Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Restoring Urban Authenticity or Reincarnating Classism?

High-class Parisians don’t want to come to the Champs-Élysées [...] It’s not prestigious; it’s not pleasant. The people who come are very common, very ordinary, very cheap. They come for a kebab sandwich and a five-euro T-shirt.

--Serge Ghnassia, owner of the fur shop Milady

If nothing else, the French are honest. The Times has an interesting if predictable article about a backlash embodied by the remark of this shop owner against the Champs-Élysées, the crowded boulevard between the Arc de Triomphe and Place de la Concorde in one of Paris's toniest districts. Like Chicago's Michigan Avenue or London's Oxford Street, Champs-Élysées attracts the rabble of tourists and commoners with its megastores and fast food restaurants, not to mention its central location to many Paris sites.

I can definitely get behind Paris's efforts to change the composition of the famous avenue, especially because its astronomic rents are only affordable to international chains; however, I don't think the more regarded Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré nearby merits high praise, as our blunt fur shop owner seems to suggest. After all, that smaller street is also mobbed on weekends, though its ridiculously decadent shops are only accessible to the richest of the rich (or those who are willing to go into massive debt for a thousand dollar handbag). So I guess what I'm trying to say is that, while Champs-Élysées is somewhat unpleasant nowadays and while it would be nice to see many more establishments unique to Paris on the boulevard, it will be no more special if it is dotted with high end boutiques--most of them chains as well. Developed societies need to get past this discourse that pits mass consumer goods against the high end, because it reeks of class snobbery and condescension and it avoids aspects of reality.

Underlying some of that resentment is that groups of young people descend on the Champs-Élysées from the working-class immigrant suburbs on weekend nights. The police keep a close watch on them, monitoring their moves.

But some old-timers praise the avenue as a sort of democratic — and free — tourist destination for the underprivileged. “The kids coming from the suburbs are coming from the suburbs to look, to see, to escape the places where they live,” [theater owner Jean-Jacques] Mr. Schpoliansky said. “We are a multiethnic country, and that reality is reflected on our street.”

Instead, the focus should be on preserving the charm and uniqueness of our cities while still constructively addressing the fact that globalization brings apparent benefits like lower priced goods, benefits that cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand by mocking upper-class interests. To some extent, Champs-Élysées has done this better than its counterparts in other cities, what with the tree-lined street; wide, pedestrian friendly walks, and upkeep of the historic buildings that house its stores.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Mediocrity's Poster Child

I always kind of mentally roll my eyes when someone suggests that there should be an option on a ballot to vote for none of the listed candidates, but when the friendly driver of the Vamoose bus I took from New York back to D.C. last night gave us riders a choice of four movies to watch on the second leg of the trip, I saw where voting no confidence can seem to be the only way. Indeed, as we boarded the bus after a rest stop in Delaware, we were offered the following non-options:

  • Big Mama's House 2
  • National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation
  • Just Friends
  • Rush Hour 2

I wanted to laugh out loud or maybe cry at the wasted two hours I was about to endure. I voted for Just Friends, because it was the only movie of which I hadn't heard. Big mistake. First of all, as their names were flashed on screen, I realized I didn't know any of the actors, which is fine if a movie is trying to aspire to something but a really bad sign if it is merely aiming to be a romantic comedy. If a bunch of D-list actors are involved, you have yourself a D-list romantic comedy. I take that back: I recognized one name. Amy Smart. I somehow know who she is: I had seen her in that bad TV movie series "The Seventies" several years back as well as the movie Rat Race, which John rightly proclaims as having the worst movie ending of all time. The name of the lead man--Ryan Reynolds--was not particularly familiar to me though. Ryan Reynolds, Ryan Reynolds...sounds like I've heard the name perhaps but not instantly recognizable. Yeah, this movie's going to be bad, I thought.

Indeed, the opening scene presents an overweight man (fat suit, of course) sitting in a house in New Jersey in 1995. Fat suits never bode well for anything, especially comedy. The scene was kind of funny though because the heavy man, who turns out to be a high school senior about to profess his love to his best friend, is singing along to the song "I Swear" by All-4-One. I think my own memories of an overnight camp counselor who used to play "I Swear" every night right before our cabin went to bed made me laugh in recognition and appreication of this sad portrayal of being a teen in the 90s. It was all downhill from there, however, with the predictable effort at winning the viewer's sympathy through portraying the mean treatment of our fat protagonist at the hands of others paradoxically coupled with the script's own derision of him (he eats a lot, he is too sensitive, he cries, etc.). Heavy man then vows he will get revenge on all of the people who laughed at him in high school by being very successful. Okay, fine, that's a good enough story, even if it's been done a lot.

