every other production expense combined for a single soundtrack right, for a short video that's intended for only very limited public showing, or that's not a commercial work.

I dream of the day when there's a central authoritative and efficient rights clearing house for things like this, with a simple payment system based on micro payments per (YouTube, Vimeo, whatever) play, up to a capped amount (think something like a penny per play up to (say) $500 for non-mainstream use). Fat chance, of course, but I can dream.

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December 27, 2009

North State

It's a state of mind, really (I-5 south somewhere a little below Red Bluff).

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December 15, 2009

(Fruit and) Nut

Kraft and Cadbury are struggling over control of Cadbury. I don't really care who wins; all I ask is that (whatever the outcome), Americans please please (please!) stop pronouncing it "Cad-Berry". That is all.

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December 05, 2009


One of the words I often feel driven to retake from the hard right is "decency". As in, "a minimally-decent society is one that strives to ensure that the circumstances of one's birth, upbringing, and genetics — the things you have no control over — do not determine your access as a member of that society to the basics: health care, education, and justice (the things that most affect the course of your life)".

Fat chance, of course. It's a word that's as loaded and tarnished in this country as "liberty" or "patriotism".

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December 01, 2009

Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself

Seamus Heany on his experience selecting students at Harvard: "What I wanted was evidence of their artistic doings [rather than] the plenitude of those essays of self-introduction that American students are so good at" (quoted in a recent LRB review of Dennis O'Driscoll's "Stepping Stones: Interviews With Seamus Heany"). Perfect.

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October 20, 2009

East vs West

Watching the excellent Whitehouse-hosted "Fiesta Latina" on TV the other evening, I'm struck by just how Mexican my Latino music experience is compared to the more usual conception of "Latino" in this country (and especially Back East). Say "Latino" and I suspect most Americans think Cuban or Puerto Rican music translated through New York or Miami (Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Ruben Blades, Papa Yankee, etc., or Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, or the Afro-Cubans if they're older), but around here it's more likely Flaco Jimenez or Los Tigres or even Selena. You can't walk far in my neighbourhood without hearing Norteno or Tejano or Conjunto leaking from the bars and shops, or a burst of Mexican pop, or Mariachi in front of St Elizabeth's. Country vs. Jazz, in so many words.

(The program's high-profile music director was actually famously-local Oaklander (born-and-bred) Sheila E. (daughter of Pete Escovedo), which makes the disconnect a little more pronounced).

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September 12, 2009

It's All About US (Refrain)

In an otherwise mostly well-aimed and thoughtful NYT OpEd article a few days ago about Afghanistan, Bob Herbert writes "It's obscene what we're doing to the [US] men and women who have volunteered for the armed forces [...]".

Well, yes; but the real obscenity is what's being done to the men and women (and children) of Afghanistan, often enough in the name of the US. It's diagnostic that Herbert — a voice of what passes for the soft left here in the US — couches his jeremiad almost entirely in terms of the financial, moral, and human costs of the war to the US. As with the Vietnam war (the war he uses as a cautionary comparison), where US commentators (and movies, books, etc.) so often completely left out the Vietnamese, and the later debates on the Iraq war which did the same, in US debates on the Afghan war the Afghanis seem little more than ghostly abstractions if they're mentioned at all.

Like it or not, the US and allies chose to invade Afghanistan, and have a responsibility to the Afghan people that transcends pure self-interest; as with Iraq earlier, though, more and more the public calculus on the Afghan war is being discussed purely in terms of what's best for the US. Foreign war as continuation of domestic politics, I guess (yes, I've said that before, too).

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August 01, 2009

The Rest Of The Story

Corazon Aquino dies, and the front page tributes and obits in the US media rightly stress the courage and integrity she showed in her struggle against the Marcos regime. But what these US sources almost universally don't mention — except in throwaway phrases at the end of the piece or hints here and there — is that that struggle was against a US-backed and US-armed regime that had US support until its last dying moments. As a mark of respect, it'd be nice if the US media had the courage to get the bigger story out there as well…

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July 25, 2009

Bucky Balls

"If man is to continue as a successful pattern-complex function in universal evolution, it will be because the next decades will have witnessed the artist-scientist's spontaneous seizure of the prime design responsibility and his successful conversion of the total capability of tool-augmented man from killingry to advanced livingry — adequate for all humanity" (Buckminster Fuller quoted in "New Views on R. Buckminster Fuller", ed. Chu and Trujillo, Stanford, a book I recently bought at Moe's).

It's hardly original, but it's difficult not to feel that the biggest attraction Buckminster Fuller had for the younger counterculturalists of the 60's and 70's (and their epigones) was that — like any good prophet — his real meaning lay in the general incomprehensibility of his words. They could mean any damn thing you wanted them to mean, since by almost any conventional measure, they meant nothing at all. He spoke his own unique language, but made them feel that he spoke their language, at least in mental translation (his work certainly loses something in the original). The woolliness of the words just helped mask the genially-ruthless technocratic utopianism at the heart of it all (and running through the muddled and often far less genial veins of some of the countercultural movements who used or revered him). A sort of foggy glossolalia born in a collision of Futurism and the Burned-Over District, perhaps. Much of it's not even wrong, as they say.

I think another big part of the reason Fuller was so popular with the US 60's and 70's counterculture is that with things like the breathtakingly hubristic World Game he offered the promise of technology replacing politics. Politics is difficult, it's messy (and often a real come-down for nice middle class countercultural kids), but technology just tends to happen, and usually with a logic that would have been deeply congenial to a lot of white middle-class American kids of the time. Technology provides objective answers without that awful to-and-fro that politics demands; but when the answer to every question seems to be "geodesic dome" or "tensegrity" or "technologists know best", you can't help feeling that the questions might have been a little restricted or that there are some questions you just can't ask.

(And if there were ever a real example of the Canonical American Name it'd be "R. Buckminster Fuller". When I was a kid I just assumed the "Buckminster Fuller" part was a double-barreled last name (like maybe "Sebag-Montefiori"), and that our Bucky was so important no one ever used his first name).

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July 21, 2009

Two Anniversaries

Everybody above a certain age here seems to want to do the big one (all those noisy "Where I was forty years ago…" articles and postings), but fifty years ago today unsung local lad Elijah "Pumpsie" Green became the first guy to break the color barrier at the (then) notoriously whites-only Boston Red Sox. Only ten years before the moon landings, only ten years before Woodstock (and ten years before that local love-fest, Altamont, for that matter), you couldn't play for the Red Sox if you were black, no matter how good you were. Getting to the moon, getting to Boston… worlds apart.

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July 18, 2009

Big Digger

I live in a tug spotter's paradise, with sea-going tugs, tractor tugs, barges, lighters, floating construction cranes, etc., moored on or working the Estuary a few minutes walk from my studio. It's common to see barges in from Seattle or Alaska or LA, but every now and then you see something home-ported at a place you've never heard of and wonder how the hell it got here. For the last week or so there's been a heavy construction barge and associated floating crane moored here from Evansville, Indiana, somewhere deep in the midwest. I'm still nerd enough that this sort of thing always amazes me: this barge has presumably been tugged down the Ohio and the Mississippi, across the Gulf, through the Panama Canal, then up the rough cold west coasts of Mexico and California (at least), to end up moored a block from my front door. Half makes me want to visit Evansville (the long way).

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July 06, 2009

Organization Man

Robert McNamara dies (I can just see the SF Chron's headline: "San Francisco Man Dies; Attended University of California at Berkeley").

