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

Monday, June 25, 2007

Cameron Got Served, or, Sendero Luminoso Revisited

On her recent trip to Peru, Hollywood starlet Cameron Diaz was called out for committing a fashion faux pas that left the actress grasping for humanitarian words of apology.

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While touring the famed Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, Diaz sported an olive-green bag that featured a red star and the phrase, "Serve the People," in Chinese characters. This phrase is known to be one of the hallmark slogans of Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party.

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The problem? News sources say that Peruvians are especially sensitive to such symbology because it is reminiscent of the bloody guerrilla war that the Maoist group Shining Path, or Sendero Luminoso, waged in the country throughout the 1980s and up to the early '90s. Close to 70,000 people are thought to have perished as a result of the war, but news agencies have omitted the fact that Sendero Luminoso is said to be responsible for 31,331 of those casualties. According to Human Rights Watch, government security forces were responsible for a third of the killings; the remaining deaths are mostly unattributed.

Without condoning the actions of Sendero Luminoso, I think it's important to properly frame the statistics people are citing with regard to the war. It's clear that both the group's actions and the Peruvian government's response to those actions were reckless and drastic -- together they had the effect of making paranoia and violence a part of everyday life. Indeed the war created the social conditions for what the anthropologist Michael Taussig calls "terror as usual."

Diaz, we know, was unaware of this significant aspect of Peruvian history. A Peruvian civil rights activist (on whom news agencies rely to voice the collective opinion of Peruvians who are or would be or have been offended by Diaz's bag), Pablo Rojas, is quoted as saying: "[The bag] alludes to a concept that did so much damage to Peru, that brought about so many victims... I don't think she should have used that bag where the followers of that ideology did so much damage."

Rojas is entirely justified in making this statement, but it seems to me the lack of world-historical knowledge Diaz displayed is hardly unusual for the privileged tourist who travels abroad. I dare say that most American travelers to Peru know next to nothing of the country's history, recent or otherwise. Diaz (who grew up in Australia) is your average tourist; it's her celebrity (cameras focused on her) and pseudo-political chic (where political symbology and slogans are now marketed for fashionable consumption) that led to this cultural misunderstanding.

Rojas's actual target of criticism, then, is not Cameron Diaz the "person" but Cameron Diaz the star-image. The blame for this episode of cultural insensitivity might be equally shared among Diaz's entourage: her publicist, her fashion consultant, her image-makers. Note how the olive-green bag is meant to complement Diaz's "backpacker look": loose clothing, a hat to shield her face from the sun, and what appears to be a hemp bracelet (or one made of a similarly organic material). The only flourish I can detect in these photos is a purple scarf (or two?) rolled around Diaz's neck. At any rate, the bag's political sloganeering is but one fashionable element in a complete celebrity package.

Perhaps blame should also be attributed to the brichero, or "native" tour guide, who appears next to Diaz on Machu Picchu. Note the designer sweater and unsullied jeans -- this guy really came prepared.

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The brichero's beaming gaze and I'm-all-ears stance say it all: entranced by Diaz's beauty, that inimitable smile, that aura of Hollywood celebrity, our guide likely didn't even notice the remnant of Maoist symbology that emblazons the bag in question.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Absolut Showdown

The BBC reports on a brewing conflict in the European Parliament: the "vodka-belt" countries (the Baltics and Finland, Denmark, and Sweden) want Parliament to accept a stricter standard for what can be counted as "vodka" in the spirits market. They're pushing for this in response to the wine-producing countries of France, Italy, and Spain (with Britain thrown in there for good measure -- goodness knows no good wine is produced there) increasing their stake in the vodka market, despite producing the spirit from such non-traditional ingredients as sugar beet, citrus fruit, and grapes. The vodka countries' representatives insist that the overall quality of the spirit is diminished when other countries veer away from using traditional ingredients such as potatoes and grain. As one Finnish representative put it, "[The vodka belt countries] produce 70% of the EU's vodka, and we consume 70%, so we know what we are talking about."