Ten years later, he is a Hollywood agent who can get any girl he wants. Fat suit gone, I recognize this man to be Ryan Reynolds, and I now realize I do know who Ryan Reynolds is. He's one of those people who you've seen in a few movies but is easily forgettable, and for good reason. Indeed, I feel a pang of longing for an earlier time when I could not put the name Ryan Reynolds to a face. There's nothing distinctive or interesting about him. He's not attractive, he's not a good actor, and, this lead part in Just Friends is probably the best role he's capable of. He was in "Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place." He's a poor man's Paul Walker. [I later recalled that he had a small part in the movie Dick, which I do enjoy, though no thanks to Ryan Reynolds (his part could have been played by a lot of people).] Here are a few actors I equate with Ryan Reynolds, in terms of sheer badness: Jerry O'Connell, Matthew Lawrence, and Seann William Scott. Here's a guy whose biggest aspiration is probably to be in a sequel to Old School. Ryan Reynolds is the Nickelback of movies.

As good as I thought the Vamoose bus ride was, I just have to wonder why they have such an awful stock of movies (the movie that was shown first was RV). And yet, I must also say, there is something elegant about the mediocrity personified by Ryan Reynolds, because if you ever want to illustrate the thorough unremarkable, uninspired, forgettable nature of something, just say two words: Ryan Reynolds.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Politico, a review

I subjected D.C.'s newest periodical to a harsh criticism a couple of weeks ago, though I heldout the possibility that my scorn was undeserved. Don't worry, it pretty much wasn't. The Politico is the typical, out-of-touch, superfluous D.C. rag that I've become used to. Why we need another one, I don't know, but The Politco's columns include a representative sampling of all of the usual pundit pet causes and analyses: wouldn't it be great to see a bipartisan presidential ticket in '08? (never going to happen, shouldn't happen, and Joe Lieberman and John McCain is hardly bipartisan), a fruitless debate between some guy from the CATO Institute and someone else about whether the West is becoming more libertarian or more liberal, and a fluff piece about 2008 potential candidates' websites.

Politico isn't a lost cause. If nothing else, their inside Congress reporting is useful, because it brings up practical considerations about members of Congress that aren't often raised. An article about the aged Congress ,which looks at the variety of age-related health problems of our elected officials, raises the question of whether a person with chronic health issues can adequately serve:

[S]uggestions that an enfeebled senator consider retirement haven't been broached, even considering the distressing example of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who spent the final year of his term, at age 100, in and out of Walter Reed Army Medical Center here.

Politico's coverage of lobbyists is also useful, because, as much as we might like to forget it, they are an integral and yet relatively little-publicized part of the policy process. The local beat is the natural terrain of a magazine like Politico, and it should stick to that rather than engage in the type of useless speculation that permeates like oxygen throughout this city.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Are Americans ready for a black or woman president?

This is a question that is raised whenever the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton is reported or discussed. I don't think it leads to an especially useful conversation, or at least, not in its current incarnations. This is because the conversation can be very speculative. It is often asserted that Americans harbor too much latent racism to elect a black, and a little less often, that Americans hold too rigid a definition of gender roles to elect a woman. My sense has always been that Americans today would elect a black or a woman because we are accustomed to them/us in most facets of our society, but I am by no means an authority on public opinion. I don't think many people are authorities, which is why I wonder whether this conversation can be useful. After all, if we decide that Americans, most of whom none of us know, are not ready for a non-white, non-male president, then we implicitly discourage the Obama or Clinton candidacies because "the time is not right." Even though we are ready for a black or a woman, they are not.

However, historical change, and especially change in favor of inclusiveness, must be pushed. Rosa Parks did not wait until the time seemed right to sit in the front of a segregated bus, and black students didn't wait until the time was right to enroll in U. of Mississippi. Neither Clinton nor Obama face the institutionalized discrimination of these earlier cases. Why then should we try to hinder their candidacies with unfounded speculations about what Americans are ready for? The best thing anyone who hopes that America is ready for a black or a woman or anyone of any race, religion, or ethnicity can do is to take that person as a candidate first and forgo the sheer speculation that often comes with attempting to diagnose our country's level of prejudice.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Is there a difference between Chinatown bus services?