"When the [Vietnam] war was over, 58,000 Americans were dead and the national social fabric had been torn asunder." (The Washington Post). What US obits like this are consistently leaving out is the number of Vietnamese dead, and what happened to the Vietnamese national social fabric, but that's surely of little concern to the Post, let alone to the US population as a whole. Even nearly fifty years later the US's endless self-absorption and self-pity on the war hasn't completely faded; and McNamara's a handy touchstone for the US's view of the whole disaster, unfairly or not (as typically happens to any complex and interesting person connected to that war).

McNamara became retrospectively wise (as opposed to being seen to be wise in retrospect) about the war; but he said a lot of things about other topics that were wise at the time:
"In 1966, even as the buildup of U.S. forces continued and Cold War tensions gripped Europe, [McNamara] said it was 'a gross oversimplification to regard Communism as the central factor in every conflict throughout the underdeveloped word . . . The United States has no mandate from on high to police the world and no inclination to do so.'" (from the Post's obituary, again).
Well, wise enough; that last clause of his seems diagnostic: the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first often seem defined by the US's inclination to believe it's on a mission from God (or mammon) to police the world; and for a short while, McNamara was deputy chief of police whether he could bring himself to admit it or not. Time to round up the usual suspects, I guess.

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July 04, 2009

Them The Savages

"He has […] endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

Maybe it's too easy to get all cynical and knowing about things like this, but that one still pulls me up short. Doesn't get a lot of play these days, that sentence, even on a day normally infused with a general atmosphere of self-congratulatory belligerence. No surprise, I guess; somewhere in the gap between the Declaration's great phrases and off-handed hypocrisies lies the difference between words to die for and words to kill by.

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June 11, 2009


The NYT's Gail Collins made a joke in an editorial column the other day about how good it feels to have a US president who knows that Australia and Austria aren't the same country. Yes, on an old joke in US and other intellectual circles — I suspect every modern-day president has (probably wrongly) been accused of not knowing the difference — but it brought back some mildly funny memories for me, for sure (yes, I've had surreal conversations where it slowly (or even quickly) became obvious that the person I was talking to to didn't know the difference. It does actually happen, you know). But in my experience it's actually surprisingly difficult to come across an American who doesn't have some idea what and where Australia is (that idea may not be particularly accurate, but it's usually at least based on fact); it's just also quite difficult finding Americans who have any idea what or where Austria is.

The sobering thing is, of course: why the hell should the average American — or even the president, for that matter — know or care about either Austria or Australia? Our Governator might, I guess, but who else?

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June 04, 2009

Can't Someone Else Pay For It?


"'It shocks the conscience that we have to throw sick children off of welfare to satisfy Wall Street,' said Assemblywoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), the budget committee chairwoman. She added: 'This used to be the Golden State, and now it is a sorry state and it is not my California.' (from a recent article in the LA Times on our Governator's plan to cut a mere 5 billion dollars from California's budget).

California's been living so far beyond its natural and financial means now for so long that when it's time to pay up and face the consequences, I guess it's no surprise that we Californians turn to blaming anyone else but ourselves, and to bemoaning how badly the Golden State has lost its way. But California hasn't lost its way — it's right on track for a course set decades ago by the anti-government whackos, and helped on with varying amounts of gleefully-populist and self-satisfied gusto by voters over the years. And pace Ms Evans, it's not (primarily) Wall Street that got us here; the current deadlock and paralysis aren't an act of god, but the fairly predictable results of California voters quite deliberately voting to tie the hands of politicians with mandates for this, mandates for that, super-majorities for budgets and tax increases, etc. — and then sitting back and saying they (the voters) just aren't going to pay for it all when the bills come due (i.e. now). And then blaming the increasingly powerless politicians for not being able to do anything about the results. It's a classic self-fulfilling prophecy: politicians are useless money-grubbing bastards, so let's tie their hands with impossible voter-mandated propositions, then wait for the inevitable failure, then blame the politicians even more and restrict them further, then blame the politicians again… all while furiously denying any responsibility as voters for getting themselves into this mess.

(From the cozy confines of arty Little Jingletown, things sometimes still seem OK, but walking through the landscape of garbage-strewn streets, burned-out cars, and graffitied trees of my greater neighbourhood, or slinking past the shambling mentally ill and the homeless beggars on (and off) the sidewalks in Berkeley, or driving past the boarded-up malls and empty construction sites in suburbia, and negotiating the unrepaired roads and axle-breaking potholes of local streets, or waiting through the unanswered phone calls to City Hall and the two hour delay (yes) on the police response to the 911 call for last month's serious car accident near my place, it's hard not to think it's the long-awaited California Apocalypse. Hollywood's always loved the California destruction trope in movies, but giant quakes and alien invasions taking out LA to the squealing enjoyment of audiences everywhere doesn't quite catch the banal reality).

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May 11, 2009

Imagine That

"Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination," Mr. Obama said. "It is happening right now, it’s been happening for decades. The problem is, it’s been happening elsewhere, not here." (Quoted in a recent NYT news article).

A long time ago (the late 1980's or early 1990's), while working as a recently-transplanted Londoner in Silicon Valley, I remember seeing a poster near the front door of the company I worked at that compared Old Tech very smugly and unfavorably to New Tech by comparing railway (railroad, I guess, this being the US) technology and companies to the then-nascent PC and workstation companies (like the place I was working at then). One had a Future, the other only a Past; QED, I guess. The poster had whole diagrams and columns devoted to explaining why train technology died out in the twentieth century (and why PC technology had a glorious future). Those lumbering old trains, heavily-engineered steel dinosaurs in the last gasp of extinction, roadkill on the way to the future…. Good riddance.

Two worlds, for sure — but not the two the poster writers (and the company's founders) probably had in mind, I'll bet. The world I'd just come from had fast, convenient, and relatively-cheap train travel (in fact until I moved to California I'd never really owned a car because public transport was so much cheaper and more convenient); trains in that world didn't just have a future, they were (and still are) the future (or a part of it, at any rate). From my point of view back then, it was cars that looked like a long-term dead end, at least in their current guise.

The world I'd just moved to, though, seemed completely oblivious to the reality elsewhere: didn't they know trains worked? Didn't they know that modern trains were marvels of hi-tech engineering and efficient use of resources? No, they basically didn't. Trains were these slow old things that almost no one used; I didn't know anyone in The Valley who took trains anywhere (there weren't any trains to take, in any case). Trains were The Past. I remember a front-page article in a local newspaper (the old SF Examiner, I think) that patiently explained to its readership train basics (such as how to get on and off trains) in preparation for some trek or other in an antique train up the coast. I used to joke that when cars became less desirable in the future, at least in California there'd be enough space to use the freeways as train right-of-ways. And now California's starting to pitch itself as ground zero for new (green) railway technology, which can't be a bad thing, for sure. Get that hi-tech on the rails again….

The US's transport infrastructure: so well-prepared for the twentieth century. And that's just the way so many Americans like it….

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May 06, 2009

Road Trip Pix

I've put an automatically-generated gallery of some hi-res pix from my recent road trip into California and Nevada here. I'll be doing something separate for the people shots from the Vegas conference, sometime in the future, for those of you who asked….

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May 01, 2009

City of Light

It's easy to get all huffy about the tawdriness and inauthenticity at the heart of Las Vegas, but immersed in the crowds on The Strip late at night, it can seem a bright and cheery sort of place (watching the Bellagio fountains do a brassy "Hey Big Spender" really did it for me), and from the 26th floor of the Flamingo, with the lights out towards Nellis twinkling in the desert heat and distance, the neon reflections in the windows arrayed around the immediate high-rise horizon, the helicopters shuttling above the strip, the lights of the planes turning final into McCarran, and the palms swaying in the breeze between the parking structures, it's easier to take Vegas at face value, an authentic sort of context for the genuinely inauthentic. Who cares whether the palms in front of the Eiffel Tower are fake or not?

