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 03, 2010

That Totalitarian Democracy

With all the bipartisan furor about the missing intelligence oversight of the Christmas Underpants Bomber we're rushing slowly towards the consensual totalitarian democracy. But the real scary and destructive scenarios involve things like a suitcase bomb on BART's trans-bay tube, random truck bombings in the heartland, or DNS root server subversion; those are the sorts of things that have me reaching for my shades….

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December 22, 2009

The Wisdom Of The Mob

(Or Dense Pessimisms, Take 3…)

The internet's about immediacy; immediacy fosters instability (it implies no moderation). The net therefore discourages stable grand-scale narratives — like science or government — that are based on a sort of reasoned consensus, but encourages those based on True Belief and revelation (such as religious or political fundamentalisms). The net fragments, it destroys structure; or, rather, it destroys permanent structure. On the one hand it's the great leveler; on the other it encourages dynamic fundamentalisms in response to that lack of structure. Truths wash over the net in waves; it's Postmodernism without the twee irony, and with the power to spill over into real life (not that the net isn't a fundamental part of real life) with catastrophic effect for the sort of Postmodernist sensibility that probably applauds the lack of grand narrative.

The net privatises truth generation and reception; it's like the way the transistor radio and then the iPod privatised the experience of listening (or not listening). In some ways the internet's effect has been like the translation of the Bible from the Vulgate to the vulgar: the unmediated word for everyone, the Truth is in your own reading, not that handed down from the Church. But it also introduces writing for the masses, a universal platform to proclaim those little private Truths very publicly.

The net's the Wal-Mart of truths — you can get anything you want, but like shopping in Wal-Mart it's easier to trust a familiar brand when looking for a particular product. Brands structure the world — the Word, for that matter — and become essential in the world of a million choices. And fundamentalisms are brands; and surely successful brands flirt with a sort of fundamentalism…. We're headed for the Society Of The Brand, not that of the Spectacle.

The unmediated wisdom of the crowd? Just another way of saying the wisdom of the mob.

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December 14, 2009

It's Irrefutable!

"Althusser informs us that 'it is an irrefutable fact that the Family is the most powerful State Ideological Apparatus'" (from Tony Judt's 1994 New Republic review article, reprinted in his recent book "Reappraisals"). I sometimes tend to think it's more like state ideology is the most powerful family apparatus, in all the engendered senses of that inversion, but that's just a detail, right? After all, Althusser's talking irrefutable fact here, so he can't be wrong, right?

Despite his obvious humourless totalitarian tendencies and socially unperceptive work (and life, for that matter), Althusser was once taken Very Seriously Indeed by people I knew and respected in Sydney, and I'm sure somewhere in the stash of books I left with my brother when I moved to London there's a dog-eared copy of "For Marx" or "Reading Capital" (probably both). Reading Althusser as an engineering student who was also doing a serious history and philosophy of science (HPS) second major was a transformative experience, but not in the way it probably was for most non-techie readers. More than the deliberately obtuse and jargon-laden prose (seemingly designed to do the familiar trick of being allusive without actually pinning Althusser down to anything you could test or criticise without him (or his acolytes) protesting that you'd misread or misunderstood him), I think it was his misuse of the words "science" and "scientific" that did it for me. It's that classic sleight-of-hand shell game equivocation where a hollowed-out version of "science" is used as a stand-in for something quite different, but still lends it the aura of objectivity (the dead giveaway with Althusser is that nothing non-trivial in science is an irrefutable fact). And I was left with the stark difference between the "show the work" and "evoke the metaphor" poles of my then-academic reading life….

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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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September 27, 2009

Little Scotland

It's starting to look like Scottish independence referendum time again, and, as always, I'm forced to think about where I fit into things like this. Not about the Big Picture (the Union's been pretty good for Scotland over the centuries, despite the latter-day wingeing, and the push for independence often has a faint whiff of belligerent self-pitying Little Scotland Scottishry about it), but about my own nationality. I'm that deeply-unfashionable thing, a Briton, and "British" is probably all you could really call me (you could have plausibly called me a Londoner as well in the past, but not nowadays). I still have no idea what I'll do if I'm forced to chose a specific nationality rather than leave it "British". (On the other hand, if I were forced to chose between California and the US, that would be no choice at all: I'm unequivocally a Californian, but not at all an American).

