A visit from Lewis Lapham

February 24th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

One of my classes this semester is “The Culture Industries”, taught by Mark Crispin Miller. The class is structured such that we read a book each week, and the following week the author of that book comes and speaks, with the opportunity to ask questions and hear what they have to say in depth.  Aside from the emergent problem of trying to absorb over three hundred pages of material per week to a degree that I can ask competent questions, the model of the class lets me hear from from fairly prominent authors.

This week, we read excerpts from “Waiting for the Barbarians” by author, commentator, and longtime Harper’s editor, Lewis Lapham. I had only heard of Mr. Lapham by name prior to reading parts of Barbarians, and I particularly enjoyed his essays, for their biting and unapologetic sarcasm but also as refreshingly candid political commentary. For example, Lapham on the now-defunct George Magazine:

 Politics are by definition partisan, because they constitute an argument about power–about who gets to do what to whom, under what circumstances, and for how long and with what degrees of objection or consent. Castrate the quarrel, divorce politics from any meaning that cannot be sold at Bloomingdale’s, and what is left except for a round of applause for William Kristol’s tie and Cindy Crawford’s hair?

(From Eyebrow Pencils, Waiting for the Barbarians p. 49)

Many of my classmates were particularly hearing Mr. Lapham’s views on new media, and the potential effect of Internet-based publishing on traditional print forms, and civil society in general. His view was that the Internet is currently a vehicle for data, for information, statistics, and facts rather than artistic prose and “graceful phrase”, as he put it. He seemed to view the Internet as in a state of change and flux, a new technology out of which a literary artform can be made. To that end, he is launching a new publication, Lapham’s Quarterly, with an online component. The Quarterly, billed as a “journal of history” will feature historical analyses of contemporary politics and world events.

To say nothing of Mr. Lapham’s politics, which tend to the left (to say the least), based on his remarks this week and what little I have read of his writings, I will be fascinated to read Quarterly when it goes to press.

“Gobbledegook”

May 9th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

Because I mentioned a related matter here yesterday, I thought I should link to this:
Networking Pipeline: Judge Chides FCC For CALEA Expansion

The expansion of CALEA for this purpose is patently ridiculous. According to conversations with my coworkers, at least one of whom is extremely knowledgeable about CALEA, the expansive interpretation of the statute sought by the FCC would require all intranet communications to be “tappable”. But, wait, there’s more! Not only does the FCC want all communications to be available to law enforcement on a whim (which, while requiring a large amount of network redesign, is technologically possible), they would like an individual person’s communications to be “tracked”. That is, the wiretap would follow the user from computer to computer. There is no technical way to accomplish this, though of course, the 800-pound gorilla of the corporate IT security world, VeriSign, thinks it is. Yeah, right.

More reading:
EFF: CALEA

School Lunch Project

May 9th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

This evening, I watched the first two episodes of Jamie Oliver’s School Lunch Project on TLC, which is the American-redubbed version of “Jamie’s School Dinners”. The documentary follows Jamie Oliver’s quest to improve the meals available in British schools. Having spent six years in British state schools, I can personally attest to the generally horrendous quality of food available. At the time, I wondered how it might get any worse. When I ate my first school lunch in the United States, I found out. American school lunches made their British counterparts look like a three-course meal at the Ritz.
In, School Lunch Project Jamie identifies two core problems:

  1. Healthy food is not a readily available option in schools. When it is an option, students will opt not to take it, preferring the unhealthy food they have become accustomed to.
  2. Healthy food is not an option in the home for many students. Having no exposure to good food, kids dismiss any alternatives to junk food out of hand.

In short, as Oliver himself puts it, there is no “food culture” amongst most kids, driven partially by economic reasons and partially by poor understanding by parents and their kids. He takes a two-pronged approach to the problem. First by taking the effort to stretch a meager 37p-per-student budget as far as it will go, buying fresh, quality ingredients, and second, by attempting to educate the students he comes into contact with about food choice. The latter seems to be by far the biggest challenge, especially for the older students who have become deeply entrenched in their poor eating habits. By the third episode, apparently, pupils at the London school Oliver uses as a testbed end up “rebelling” against their new lunchtime diet.