But the drive in the from the desert, the long struggle to get through the traffic in suburb after suburb of huge pastel developments, empty garage Mahals, strip malls, sandy hills and clogged freeways, the permanent impermanence of everything much beyond The Strip or Downtown, the flinty Los Angelisation, the endless stream of billboards that seem to advertise only personal injury, DUI, and traffic offense lawyering, the taxis with rooftop ads for automatic weapons, the way almost every built surface looks instantly worn in the same way so many local faces do… all that's the ugly heart of Las Vegas. It's just hidden in that vast periphery that few get to see on their five-block ride in from the airport.

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April 28, 2009


From the side of US 95 in Nevada, a spooky glimpse of a Predator drone taxiing quickly along a runway at Creech, then a line of black pickups with federal plates and dark windows pulls out onto the highway ahead of me. A Nevada Highway Patrol car flashes past me at twice my speed, silently. I bumble on towards Vegas.

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April 22, 2009

Dr Pangloss, I Presume

"'I believe in the right of every American to choose the doctor, the hospital, the health plan of his or her choice,' Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said before the [Sebelius confirmation] vote." (from a recent AP story).

I'll bet he also believes in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. If there's one thing that the vast majority of Americans don't currently have — and, by design, would never have under most proposed extensions of current schemes — it's any real choice in things like health plans (or even the choice of having any health coverage at all).

There's an absolutely surreal air about American discussions about health care, a mixture of denial and an inability to understand that choices don't have to be as claustrophobically limited as they are here at the moment. Americans by and large seem dead set against medical services rationing, but ruthless rationing is at the heart of the current system (it just happens to be based on your income or financial state or past health record), and few Americans feel it's their duty to pay for any unrationed system. Health care insurance is one of the few things that unequivocally works best with social insurance (as opposed to individual insurance), where risk is spread across as many people as possible, but any mention of the word "social" or "socialised" brings out the pitchforks, and we get the current bizarre situation where you pay insurance for decades, only to be (quite legally) dropped from a plan as soon as you get seriously sick; at which point you face bankruptcy because no other insurance company will insure you. In effect, the current scheme is "insurance until you're sick; pay-as-you-go thereafter…". The worst of all possible worlds, in other words.

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March 01, 2009

Power To The People

Reading Peniel Joseph's "Waiting 'Til The Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America" (Henry Holt, 2006), I'm often struck by just how central Oakland was to the Black Power movement in the late 1960's and 1970's, and vice versa: you keep stumbling over sentences like "[Eldridge] Cleaver [in exile in Algeria] lashed out at [Huey] Newton [in Oakland] during a televised international conference call [...] which had been originally designed as a show of unity between Oakland and Algeria.", and there's the detritus of those years all around Oakland, the attitudes, the power structures, the odd little murals and shopfronts in West Oakland or downtown, the ghosts of Huey and Eldridge in West Oakland and Berkeley.

Oakland as it is now really doesn't always make much sense without knowing about the Panthers and the whole Black Power struggle. And it's not just the lost, broken legacy of the Panthers' social activism (as Joseph points out, in Oakland as with so many other places, Black power (lower-case "p") became a reality just as the associated cities descended into dire financial and social straights, and became identified with failure), it's the attitudes (and attitudanalising) behind so much City Hall politicking and cultural pushes.

If there's ever a place that once took — and still takes — the idea of "unity between Oakland and Algeria" (where Algeria is being used in a broader sense than just shorthand for "the Black Panther camp currently exiled in Algeria") seriously, it's Oakland. Never mind that, inevitably, Algeria's a place most Oaklanders couldn't locate on a map of the world, and that the African touches here are so confused and, well, American.

But as for many Oaklanders (and as with California at large for many decades now), my Oakland is largely Hispanic and Asian nowadays, at least on a daily basis, and that's a fact that's caused increasing resentment in Oakland's black communities. Oakland's on the verge of no longer really being a Black majority town, and we're starting to see the same sort of politics of resentment playing out in local politics in particular nasty and coded ways.

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January 20, 2009

Great Expectations

After all the choreographed celebrations and cellphone salutes, the question before us is not whether Obama can live up to expectations; it's whether the American people can do so. It's refreshing to hear a Grownup president speak — and one who talks of sacrifice almost as an entitlement — but were enough people listening? Too many years of encouraging people to hear whatever they wanted to hear (and to act however they want without thinking of consequences) takes its toll….

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December 16, 2008

That Kennedy Thing (Again)

In a recent HuffPost article, the reliably loopy Michael Carmichael seems to want to claim the Obama Moment for aging Boomers:
"The image of a US Senate graced by two Kennedys both bearing the flame of JFK and conjuring the era of Camelot presents a potent concoction of political magic at a critical juncture in American history now seemingly on the threshold of a resurgence of progressive energy and the promise of positive change in the Obama Era."
Yeah, that's real change, that is.

I wish I could say that the idea of Caroline Kennedy being anointed Senator for New York mostly because she's, well, a Kennedy, surprises me, but it doesn't, of course. And I wish I could say that my initial impression that Carmichael's article was a wicked parody rather than a starry-eyed eulogy for a privileged upbringing and an easily-come-by constellation of useful contacts was right, but I don't think it was. That endless clueless sense of entitlement is probably the biggest legacy the American Boomers will leave the world (or, rather, the environmental, financial, political, and cultural collateral damage caused by that sense of entitlement will be the biggest legacies).

"America is transfixed. The world is transfixed. The Kennedy legend promises to open another chapter." Riiiiight

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November 26, 2008


It's one of those familiar little cultural rites for Britons and Australians in the US around this time; it happens to me every year without fail: some friendly well-intentioned American (usually a checkout clerk or someone like that) asks me how we celebrate Thanksgiving in Australia or Britain. I'm always tempted to reply with something glib and unpleasant about how we all give thanks for not being American, but it's easier to just smile and give some sort of non-committal response and ask them how they'll be celebrating their Thanksgiving. It's just one of those things here that you learn to play along with, like the assumption on pretty much every official form that everyone has a middle initial (and only one middle initial), and that every address in every country has something called a "zip code", or that all phone numbers world-wide are exactly ten digits long…

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November 19, 2008

Jonestown (Bringing It Home)

Thirty years ago this week more than 900 people killed themselves (or were killed) in Jonestown under the orders of the Reverend Jim Jones (who died along with his victims). Like most people, I guess, before I moved to the Bay Area it seemed a fairly abstract and distant event — classic Americana, an occasion for a cynical or even ironic riff on American religious and cultural delusion, a mostly-forgotten source for the phrase "drink the Kool Aid" — but around here it's hard to escape the human dimension behind the story, and the cynicism's hard to maintain in the face of the obvious and strong local connections and scars, even thirty years down the line.

Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple were intimately connected to San Francisco, the Bay Area, and California as a whole — the Peoples Temple had its headquarters in San Francisco (well within my memory you could still see it down on Geary if you knew where to look); Jim Jones himself was a larger-than-life and often-feted presence in liberal and leftist political circles here; and relatives of the dead (many of whom came from San Francisco and Oakland) are easy to find locally (my neighbourhood contains several people who had relatives who died there). Jackie Speier, now a high-profile local congresswoman, was one of the group of US congressional representatives and journalists shot by Jones's supporters at the local airstrip while attempting to leave Jonestown after a tense fact-finding mission (most of the other members of the party she was in, including local congressman Leo Ryan, were killed at the airstrip); Jones's son (who wasn't at Jonestown at the time, despite being a then-Believer) still lives in the Bay Area, grappling well (by the sounds of things) with the personal legacy of a father he apparently hated for decades afterwards. What seemed like a typically American (or more specifically Californian) weird and distant story from the distance of London or Sydney turns out to have a human dimension — imagine that.

Nine days after Jonestown, Dan White killed Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone in City Hall, sparking off another long-running thread in local history….

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November 14, 2008

The Big Country

The grandly-named Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (actually a nook in the mall at Orlando Airport) sells (amongst a large array of other merch) plush cuddly little official NASA space shuttles. I buy one; it'll go nicely with the friendly over-fed knitted pink and white Dalek I have back in Oakland.

At Denver we land in the teeth of a bitterly-cold strong northerly wind that's sending tumbleweeds rolling across the runways and ramps; it's snowed here earlier this morning, but it's blowing dirt and sand and stray bits of scrap paper right now. The crowds hanging around the gates waiting to board West Coast flights always seem visibly different to the rest of the vast mass of people that flows through this huge airport every day (this has often been the first sign of home for me over the past decade). At the western end of the long concourse you can see the beginning of the Rockies through plate glass picture windows; at the other end there's no view at all of the Great Plains sloping invisibly back through the haze towards the Mississippi and Back East. It's a state of mind, I guess, along with the "Tornado Shelter" signs pointing to the reinforced toilet structures every few tens of metres along the way.

Later, Boulder, the Front Range, snow-covered oilfields, the scoured scarred badlands of Western Colorado (a place with unlikely family connections for me), mesas, the Wasatch, Great Salt Lake, the endless sharp ranges of the Great Basin desert, snowcapped against a desert of rilles, craters, dry lakes, power stations, and mines in the middle of nowhere, Mono Lake and the Sierras (at last!), Mighty Modesto, State Route 99, Interstate 5, Mt Diablo and the Bay… we land into a very dry but mild mini Santa Ana that's turned the twilight bright orange and purple and the brush fire danger to bright red. Back to reality, I guess.

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November 13, 2008

The Natural

Fierce sun, hard rain, towering clouds, dark shades, Caribbean accents, sandy soil, scrubby trees, standing water, filmy lakes, sprawling malls, thrusting resorts, empty plazas, big food, ubiquitous obesity, unsustainable lifestyles…. Outside — somewhere — Natural Florida, a place I suspect I'd like a lot, a place I've never visited in twenty years of having to come to the Real Florida for conferences and business.

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November 11, 2008


So you fly a few thousand miles non-stop across the country to a smallish city in the middle of what seems like a very flat nowhere and approach the rental car counter at the airport. You can't help noticing that on the wall behind the counter there are three large posters, one from each of what you think of as your home towns — London, Sydney, and San Francisco — enticing you to travel to these distant locales (and rent cars there, presumably).

It all seems so exotic. Especially when the guy behind the counter cheerily greets you with a thick Brummie accent.

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November 05, 2008


Much is made of the shameful fact that forty seven years ago, when Obama was born, his parents could not have legally lived together in Virginia (or a large part of rest of the US) because of anti-miscegenation laws. Virginia in many ways redeemed itself last night by convincingly voting for Obama as the president; but last night, in a deeply shameful act, Californians voted to remove the right for same-sex people to marry. I'd like to believe that's the last gasp of Boomer and older bigotry, and that in decades to come we'll all ask how people could possibly have thought it right to ban such marriages in the same way we now wonder how mixed-race marriage could possibly have been considered both immoral and illegal, but I'm not holding my breath. True Belief, after all, is about civil rights for you and yours, not them and theirs…

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November 04, 2008

Morning In America

Rarely have I felt so good about being so publicly wrong (and rarely have I ever felt as much a part of — and as energised by — an American election). I think I kind of twigged yesterday when I saw a huge gleaming new American SUV parked in front of our building covered in Army and Infantry and NRA stickers… and a bunch of Obama / Biden stickers covering its back bumper. It seemed too good to be true, but there it was.

But what now? There's a world out there beyond the Bubble that hasn't changed at all… (and, in something its hard not to take quite personally, California's populist attempt to stomp on gay marriage, Proposition 8, appears to be winning, a real tragedy).

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November 02, 2008


That might be the word on the street around here (especially up towards East 14th), but even with all the loose pundit talk of landslides and crossover states, the reality on the ground beyond the Bay Area's cozy self-absorption is difficult to judge, and I still have bad forebodings…. It's not so much that I distrust the people (I don't put much store in the supposed applicability of the Bradley Effect, for example), it's that I distrust the pundits and the polls and their ability to see beyond the incestuous news cycle bubble. We shall see.

(One of the most interesting things about this campaign has been how two politicians I once rather admired, or at least thought interesting in their own ways — Hillary Clinton and John McCain — were for me both irreparably soiled by their own words and actions in this campaign. It's difficult to credit just how poorly both came off compared to what I expected from them, and just how effective and even subtly tough Obama has been made to look by comparison. That took some doing…).

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October 22, 2008

Helter Skelter (By Any Means Necessary)

It's difficult to convey to outsiders just how paranoid, oppressed, and alienated you can feel during an election like this in this God-washed country, a place where Belief often breeds a breezy contempt for thoughtfulness or fact, where brightly-polished lies are the much-traded currency of an artificial economy of fear, where semi-official campaign robocallers slime your voicemail with racist or borderline lunatic conspiracy theories viciously demonizing people who, you quickly realise, are stand-ins for yourself, where TV spots attack you and your beliefs every few minutes with a sustained seething haze of brazen smears and deniable innuendo (all done with a polite authoritative tone), where your mail box is soiled day after day by anonymous coded attack mailers full of cowardly insinuations or outright lies, where every second email is a naked appeal to put thought and reason aside and take up arms (real or not) to defeat some enemy or other… all that and a third term still seems a distinct possibility (the real local and personal tragedy will be Proposition 8 passing).

It's easy to say the electorate gets the election it deserves, but what did the rest of us do to deserve this way of choosing a president?

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October 12, 2008

What A Difference A Month Makes…

I had lunch with a bunch of techie friends and colleagues in Silicon Valley late last week; as usual with these things, none of us was US-born, and I was the only native English speaker (and, for that matter, the only white boy (or girl)) in the group. A fairly diverse set of people, in the way of the Valley, and (given the middle-class Indian, Asian, and African immigrant experience), a fairly conservative bunch as well (more so than me, especially). What amazed me was that everyone in that group supported Obama; no one could manage a good word for McCain (and some went a lot further than that, with some serious scorn for McCain and his more rabid supporters). Almost no one there could imagine McCain as an enlightened and effective president; everything in this discussion revolved around "character" (rather than identity), and about seriousness, credibility, and believability — Obama has it all, if you listen to this bunch (even if many of us believe it won't make much short-term difference just how good the new president will be). I was astonished: even four weeks ago this lunch would have had a very different tone to it.

But then none of us at that lunch lives in "America"; we live in the Bay Area, a very different place. All of us have founded or helped found startups or businesses (successful or otherwise), but for all the financial conservatism that tends to go along with that, most us around the table are pretty comfortable with things like gay marriage, socialised medicine, or government-led anti-global warming initiatives.

