Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Politics & "News": Update on Hawaii's SCR 83

My friend Matthew Lopresti wrote me a few days ago to update me on the status of the Hawaii State Legislature's SCR 83 (see my previous post for information on this resolution). Unfortunately, SCR 83 didn't make it to committee, even though the state senator in charge of the committee, Clayton Hee, seemed to be in support of having the resolution heard among his colleagues. According to Matthew, the issue was that not enough people had written to their state senators (and not just Sen. Hee) about the resolution. This, at least, is what Sen. Hee relayed to Matthew once it became apparent that the resolution would die in the back rooms of our capitol.

Yet in his note to me Matthew raises a crucial point: how could broad-based support for SCR 83 be effected if mainstream media outlets refused to cover this piece of legislation until it became "newsworthy"? On the one hand, SCR 83's fate in committee was premised on public awareness (support, rejection, debate) of the issues. Yet our dominant media outlets, which are still largely responsible for shaping public awareness of the issues, wouldn't talk about SCR 83 unless it reached the floor of the Hawaii State Legislature.

It's a classic double-bind: without public support, a bill dies; but a bill won't be picked up by the media (which, again, shapes public opinion) unless it makes it to the floor. See how it works? It's suspicious-sounding all around, as though both politicians and the media were in cahoots as to what issues actually get heard by the public. Look at it this way: if the only bills that make it to committee/the floor are ones that supposedly have broad-based support anyway (without the media's attention), exactly how/where is genuine public debate of the issues happening? Where, in other words, are the outlets for bold pieces of legislation that seek to foment public debate of the issues?

Based on his experiences with SCR 83, Matthew frames the problem this way: "So, one thing I've learned from this is that things at the Capitol work with some degree of reverse causation. A bill or resolution is only heard in committee if they know it is going to pass on the floor. I was foolish enough to think (and believe what I was told) that if we can just get it heard, there can then be debate on the floor, in the media, and in the community - since the media said they would only cover the story to inform people about SCR83 if the committee was actually going to hear it. I was thus duped into thinking that local media was actually concerned with serving the betterment of democracy by informing the people of ways they can have a voice because I'm sure they were 'in the know' that if its heard in committee, its passing is already a foregone conclusion - hence my rant on the blog about their only concern being sensationalism."

Nicely put, and I'd simply stress Matthew's point about systematic (i.e., bureaucratic) political work being a foregone conclusion, a consensus-assuming practice that passes itself off as democratic deliberation. Note also, of course, the mainstream media's role in the matter: in lieu of coverage of such items as SCR 83, we've got "human interest" pieces and "health tips" and "market watch" and sundry forms of "news" that really only confirm "your" individual tastes and "your" individual lifestyle. News, in other words, has become a passing conversation with your friendly next-door neighbor: a pleasant little diversion; not the stuff of open, deliberative debate.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Hawaii's SCR 83 & Anti-Faculty Sentiment

A good friend of mine, Matthew Lopresti, a philosophy Ph.D. candidate and instructor at Hawaii Pacific University, recently helped spur discussion in Hawaii's State Legislature about a resolution that would ask the U.S. Congress to consider impeachment hearings against President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney. The text of the Senate Concurrent Resolution 83 (SCR 83) can be found here.

SCR 83 was introduced by Matthew's state senator, Les Ihara, a Democrat serving the Kapahulu, Kaimuki, and Palolo districts in Honolulu. SCR 83 has garnered some national attention through the Internet, but mainstream media outlets--even local outlets in Hawaii--have been mostly silent about the issue. Matthew has been tireless in his efforts to spread the word about this important piece of political expression; this past Friday the 13th was the deadline for the Hawaii Senate's Judiciary Committee to decide whether or not to consider SCR 83. Although I'm not sure about the outcome of that Committee's meeting on Friday, I will post an update as soon as I get the facts.

According to Matthew, online responses to his political work have been almost entirely negative. On one Hawaii-based political blog, Matthew has been attacked not simply for his editorial letter in support of SCR 83 (as far as I know, this letter was the only "coverage" that SCR 83 received from the mainstream media) but also for his status as a teacher and scholar at a university. It's this latter form of attack that continues to concern me as someone who believes scholars should not shy away from making serious intellectual and political contributions to/in the public sphere. One commentator, without so much as addressing the merits or demerits of SCR 83, claims that university professors should not have tenure, and that they "should be held accountable and responsible for everything they say." Another, writing as an "HPU alumni [sic]," claims s/he's "deeply disappointed that a Hawaii Pacific University Professor is behind this ignorant Resolution." And "kapena" goes so far as to say, "I am aware of people like you in academic circles who think and truly believe you have a more learned opinion than the rest of us...just because you're employed at an educational 'place of learning.'"