When I was in the UK in Spring 2005, the show was just ending its run in the UK, and public interest in the subject at the time was at fever pitch. I didn’t get a chance to see the show at the time, so I didn’t get much of an appreciation for the remarkable result of a four-part series. Around that time, as a direct result of School Lunch Project, the British government had just increased the budget for school meals significantly, and–equally important–recognized the lack of nutritional content in school meals as a major problem. I see School Lunch Project as a victory on several levels.

First and foremost, that one (admittedly famous and noteworthy) campaigner can make a real difference in the public discourse, and that power is increased withthe addition of more campaigners. The “Feed Me Better” campaign that sprang out of the television show garnered over a quarter of a million signatures on a petition delivered to Downing Street.

Secondly, School Lunch Project shone a light on, and made everyone stare at the critical health problem overshadowing America and Britian (and probably other parts of Europe, too): we’re fat. America, in particular, has a skyrocketing obesity rate, and very little is being done about it beyond a few Oprah TV specials and the odd PSA campaign. School food is still poor. Students are rarely, if ever, taught how to prepare a healthy meal. And by “taught to prepare”, I don’t mean fill in a few worksheets and memorize the USDA Food Pyramid. I mean, actually be taught to prepare, from scratch, using real ingredients, a healthy meal. I suggest that it is a cheaper option to invest in education now, rather than to pay the cost in public health decades from now. I also suggest that since, as Jamie Oliver demonstrates, the food culture within the home itself can be just as nonexistent as it currently is in school, students should be taught about preparing quality food at school, rather than dismissing the subject and leaving it up to parents.

Thirdly, School Lunch Project is a fine example of the power of independent media. The original series was produced and broadcast by Channel Four, one of Britain’s three commercial terrestrial TV networks. My guess (though I have no evidence to support my hypothesis), is that the distance between Channel Four and the government of the day allowed Jamie Oliver to editorialize freely and rake as much muck as possible without fear of zealous editing by overseers. Please don’t misinterpret my comments as being anti-BBC; my point here is that a healthy distance between the state and a documentary filmmaker was beneficial in this case.

Much of the content of School Lunch Project might be lost on an American audience, though I hope the audience sees parallels, if not precise representations of the scenario in many Ameican schools. Replace “Turkey Twizzlers” with “Tater Tots”, and you have the content of most American school lunches: too much trash.
Jamie’s School Lunch Project Episode 3 airs Monday, May 15 at 7/6 Central.

Further reading, and sources:
Wikipedia, “Jamie Oliver”
Channel Four’s Jamie’s School Dinners Page
Feed Me Better

V for Vendetta (and “Awesome”)

March 22nd, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

On Monday evening I saw “V for Vendetta”, the new Wachowski Brothers film based on the graphic novel of the samemask name. I’ve never read the original comic-strip on which the screenplay is based, so my opinions of the film are based only on what I saw, and not any relationship of the movie to the original book.

That said, the movie is extremely well-done, with only a few minor problems:

The Not-So-Good:

* Natalie Portman’s lackluster acting and mediocre rendition of the accent, which in more than a couple of scenes, she seems to forget about altogether.

* A few poor choices of lines, usually completely unrelated to the central plot, and overly melodramatic.

The Good:

* Visually stunning. The exploding-Houses-of-Parliament sequence is jaw-dropping.

* Excellent set design, and brilliant attention to detail in the film. The designers do a fine job of articulating what a dystopian near-future London might look like, and throughout the dystopia, manage to make everything still seem London-esque, right down to the choice of typeface and signage.

* A fine storyline. I’ll talk about this some more below:

Though the original graphic novel is supposed to take place in 1997, inspired in part by the rise of conservativism in the 1980s, the plot seems to have been tweaked a bit to resonate with a contemporary American audience. September 11th isn’t mentioned explicitly, though there is a fast mention of Iraq. If you leave the theater and don’t feel the slightest connection with contemporary world events and American politics, you were asleep. I think it’s a generally good sign that conservative critics of Vendetta are slamming the film for “glorifying terrorism”; it means that at least someone was paying attention to the fact that the film is a political allegory. The critics do of course miss that the main characters actions are intentionally morally ambiguous, and V’s role is certainly not a Christ-figure.

Similarly, I think it’s a good thing that liberal critics are saying that the film is an indictment of the Bush Administration. Though this isn’t really true, either. If any indictment, or warning, is being issued by Vendetta, it’s against the audience, cautioning us to be wary of trading freedom for security willingly. The core philosophy seems more like Edward Abbey than modern Democrat. Perhaps the seminal line of the film is “People should not be afraid of the government…government should be afraid of the people.” Does this parallel our contemporary political situation? It’s highly possible, indeed probable, that the Wachowski Brothers intended in their screenplay adaptation to think so. However, I think the true intention was to induce the broader thoughts of “freedom versus security” and so on in the audience.