Can anyone who has more experience riding one of the several bus services that start at a Chinatown in one city and end in another tell me if one is decisively better. I have only taken New Century Travel. I first took it to Philadelphia, as it was one of two bus services that go there and the only one that had a schedule amenable to my own. It was very prompt (actually, it even left early!); however, the time that the bus left was such that we were delayed by an hour and a half or so because of awful D.C. rush hour traffic. The bus ride from Philadelphia back to D.C. was on a Sunday afternoon and encountered no problems. When I went to New York a couple months later, I stuck with New Century Travel, because of my positive first experience. However, the bus was about an hour and a half late arriving into D.C., making me an hour and a half or so late to New York. (At least the outbound rush hour traffic wasn't so bad, though).

In anticipation of my next trip to New York, I might even avoid the Chinatown bus quandry altogether. I am planning to take Vamoose! back from New York because it lets passengers off right near where I live. The website is nicer than those of the various Chinatown bus services as well, which gives me (a perhaps false) sense of faith in their timeliness and general safety. However, if I leave after work on Thursday, I will have to take the Chinatown bus, because it leaves not far from my office. My question is, do I stick with New Century Travel and risk delay (or risk a more unpleasant experience, as happened to one of my coworkers, who got stuck on a New Century bus that was overheated and had a broken toilet), or is there another more reliable Chinatown bus service?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Same Party; Different Political Orientations

I was reading the Wikipedia article "Culture of the United States" to try to summon an idea of what on earth I would say if I were to respond to a request for a freelance article about American culture for a magazine targeted at international students. I probably won't actually write such an article, because I find culture, especially one's own culture pretty difficult to portray. However, I will impart what I find distinct about American political culture, which has lately been framed as urban vs. rural and less to do with difference between the regions of the United States.

I used to think that the former embodied the main polarity between political perspectives. Yet, from living in D.C., I am discovering that regional distinction is still relevant. Thus, West Coast Democrats are different from Midwestern Democrats are different from East Coast Democrats. I think East Coast politics values the establishment opinion. It tends to emphasize what experts are saying. It is risk-averse and in recent history is best embodied by an entity like the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. To me, East Coast politics--whether Democratic or Republican--is pretty frustrating and more elitist than I would have earlier liked to believe. It is probably makred by more cynicism than anywhere I've been, even though in other parts of the country, there is certainly fair distrust of Washington at all times. Here on the East, though, and maybe especially in Washington, people can easily fall into the trap of making a self-fulfilling prophecy out of the view that ideals are alien to politics. On the other hand, Midwestern politics tends to invoke the more hopeful tenets of democracy--participation, informed citizenry, a faith in the American dream or at least in rehabilitating it. From what I can tell of West Coast politics, it values the novel, innovative, and pioneering. Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plans to make California a beacon of energy efficiency and universal healthcare. Neither has happened yet (they are proposals at the moment), but both aspirations are often discarded as too impractical by the powers that be. Western politics values similar things but may have a bit more of a libertarian character. My thesis about regions has its limits, certainly. Massachusetts has already instated a universal healthcare provision, and it of course, sits on the East, not the West Coast.

As you can see, I'm a bit disenchanted with the way things work in D.C. With so many experts, think tanks, issue advocacy groups, and lobbying firms headquartered in one place, often far away from the actual people they represent or claim to represent, it is easy to see how those "inside the Beltway" become aloof and in some respects is an argument for vigorous federalism.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Certain movies

