Friday, March 9, 2007

Did the pidgeon you saw look like this?

Pidgeon: I've been really tryin, baby
Turtle: Why here, I'm going to slip down the ramp
Pidgeon: Tryin to hold back these feelings for so long
Turtle: Yeah I think I can feel your "feelings"
Pidgeon: And if you feel, like I feel baby
Turtle: Come on
Pidgeon: Come on
Turtle & Pidgeon: Let's get it on
Turtle: We are all sensitive people
Pidgeon: With so much love to give
Pidgeon: Since we got to be
Turtle: let's say:
Pidgeon: I love you
Turtle: There's
Pidgeon: Nothing wrong
Turtle: WITH ME
Pidgeon: LOVIN YOU!
Turtle: And givin yourself to me can never be wrong
Pidgeon: If the love is true
Turtle: Don't you know
Pidgeon: How sweet and wonderful
Turtle: Life can be
Pidgeon: I'm askin you baby
Turtle: To get it on with me
Pidgeon: I ain't gonna worry
Turtle: I ain't gonna push
Pidgeon: So come on come on
Turtle: Come on baaaaby
Pidgeon: Stop beatin round the bush
Turtle & Pidgeon: Let's get it onnn.......

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Truth About 'Baby on Board' Signs...

There are NOT always babies on board.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

I’d Like To Have Another Word With You,

to amplify the capetowndissentator's point. Him being a literary fellow, I’m sure the capetowndissentator would agree that the language we use to describe the world is crucially important. The edict from AP English teachers the world over still stands: Diction Matters. So, for example, when the feminists claim that misogynistic language perpetuates an inequitable social hierarchy (a deeply Foucauldian point), I think they are absolutely correct. Power can be exerted in very subtle ways, and most definitely through language, so we should be very careful to understand the effect our words have.

But there is another side to the issue. Speech and language are (possibly) the deepest and most fundamental forms of self-expression that we have, and to limit self-expression for the sake of linguistic management is problematic. Speech can help us blow off steam. Speech can help us work through issues. Speech can be therapeutic; and honest speech can bring potentially dangerous ideas out into the light of day where they can be dealt with appropriately. Excessive policing of language can block these invaluable properties of speech and wound public interest in the long-run.

I do not know how to mediate these two points. On one hand, you want to recognize that language has real effects and you want to legislate (used loosely- I do not mean write actual laws in all cases) to protect those whom discursive formats may hurt. On the other hand, you do not want to infringe on individuals’ rights, most importantly because it may be in everyone’s long-run interest for people to air their grievances in the public forum. Negotiating this trade-off is at the heart of democracy, and not just as it applies to issues of free speech, but as it applies in almost all facets of our society. This is nothing John Rawls didn’t know half a century ago, or Plato and Aristotle too, going back a little further. I suppose in practice, this stuff gets sorted out in legal disputes; but I offer that law does not operate in a vacuum and our philosophic thinking on these matters may very well inform our particular legal opinions.

My point here is just that political correctness, like most campaigns, has good points in favor of it, but there are good points on the other side as well. And finding the middle ground between the two sides of the debate is not just of pragmatic concern, it is the struggle that characterizes a democratic society.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

I'd Like To Have a Word With You

A Hypothetical Dialogue: A Coffee Shop, where a philosopher reunites with his old friend

Philosopher: Good to see, my old friend. You don't even know how grateful I am -- I’ve been waiting, you see. I desperately need to tell someone...
Friend: What? What is it?
Philosopher: Well, Old Friend, I have discovered the meaning of life. It’s very exciting and I wanted you to be the first to know. I mean, for me to have kept this to myself so long is almost felonious. So, without further ado –
Friend: (aghast) What did you say?
Philosopher: What?
Friend: Oh I can’t believe this.
Philosopher: I don’t understand. What did I say?
Friend: ‘Felonious’? Hello, excuse me, my father was a felon.
Philosopher: I, I – I’m sorry. It’s been so long. I didn’t remember.”
Friend: I should have known it would be like this. It’s just like you people.
Philosopher: (aghast) What did you say?

