05 December 2012

"The American Crisis"

I'm reading through Thomas Paine's "The American Crisis" and at the outset of the essay (actually a series of pamphlets) Paine invokes the term 'slavery' to explain the American situation at the outset of the war.  He writes:
"Britain...has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but 'to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER,' and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon the earth." (formatting from the original)
What gets me is of course that the idea of slavery for Enlightenment thinkers like Paine was so universal when the actuality of slavery (and indentured servitude, which we might think of as slave temps) was everywhere in the actual world at the time.  Most Western philosophers, prior to Hegel "we" might argue, used the concept of slavery as convenient short hand for any abridgment of liberty.  All this while staring actual examples of horrific and lucrative slavery in the faraway face of The (still) New World.

Source: www.ktersakian.com
Even if normal European citizens weren't faced with daily examples of slavery, the spoils of that trade were part of their daily lives*.  Though I suppose you could make the same argument in our post-enlightenment (HA!) age.  From my iPhone and it's problematic origins to my occasional (and shamefully delicious) Big Macs, it is a common refrain of the modern left that poverty is just the new(est) form of slavery.  Barbara Ehrenreich argues it (in not so few words) in Nickel and Dimed and Aristide's book, Eyes of the Heart, makes the argument directly. Tales of the evils of globalization as creating a slavery of poverty is an old new idea.  At the same time, I can imagine an ill-conceived, Norquistian argument about increased taxation representing a new form of slavery and the looming, largely imagined fiscal cliff a mass ensnarement, an abridgment of liberty.

My attention meanders from these comparisons to slavery to my more recent encounter with (imagined) actual slavery in the form of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.  While there have been several reviewers bemoaning the historical usefulness of the film's central drama regarding the passage of the 13th Amendment, I think it should go without saying that looking to Hollywood for significant historical lessons leaves one wanting.  (Both of these reviews, however, are excellent and well worth a read).  It's a well-worn truism that historical films are more about the time in which they are made than the time they pretend to represent.

But I do think that Lincoln does make some fairly sophisticated historical arguments.  The desire to find a super-hero in the figure of important historical figures is better articulated in Seth Grahame-Smith's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (which I think is actually a better biographical sketch when it comes down to it), but it's definitely present in this movie.  I was struck, though, that when I was thinking of what the film might be saying about contemporary political figures, I wasn't reminded of 'our man from the Land of Lincoln', but more often found myself thinking about W (or perhaps more accurately, Josh Brolin's portrayal of W in W, which has become our historical W).  Lincoln is really funny, because the president constantly wanders off on tangents, tells dirty jokes, and tells stories at odd times.  With Lincoln, though, we are meant to believe these meanderings are acts of secretive genius (his super power is being able to get anyone on his side by telling stories about his suicidal barbers).

I guess all of this is to say that the world is not so big a place, that experiences and history are largely communal (or perhaps even universal), but we act as if each instance, our instants, are unique.  I tell my students that we (and especially they) frequently seem to act as if the world is something that is happening to us, rather than a place that they are actively engaged in.  The catastrophic activities that we take part in every day exist regardless of our recognition (and hopefully thoughtful critique) of them.

*I've been reading lately about the economics of the Age of Revolution (and the age of slavery) and in particular the "triangle trade" as it is known, where slave traders brought captured Africans back to European centers of the slave trade located in secondary port cities like Liverpool and Bordeaux.  Slaves were marketed in these centers and then forwarded on to the Americas, generally.  The result was a booming economy in what were formerly provincial areas.  In fact, Carolyn Fick argues in her excellent book, The Making of Haiti, that it was these growing, outlying economies that directly produced the very middle class nouveau riche who were the main drivers of the French Revolution (and therefore the Haitian Revolution), thus undermining the very system that made them riche in the first place.

21 October 2012

American Except-alism

My favorite thing in the world today is Mark Rice's blog, Ranking America, which dispassionately reports on the United States standing in the world on anything from alfalfa exports (2nd) to child poverty (2nd worst) to percentage of rural population (167th) to penis size* (50th) to nocturnal safety (30th), which are the five most recent entries.  Rice's blog pinpoints the childish mentality of needing to only hear that America is the best, richest, most powerful, free-est, awesome-ist, nicest country in the world.  Yes, the United States is Number 1 in small arms ownership and incarceration rates.  That's American Except-alism, number one except for most everything that matters.

I was directed to the blog by an editorial in The New York Times, which replays the quadrennial lament at our politicians' inability to be straight with citizens.  The article essentially asks "What would happen to a presidential candidate who instead of pandering about American Exceptionalism pointed out disgraceful facts like our rank of 34th among the 35 most economically advantaged nations (we beat Romania!) in terms of child poverty?"  They'd lose, is the quick answer, then un-reflectively moves on to say "too bad."  If only we lived in a media environment, says the most prestigious media outlet in America, that was better at creating true political dialogue rather than posturing and pandering...

Point of fact, there is a presidential candidate who is making these kinds of arguments (while offering solutions to some of the same issues).  In her too brief interview with salon.com, Jill Stein, Green Party candidate for president rightly argues for her inclusion in the televised debates (she's on 85% of ballots across the country) and also rightly points out that 90 million Americans don't have a candidate who represents them (that's a small estimate if you ask me).