...are overrated. I just tried to watch Last Tango in Paris, a movie that is yet more proof that unconventionality and shock for its own sake make for an unsatisfying story. Director Bernardo Bertolucci, who also made the horrendous Dreamers, is often held up as one of the best directors of film. He is certainly talented at filming, though Last Tango didn't distinguish itself markedly from the general look of its time period, which tended towards the gritty and somewhat barren. The movie is filmed in Paris, but we don't see Les Grands Boulevards, Notre Dame, or Boulveard St-Germain, or at least, we don't before the point at which I threw my hands up in despair and turned off my DVD player. Instead, Bertolucci gives us what appears to be the 14th or 15th Arrondissement, where the Metro is elevated and the streetlife is lacking. In this world, Last Tango in Paris portrays the chance meeting of an American expatriate (Marlon Brando, who looks pretty attractive and relatively slim), and a French woman. The two begin a sexual relationship that Brando insists must have no connection to anything outside of the pleasure to be derived from such a liaison. The NC-17 rating of course means that the viewer is party to the tryst, whose scenes occupy way too much of the film's otherwise tolerable--though not great--sequences. Bertolucci has a knack for grappling with the taboo, but do incest and improbable sexual relationships really need to be treated? Do we really need to see, for instance, brother and sister engaging in incest in Dreamers, multiple times? At the very least, the determined, gratuitous exposure of such practices reveal a poverty of imagination. Anyway, on top of my disappointment with what Jean-Luc Goddard films I've seen--don't worry, I haven't given up--I cannot say I am too impressed with the French and Italian new wave that often gets held up as the pinnacle of artistry. What I have seen of these films, produced in the 1960s and 1970s, pale in comparison to their counterparts being put out on the other side of the Atlantic (i.e., the U.S. of A).

D.C. Metro vs. Chicago El

Today's Washington Post includes a comparison between D.C.'s Metro and Chicago's El. Surprisingly, writer John Kelly warms to the El, though maybe that's because he realizes how great Chicago is in general:

Last month the entire Kelly family -- our dog, Charlie, included -- piled into the minivan so we could drive 12 1/2 hours and spend Christmas in Evanston, Ill., a gem of a town on the banks of one of the finer Great Lakes and home to My Overachieving Sister-in-Law.

There's no better way to experience a neighborhood than to be in possession of a dog. Forced to walk Charlie at least twice a day to empty him, My Lovely Wife and I drooled at the handsome houses on Orrington Avenue and across from Centennial Park.

Yes, Evanston, which neighbored my hometown and was itself my hometown for four odd years, is a "gem." Even though where I currently live in NoVa kind of reminds me of Evanston, Evanston's Victorian-style homes, eminent stone churches, concentrated downtown, and its perch on the lake makes for much more of a community feeling than the dispersed, ahistoric areas of Arlington County with extemporaneous names like "Courthouse" and "Ballston." I'm not surprised that a Washingtonian is allured by it.

Even I can't romanticize the El, though. Kelly, however, manages to do so:

In fact, when all the assorted out-of-towners took a trip en masse, one of our party was stuck, helpless, at the Transit Card machine as the train approached. He contemplated jumping the turnstile -- he's from New York -- when an amazing thing happened: The driver of the train, who could see him fumbling with his money, waited.

No subway trains are as plush as Metro's -- those carpets, that upholstery -- but I did notice that the L trains I rode were cleaner than Washington's in one way: There weren't as many newspapers. Is it possible that Chicagoans, when they carry a newspaper onto a train, actually carry it off, too? What a concept!

Does it sound like I prefer the L to Metro? Not necessarily. Those elevated platforms are cold. On the other hand, you always know where the stations are. They're perched up in the sky, not buried underground, their location marked with subtle brown monoliths.

The names of the stations are refreshingly direct, too, usually reflecting the streets they're on: Randolph, Madison, State. There's none of this New York Avenue-Florida Avenue-Gallaudet University-XM Radio-Bald Guy With a Hotdog Stand stuff.

Then again, the Windy City has two Chicago stations and two Washington stations. Woe to the person who says, "Meet you at the Chicago Station."

Red Line or Brown?

Just like our Metro, L trains echo with recorded announcements outlining prohibited behavior: No eating, no drinking, no gambling.

Did he say gambling? Whatever for?

I called the CTA to find out. Was this a particular problem? A spokeswoman would only tell me that there is an ordinance "to eliminate predatory types of behavior, such as shell games or sleight-of-hand or other games intended to cheat, defraud, or otherwise obtain money or other items."

You know, that's one thing I haven't seen on Washington's subway, even if it does sometimes seem as if the simple act of taking Metro is a gamble.