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September 18, 2009

Less Than Zero

"The electric car will account for 10% of the global market in 10 years," predicts Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of alliance partners Renault and Nissan in a BBC interview. "It is time for zero emission motoring."

Indeed. But electric cars don't typically have zero-emissions: the emissions just happen elsewhere, usually at the (massive) power plant that supplies the energy to power the car. That may be a reasonable tradeoff and a real improvement (in the absence of the more useful cutting back on personal mobility and energy consumption in general), but in the usual way of these things, sometime down the line we'll wake up to the fact that all these electric vehicles require more and larger power plants… with more and larger emissions and transmission lines. And more and larger protests at the building of such power plants and transmission lines. All together now: "Not In My Back Yard (or Garage)!".

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September 15, 2009

Who He?

Today's San Francisco Chronicle made front (business) page news out of local company Chevron's Gorgon venture off Western Australia with an above-the-fold article and a photo of "Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd" and a Chevron functionary in hard hats looking at plans on-site. But they identified the wrong guy in the pic as Rudd, an easy error in a newspaper that probably doesn't have a single editor or staff writer who'd know what the Australian Prime Minister actually looks like. But as always, why should the Chron know something like that? Maybe that other Australian, our Governator, might care, but to the rest of the US, it's all a bit of a puzzle, I guess.

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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 25, 2009

There's A Riot Going On

"What are we to make of a scientific materialism which formally accepts the findings of physics about matter, yet makes so little effort to link these findings with the class struggle, revolution, or whatever. Does not the abyss between proton and the proletariat conceal an unacknowledged metaphysical conception of man?" — Benedict Anderson in a footnote to Imagined Communities (p10 in my edition).

At first glance this is an absolute riot of category errors (and the context doesn't save it). At second glance it's hard to make enough sense of it to know whether they're really category errors or not. But never mind: this is a frustrating book, but one I keep reading. And reading it is like reading a map prepared by someone who navigates to a completely different (even hidden) set of stars (Marx, Gellner, et al); it's like unearthing a time capsule from a long-vanished era and having to struggle to remember some of the cultural, philosophical, and political references that Anderson must have assumed we'd all get or at least recognise as Important and Relevant (itself a word of its time…). In short, a book that seems colonised by the time and place of its writing.

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August 18, 2009


I sit across the desk from the friendly-but-reserved sales guy trying to sell me a new car (he succeeded), dying to ask him the obvious question while he rattles on about accessories and options: what was it like growing up black in the suburban Arizona of the sixties? Instead, we smalltalk about local politics (a much safer topic). A few minutes later S. (from Ethiopia via London) finalizes the finance deal with a quiet but heart-felt rant about Americans and their (our) idiotic health care system and our self-destructive populist politics; it's all I can do to stop myself from asking how a ruthless uber car salesman and finance guy like him can profess such views in an industry like his. He shakes my hand and tells me I'll like my new car (I do). Damn the car, though — it's much less interesting than the stories lurking in the salesroom….

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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 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 18, 2009

Imagination Run Riot

"The great instrument of moral good is the imagination" (Shelly, quoted in Charles Simic's review of Slako Goldstein's "1941: Godin koja se vraca" in the latest NYRB).

No, it's not imagination, it's that special form of imagination, empathy. Imagination without empathy too often becomes the sort of murderous paranoia that Goldstein's book describes (and that periodically plagues America). When that sort of imagination runs wild, people tend to die in real life, people tend to forget that there are individual humans at the center, the start, the end, the sights, of even the most imaginative movement or abstract noun.

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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 26, 2009


Proposition 8 gets affirmed, to the shame of California, but as even our Republican Governator publicly recognises, one day it'll be overturned by common consent or (better-grounded) legal action (hell, that's already happening in other parts of the country — I can't help feeling that a tiny part of the outrage felt here is that California's been trumped on this (of all issues) by those little states Back East). Again, it's hard not to believe that sometime soon Prop 8 will be looked at in the same way we look at anti-miscegenation laws nowadays, as an affront to decency, and Prop 8 as the last gasp of Boomer (Worst. Generation. Ever.) bigotry.