While the ethos behind early forms of Political Correctness had noble aims in its attempt to update our socioeconomic lexicon, offering many a break from past oppression and misrepresentation, there are times when I wonder if the enforcement of political correctness serves a contradictory purpose. When the views and ideas of those, labeled "politically incorrect", are dismissed as entirely incorrect, then we all have lost something -- new barriers have been set in place and occasional truths are obscured.

In an extremely well-written essay on the subject, a blogger named Zuky states:
"Underlying every complaint of "PC" is the absurd notion that members of dominant mainstream society have been victimized by an arbitrarily hypersensitive prohibition against linguistic and cultural constructions that are considered historical manifestations of bigotry. It's no coincidence that "PC"-snivelers are for the most part white men who are essentially saying, 'Who the hell do these marginalized groups think they are to tell me how I should or shouldn't portray them?'."

Though I agree that many criticisms of political correctness tend to fall into this category, I believe that we have moved past the 1990's application of the term, for it no longer remains the tool of the oppressed, the forsaken members of particular racial or religious minorities. In America post 9/11, the values shifted from politically correct and politically incorrect to patriotic and unpatriotic -- dissent was tantamount to treason -- and with a nagging irony, the host of a show entitled "Politically Incorrect", Bill Maher lost his sponsors and soon after the show after remarking:
''We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly.'' Leading to former Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer to offer a warning: ''The reminder is to all Americans, that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and that this is not a time for remarks like that.” (In 2004, Fleischer wrote to the NYT to explain the statement). The political correctness exemplified during this period no longer resided in the context of cultural oppression, rather it was entirely political and driven by nationalist sentiment. You're either for us or you're for the terrorists. And, sadly, this narrative continues in our political debate today.

When the mechanisms of political correctness are divorced from their original context -- that of erasing historically bigoted terminologies -- and applied to ideologies and fundamentalist causes, they serve only to ossify the dividers that PCness once aimed to dissolve. And the consequences can have dire effects. Would the Senate have been so deaf to optional courses during the 2002 vote for the Iraq War Resolution, if the climate had not been so defensively patriotic? In a truly open forum, opinions are not dismissed out of hand, and yet it is this very type of dismissal that accompanies political correctness in all its forms.

Sadly, the close mindedness previously reserved for those staunch bigots, described in Zuky's essay, now appears more pronounced in the actions of those that feel offended. On university campuses, where fumdamentalist religious faith has eclipsed liberal political correctness, "it seems the more religious students become, the less willing they are to engage in critical reflection about faith."

"Distinguished scholars at several major universities in the United States have been condemned, even subjected to death threats, for proposing psychological, sociological or anthropological interpretations of religious texts in their classes and published writings. In the most egregious cases, defenders of the faith insist that only true believers are qualified to teach their religious tradition."

Whether it be the patriotic correctness after 9/11 or the "religious correctness" displayed in our universities, they form a culture of reaction. Our public discourse has been so plagued in recent years by such ideological pollutants that we appear more interested in what is "correct" than what may be necessary for unified progress or even just for some peace and quiet. I'm particularly dismayed by the stories from college campuses, where the mind should be engaged in skeptical appraisal of all it once held true. Curiosity and multifaceted examination do not promote nihilism; they are no threat to core beliefs or cultural identities. Higher education seeks to promote openness to conflicting opinion and complex thought over blind faith. When we immediate dismiss the truth of one's opinion because we find something offensive in their approach, then we have dismissed reaching our own potential. When one "politically incorrect" statement defines all further statements as incorrect, then our differences will not only be left unresolved, but will only grow more polarized.