In other words, we're not typical. Nobody out there beyond the Valley cares less what we think. And in any case, it fundamentally just doesn't matter how we vote: we nearly all live in some of the most Obama-centric electorates in the nation. And what scares us isn't what scares the US populace as a whole Out There: stupid scare stories about Obama's supposed connections to aging domestic terrorists don't scare us nearly as much as the feeling that out there beyond the bubble, the US has lost the plot completely, that the US populace just doesn't understand what's hit it (or what it hit itself with again and again over the past decade or so). What scared us most at that lunch was the idea that the US electorate as a whole might actually fall — again — for all the same sort of idiotic scaremongering that produced the real problems in the first place. What scares us is the still-prevailing attitude Out There that things will just go back to the way they used to be and everything will be OK again without anyone having to make any sort of real sacrifices or changes to their lives. Now that's scary.

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October 03, 2008

Nucular Winter

I was pretty much permanently wiped out financially by the last US recession (the bust, which indirectly destroyed several businesses I was part of and damn near bankrupted me as an individual); but for most of the people around me who weathered that whole time without too many problems or down years, it all probably seemed (and seems) a curiously distant sort of experience (even as it was happening), a time that seems easy to understand (all that bullshit! Even though that had little to do with the recession itself…) at the same time as being a little mysterious in the way it actually affected life. People (like me) just quietly dropped out of sight or disappeared without trace (or at least without making too much of a fuss); most people seemed incurious, unconcerned; few people seemed personally much affected, at least directly. Many who didn't go under then still seem to have no real idea what it was like or what happened to many of us.

It all feels a lot closer and more urgent this time around, but there's still definitely that air of unreality and distance. I don't know, but I guess that it'll start hitting a lot harder for most of us in three to six months' time, maybe further down the line — and the effects are going to be much (much) longer-term and deep-seated. Many of us will be paying for this for the rest of our lives, one way or another, but the winter's going to be long and cold, that's for sure.

But who to blame? The populists are already figuratively putting the administration, the bureaucrats, and the Wall Streeters up against the wall, but W was reelected twice in popular bursts of belligerent nationalism and anti-intellectualism, and after eight years of doing exactly what he said he'd do, the results have been predictable, a definitive end to the American Century. Fire the people, maybe.

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September 14, 2008

Hurricane Sarah

In a rather tone deaf "why-oh-why" Op-Ed piece in yesterday's NYT, Bob Herbert rattles on about Hurricane Sarah, the Truth, and the various issues facing the country he thinks are being ignored. A key passage:
"With most candidates for high public office, the question is whether one agrees with them on the major issues of the day. With Ms. Palin, it's not about agreeing or disagreeing. She doesn't appear to understand some of the most important issues".
Surely this misses the point of her candidacy: in this low-lying identity-politics-drenched landscape, for many voters the question isn't so much whether one agrees with a candidate on the major issues of the day, but whether one identifies with the candidate.

For some people, what else is there? If you're unsure what issues will be important or will spring up unannounced in the future, or you don't have a clue what the "real" issues are supposed to be, you might reasonably look to the candidate's character; for many, that equates with "identity". And besides, the rush of having someone a lot like you up there on the big stage is undeniable (especially if there's never been anyone like you there before), and you're more likely to trust their judgement on issues close to your heart (and ignore the petty details to do with the issues Bob Herbert might think important). In identity politics, some sort of objective truth or knowledge surely doesn't really matter that much; more important is whether a candidate recognises or shares your truth, your knowledge, your experience. Identity not only shapes truth, it transcends it; Palin's identity sometimes just makes wider truths irrelevant.

(I'm on record in my real life for most of the past three months as predicting a big McCain victory in November — not even close — but I don't have the courage of my convictions, I'm often wrong, and I can't help wondering if this particular hurricane will peter out before making landfall (or wreak merry havoc for years to come…)).

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September 10, 2008

The Opposite Of Curiosity

Stephen Prothero, in his "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know — And Doesn't" (HarperOne, 2008), laments the lack of religious literacy in the US. I think he's right to do so, but what's really lamentable is surely the marked lack of religious curiosity in the US. Prothero thinks it's a paradox that a people as openly and aggressively religious as the inhabitants of the US should be so dismally unaware of their own and others' religions, but it's no paradox: on the one hand, so many religions as practiced nowadays in the US deliberately try to short-circuit or discourage the curiosity that underpins real literacy, and do so as an explicit part of those religious beliefs; on the other, the (public) self-absorption and belief in self as total authority that's become almost sacramental in this part of the world rarely makes for engaged religious exploration.

After all, True Belief is surely the opposite of curiosity; and in a nation as full of True Believers as the US, many of those believers probably take general religious illiteracy as a welcome sign of national religiosity and righteousness (though they wouldn't put it quite that way, I'd guess). In a nation where the slogan "God said it; I believe it; that settles it." is a working daily guideline for millions (including high-level politicians and officials), religious illiteracy is almost guaranteed — mostly because it's a greatly-valued part of their religion.

(The flip side of all this — the adoption of religions as lightly-worn lifestyle accessories (think Zen, yoga, etc.) — is a sign of a different sort of religious illiteracy, but one still often motivated or underpinned by a terrible lack of curiosity…).

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August 13, 2008

Buying The Dream

Obama confronts America with a successful living out of, and (crucially) a strong belief in, the traditional American Dream, at least as evangelised by the usual sellers of the Dream. It's interesting to watch conservative America react to the reality of that dream coming true for such a, well, different figure: the most interesting response being an engaged recognition of the fact but a (healthy) skepticism that merely believing in and fulfilling the American Dream isn't in itself sufficient qualification for being president; more commonly, it's just angry denial or a squirming sort of let's-change-the-subject deflection.

Even more interesting is the reaction on the left: quite often denial that there's any such thing as a valid American Dream, or that if it exists, that anything good could come from trying to live it. But in any case, for many Americans, what they think of Obama is what they think of the American Dream — and its applicability to Americans in general.

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July 22, 2008


A brazen, sneering, strutting, petulant, contemptuous arrogance, an absolute dedication to putting an unnacountable executive branch above the law in the service of big business and big government, chickenhawks in search of enemies to fight vicariously, a commitment to exclusionary faith and ideology tempered only by boundless cynicism, the preening hypocrisy of the self-righteous, a penchant for speaking power to truth, a history of sticking up for Big Brother against the little guy — um, where was I? What else was there?! Lord I'm tired of this regime….

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July 10, 2008

Everybody Loves A Parade

For a little good-natured state-sanctioned surrealism, check out the eight minute video take on Alameda's 4th of July parade I did last weekend. You'll need a quicktime player (your browser probably already has one), and the soundtrack's kinda crucial (so don't turn it down), and it's probably a little large for some tastes, but other than that, what's to say? Amazingly, it's the first 4th of July parade I've seen in all the years I've lived here, and the strange mixture of NRA floats, Peace Now pink ladies, the Oakland Back Cowboys Association, and the various Mexican dancing horses all felt about right to me, but I guess I expected more marching bands and whackos on floats. Still, it's not so bad for a small urban town still struggling with the loss of the military and rapidly-changing demographics. (Alameda is just across the Estuary from where I live).

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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 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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May 29, 2008


One of the groups lobbying against legalizing gay marriage in New York is called "New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms".

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May 23, 2008

Something Should Be Done About It!