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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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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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April 11, 2009


Downtown Berkeley, 11am, an older white woman (at least 70, I'd say), dressed in classic expensive Californian upper-middle-class clothing, stands beside me waiting for the lights to change on Shattuck. Apropos of nothing at all she looks up at me and says "The last time I was here it was full of people protesting gay marriage!" I look around at her, smile sweetly (wondering where this was leading), and say cautiously "Yeah, it's Berkeley…". She goes on: "They're nuts! They're bigots! Can't they see even their god created everyone, straight and gay! I had a great time screaming back at them. If anyone thinks being gay's a choice I'll scream at them too!". She smiles broadly, steps off the street as the lights change, and strides off towards Wells Fargo.

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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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February 02, 2009

Rudderless Oakland

An already-tainted and overwhelmed police force under FBI investigation, with the police chief suddenly resigning in a hissy fit; a huge and unexpected budget shortfall (over and above the normal recession problems) due to incompetence or fraud (no one's quite sure which just yet); continuing destructive riots and civil unrest downtown in reaction to a brutal shooting that's got almost nothing directly to do with Oakland; the predictable (and predicted) bungling of the case against the alleged assassins of Chauncey Bailey; a deepening recession that not even the Port can help us with now; a drought that's breathing hotly down our necks; allegations of rampant nepotism in the city's workforce; and an ineffectual mayor who doesn't bother to come in to his office except when he feels like it (tying up business for days on end)… at least the homicide rate is down compared to last year.

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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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December 10, 2008

Why, Indeed?

"If the development of print-as-commodity is the key to the generation of wholly new ideas of simultaneity, still, we are simply at the point where communities of the type 'horizontal-secular, transverse-time' become possible. Why, within that type, did the nation become so popular?" (from Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities").

It's a dirty job but someone's got to read it….

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December 04, 2008


There's a lot of talk of intelligence failures after the Mumbai attacks, but what would it take to have an intelligence success in this sort of thing? Massive surveillance, either centralised (the whole Panopticon thing) or distributed (networks of informers), or both, unfortunately. Yet those of us who rail on about intelligence failures are also often enough those of us who deplore the encroachment of government (and industry) on the private domain; that protective Big Brother looking over everyone's shoulders is more than just a riposte to that chip on our shoulders.

You can't have individual privacy, democracy, and safety from other individuals all in the same society; one or more has to give, at least to some extent….

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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 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 30, 2008


Barack Obama Bread from the Feel Good Bakery, Alameda, CA

Obama bread, the very latest in comfort food from the guys at the Feel Good Bakery just across the bridge in Alameda's Marketplace. Yes, I just had to buy a loaf (this one's about a foot (30cm) across); they sell out early in the day, with Obama outselling McCain something like nine to one (big surprise there).

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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 22, 2008

Weasel Words

Sir Ian Blair on the de Menezes killing: "No-one set out with any intent to let a young man die." (see e.g. Blair call for Menezes 'humility').

Sir Ian Blair and the Met didn't let a young man die, they killed him, actively and with an unrepentant savage swiftness that will never be reflected in the pale imitation of justice that might — eventually — wend its way towards an early retirement here or bureaucratic admonishment there.

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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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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 16, 2008

The Smartest Guys In The Room

A (true) story: about a dozen or so years ago, as the result of a company takeover, I worked for a large company that had bought out the much smaller company (a typical high tech startup) that I'd been a part of, and as a result I'd been granted quite a lot of stock options in the larger company (as happens here, usually — as in this case — as a sort of deferred salary). Enough to buy the better part of a house, cash (even in San Francisco!), at the price the larger company paid — but only if the larger company's stock price held, or at least didn't lose too much of its value, for a few years. There was no reason to think there'd be any real problems, as the larger company's financials seemed pretty plausible, and the auditors and banks had all signed off on the books, etc., and senior management at the larger company seemed to be doing well; and the tech economy was years from the dotcom meltdown (not that we knew that at the time, of course). Few of us in the smaller company much liked the larger company's top management; if nothing else, they lacked the sort of refinement and technical nous that our own upper management was known for, and in comparison to our management's general verbal and mental flair, their management seemed to have trouble holding their own against anyone who used words of more than one syllable. But we all stood to earn a fair bit of money from the deal, and we really didn't spend too much time worrying about it all.