Lines in the Sand

February 9th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve been following the “Prophet Mohammed Cartoon” story for about a week now, and as the story continues to snowball out of control, I think it’s time I stated my opinion on the subject. If you haven’t heard about the story, go and have a look at the New York Times for the past week or so. There’s plenty of material.
The Times didn’t publish the cartoons themselves. There’s a list of blogs you can find scans of the originals at http://michellemalkin.com/archives/004446.htm.

I had a conversation via IM with my good friend Kristen yesterday, and while I don’t recall actually taking a side, it did get me thinking on the salient points of the matter:

The only system of values that I am familiar enough with to make any sort of statement is the one I’ve lived with for the past two decades: the general “Western” system of thought. If we analyze the situation within that framework, we come to some inescapable truths:

1) Under its local system of laws, the Jyllands-Posten had a right to publish whatever it chose. Whether or not its actions were “a good idea”, or “a bad idea” are irrelevant to the matter. The Posten has an interest in holding its audience. If the readership don’t like what’s in their newspaper, they won’t read it any more, and day-to-day, that’s what the paper cares about.

2) Under their local system of laws, the Muslim community have a right to dislike the content of the Jyllands-Posten. They have a right to be offended, just as I have a right to disagree with what I might find on the editorial page, or take offense at anything else I choose.

I’ve heard this phrased by several pundits as “the right to offend”. I don’t like the wording very much, but it makes sense. It’s a consequence of free speech.

So, on the face of it, we’re done here. The Posten did what it wanted, and the readership (in a global sense) responded as it wished. So why are we still talking about this? On the one hand, there’s been a great deal of politicking over the reaction of a vocal segment of the Muslim population, and this politicking has comprised most of what’s been on the public stage in the past week. I find the situation interesting for a different reason, though: the “cultural cultivation” effect that has been brewing since 2001, and that has now come to a head.

It so happens that last night, I read an article by George Gerbner, the noted media scholar, about the “Cultural Cultivation” effect of television, in particular. Of interest here is the concept of “Mainstreaming”, where the viewing public are led to believe that certain viewpoints are that of the majority, when they may not be. Of secondary interest is the “Mean World Syndrome”, where heavy viewers of television are led to believe that the ‘real world’ is more brutal and disturbing than it really is. Gerbner used crime figures to demonstrate his hypothesis, but I think it probably holds true here as well.

David Brooks’ editorial in the New York Times this morning (“Drafting Hitler”, New York Times p.A27, 02/09/06)  is a classic example. Styled as an “open letter”, the article refers plainly to “us and them” throughout, drawing a clear line where none may exist. The letter leads the reader to believe that:

1) There is a fundamental conflict between Muslims and The Western World
2) All Muslims share the same beliefs
3) All Westerners share the same beliefs
4) There is “a vast chasm” between The “Muslim World” and “The Western World”

Since late 2001, Americans have had a highly filtered view of Islam. Few images published in the mainstream press have shown much more than violence. In the press, “Islam” has come to be associated with “barbarism”, “terrorism”, “violence”, and so on. I suspect that the media outlets in the Middle East have painted a similarly disturbing portrait of The West, with America in particular being associated with many of the same concepts. George W. Bush has been the ideological figurehead for The West, and Osama bin Laden and a handful of Ayatollahs have been been the figureheads for the so-called Muslim World. Having been subjected to a particularly polarized and distorted set of imagery for the past four or five years, it’s no wonder that mainstream opinion of both parties tends to the bleak, and the tinderbox ignites every time an event comes up that underscores each side’s socially-constructed truths. The scores of articles published in the last year in support of the rights of Palestinians, for example, go nowhere in terms of shifting public opinion in both parts of the world; they get lost amid the wash of “George vs. Osama” rhetoric that floods the mainstream press.

The reality here is that there are more than two sides to the issue. It’s not America versus The Terrorists. Nor is it The West versus The Muslim World. It’s time to have a sensible debate on the matter, rather than using a relatively minor incident to further polarize public opinion and draw sharp lines in the sand when no clear division exists.