Okay, he has a good point about the absurdly cobbled-together names of D.C. Metro Stations. And actually, the double occurring names of El stations aren't as much trouble as Kelly supposes, as long as you're in your part of the city. For instance, if you live in Wicker Park, you'll naturally refer to the Damen Station on the Blue line, whereas if you live in Ravenswood, you consider Damen a stop on the Brown line. Most confusing I suppose are the two Chicago stations that Kelly speaks of, which both sit on Chicago Avenue, about half a mile from each other. Still, most people refer to and frequent the one further East, which is two blocks from Michigan Avenue and one of its gateways of frightening consumption: the American Girl Doll Store-Ralph Lauren Polo Store block. The westernmost Chicago Ave. train station tends to see more office workers than visitors.

D.C.'s Metrorail: Welcome to a Terry Gilliam movie

The El and Metro aren't totally comparable. They actually have somewhat different purposes. Washington, being a much smaller city, and its downtown much more concentrated, needs a fast-moving, state-of-the-art, comprehensive rail system that serves the city as well as the more-populated suburbs. Metro needs to be able to take people from the counties in Maryland and Virginia and dump hordes of them into only a few stations that serve the downtown. The El largely just serves Chicagoans and has a more dispersed downtown to work with--though the Loop is still home to a lot of the office space in the city--with the Metra serving as the regional transit. (True, D.C. has the MARC, but that's geared more for people coming in from the likes of Baltimore). Thus, El--with its frequent slow zones--is kind of a drag to take if you're coming from the suburbs. I'm surprised Kelly, who was going into Chicago from Evanston didn't comment on this, though I guess it must be more noticeable when you're by yourself than when you're with a big group.
The El, whose charm belies its inconvenience

If you want to understand the real downside of the El though, which Kelly doesn't mention at all, read today's Tribune, which illustrates just how out-dated the El really is:

Customers on the CTA Red, Brown and Purple/Evanston Express lines still may feel like they are traveling in one big slow zone until late 2009.

Expect packed trains and even worse delays than those already caused by rickety rails, crumbling viaducts and outmoded train-signaling systems. That's the message CTA president Frank Kruesi sent to riders on the three lines last week.

Commuting times will as much as double beginning in April when the most disruptive phase of the $530 million Brown Line expansion project begins, Kruesi said.

Seriously? When I took the El in from the suburbs to work and see friends, I often got stuck in run-of-the-mill delays. Now systemic delays are certain until 2009 because of this construction, without even factoring in the run-of-the mill delays. This gets to what annoyed me about the CTA and has me appreciating the Metro: The CTA is outdated, and it shouldn't be. Chicago is a world-class city, much more so than D.C., but D.C. is the only one with the world-class public transport. Both cities should have great transport. The El stations may be more charming, as Kelly suggests, than its Metro counterparts, but the frustrations of elevated transit outweigh the benefits of being treated to a constant visual reminder of the dynamic city below.

This weekend, if you travelled on the D.C. Metro, you were treated to exceptional service and information about the closing blue line, which barely, if at all, slowed transportation between Vienna at one end of the line and New Carrollton or Largo at the other, as one might have expected. Maps of the changes in line servicing were everywhere, as were helpful Metro employees. I know that the larger El must need more track work and general updates than D.C., and therefore can't manage such straightforwardness and convenience, but there is no reason why a small city like D.C. should have a monopoly on decent public transportation (it's the federal dollars, I guess).

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Teaching in America

Jacques Barzun's 1944 book Teacher in America, which I am currently reading, is as relevant now as it when it was written. Today, most of the talk about school curriculum starts and ends with how to get students to pass some standardized tests. Teacher in America, if heeded, would inject the much needed "why" into the discussion of how to get students to learn. Barzun contends that students learn best when they understand where the subject being taught sprang from and why it is important. Why do we use variables in mathematics? Why do we study evolution? Why do we apply methods of physical science to the social world? It is important to understand the history of the disciplines to which we are familiarized in school. Barzun worries that without this perspective, school curricula merely perpetuate the idea that scientific disciplines are truth rather than human creation:

If [college boys and girls] leave college thinking, as they usually do, that science offers a full, accurate, and literal description of man and Nature; if they think scientific research by itself yields final answers to social problems; if they think scientists are the only honest, patient, and careful workers in the world; if they think that Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, and Farady were unimaginative plodders like their own instructors; if they think theories spring from facts and that scientific authority at any time is infallible...and if they think that science steadily and automatically makes for a better world--then they have wasted their time in the science lecture room...they are a menace whether they believe all this by virtue of being engaged in scientific work themselves or of being disqualified from it by felt or fancied incapacity (Liberty Fund edition, 129-130).