Then one day I was in a meeting with a Larger Company Senior Management Type where he was explaining to us engineering rubes why this quarter's financial results were not what had been forecast, and why, consequently, the stock price was slowly declining on a daily basis (but still not at a worrisome level). Our European guys, he said, had screwed up — they'd forgotten to factor in the Easter holidays and we hadn't been able to make the revenue forecasts because of the unexpected days off. I was incredulous. I asked whether they really expected us to believe that crap? Like almost any Briton or European, I would never forget Easter was coming up — it's our major holiday, dammit. It's like an American waking up one day and realising he or she forgot Thanksgiving. Lame. He straight-facedly insisted that that was the real reason, and that there wasn't any bigger thing going on. Easter isn't any sort of holiday here in the US at all, so it probably sounded plausible to the US engineers, and for the next few weeks we just muttered about idiot managers and left it at that (I was, in fact, semi-officially censured for publicly doubting upper management's competence). It seemed like a temporary stuff-up, probably caused by incompetence at the top level, but nothing endemic.

But we got more and more of these odd little excuses and financial hiccups over the next few months, none of them quite adding up, and none of them really raising a red flag on its own, but all of them increasingly fishy. Some of us were also uneasy because the stock price was declining along with the hiccups, but even with the decline, we still stood to get a fair bit of money. We couldn't actually sell our stock for a while in any case, because most of us were barred by contract from doing so until at least a year after the buyout.

And then one day it was over: the stock plummeted to near nothing as the massive fraud behind the Larger Company's last few years worth of sales was revealed. The lucky survivors from the smaller company (myself included) simply ended up with nothing; the unlucky ones ended up with huge tax bills for paper "profits" they'd never see (sure, they got that tax back a year later, but they typically had to borrow literally tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay the immediate bill). Almost all of us lost all the many years' worth of deferred salaries or direct investments the options and stock represented to us Smaller Company workers. The resulting litigation dragged on for years (for a while I was in the weird situation of working for a company that I was, as part of a then-unprecedented class action, suing), and I think I managed to get a few cents on the dollar from the settlement. Enough, especially by the time it was all over, to maybe buy a doghouse for cash in San Francisco (not that I have a dog, but it's the thought that counts). Five years of work and savings down the drain. Such is life, I guess, in the high tech world. Easy come, easy go.

Many years later, the CEO was finally convicted, and sent to jail for a little while. He's out now, and — incredibly — earning money back in the industry. He didn't lose it all; he came out just fine, by the looks of things, or at least compared to most of the rest of us. It turns out he had form, if you know what I mean. To my knowledge, none of the banks or auditors or oversight committees, etc., ever admitted to dropping the ball, let alone to incompetence or responsibility in any form (par for the course, of course).

Whenever we survivors from the smaller company get together (as many of us do, at an annual BBQ) we ruefully and rather bitterly talk about how we always seem to be working at the cutting edge — in this case, working for the Enron-ahead-of-its-time. I lost pretty much all my putative savings in that one; I still think of all the what-if's and might-have-been's; it's one of the central facts of my financial life, and has helped directly and indirectly determine the shape of the past decade for me.

* * *

A few years later, along with a lot of other Californians, I endured the power cuts and outages (such a lovely word; a bunch of us also coined the word "innage" as a result) that plagued California after its pioneering power industry deregulation and privatisation. The deregulation debacle ensured that while tens of millions of us lost power semi-randomly, a few companies and individuals made, well, tens of millions. Or even billions. Most of us at the time chalked the problems up to political incompetence (the whole process was a spectacularly stupid idea incompetently legislated and implemented, but sold to the public with the usual enthusiastic boosterism, those smooth, well-practiced half-truths and outright lies that seemed to dominate that era), mixed with the undeniable fact that Californians are basically clueless about limited resources, and use electricity like it's going out of fashion, even when to do so is either counter-productive or even suicidal. So it was actually quite plausible that we'd brought it all on ourselves and that we'd just have to grit our teeth and muddle through for a few years until it all sorted itself out (how very British).