There's a motif that repeats itself on TV news broadcasts across the US almost nightly nowadays. It's quite surreal: a harassed or belligerent local driver is sympathetically interviewed about ever-rising gas prices by a reporter as he or she fills a vast SUV or pickup with gas on their way to or from work (they're almost always the sole occupant of that vehicle, natch). The gist of the interview is nearly always that the interviewee is convinced that somehow, somewhere, someone Out There is ripping them off by broaching their natural right to cheap gas, and that someone — our fearless government, perhaps, or maybe just their local member of Congress — should punish the responsible evil oil companies and energy traders in the name of fairness and all things American, and let oil prices return to their natural low prices. Nothing much is ever said in these little riffs about reduced supplies or increased demand, or the plummeting dollar; and nothing's said at all about our almost total addiction to gas-driven economies or lifestyles. As one of my local Californian senators was quoted the other day somewhere in the Washington Post: "Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) accused them of offering 'a litany of complaints that you're all just hapless victims of a system.'"

So it might seem. But wait a minute: our Dianne was talking about the oil companies here; they're the "them" she was referring to above, not the US people as a whole. Once again a US politician wants to cast the US people as the victims here; no surprise there, I guess. No one ever says "oh, let's hold the US people as a whole responsible; we're driving too much, we've spent decades designing and building lives and lifestyles that are utterly predicated on cheap gas". No, they say we're victims of the oil companies, and as long as we fight back we'll all return to the glory days of a dollar a gallon.

Like I said, surreal. Guys, cheap gas isn't coming back. It's gone. Sure, it might recede back to half what it is now for a while (or it might never go below what it is now, i.e. about US $4 per US gallon), but don't bet your future on it. You did that last time — it's why we're all suffering now.

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April 25, 2008

Rumsfeld Was Right

Well, not really (and not at all where it matters, which would be on the ground in Iraq). But watching the first part of PBS's excellent Frontline series "Bush's War", he comes across as almost sympathetic, one of the few people in power in Washington or London at the time who wasn't completely mendacious or mealy-mouthed or stupid or self-pitying or willfully ignorant or who hadn't lost his or her moral nerve (he had no moral nerve to lose), a person who was often enough almost right (or right enough) about tactics and short-term strategy (but who was woefully wrong, or at least blind, about the overall direction and long-term picture); a good lieutenant in need of a smart moral captain. He was no Cheney, in other words (or a Powell, surely a good example of a general in need of a spine-stiffening lieutenant).

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April 05, 2008


"Blasting the Iraqi political leadership for not doing its part, Clinton said: 'We have given them the precious gift of freedom. We cannot win their civil war.'" — Hillary Clinton on the stump, quoted recently in the LA Times.

And no doubt those ungrateful Iraqis can't win our War On (some) Terrorism, either, despite having been invaded and then ruled with deep incompetence by a foreign government itself ruled by incompetents.

(Not especially trying to pick on Clinton here, but it seems hard to go beyond this quote for a succinct expression of the clueless arrogance and belligerent self-pity on Iraq affecting even (or, perhaps, especially) the Democratic front-runners. The strategy evolving here is obvious: blame the Iraqis for victimizing a blameless US by not rising to the occasion, and pull out in a self-righteous huff. It's a deeply hypocritical and destructive strategy, but it's likely to work wonderfully for those who espouse it, at least for the next year or so. There's been a lot of pointed talk lately here about the cost of the war, but it's the Iraqis who've paid the highest price by far, and endless talk about forcing the Iraqis to shoulder their fair share of the cost only shows that it's much easier to monetize the US costs than the Iraqi losses).

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March 25, 2008

Those Speeches

I keep returning to the apology, even after the all fuss has died down. Short, eloquent, thoughtful, moving, measured, appropriate, no weasel words, well-delivered: this is the way it should be done. Sometimes words matter, sometimes even small gestures symbolise a deeply significant change in attitude and circumstance.

After all these years I don't really think it took much courage to say it; the real question is what it took Howard's government not to say it. What took courage was living what it describes….

And that other recent speech? As many commentators have said, it's refreshing to be spoken to on issues like this like a grownup, something that augurs well for Obama as a person, but (judging by the childish response from a lot of the right-wing press here) might endanger him as a candidate. The courage in this instance wasn't talking about race per se, but doing so in ways that didn't condescend by substituting simplistic sound bytes for thoughtful complex analysis. He'll probably pay dearly for that.

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March 21, 2008

Such A Card

Clinton's team (and its surrogates) have so successfully played the various divisive resentment and blackmail cards lately that they've created a situation where whomever of Clinton or Obama "wins" the primaries, they'll both lose in some way. In fact, division is pretty much the only effective strategy Clinton has left: Clinton can only win by dividing; Obama can only win by uniting, and they both know it. In contests like this, division always wins, if only by the damage it causes any ultimate winners, especially in a primary season as closely-matched and evenly-spread as this one (where, almost by definition, more than half the relevant primary voters will not especially want whoever wins).

In particular, if Clinton loses, she's already framed that loss so well in terms of a negative identity politics that many of her supporters will resent Obama for not being the "right" identity (whichever that might be), and feel cheated by some version of "the man" (with all the various nuances of that phrase). Her supporters will resentfully mutter (or shout) "we wuz robbed!" and not feel any desire to support Obama because he's just not one of them.

Conversely, if Obama loses, many of his supporters are going to feel deeply repelled by the sort of divisive old-school by-any-means-neccessary tactics and strategies (including some really egregious gender blackmail and coded racial messages) that will help underpin any Clinton "win". Few people are going to believe Clinton if she wins and then starts appealing to a sense of Democratic unity, or gets all inclusive on everyone.

Clinton's the self-annointed old-school establishment candidate, and while neither candidate can do much to effect real change after being elected, Obama might have been able to change the way the election itself worked, which might have been a start. When the primary race began I would have been fairly happy with any of the front-running triumvirate (with obvious caveats about the claustrophobically-narrow choices available in any modern US presidential election); months later, I'm not so sure.

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February 17, 2008


Doing my grocery shopping in Berkeley at Andronico's yesterday I stumble across something called a "Woolloomooloo Bar", and just have to buy it. It's an upscale self-described "exotic candy bar" apparently made in Chicago with a bunch of unlikely ingredients that don't immediately bring to mind the down-at-heels Woolloomooloo of earlier times, or the New! Improved! Woolloomooloo of today, let alone the University of Woolloomooloo (still remembered with affection in this overgrown college town). "Looks like something from down your way…" the checkout clerk says from the other side of the checkstand with an ironic smile (I'm sure she's thinking "Bruce!").

Well, maybe. I seem to have a studio full of American Australiana or fake Australian products now, from the Aussie Land "Blue Mountains" shampoo I found in Oakland a few years ago to the plastic boomerang I bought at Stone Mountain outside Atlanta a decade ago, through the Wallaby Yogurt in my fridge (every time I see it I struggle with the temptation to mutter the obvious slogan "made from real wallabies!") and the "Aussie Sun-Touched Shine" conditioner in my shower ("Add some Roo to your do!", as it says on the container (Urgh! I'm not making this up, you know)), to the very Californian-looking (read: clean, lean, fat-free, organic) pies advertised as "Authentic Aussie National Food!" in a local deli the other day. It all seems so exotic.

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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 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 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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September 20, 2007

That Bin Laden Thing

"Bin Laden has created a situation in which the U.S. occupation in Iraq is viewed as entirely 'illegitimate' and therefore any violence there by Sunni jihadists against American or Iraqi civilians is considered entirely legitimate 'resistance'" — Thomas Friedman in a recent NYT Op-Ed piece.