Barzun goes on to suggest that students should be taught not just about the theories put forth by scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, but about how and why these men labored at what they did, in order to understand that science is not immaterial truth but rather a recent construct of humans. This is not to say that scientists' theories don't represent valuable approximations of how nature works but rather just to remind us all that scientific principles are not immutable truth.

Barzun worries at the same time that the discipline of history is marginalized when it should be broadened. He has a beautiful passage about the importance, the necessity of history in the face of accumulating new inter disciplines that seek to supplant its study:

One can safely generalize and say that under the name of social science, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and economics, many American students today are really offered one single and quite unnecessary subject, namely: Tautology.

History--by which I mean history properly taught--aims at the diametrically opposite results. It is never tautological, it is not confined to one experience or one set of experiences, it does not ape the tricks of physical science; it does not offer brisk formulas for human behavior or pat answers to social problems. But it makes its students think maturely about all the valuable fragments of experience which may have found their way into these latter and shoddier substitutes (152).

Barzun adds "I am not criticizing serious teaching in psychology nor responsible work in sociology under true masters. I have no quarrel with other independent disciplines, but only with the Ersatz that is put forward as fit to supplant history" (152).

Students should be introduced to science and history as somewhat opposite frames with which to view the world--the former finding it quantifiable and predictable, the latter finding it a host for a series of unique events that are nonetheless edifying for its student. Both frames of mind are important for understanding the world, at least as best as one possibly could. What is so valuable about the historical frame of mind is that it lessens one's idealism and cynicism both. As Barzun says:

When broadly based on a good knowledge of western European history (including that of the United States), the historical sense is a comforter and a guide. The possessor understands his neighbors, his government, and the limitations of mankind much better. He knows more clearly not what is desirable but what is possible. He becomes 'practical' in the lasting sense of being taken in neither by panicky fears nor by second-rate Utopias. It is always some illusion that creates disillusion, especially among the young, for whom the only alternative is cynicism. The historical sense is a preventive against both extremes. It is a moderator which insists on knowing conditions before passing judgements. The historical sense is above all political-minded. It suggests that in the struggles of men with one another, no virtue implies the possession of any other; that motives are mixed, and that no evil is absolutely perverse. For these reasons, the study of history tends to make men more tolerant, without on that account weakening their determination to follow the right: they know to well the odds against it [emphasis mine] (155).

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Please no more academic arguments...

...about anything. I'm beginning to think Washington has a glut of useless pundits (okay, not beginning to think), who not only are inadvertently paid to be useless but in fact, to make things worse. Does it really help us get any closer to figuring out whether "the surge" is a good idea (the fact that it is being called "the surge" hints that it is not) if Joe Klein goes ad hominem on Paul Krugman? Oh, wow, Joe Klein is so irreverent. He doesn't care that "illiberal leftists"(whaaa??) don't like him. Maybe if Joe Klein spent less time keeping track of how many liberal bloggers hate him and spent more time actually making detailed inquiry into whether it is a good idea or not to committ more money and troops to try and secure Baghdad--yes, secure Baghdad--he would be of some help. As it stands, does Joe Klein really help anything? Can he just go away? Can Time Magazine's abhorrent blog oh so cleverly called Swampland please vaporize into thin air? Please, go away Swampland, sink like quicksand into your swamp, into your morass of frivolity. Ana Marie Cox too. Get real jobs, all of y'all.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Some excellent takeaway quotes for 2007 political resolutions

The Nation's Katha Pollitt:

  • Think bigger...Decent affordable housing--an issue that's dropped off the radar screen even as housing costs have skyrocketed. Free or nominal tuition in public universities--sounds like utopian madness until you realize that public higher education actually was free, or cheap, until the 1980s.
  • Stop giving the right credit for our ideas...why heap praise on antiwar reactionaries like Chuck Hagel or right-wing hacks with a soft spot for the ACLU like Bob Barr or antichoicers who draw the line at banning stem-cell research like John Danforth? [My corrollary to this one: stop nostalgicizing the Reagan era.]
  • Stop looking for a savior. If we create a strong movement, leaders will arise...whatever their merits, if you want the next Democrat in the White House to feel beholden to you, don't act like a groupie two years in advance. Concentrate on building a movement he'll need to court--and satisfy.
  • Don't think your lifestyle can save the world...the world will never be saved by highly educated, privileged people making different upscale consumer choices.