What most of us didn't know then was that a large company not a lot of people had heard of at the time called Enron was — along with a bunch of witting and unwitting co-conspirators — actively manipulating the power supply and resulting prices in ways that the new deregulation regime made easy, or even encouraged. A lot of the brownouts and blackouts were actually the side effect of, or the catalyst for, blackmail done in the name of deregulation, and we Californians were basically just pawns, hostages, or collateral damage in the larger game.

At the time, any attempt to get behind the scenes and discover whether there was any sort of collusion or manipulation by suppliers and distributors nearly always met with official derision or worse. Well, we know better now. The whole episode, and Enron itself, is even one of the main reasons we have a high-profile Governator rather than the more typical gray bureaucrat we had at the time. We still face the fallout from the deregulation debacle in our daily lives here, whether we know it (or think about it) or not.

* * *

So for one reason or another, Enron's been a part of my life for quite a while.

And finally, a few years even further down the road, I finally get to see "The Smartest Guys In The Room" on DVD. It explains a lot. Or, more accurately, it illustrates a lot, a lot that's close to my heart, anyway. Yes, I already knew almost all that was in the film — all the facts and figures and overall narratives, anyway — but it's great to see it so well depicted and articulately explained.

The film's probably an acquired taste: it's visually mannered, with a lot of semi-ironic sandwiched visuals (extreme sports, reflections, etc.), visual cliches that highlight the cliches and ordinariness of so much of the story with a sort of meticulous off-handedness about the way the visuals work together. It's got a good soundtrack: cooly appropriate, a sort of dumb greek chorus of Tom Waits, Billie Holliday, Marilyn Manson, Glass, etc., aural motifs or icons, and the movie itself is so often literally and figuratively about face (and reflections and surfaces and movement in front of subjects), a story about people, human nature (self-delusion, why ask why?), shamelessness, victims, self-pity, arrogance, surreal denial, not money as such. The depressing message is that so many of the people who made money more or less got away with it; complicity pays, collusion pays — but I guess I already knew that. From personal experience, of course.

(Part of Flix).

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July 02, 2008

The Art Of Spin

Benjamin's famous "Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art." (italics in the original). But capitalism trumps both by spinning politics and art into entertainment.

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June 19, 2008

The Addiction Spiral

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

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

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

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June 16, 2008

Carrots Scream Too

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

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

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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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May 19, 2008

The Battle Of Algiers

What better time to watch a film about an occupying Western power that uses torture and brutal hypocrisy in the service of civilisation and democracy? The first time I saw "The Battle Of Algiers" was as some sort of tenth-generation samizdat copy in the same City University film course that got me to see la Jetée. It seemed more remote then, something to be studied as a self-conscious artefact of the 60's or of self-important European Cinema, like some sort of cross between a French gangster movie and half-forgotten black-and-white TV newscast footage of the Vietnam war from my childhood. Now it also seems more like a humane and generous attempt to show the human face of dehumanisation, to show in simple terms the deadly and deadening complexities of occupation, terrorism, "authenticity", and resistance.

Will there ever be an equivalent for Iraq? Probably not — whatever you might say about the FLN and the pieds-noir, there was a strong strain of Western influence and history underpinning the FLN, and a basic level of (wrong-headed) understanding of Algeria in the pieds-noir that few Americans are likely to be capable of in Iraq (there just isn't the shared history, for one).

(There was one jarring scene in the film where Colonel Mathieu off-handedly comments on how he'd like Sartre even less as an enemy (or something similar) — did the old windbag ever have that sort of influence?)

(Part of Flix).

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May 15, 2008

The Ruling

The ruling: it's hard not to ask (a little bitterly) what took so long?, but it was still a bit of a pleasant surprise. What won't be a surprise (or any sort of pleasure) will be the reaction, the backlash, the strident defense of some fetishised and idealised notion of family, the restriction of family in the name of "freedom". I'd use the word "irony" if that word didn't imply a certain distance it's hard to feel….