In a recent incident on the Duke campus (not that one), a legal recruiter was overheard out of context, "quoting a Waco, Tex., prosecutor in a 1920s murder case in which Leon Jaworski, one of [his] firm’s founding partners, represented a black defendant." In an attempt to prove his firms history of defending the rights of minorities, the recruiter was immediately chastised for the wrongly perceived bigotry of his words.

Just as with the philosopher and his old friend, we too often escape a confrontation of ideas with preemptive dismissal. In a Hegelian dialectic, we begin with a thesis followed by its antithesis, only to end up with a synthesis. In order to arrive at such an understanding, we must not only recognize what is "other", but what is shared. Though Hegel did influence Marxist philosophy, so I guess he's just a communist, even if only indirectly, and we got nothing to learn from him.

Monday, March 5, 2007

EB and Me

According to the Revised Edition of EB White’s Letters (buy the book, kid- EB White is Leo Tolstoy (i.e. God)), changing the design of New York City taxicabs was a life-long crusade of the famed New Yorker Columnist. White believed the long and low models that we still see today “are simply slight modifications of pleasure cars- and a pleasure car is about the poorest object you could get, as a model” (Letters of EB White, p. 292). White’s particular beef (no reference to One Man’s Meat) was that long, low taxicabs present too small an entrance for full-grown passengers to negotiate. While I constitutionally admire all plucky campaigns to vanquish anything modern at the hands of anything quaint, and have underground plans to fashion personal plucky campaigns against a host of modern evils in White’s we-used-to-walk-four-miles-through-the-snow-to-school-and-we-liked-it! vibrato, I think updating White’s attack on taxicabs could bring the shot a little closer to the mark.

Did you know that you can run a Diesel engine on vegetable oil and there are effectively ZERO EMISSIONS? I bet you did. You know why I bet you did? Because the technology has been around since the 1900 world's fair and everyone knows about it. Including you (and if you didn’t before, you do now). Here’s a tougher question: If you can run your car on used vegetable oil (something fast food restaurants pay to dispose of) why do we continue to put the byproduct of a condensed sludge from decomposed trilobites and diatoms (gasoline) into our cars at enormous financial, environmental, and political cost? If anyone knows the answer to that one, they’re probably either an apologist, conspiracy-theorist, or minister of finance to an archaic Kingdom-State in the Middle East.

If you’ll permit me to be pragmatic, I’ll shelve the interesting historical explanations of why we don’t run our cars on more efficient fuel (for a survey of these explanations see Who Killed the Electric Car?), and boil it down: Either there’s something wrong with the technology, or there’s something wrong with us. Let’s consider the first option. Talk to anyone who runs their car on vegetable oil and they’ll tell you it’s the greatest thing ever. Or ask these guys- Greasecar; they manufacture and install the technology that converts a Diesel engine to run on used vegetable oil. Greasecar has done thousands of conversions (each one an enormous success) since they invented the technology in 1998. Or for a more academic answer, see Joshua Tickell's excellent study of used vegetable oil. Basically, if there is anything wrong with the technology, I can’t find it, and neither can anyone else.

If there’s nothing wrong with the technology, then I contend the only reason people don’t run their cars on vegetable oil is that we need a giant and collective kick in the pants. We are all too comfortable and too accustomed to driving our stupid old internal combustion engines, and we need to shake ourselves of that expensive habit. Sure, the government and the motor industry have been no help in righting our gasoline malaise, but the buck doesn’t stop there. It stops in your wallet (by the way, if you assume constant gas prices over the next decade, the average American driver would pay off the cost of a new BMW 3-series in gas savings within 10 years).

We need to get serious about converting to vegetable oil (for now, and other crops like algae in the future) and a great way to do it would be to transform a highly visible vehicular symbol into a poster child for efficient energy and show everyone in the world that you can run a car on used vegetable oil. EB had his campaign, and I have mine. I would like to see New York City taxicabs running on clean, efficient, and politically inexpensive fuel- used vegetable oil. And I suppose I’d like more leg room too, but mostly for old Elwyn Brooks.