An interesting aspect of this battle is how the voting blocs cross traditional Eastern and Western European political alliances. The wine countries are of course solidly Western European. But the so-called vodka belt pairs former communist states such as Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with the equally vodka-loving Scandinavians; their bloc is also supported by Hungary and Slovenia. The battle over how to define "authentic" vodka-production is thus a matter of who's doing the drinking.

How the votes will fall is hard to predict. Acknowledging the split votes based on region, agriculture, and drinking traditions, another Finnish representative makes the astute point: "This is a battle of the vodka belt against the wine belt... In between lies the beer belt, which will get to decide."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Shock & Awe

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled on a case that concerns the right of suspects who led police on car chases to pursue lawsuits against the police. The case, Scott v. Harris, involved a Georgia teenager, Victor Harris, who led police on a high-speed chase after he was asked to pull over for speeding. When Harris was deemed to be posing a threat to other motorists and law enforcement officers, Deputy Timothy Scott used the so-called "PIT" maneuver -- precision intervention technique -- to spin Harris's car out of control. Because Harris was going at such a high speed (in excess of 100 mph), his car went airborne, flew down an embankment, and crashed. The accident left Harris a quadriplegic.

As it passed through the lower courts, the case simply asked whether it was valid for Harris to pursue legal action against Scott for the specific action he undertook to terminate the high-speed chase. The 11th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Harris could, in fact, take legal action against Scott. But by a vote of 8-1 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Scott did not violate Harris's Fourth Amendment right to resist unreasonable seizure, and thus had no grounds to file a lawsuit against Scott. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion of the Court, and Justice John Paul Stevens filed the lone dissent.

Although the outcome of this case didn't come as a surprise to many, considering the today's Court's conservative bent, what did strike a chord was the great degree to which the majority relied on the police videotape of the chase to frame/ground its decision. Indeed Justice Scalia writes, "Far from being the cautious and controlled driver the lower court depicts, what we see on the video more closely resembles a Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort, placing police officers and innocent bystanders alike at greater risk of serious injury." The videotaped evidence was so transparent to the majority that Scalia went so far as to say, "[Harris'] version of events is so utterly discredited by the record that no reasonable jury could have believed him... The Court of Appeals should not have relied on such visible fiction; it should have viewed the facts in the light depicted by the videotape."

According to Scalia's logic, Harris was so clearly running amok that he effectively forfeited his Fourth Amendment right and in a sense "forced" Scott to undertake the PIT maneuver. Had Scott not engaged the tactic, who knows what kind of ball-of-flame Hollywood pyrotechnics might have occurred? The opinion is clear: "Respondent intentionally placed himself and the public in danger by unlawfully engaging in reckless, high-speed flight; those who might have been harmed had Scott not forced respondent off the road were entirely innocent. The Court concludes that it was reasonable for Scott to take the action he did. It rejects respondent’s argument that safety could have been assured if the police simply ceased their pursuit. The Court rules that a police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death."

Stevens, in a dissent he read out loud at the announcement of the decision (which is a rare tactic employed by dissenting Justices, reserved only for their most serious grievances with the majority opinion), rued how his colleagues had been taken in by the shock and awe of the videotaped evidence. Without in the least bit condoning Harris's action, Stevens focused more narrowly on the (Fourth Amendment-specific) question of whether the police actually took stock of their options in this pursuit, which the lower courts had suggested wasn't as "life-threatening" as the majority made it out to be. "I can only conclude that my colleagues were unduly frightened by two or three images on the tape," Stevens writes.

Acknowledging the novelty of the Court's consideration of videotaped evidence in this case, it's important to point out that Stevens, the oldest and most senior Justice (he was President Gerald Ford's appointee and, unfortunately for conservatives, has proven to be one of the Court's most liberal jurists for three decades and counting), actually provides the most reasonable view on how to "read" such material: not taken in by "two or three images on the tape," Stevens urges viewing the entire six-minute "chase," in context, because it shows that Harris may not have been driving in a manner so reckless that it merited the use of deadly force by the police. Stevens's direct and passionate dissent moves away from Scalia's "shock and awe" approach to the videotape to point out that what few cars were on the road at the time of the chase (late at night) might have pulled off to the side not because of Harris's recklessness but because of the flashing police lights and blaring police sirens that followed closely behind Harris's car. Stevens also points out that the prosecution's attempt to theorize what Harris might have done had Scott not ended the chase is pure speculation and not necessarily supported by the evidence of the tape.