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April 28, 2008


Getting coffee this morning I (almost literally) stumble into local Oakland council legend (and my council member), Ignacio de la Fuente. He's sitting in a corner, out of the way, with a rather dark "don't bother me now" scowl on his face while he reads a bunch of papers, so I don't bother him. But it's definitely kind of funny (or maybe just odd) seeing this very high profile and famously-controversial political animal utterly ignored in the corner of an obscure local coffee shop (and it's not like there'd be too many people within five miles who wouldn't immediately know who he was). If I didn't know better I'd say he was actually just out getting breakfast….

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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 11, 2008

Total Immersion

William Mitchell's "e-topia: 'Urban Life, Jim — But Not As We Know It'" (MIT, 1999, bought as the usual remainder at Moe's): a book as dated in its hip cultural references and words as the phrase "Mondo 2K" (a phrase he actually uses; I admit to once knowing someone briefly associated with all that) or the word "e-topia" (or the Matrix, which it tries to use as an exotifier with the same leaden academic effect it usually provokes in the non-academic), a book that breathlessly (and often perceptively) attempts to explore a wired utopia and its meanings (for architects and planners, mainly), while glossing a bunch of things like security (in any of its shaded meanings — apparatus vs. security from such an apparatus, for example), or crime, or terrorism, or even the huge energy budget of the revolution.

For example, Mitchell talks a fair bit about the future of immersive technologies, smart spaces, etc., but doesn't spend a lot of time discussing what it is you're most likely to be immersed in — advertising (think "Minority Report"; does anyone think totally immersive (and absolutely intrusive) smart advertising is not a part of our future?) — and what those smart spaces will be up to (clever ways to keep tabs on what you're doing and how to get you to do things you might otherwise not do). In something of a throw-away paragraph he envisages controlling all the smart appliances in your home with a simple palm-sized remote control, but misses the obvious flipside to this: the ability to remotely control the smart appliances in someone else's home, or even control a person in their smart immersive home with a similar little control. It's the human here who's most likely to be the smart appliance (does anyone really think that isn't part of our future?). Similarly, when Mitchell breathlessly describes his wired dwellings bringing choice and opportunity to the inhabitants, he honestly just doesn't seem to understand that being wired is to be tethered, something that can just as easily take away choice and opportunity from the masses. Something he might want to consider is that he's really describing the updating of Corb's "machine for living in" to "machine for selling in" or even a "machine for conforming in".

He barely seems to notice the flipside to even the basic network technologies he seems to see as liberating: by being immersed, you're also trivially trackable, absolutely awash in surveillance and coercion opportunities. Again, he simply doesn't discuss what it is you'd be so effectively immersed in, nor who makes and controls that immersive reality. He (weirdly) misses a couple of crucial dimensions to these network technologies: he has little or nothing on that creepy convergence of surveillance and marketing that's probably the biggest thing in Web 2.0, for example. Let's face it: from the implementers' point of view, the web's really just a way to sell browsers to product pushers; the government and other surveillance is just a happy by-product of the mechanism to do that.

It's not that the vision is chilling, it's that it's chilling that he can't see the downside, or just dismisses it with a wave of the hand. The question for an academic like Mitchell who's claiming to explore a wired (or, increasingly, wireless) future is whether he wants to be complicit in — or a booster for — the sort of immersive smart wired utopia he glosses. All I can say, based on this book alone, is that he's not exactly a reliable guide to the future — bring your own map and cross-check repeatedly.

(There's a less than subtle hint of where he's coming from academically in his use of the word "telematics", a word not usually encountered in the field itself, a word that's more usually found in the original French, or nestled translated in thickets of language more appropriate to a virtual reality and rhizomes (another such word he uses) than in the world of networks or systems engineering I've inhabited for a long while now).

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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 13, 2008

It's Never Enough…

…but this year's "Sorry Day" was a start, at least (and a serious change in tone, at last). Now for some followup…

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February 11, 2008


In the wired utopia only the privileged will be allowed face-to-face contact; only the privileged will have offices and be able to separate work from home; only the privileged will be able to unplug.