Guerrillas in the Fog of War

"You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are no Russians. There are no Arabs! There are no third worlds! There is no West!" - Ned Beatty's monologue from Paddy Chayefsky's Network.

For anyone who has watched the movie Network, it would do little good for me to remark on how prescient the film remains, and how strangely deaf we have been to its warnings. I, myself, often catch....myself thinking in the context of nations and peoples -- a mode of thinking now obsolete since the Cold War.

With the war in Iraq as it is, with our current administration continuously proving their inept world-view and many of our potential candidates still deliberating a plan for this prolonged struggle, it appears as though I am not the only one who has difficulty contextualizing the threat of terrorism and the quagmire of Iraq. How can we even think of Iraq as a nation or its people a people? The borders of what is now Iraq were drawn not by its inhabitants, but by the Western powers of England and France after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire(which as we know was based entirely on putting your feet up).

As is painfully clear today, the people of Iraq were never fellow citizens, but sects of Muslims each harboring an animosity towards one another that predates the founding of their "nation". Since the partitioning of the Middle East, Western powers have fallen prey to their own misunderstanding of the region, its religious past, and its peoples' wants. To compound our present predicament, we have begun our war in the pretext of an ideological battle, our War on Terror. While this has lead many to draw analogies to our failed war in Vietnam, the comparison remains scant at best; at least the ideological battle against Communism was drawn with borders.

If you want to compare this war with any, I suggest we take a look at some more movies. Let's take it back to Summer 1996, when we as a nation got our first glimpse of Will Smith battling (not yet getting jiggy with) aliens in the uber-patriotic blockbuster, Independence Day. The people of earth were outmatched, outgunned, and taken by surprise by the alien occupiers. How did we defeat these insurmountable odds, reclaim our planet, not go gentle into that goodnight? We did the same damn thing that the terrorists today are doing. Hell, we even sent Randy Quaid on a suicide bombing mission, remember. Let's not forget that this is how we defeat aliens, because we come up with a plan that they could not possibly foresee with their vastly superior technology and telepathy (see Signs, when it turns out that the "primitive means" we use to defeat the aliens is nothing more than splashing water on them).

So how come we understand the basic drive of guerrilla warfare on summer movie screens, but fail to comprehend its use against our vastly superior technology? I can guarantee that President Bush has seen and enjoyed Independence Day, yet how does he believe that sending in more troops will do the job? This isn't the Western Front, the DMZ, or the 39th Parallel; there are no landmarks to define victory, and there appears to be no end in sight to this conflict.

After the terrorist attacks on September 11th, French (who would have guessed?) cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard commented that the suicide bombings were a "definitive act that is also unanswerable". Think of your own personal shock and speechlessness while watching the events of that Tuesday morning. Now imagine being in charge of our catatonic nation. Baudrillard continues: "the global superpower totally disarmed. Fighting itself, it can only founder in its own logic of power relations, without being able to play in the field of symbolic challenge and death, as it has eliminated the latter from its own culture."

As many have commented, the attacks in 2001 resembled a high-budget movie, which we watched endlessly repeat for months sitting glued to our televisions for news on the latest threat. So if the attacks seemed like a movie, then all I'm saying is that maybe we should take a look at a few movies in order to comprehend them, for only in high-budget movies do we seem to understand the type of war that is being fought.

Tangled Up in News

The scene remains iconic for any fan of Bob Dylan’s song, Tangled Up in Blue – the story of two young lovers, their turbulent affair, and repeated chance reunions: The boy leaves the girl for the first time, heading east on a rain-drenched road; the two lovers part for what they assume is forever.

As the most often played song in Dylan's arsenal, he continuously rearranges the lyrics with each tour – altering between first and third-person, and amending certain lines. In a 1984 concert, immortalized on his album, Real Live, (my personal favorite of all the recorded versions) Dylan ends this particular scene with this line: “She turned around to look at me/ As I was walking away/ She said I wish I could tell you all the things/ I never learned how to say/ And he said it’s alright, babe, I love you too/ But they were tangled up in blue”.