Bard Pun

Washington has officially ushered in the Shakespeare Festival, a six month long tribute to the playright who gave us the complex character (as opposed to the simple one dominated by humors). Just like Paris on the Potomac, Shakespeare's works and influence will permeate events all over the city, both large and small, expensive and cheap. It should be cool. However, one thing we must all brace ourselves for is the bad puns that periodicals love to employ, in particular those playing upon the word "bard," an epithet that refers commonly to Shakespeare and means a poet, playright or other scholar in Medieval and early Modern Great Britain. Many blogs and papers are keeping track of the events of Shakespeare Fest; meanwhile I am here to keep track of the bad, excessive puns written about Shakespeare Fest. So far, we have:

"Bard Times" The Washington Post, 1/5/07

As an aside, I'm really sad I missed last night's reading of Twelfth Night at the Kennedy Center, because Balki, i.e. Bronson Pinchot (who will forever be known as Balki) took part. Damn me.

Politico-Really necessary?

Exiting the Courthouse Metro station today, I came face to face with an alluring ad for The Politico. Upon arriving home, I navigated to the website to find out what the authoritative ad was promoting. Apparently, a couple of Washington Post veterans left their positions to get involed with The Politico, which looks to be a new, multi-platform reporting venture that will cover Capital Hill, the presidential race, and lobbying and issue advocacy "with enterprise, style, and impact." I have no idea what they mean by that, but I have to ask, is a project like The Politico really necessary? Doesn't D.C. already have The Hill, Congressional Quarterly, and Roll Call, not to mention The Washington Post, The Washington Examiner, and, even...ugh...The Washington Times? Does Washington really need another outlet for the chattering class to bloviate*--to make uninformed speculations about whether the country is ready for a black man or a woman as president and whether Nancy Pelosi is allowing some Rep into her inner circle? Is such reporting at all useful? It definitely is not at all original. If The Politico is what I think it is--the self-satisfied trailer that flashes all sorts of recognizeable faces doesn't look promising--it embodies the primary problem of political reporting, which covers too much on the subjects of tactics and political posturing and too little on translating what on earth our elected officials actually do each day, what legislation they are proposing and passing, and who exactly their legislation is serving.

Such journalism embodies the problem with this town in general, which is that some folks get so into the idea that they are mixing with the Illuminati, the "powerful" people, that they report on the goings on as if they were in a cafeteria surveying the social dynamics between cliques. Little do any of them realize that such a paltry minority of people know or care who most of Washington is. I enjoy a clever dig at politicians or a little Washington gossip every once in awhile, but I turn to the totally unserious Wonkette for this, not a legitimate paper, and there is a glut of entities that fulfill this need already. If I'm wrong about The Politico, and it is a serious, useful periodical, I'll be the first to admit it. If I am right, I look ever forward to reading another article about whether the nation can elect a Mormon for president or whether Giuliani can win over social conservatives.

*When looking up the word bloviate to make sure I was spelling it right--it is unlisted in my computer's dictionary--I found this very appropriate example of its usage on Anyone who has ever spent an idle morning watching the Washington talk shows has probably wondered: how did these people become entitled to earn six-figure salaries bloviating about the week's headlines?
-- Robert Worth, "Quick! The Index!", New York Times, June 3, 2001.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

I love contradictions

Today, the Federal Trade Commission (my place of work)'s huge civil action against four diet pill companies was the subject of a "Today Show" feature! Yes! The FTC Chairman even had an interview with Matt Lauer. Score! It was a winning day for the American consumer, and a winning day for the oft-drowned out message that the way to maintain a healthy weight is to eat controlled portions and get physical activity (the latter, I could stand to do a little more). Short-term solutions like diet pills don't do it, and they eat up a lot of money and encourage psychological hang-ups about food in the process. Just like anything else, if a fix seems too easy, it is. If a celebrity like Anna Nicole Smith is hawking a product, stay away. It's to the "Today Show"'s credit that they are airing this message.

Oh, except, the next segement to come on the video viewer is an awkward breakfast shake recipe demo care of Mariel Hemingway, whose new book is going to help you lose weight and maintain a healthy lifestyle. She makes a pitiful smoothie with a bunch of powder and some blueberries. She advises not to totally restrict anything, which is fine advice, but I don't need Mariel Hemingway to tell me that. Plus, I don't need to ever go on a diet that would have me drink that weird looking smoothie. Blech.