Wherever they come from (I'm not quick to assume these are "just" reactionary conservatives we're talking about here), I think responses such as these index increasing suspicion of the role and purpose of higher education in U.S. society. In fact, quite often these attacks have very little to say about the topic at hand. Rather, they are more insistent in pointing out two things: that university faculty 1) have an elitist, "liberal" bias against the will of the majority of Americans, and thus 2) should not involve themselves in social and political affairs beyond academia.

The first claim confuses "liberal" political soapboxing with what I conceive as the intellectual practice of critical thinking. Needless to say, the claim doesn't have an adequate answer to intellectuals' demonstrated commitment to critical thinking, even under seemingly "friendlier" regimes of power (i.e., the Clinton era, "blue" states or districts, etc.).

The second claim expresses the somewhat dumbed-down fear of higher education itself: whom it serves, what it's meant to provide, and so on. It seems to me the real threat of professors' social and political expression in the public sphere resides not in their particular "liberal" beliefs but in the very fact that higher education could mean something beyond what the corporate university is supposed to legitimate: the paying customer, or student--his/her professional drives, his/her "sense of self," his/her readiness to enter the "real world." So it seems to me that as more and more professors move between the academic and public spheres (not least aided by the Internet), there are those who will insist that faculty shouldn't express what they believe (and, goodness knows, even go so far as to say that what they believe is related to their vocation of critical inquiry) but should only serve their disciplines and their charges (i.e., students) in the disinterested realm of scholarly professionalism.

Duke faculty, graduate students, and instructors are all too familiar with these sorts of issues, particularly given the fallout from the Duke lacrosse case (which topic--the fallout--merits a very long blog entry of its own). I raise the issue here, in view of Matthew's participation in the SCR 83 push, in order to highlight how common anti-faculty sentiment really is in our country. What's this sentiment about? Is it unique to our polarized political times? (I happen to think aspects of it are unique, while others have been exploited by reactionaries many times in the past.) Why is intellectual public culture so much at odds with certain people's understanding of the mission of higher education? What's the relationship between anti-faculty sentiment and American institutions' taking up various modes of privatization (from profitable online course programs to lucrative endowment deals to scientific copyright contracts...)? At least this scholar wants to keep the conversation going.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Dwelling in Colca Canyon

Almost two months ago now, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to travel to Arequipa, Peru, a city in the mountains in the southern part of the country. I made the decision on a Monday afternoon and left around 8:00 that evening. I accompanied my friend Maria, a Finn I had met two days prior at a big lonche at Jorge's apartment (and then Huaringas Bar and then Yakana disco...).

Traveling to Arequipa involved a very long overnight bus ride down the Peruvian coastline, and it took over 12 hours. I'm just thankful I had Maria there for company and conversation. We talked about the recent Finnish parliamentary elections (held just the day before), what on earth I was doing in Peru, and our common interest in good movies and great literature. It was a pleasant evening after all.

Our arrival in Arequipa went without incident. Maria and I ended up at a hostel, The Tourist House (!), close to the Plaza de Armas. (Little did we know that also staying in the hostel were our future hiking friends Lea, Tabea, and Piotr.) Other than wolfing down a huge chifa lunch, of which Maria ate more of her plate than I did, our Tuesday was mostly uneventful, as we went in search of a good tour to do for the rest of the week.

The next day Maria and I embarked on a three-day trek of Colca Canyon, a long, deep crevice in the Andes that is itself a six-hour bus ride from Arequipa. Depending on which guidebook you read, Colca is considered the deepest or second-deepest canyon in the world. Maria had heard many good things about the trek, and without much else to see or do in Arequipa, the trek seemed the perfect activity for us to do together.

The first day of hiking involved descending the canyon, with our guide, at a brisk pace. About an hour into the hike, my thighs started to ache from all the braking and pivoting they had to do going down the steep path. Surprisingly, this pain didn't become a source of frustration for me. I noted how my legs and torso were working together to balance my body and full backpack on irregular terrain. I realized I was reawakening sinews and joints in my body that had laid dormant in city life. It felt strangely exhilarating to be reminded of my body -- its agility and strength -- in this way.

It was nearing dusk, and after four hours of hiking, Maria and I arrived at a little hut at the very foot of the canyon, near the intersection of two rivers ("Llahuar" in Quechua). Maria and I changed into our bathing suits and spent the early part of the evening relaxing in a freshwater spring. We then enjoyed the meal our guide prepared for us: fresh trout from the river and several cups of the altitude-adjustment tea mate de coca. That first night was tranquil and clear: Llahuar has no electricity, and the skies above it aren't obscured by the pollution one finds in Lima. Before we went to bed, Maria and I stood outside our hut and could make out the universe of stars above us.