Rather than enter into a loving exegeses of this line and the song, I will instead claim that no one has or will say this line to New York Times columnist, Maureen Down.

Clearly, I am no fan of hers, and yet I mean nothing personal by this theory – I could even imagine her to be charming or something. She’s even quite fetching, by the looks of her glamor shot that accompanies her online columns:

Hubba, hubba. The premise of my theory rests of the fact that there is nothing that she would ever leave unsaid, and after she says it, and by some chance no one listens, then she’s just keep on saying it in different ways, just to know that someone is listening (or perhaps she is an attention hogging catty gadfly who has lost the ability to report on the news and chooses, instead, to create it). After her interview with David Geffen stirred up a useless controversy between Geffen and his former political ally, Hillary Clinton, exposed not only Clinton’s thin skin and the media’s need to drone on and inflame the most empty of hubbub, but also the fact (though highly obscured) that Senator Obama wants nothing to do with this type of nonsense. So what does our intrepid journalist do? She gets a sit down with the Senator and repeatedly prods him to comment on the issue. Regardless of the fact that the election has moved on to other issues – Iraq, Health Care, the Black vote, and other, real issues – our flaxen haired Maureen feels the need to continue stirring the perverse cocktail that we have been forced to drink these past few weeks. And I was just getting done with the hang over. From the interview with Senator Obama, in which she “feel[s] like Ingrid Bergman”:

"Channeling Ingrid, I press on and say: “I know you want to run a high-minded campaign, but do you worry that you might be putting yourself on a pedestal too much? Because people also want to see you mix it up a little. That’s how they judge how you’d be with Putin.”

“When I get into a tussle,” he replies, “I want it to be over something real, not something manufactured. If someone wants to get in an argument with me, let’s argue about how we’re going to fix the health care system or where we need to go on Iraq.”

Just to make clear, this is how Dowd sees herself:

Does no one with a public platform, besides Obama, see that he had nothing to do with this, that he has made no comment in what has been called a “dust up”, a “kafuffle”, and political “infighting”, “The Clinton-Obama psychodrama”? Why do Dowd’s fellow columnists continue to propel this image of an Obama/Clinton controversy? Through the prism supplied by these “journalists” it would seem that the more one reads the news, the less one learns about the issues affecting the election and the more the election becomes a battle of personalities – Bill Clinton is slick, Gore is wooden, Kerry is wooden, Obama's inability to fight about nonsense will hurt him, which is Dowd's hypothesis. (For more on this trend, I suggest you read this post)

It is with great consternation that I watch as these reporters manufacture these projected shortcomings and neuroses and then lament when the populous seems not to vote on the issues. How can we even find the damn issues amidst all this “dust up”? Certainly not in this post, as it merely comments on the commentators, thus adding only another level of mediation between the reader and the facts, but there are vast bastions of unfiltered and ice-brewed facts to be found. Just don’t look for them on the Op-Ed page in your Saturday edition of the New York Times. And do not send to know for whom the facts are aired. Not for Maureen or for David Brooks. They are aired for thee.

Luckily there are Blogger's and we're many strong, who agree with what I believe to be an objective assessment of Dowd's interview with Barack:

Colin McEnroe: "...the only kind of political story Dowd knows how to cover these days. Obama's replies were calm and thoughtful. He came across as a grown-up, MoDo the perpetual teenager and so careless an observer of contemporary polticis that she somehow failed to notice the real story."

Sunday, March 4, 2007

A Pigeon I Once Saw

A while back I spent some time watching a very rotund pigeon excavate a nook of molding on the building across the street from mine. The undertaking was spectacle enough, maybe not so remarkable as to send me running for a camera, but it got me thinking a little bit about something other than life insurance and postage rates, a rare pleasure these days. So I thought I’d jot a line or two about it.