So, thanks "Today Show," for exposing the diet industry for what it is, if only for five glorious minutes.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Not very useful journalism about Clinton and Obama votes

In today's Washington Post, an article comparing the voting records of Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sets out to find rifts between the two possible presidential candidates. On the one hand, the author of the article does try to illustrate the complexity of Senate votes, which are so often misconstrued; on the other hand, she herself helps to misconstrue Clinton's and Obama's voting records by suggesting there are vast differences between the two and by the way in which she interprets their votes.

For one, Clinton and Obama really don't differ over a lot. They have voted with each other 90 percent of the time, and the votes the author cites as indicating polarization between the two Senators are relatively inconsequential, like a vote over whether a Senator can hold a separate job. The biggest point of departure between Clinton and Obama appears to be over requiring mandates of the-corn based fuel ethanol at refineries. Obama, who represents a state with heavy ethanol interests unsurprisingly supported the measure; Clinton, whose state up until recently had little connection to the ethanol industry opposed the measure.

From what I can tell, both Clinton's and Obama's voting records show general good judgement, even when they come down on opposite sides on a vote, but this article makes something out of nothing, several times:

Obama voted to increase taxes when he opposed a package of business breaks that included the extension of middle-class provisions. Clinton voted for the tax bill -- before she voted against it, as did Obama, in the legislation's final form.

For one thing, the phrasing "voted for the tax bill--before she voted against it" is obviously a deliberate attempt to resurrect the language that got John Kerry in trouble in 2004 when the Bush campaign opaquely referenced Kerry's vote against a defense appropriations bill after he sponsored an amendment to pay for the 87 billion appropriations bill by rolling back some of the Bush tax cuts. That amendment was voted down, so Kerry was perfectly consistent in voting against the bill. Just like the Bush campaign, the author of this article makes no effort to figure out why Clinton voted against the legislation in its final form, which is a perfectly reasonable and common thing for a Senator to do.

Furthermore, deducing Obama's position on this bill as a vote "to increase taxes" is not useful. Obama voted to prevent tax breaks on businesses, which is not the same as voting for a tax increase. Coupling the extension of middle-class tax provisions with business tax breaks is a hallmark of a Republican Congress that eagerly neutered any bill that tried to help middle and working class Americans by adding pro-business (deficit-increasing) provisions. It is perfectly reasonable for Senators Clinton and Obama to see the costs of such a bill outweighing the benefits. The writer unfortunately fits these votes into the all too convenient (and mindless) attack-ad rubric.

This writer goes on to point out how such votes can get misconstrued--

As Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) discovered in previous campaigns, the Congressional Record is a minefield for White House contenders, a catalogue of provincial concerns, convoluted logic and compromised principles.

--though she herself is helping to misconstrue votes. It is unhelpful for a journalist to effectively sit back and let a politician define the terms of a debate, by writing about the tactical as opposed to the substantive ramifications of a vote record. What good is a journalist if not to interpret the complexity of Senate votes for the average newspaper reader?

An aside about the issue of experience for candidates in the upcoming presidential election: I want to point out that members of the current administration with years of experience--Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld--and those with minimal experience--George W. Bush, who had four years as governor of the state with the least powerful gubernatorial office--have equally screwed things up. I don't think experience matters so much as good judgement, good intentions, and proven dexterity in past elected and non-elected occupations. Too much experienced arguably clouded the minds of men like Cheney and Rumsfeld who have been too oriented towards old threats to sufficiently understand new ones.

On the issue of experience though, Barack Obama was one of the best if not the best legislator in the Illinois State Senate for a number of years. Although Edwards--whose positions I like--appears to be touted as more experienced than Obama, Obama will have had almost as much time in the Senate by 2008 as Edwards did in 2004, plus time as a state senator. I also think it's interesting that the experience card is used both ways. One is a "Washington insider" if s/he is experienced (plus, s/he has years of a House or Senate record dredged up as ammunition against him/her), one is not up to the job if s/he is inexperienced. This is why I am going to look at the substantive accomplishments and abilities of a particular candidate rather than trust the abstractions over qualities like experience, which tend to be used for spin either for or against the candidate.