Without taking anything away from Friedman's main point in the article as a whole, it's a little odd to claim that Bin Laden created this situation. Bin Laden didn't invade Iraq on transparently-false pretenses, and Bin Laden didn't then preside over a deeply-destructive occupation of lethal missteps and incompetent ad hoc decisions. And Bin Laden as he currently exists is at least partly a creation of ruthlessly-stupid and deeply hypocritical American foreign policy decisions, both recent and over the decades. And of media and administration attempts to portray him as much larger than life.

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September 16, 2007

American Genius

Stax pre-1969. More important than the moon shot.

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August 18, 2007

Another Damn Slideshow?

US Highway 50, Central Nevada

For those of you who asked (you know who you are), I finally got around to putting up the full Flash-based slideshow / gallery from the earlier desert trip (see e.g. the april archives ad nauseam). Click on the image above or here to see the gallery. You'll need a fairly hi-res screen (it's optimised for at least 1280 x 1024, but it'll work at less than this), and you can fiddle with the enigmatic little icons on the bottom right of the page to start things going and to enable or disable image titles, etc.

And if you don't have Flash and / or Javascript (or you've disabled them), you probably won't see anything at all. Which might be a blessing — there's a lot of images up there…

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August 10, 2007

In Harm's Way

What a principle to live by: "And we should only have Americans in harms' way where there are U.S. interests at stake" — Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., quoted in a recent NYT.

Yes, it'd be naive to believe she meant that only Americans should be in harm's way when US interests are at stake (instead of, say, all those expendable UnAmericans in places like Iraq). An unwittingly good rule to live by, Ms Wilson. How about it?….

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June 19, 2007


In an op-ed piece in Sunday's NYT, Frank Rich points out that "it's [...] revealing that the only 'casualty of a war' Mr. Ajami's conscience prompts him to mention [in a typically-overheated WSJ op-ed article] is Mr. Libby, a figurative casualty rather than a literal one".

It's even more revealing that in Rich's op-ed piece the only casualties of war mentioned besides Scooter Libby are US soldiers. Not a word on the Iraqis, by far the major casualties of the war so far. Even for Rich (whose op-ed bits I typically enjoy), the war's so often All About US.

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June 09, 2007

Burying The Lede

Talk about burying the lede: in the last few paragraphs of a long NYT front-page story and rumination on the meaning of Paris Hilton's reincarceration, there's a comparison with Scooter Libby's sentence; buried in those few paragraphs is the real meat: the (conservative, Bush-appointed) Libby trial judge's sarcastic rejoinder to those worthies (including Alan Dershowitz and Robert Bork) who filed a supporting brief for Libby urging a lenient sentence:
"The court trusts […]" that the brief "is a reflection of these eminent academics' willingness in the future to step up to the plate and provide like assistance in cases involving any of the numerous litigants, both in this court and throughout the courts of our nation, who lack the financial means to fully and properly articulate the merits of their legal positions."

"The court", he added, "will certainly not hesitate to call for such assistance from these luminaries."
Wish I'd said that.

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June 04, 2007


"[Lincoln] Kirstein once defined American style [...] as 'a leanness, a visual asceticism, a candour, even an awkwardness which is itself elegant [...]'" (quoted in a recent NRYB).

Even fifty years ago, it's hard to imagine anyone saying that with a straight face, but Kirstein wasn't exactly noted for his sense of humour.

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April 29, 2007

Tough Town

Until maybe Trona, but definitely somewhere before Barstow, the appropriate soundtrack for the trip always seemed to be classic Country (the corny fun melodic stuff of the various Hanks and Johnnies, at least); by Barstow, it had slipped into something a little darker, the sort of bad sub-classic rock male primal scream music you associate with aggressive resentment and loud self-pity. Huge SUVs, ATVs, RVs, jacked-up pickups, assault stereos, windowless clapboard houses, in-your-face Confederate and US flags, dark glasses and bristling moustaches, tats and bare flab, people as fat as their cars; Barstow's a tough town. I leave it for Oakland.

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April 28, 2007

Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino

Cady Mountains, Route 66

Cady Mountains, Route 66.

Ludlow, Route 66, California

Ludlow, California.

Ludlow Crossing, Route 66, California

Ludlow Crossing, California.

Siberia, Route 66, California

Siberia, California.

Bagdad, Route 66, California

Bagdad, California (yes, that Bagdad, even if the film was actually made 50 miles up the highway at Newberry Springs…).

Roy's, Amboy, Route 66, California

Roy's, Amboy, California. When I first drove through here nearly twenty years ago, I knew nothing about the place. Roy's was still owned and run by Buster Burris back then; he actually owned the entire surrounding "town" of Amboy as well, and later tried to sell it en masse (but no one bought it). I stopped and went in to the cafe for a soda. It was small and deathly quiet; I was the only customer there. There were several hand-drawn and autographed pictures of Ronald Reagan on the wall; the decor was retro-kitsch without the "retro" (or the quotes), barstools, plastic-topped tables, etc. I got my soda from the rather nice old woman behind the counter and fled, which seems a stupidly-wasted opportunity in retrospect….

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North American

North American

Pisgah, California

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April 27, 2007

Sidewinder Road

Sidewinder Road

Beautiful Mt Stoddard from Sidewinder Road, Barstow.

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Desert Blooms

Desert Blooms

Another desert icon, in full spring bloom along Sidewinder Road near Barstow.

Desert Blooms

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Trona Pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles

Not quite the same Trona I know and love, but close enough.

Trona Pinnacles

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Trona, California

This town's always defeated me, I can never seem to capture the glinting flinty junkyard atmosphere, the beautiful desert lurking behind the sinewy mine processing plants looming over the clapboard houses and boarded-up businesses… so I look the other way.

Trona, California

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April 26, 2007

Death Valley

Death Valley

Surrounded by all the landscape, it's the people that catch the eye…

Zabriskie Point

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Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point

Not just a really dumb movie, after all…

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April 25, 2007

The Forest

Yucca Forest

There's a strange and beautiful yucca (Joshua tree) forest a little off the beaten track that I visit when I can; these trees always mean "the Mojave" to me. I don't tell people where the forest is; those who know, know; the rest can flood the smaller, more accessible forests at leisure.

Yucca Forest

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Darwin (California)

Darwin, California

Darwin, CA: one of the repeated motifs in the California and Nevada deserts is junk. Junk surrounding houses, junk spilling out of properties, junk strewn across empty spaces in the middle of nowhere. Virtually the only places junk-free in the deserts now are the National Parks and the very remote places no one has really heard of — almost everywhere else, especially next to roads or near houses and other buildings, just seems to attract dead cars, fridges, old TV sets, cans, tires, whatever….

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Manzanar Relocation Camp, California

Reconstructed sentry station, Manzanar "Relocation Center", Owens Valley: one of the better-known concentration camps used to forcibly house "relocated" US citizens and resident of Japanese descent from the West Coast during WWII. When I first drove past here nearly twenty years ago, there really wasn't anything marking the place — maybe just a plaque a little down US 395 from the old county maintenance shed, and no one I asked was entirely sure where it was (there were no signs on the highway). No one really ever mentioned it; the idea of it being a concentration camp was deeply controversial. Nowadays it's being slowly recreated (there's a new old guard tower as well as the sentry and guard stations), and it's at least a little on the locals' minds, if only as a potential tourist attraction, and the term "concentration camp" gets used a little more freely. And it's got its own rather nice National Parks Service website.

The thing that's always struck me, though, is just how physically beautiful the location is: the High Sierra to the west, the Inyos to the east, the desert floor… hell to live in, though, especially in forced camps.