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February 09, 2008



I got to play with several One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO laptops a few weeks ago as the result of some colleagues being part of the funding program (or something. Actually, I'm not entirely sure where the laptops came from, or why we were invited to play with them. Never mind). The XO's are physically rather cute machines (they have ears for the wireless antennas, and they're brightly-coloured), and seem to be built strongly enough to last a fair bit of use and abuse. The Linux-based OS and bundled software seems to me to be easily usable without needing instructions or instructors (but then I'm a nerd), a reasonable platform for downloadable content and games or teaching apps, and somewhat useful as-is. The networking includes a nice mesh network setup for use to communicate between the XO's when there's not a reliable WiFi access point nearby to communicate with the rest of the world. Overall, not a bad little combination of hardware and software (well, a Hello Kitty version would be nice, and the keyboard's a real pain to use, but in general it's just fine).

But fine for what? And that's the question everyone I know who plays with them asks. The obvious criticism is that the laptops solve the wrong problems or that they divert resources from the real problems (like lack of clean water, lack of trained teachers, etc.) that their target users face. And these laptops are primarily both an artifact of, and a way to interact with, a connected technological society, and in the absence of that society (or at least some facsimile of it), it's not hard to imagine these descending like UFOs on some sub-Saharan desert village, unwanted, unusable, and basically just inert objects of derision or disdain (or of instant commerce). The whole thing has the air of a classic technological fix — a technologist's fix — looking for a suitable problem to solve.

And that's all probably true. And yet… the law of unintended consequences can work the other way too, and produce something interesting and useful in unforeseen ways — it's hard to guess what the creative instincts of kids might do with something like this. And in any case what seems most likely to sink the whole OLPC idea are commercial and political machinations here in the First World, not the lack of power or connectivity or trained teachers in the third. But I'm not too optimistic, at least for release 1.0; I'm guessing a lot of these (or their like) will end up as playthings in the hands of first and second world kindergartners. Or, maybe more likely, ironic accesories in the hands of hip City artwankers.

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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 26, 2008

Blood And Soil

Mt. Shasta

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

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

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

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January 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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December 13, 2007

Debo And Nancy

"Debo and Nancy agree that the real crime of politics is that it makes people lose their sense of the ridiculous". (Andrew O'Hagan reviewing "The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters" in a recent LRB). So true, so true; and that's surely the tragedy that engulfed one or two of the other Mitford sisters. But there might also be a companion crime: losing sight of the seriousness of intent behind the ridiculousness of such buffoons as Mosley.

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November 24, 2007

Protest The Impunity!

Inscribed in chalk on the sidewalks of Telegraph, just down from the University: "Stop the Impunity of UC!". Now there's a protest chant that just rolls off the tongue.... (But it's hard not to sympathise with the sentiments behind it, though, no matter how cumbersome the expression: the University of California at Berkeley is a very rich and powerful state institution that is in every sense above local law here, and often does whatever it feels like to and in the city of Berkeley without a second thought. But what would Berkeley be without the university? Just another pleasant urban suburb, I guess).

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October 30, 2007

Oz Politics At A Glance

(A glimpse into the election for the non-Australians out there who aren't suffering through the contest between two of the most boring people on the planet… it's even better if you know that Rudd, Labor Party leader, speaks Mandarin).

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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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August 31, 2007


"Giselle watches the tiltrotor commuter shuttles carrying the air-networkers, while in the distance airships circle Airlander with London sightseers." (picture caption to "A Fly-By-Light Architecture", from's "Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age", again)

This is like shooting fish in a barrel, but here goes... the Fly-By-Light group propose a ginormous 400 metre high Futurist transport hub ("Airlander") looming irridescently over Charing Cross, complete with a swarm of V-22 Osprey tiltrotors flying low along the river to and from commuter hubs. But has our Giselle actually heard an Osprey, not perhaps the quietest of aircraft on earth? Or wondered about their per-passenger-mile energy budgets?

I'd accuse the authors of taking the piss if I didn't feel I was being pissed on in turn….

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