This morning, I finally became a Decided Voter for the 2012 presidential election.  I will vote for President Obama despite the fact there are other candidates who better reflect my beliefs and hopes for the nation.  I do this out of fear and despair, because I live in a "Swing State".  I would encourage anyone who doesn't live in a swing state to do what I am not brave enough to do, vote for a candidate for president who represents not Mitt Romney's supposed "47%" of Americans who will vote for Barack Obama no matter what or the "43-47%" of partisan republicans who "decide" to believe what outlets like Fox News report, but the "43%+" of people who have so little representation in their elected officials that they don't even bother to vote.  Vote for Jill Stein if you are free to.

*This just in, Roman Numeral J site visits just increased by 13,056%

19 October 2012

Will Work for Jobs

It's nearing election day and the blathering "jobs jobs jobs, jobs jobs jobs jobs" (said with the intonation of the Peanuts adults) speeches are out in full force.

With an unemployment rate hovering around 8% candidates present themselves as viable alternatives for "job creators-in-chief", but it seems to me that such a role is another in the long line of fictional platforms on which we judge our candidates.

Mitt Rombley (as I think I heard Candy Crowley call him in the 2nd presidential debate) loves to say things like, "The government doesn't create jobs.  I know how to create jobs, because I was the head of a massive institution which was able to create jobs, but governments definitely cannot do that because they're not corporations, which are people."

President Obama, on the other hand, says things like, "We've created almost over 4.5 million new jobs over the past 29 (ish) months and while there's more to do, we're on the right track."  His statement is a little more true than Romney's if we assume the "we" refers to 'the American economy', i.e. everyone in and involved with the United States.  Slow, steady growth has been a feature of our recent recovery.

The fiction, of course, is that either candidate's plans will, necessarily, lead to more jobs.  It seems to me that if we consider a job, 1 person's opportunity to do a certain amount of work on behalf of someone else, what we really need to talk about is how do we make "more work" not "more jobs".  Creating work is much more straight forward than creating jobs, because 'work' is a scientifically-specific term.  You can create new work, I think, in only one of two ways: by creating additional work or new needs, which amounts to the same (see Jeffrey Kaplan's excellent article on the topic) or by decreasing efficiency in the workplace.

Making new work was a central piece of The New Deal and is what is now (and then) being largely reviled by conservative or big-business thinkers.  The idea that Romney and others keep repeating is that "government doesn't create jobs".  Set aside the fact that almost 6 times as many people are employed by the government (11.8 Mil jobs as of 2007) than by the nation's next largest employer, Wal-Mart (2.1 Mil jobs as of 2010).  That idea of the right that jobs can't be created by government is exactly false.  In fact, government is the most straightforward way to create new job, because it can call for new work to be created... 'build that bridge, teach those kids, photograph that crucifix in the glass of urine...'

The first stimulus bill worked, but it hasn't worked as quickly as we may all want it to (and in fact most Obama supporters at the time were saying that it didn't go far enough).  The stalling of an additional stimulus and now the calls for anti-stimulus (drastic spending cuts) at a time when everyone says jobs are the most important issue is... well... exactly what we've come to expect, I guess.  It should be no surprise to anyone that the republican ticket will be turning back to what has worked so well for them.  Incomes and assets of the 1% (and especially the .01%) are up astronomically in the past 12 years, so why shouldn't they want more of the same?

09 May 2012

Emotion, Elasticity and Paucity

The last 45 minutes has been personally significant. I came home from work (which evidently is a bastion of out-of-the-loop-ed-ness and "what was that?"), fixed a snack (crackers and cheese) and a cocktail (The Fifty-Fifty Cocktail, from The Savoy Cocktail Book) and turned on a rerun of The Daily Show, as I am wont to do.

It was the May 3rd episode, featuring an interview with Peter Bergen, recent author of the book Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden From 9/11 to Abottabad.  As I sat and watched, I was in a pretty good mood - as I always am.  Jon Stewart is (no matter what he says about it) the foremost voice of critique of the 24-hour cable news culture in America.  Bergen, who is doubtless the most well-informed person outside of the current administration about the killing of Usama Bin Laden, pretty clearly stated that...


Update: 1/10/13 - I have no idea what the Bergen interview clearly stated, but here - you should watch it, because i trust my then-self:

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Peter Bergen
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14 April 2012

Some thoughts on "Pre-Occupy"

Yesterday afternoon UW-M's Center for 21st Century Studies hosted a Pre-Occupy Symposium, examining various potential roots of #OWS*.  The talks, and in particular the subsequent Q&A reaffirmed my reticence to get much-involved with the world of leftist activism and organizing.  I am, of course, generally sympathetic and supportive (not to mention appreciative) of the work they do, but the conversations become a bit too predictable ofttimes.


Update 1/10/13 - I never really got too far with my write-up of the event.  Needless to say, I was somewhat disappointed by the proceedings.  I am, certainly, sympathetic for the radical Marxian desire of those taking part in the event, but the whole imaginarium of the event.  The people presenting at the symposium seem not to live in the same world as most people - as real people.

*Though #OWS is also, ultimately, unsatisfying as a name for the 2011 (and subsequent?) movement, Annie McClanahan's excellent pre-pre blog post on the symposium submits the term for our consideration and I find it a useful catch-all.