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April 24, 2007

Eureka Dunes

Eureka Dunes, California

Eureka Dunes. The toilet in the middle of nowhere. In the distance the dull booms and occasional roar from the military jets over Saline Valley; twice a stray F/A-18 loiters past me near the dunes, low and slow, maybe 1,000' AGL and maybe 250 knots, heading straight for a low pass just to the left of the range in the photo above, climbing rapidly just before the range. I am the only car I see all day on the access road (below).

South Eureka Road, California

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Pennies 4 Ponies

Bishop, California

Bishop, CA: I put a handful of quarters into the "Pennies 4 Ponies" collection tin at the local donuterie, a sort of homage to my fave Bishop resident, bug-eyed and red above South Main now for as long as I remember. After Fernley, Austin, Eureka, Ely, and Tonopah, Bishop's a shiny stable steadily-growing centre of things (the whole US 395 / Mammoth / LA thing, I think), one of the places I stumbled across in the late 1980's as I drove my battered old Honda Accord around the state almost randomly. I've been coming here once or twice a year ever since.

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April 23, 2007

Tonopah, NV

Clown Motel, Tonopah

Tonopah, Nevada: what to make of a town that has both a Clown Motel and a missile test firing range?

US Highway 6, Nevada

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US 6

US Highway 6, Nevada

US Highway 6, Ely (Nevada) to Bishop (California) via Tonopah (Nevada), maybe a better candidate for "The Loneliest Road In America", like US 50 another long drive through snow-covered high desert sagebrush, narrow mountain passes, windswept playas (complete with tumbleweed blowing across the road in front of me), and tiny settlements of dead trees, junk, and boarded-up windows. This is a highway where (the last time I drove it, a decade ago at least) I could set up a tripod in the middle of the road and spend five minutes leisurely taking photos without having to move for traffic (the last time I was here the landscape defeated my attempts to take photos; this time, it seems a little easier). For large stretches of the road, I seem to be the only vehicle on earth; Nye County stretches forever towards Tonopah, mesmerising, amazing.

US Highway 6, Nevada

US Highway 6, Nevada

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Ely, NV

Ely Cathedral (Hotel Nevada, Ely, NV)

Ely Cathedral (sorry, old joke).

Ely, Nevada, cold, snowy, a hopeful sort of ghost town, shiny signs of money here and there in the rubble of so many boom / bust cycles (and in the new stores and fast food joints along US 93 on the outskirts of town), boosterish news stories about Ely being the hub of a new Eastern Nevada renaissance papering over vacant store fronts next to faded "US 50 Survival Kits sold here!" signs. It's certainly bigger than when I first visited here some 15 years ago, but nearly all the places I ate at or stayed at then have gone out of business. Some beautiful old brick buildings downtown nestled in the hills, many of them shuttered or boarded up; the place feels more like a battered-about Back East mining town than something out of California or Nevada history...

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April 22, 2007

The Loneliest Road In America

The Loneliest Road In America

US 50 through Nevada, Fallon to Ely, the self-proclaimed "Loneliest Road In America", one of the great American high desert drives. You drive for miles along a flat straight stretch of two-lane blacktop across the desert floor, surrounded by sagebrush and playas, not another vehicle in sight, heading straight towards a sheer 10,000' snow-clad range, wondering how the hell you're going to get through it; the road bends or curves a little, you rise up to six or seven thousand feet as the road twists through the snow and the rocks, and suddenly you're heading downhill again to the next long straight stretch. This goes on all day, and I'm snowed on heavily for several hours between Austin and Ely, large, wet, dense flakes that stick to the rocks and dirt by the side of the road. Past Fallon, military convoys, radar domes, dead airplanes and tanks stacked up in the desert, antennas bristling along ridgtops and hidden behind rises; Austin, another junkyard town, down at heels, nothing shiny in the pervasive snow and rust, not even a MacDonalds. This is Pony Express country — everything's a Pony Express This or Pony Express That, including seedy bars and long-dead motels. The local coffee place here in Ely is the Pony Expresso.

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Sand Mountain

The Loneliest Road In America

Sand Mountain, just off US 50 a few dozen miles east of Fallon, on the edge of nowhere. We're in Richard Misrach territory here, for sure, a beautiful desert landscape mired in people. Tall dunes nestled up against sharp volcanic hills and ridges across from a (currently-flooded) playa; the dunes are swarming with angry-sounding ATVs and dune buggies, cutting into the surface, all around the base of the dunes, the fat mothership RVs and oversize pickups....

The unsettling thing is just how quickly the usually wary-of-strangers-with-cameras ATV riders and RV owners change to friendliness when they hear my Australian(ish) accent. I'm suddenly one of them, with all that implies for me and for the accent....

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April 21, 2007

Fernley, Nevada

Fernley, NV, a sort of sparse distributed loose coalition of strip malls with nothing in the vacant spaces between fast food joints, casinos, gas stations, and auto parts stores, a growing town struggling to supplant the scattered older beaten-up junkyard desert homes and industrial plants. More a plan for a town than a town.... The car next to mine in the hotel parking lot is a huge Cadillac Escalade SUV with a "US out of UN!" bumper sticker on it. Next to it is a "UN out of US!" sticker. We’re a short drive from NAS Fallon. Top Gun territory.

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April 15, 2007

Andrew Sullivan's Soul

"Sullivan splashes excitedly around like a dog in a mud puddle, snarling ferociously at any other dog who challenges his position du jour. He's less a skeptic than a mercurial, and somewhat flirtatious, born believer" — Jonathan Raban reviewing Andrew Sullivan's "The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back" in a recent NYRB.

Sullivan's a smart, complex, tragic, and (for me, at least) rather attractive and exemplary figure (for all the wrong reasons), a man who seems to struggle mightily with having to bear a whole bunch of crosses, not least of which is that he's a True Believer trying desperately to belong in the skeptical house of Oakeshott, and he's the sort of person (common enough in academia and politics) whose rhetorical abilities far outstrip his self-knowledge. Like many True Believers, he seems defined by his need for True Enemies (rather than the True Enemies themselves), someone who navigates by a constantly changing constellation of intellectual enemies.

"For the fundamentalist ... there is one moment of real conscience, the moment when he makes the decision to conform his mind and will to an external authority. After that, his sole task is obedience [...]". (Sullivan dissing fundamentalists, as quoted by Raban).

Sullivan's real tragedy, though, bubbling below the surface, is that he failed the greatest moral and philosophical test of his life, throwing himself in uncritically with the quite plainly Rationalist (in Oakeshott's usage of the term) Bush project immediately after 9/11 (and especially with the Iraq invasion). He became fundamentalist at the crucial moment; or, rather, he seems to be a serial fundamentalist who latched on to another True Belief in the heat of the moment. His latter-day reflections on quite why he behaved that way seem disingenuous or quite unable to get to the heart of the matter: we weren't all fooled, we didn't all Believe in the way he did.

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April 05, 2007

Historical Amnesia

"'Today they are trying to tamper with history by making a film and by making Iran's image look savage,' Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, adding that a cultural campaign against Iran would not succeed.

The film has enraged Iranian officials and others over its depiction of the ancient Persians, the ancestors of modern day Iranians, with complaints that it depicts them as murderous and warmongering." — from a recent Grauniad article on the film "300".

Well, maybe he's right (or not) about the intention, but I can tell him from personal experience that anyone who tries attacking Iran's image by using Persia as a proxy isn't going to get too far here — how many average Americans even know Persia really existed, let alone that it's Iran's (more-or-less) ancestor?

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