The next day began bright and early with Maria and I winding our way east from Llahuar to an "oasis" -- a cluster of huts surrounded by swimming pools, where hikers can rest before embarking on the arduous trek back up the canyon. At the oasis Maria and I met up with hikers who, the previous night, had stayed in the villages east of Llahuar (the trek to which was an hour shorter than ours). So now our hiking group consisted of at least 12 to 15 people. Some folks had to take donkeys back up the canyon; one left two hours in advance to walk up at her own pace; and Maria and I started the ascent with the rest of them.

The first hour of the hike saw our group ascend the rocky, zig-zagging path in intense heat and at a relentless pace, as we all wanted to make it back to the top before sundown. Three of us broke away broke away from the group. For a while, we were directly behind two local children who were wearing worn-out sandals and carrying large travel suitcases on their backs. But their pace, intuited from years of experience and calibrated to their small frames, proved to be too brisk for us. We eventually lost sight of them as they scurried up the sheer face of the canyon with goods to deliver to the village.

Into the second hour, I moved ahead of my hiking buddies and was the first to arrive at an old Andean woman selling snacks, drinks, and fruit at a natural pause in the path. I waited for the others to catch up with me. I asked the woman how much a bottled water costs; when she said S./4, I feigned shock, declared my knowledge of fair prices, and was able to negotiate a S./3 price. Referring to myself as "El Chino" -- my nickname back in Lima -- came in handy once again.

Before moving on to finish the last leg of the hike, the old woman, perhaps charmed by my friendly negotiation, asked our little group what each of our birthdays are. When she came to me, something about September 5 struck a chord with her, and she took out a bag of powder, put some in her hand, and told me to blow on it, out towards the cliff, as hard as I could. Without hesitation, I did that. From what I could piece together with my rudimentary Spanish, I think I may have warded off the rains for at least a little while.

Soon I arrived at the top of the canyon, exhausted and drenched in sweat. My body heaved a sigh of relief as I surveyed the spectacular depth of Colca Canyon. I savored every drop of fresh, cold water that ran down my throat. My now deeply tanned skin reflected the rays of the blazing sun overhead, and I somehow didn't bother to find shelter in the shade. The other hikers trickled up the path over the next hour. We regrouped for the short walk back to Cabanaconde, the lone village with electricity in this vast area.

As the group trudged back to the hostel, I reflected on how profoundly removed I felt from the technologies of mediation that punctuate postmodern society. I realized that the trek allowed me to connect to the earth in a way that questioned the extent of my dependence on electronic mediation in "normal," everyday life. Far away from e-mail, websites, blogging, television, DVDs, iTunes, and so on, I felt free to accept the earthy reality of aching muscles, sweat-stained clothes, and mud-caked sneakers (yes, sneakers: I did say that I left for Arequipa on a whim). The experience made me ask, "How am I being mediated here? Am I at all?"

I'm not a romantic when it comes to the idea of "nature," but I am a romantic when it comes to experience. Colca Canyon was, for me, a defining romantic Experience, following Emerson. It subsumed my body to the laws of nature, the laws of gravity, and the laws of time in a way that sustained my whole being.

As I write this, though, sitting at the dining room table in my apartment in Miraflores, I find myself wondering whether such Experience is possible in my everyday "networked" life. That is: whether such dwelling may be found online. I admit that the vast majority of my electronic intake and communication is of the humdrum, non-Experience sort. Yet, as just one example, writing this entry has not only been a personally meaningful experience -- it's also had the uncanny effect of reminding me of the power of my body to take in the natural world. Writing this on my laptop, then, at home, and using my wireless connection has given me the kind of moment's pause that is perhaps a precondition for what Emerson called Experience.

This might be better illustrated by a coda to my account of hiking Colca Canyon. Relieved, drained, and reconnected after our hike up the canyon walls, our group settled in for a big dinner at the hostel. Around a long table, Maria (FIN), Paul (IRL via ENG), Tabea (GER), Lea (GER), Piotr and his friend (POL via ENG), and Alice (FRA) ate, talked, and argued (about soccer and the movie Babel), the day's journey slowly fading into memory.

When dinner was over, the question of what to do next arose. One thing led to another and bottles of pisco appeared with our names on them. Our hosts graciously cleared away the tables and created a makeshift dance floor. Our local guides then brought out the party-makers: pirated DVDs of '70s and '80s dance music videos, from disco to Milli Vanilli. In the mood for celebration and delighted by the selection of one-hit wonders ("She Drives Me Crazy"), home-country favorites ("99 Luftballoons"), and karaoke-inducing hits ("Superfreak"), the lot of us drank and danced the night away, fixated on a small-screen television, in our hostel, in a small village that was the only beacon of light in the wide expanse of Colca Canyon.