I had just returned home, and having stripped to my underwear and poured a glass of water (it was summer), I retired to my brown naugahyde armchair and looked nondiscriminately out the window. I lived on the fifth floor of a five-story walk up, which means I was well-perched when I took to my window, and usually pretty proud of it. But I was not the only one coveting a good perch this particular afternoon on Attorney Street. Across the way there was an awkward bird-brained effort being made by the only other gent about, to fly, hurl himself, into a hole in a Corinthian molding cap on the building directly across from mine. The campaign immediately drew my attention because it was a very raucous affair, with a bit of a wing-slapping-brick element to it, and quite the intrigue for a weekday afternoon. I couldn’t tell you why the dolt wanted in that cap so bad- perhaps it was the heat- but I’ll tell you he was fiercely unyielding. The little squaker would swoop up to the plaster molding from below and sort of beat his wings against the edges a few times before tiring and falling back to safer altitudes and regroup. Swoop, beat, and recover was the plan that appealed to his puny avian intellect- never varying nor abandoning his screeching battle cry. Five, six, seven times he tried this absurd maneuver to my escalating joy. It goes without saying that I was no help at all.

I suspect that if our roles had been reversed, and I don’t mean if I had been assaulting the plastered molding cap and the pigeon reclining in my naugahyde chair, but if the viewing went the other way- if he had been watching me- he would have been as thoroughly unimpressed with me as I was with him. “Oh sure,” he says, seeing me from the corner of his eye as he fights for his perch, “you’re real interesting. Just sitting their all day. At least I’m doing something.” Compared to my boring water-sipping existence, his struggle probably felt quite exciting, perhaps even noble, the poor bastard. “At least I work for it,” he tells himself, “And when I get it, it will be all the more satisfying because I earned it.” Yes, of course.

Well, as it goes with all great nudges, eventually he got what he wanted. The noisy bird found his way into the hole. I think I did something very fitting to celebrate his triumph; I tweezed a back hair, or something. “Nice work,” I thought. “Now that you’re in there, what the hell’re you going to do?” I’d think the same thought probably occurred to the pigeon, though I’m sure the pigeon thinks of nothing but corn seed and marble statues. And even if the pigeon could think, any rational thought would surely be muted by the blinding fear that I imagine gripped the bastard at finding himself constricted in the dark. Not that I know much about flight, but I imagine that for a creature accustomed to the open air, it would be quite scary to be enclosed in such a breathless place. The wanting- ok, I can understand that. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But once you’re in there, and what was never a concern is now dangerously scarce, I can imagine being very frightened indeed. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the poor bastard beat his wings against the wall and shattered every bone in his disease-ridden body. But the squaking and the beating didn’t last too long. He sort of settled down after a bit and relaxed in his new surroundings. I suppose that showed some poise.

So there we were- me on my perch and he on his. I remember having a sudden interest in a turkey sandwich, but I let it pass, wanting to see what happened. Maybe the thing would suffocate and die. Maybe the heat would convection-bake the bastard and the smell of frying pigeon would waft over the street. Perhaps a kid could loft a stone up that high. Who knew? I figured I had better keep on eye on my little friend, in case I should become his unwitting obituarist. I’m sure he’d do the same for me. So I sat there, spying on the pigeon’s little stick legs (for that’s about out all I could see of him) to see what became of him.I’m not sure how long I waited. Maybe an hour. The heat was getting pretty bad, and the turkey sandwich entered my mind again. I know that when I left him, the pigeon was still perched there, apparently alive, waiting, or thinking, or hiding from something. I don’t think he fell to his death, I would have seen the remains when I came back from drinking that night. He probably just got bored and flew off. Why do stupid birds do the crazy things they do? And what happens to them after they do them? Who knows? It’s no concern of mine anyways. He kept me entertained for a few otherwise mind-numbing minutes, and I suppose that’s all you can ask on a weekday afternoon.