Stevens thus summarizes his dissent in these forceful terms: "Relying on a de novo review of a videotape of a portion of a nighttime chase on a lightly traveled road in Georgia where no pedestrians or other “bystanders” were present, buttressed by uninformed speculation about the possible consequences of discontinuing the chase, eight of the jurors on this Court reach a verdict that differs from the views of the judges on both the District Court and the Court of Appeals who are surely more familiar with the hazards of driving on Georgia roads than we are." Stevens, we might paraphrase, wanted to defer to the lower courts for assessment of the "facts" of this case, which would include assessment of the relative merits of the police's decision to use deadly force to end the chase. Stevens's fellow jurists, on the other hand, abstracted the car-chase images from their context, much as the shock-and-awe TV program World's Wildest Police Videos does with its car-chase sequences (heavily edited, of course, to maximize the sense of danger these motorists pose to the public).

The Court's decision in Scott v. Harris is thus a significant blow to local, context-specific determinations of Fourth Amendment rights. It replaces conditional approval of the police's use of deadly force with an abstract defense of deadly force in all situations where the police themselves determine when a suspect poses a threat to society. The circuitousness of that logic -- where the police act on a determination that the police make -- refuses to grant any suspect the leverage to defend himself against accusation that he posed a deadly threat to society. Stevens's view wanted to do nothing more than grant Harris the chance to contest that serious, enormously consequential claim. That this claim was apparently self-evident to the eight other Justices after watching this Cops-style video is troubling.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The American Creed

While living and traveling in Peru and meeting people from different cultures and backgrounds, I was led to reflect on what might be described as the "character" of the American people. I wasn't forced by my friends and acquaintances to "defend" what it means to be an American; rather, conversations about European politics (Finnish parliamentary elections, the French presidential election, etc.) and Peruvian development inspired me to compare American attitudes toward government, education, and civil society to those of other nationalities. It was an open debate.

My Finnish friends in particular provided me with an interesting set of ideas about government, education, and civil society that stood in contrast to what I think is the predominant "American" view of such things. Finnish students and professionals alike remarked that while their country's very high taxes are at times a personal nuisance and too often mismanaged, the common, public good that those taxes ultimately serve is worth 1) the nuisance, and 2) the effort to reform government to become more fiscally efficient.

The socialist-style Finnish system applies a graduated income tax to its citizens so that the wealthy are responsible for paying more taxes (relative to their income) than the poor and working classes. And to be sure, there's the usual discontent among the middle and rich classes about social welfare -- the perception that many poor and working-class Finns don't do their part in finding gainful employment or in trying not to live off the state. Despite these very real social and economic problems, however, my Finnish friends told me that most well-off Finns continue to believe that it's ultimately a good thing to buttress the country's infrastructure and social networks with their taxes.

Hearing this made me ashamed to be an American. I knew instinctively that such a view of the common, public good was/is utterly foreign to the vast majority of Americans. Perhaps it wasn't always so. Or maybe this has always been the case in a country that prides itself on its individualist ethos and cult of self-determination. What I do know is that the American creed of every man (or: nuclear family unit) for himself was perfected during the Reagan Revolution, the late-'70s to mid-'90s social and political movement that, among other things, valorized private enterprise and unfettered capitalism at the expense of public institutions, social welfare, and, specifically, the very idea that the country's tax burden would be shared by all citizens.

One truly sad result of this long period of dismantling the bonds of our civil society is that many well-off Americans actually feel victimized by the government when it tries to raise their income tax (which of course is modest compared to those paid by citizens in other "First World" countries). Even worse is how well-off Americans tend to feel victimized by the poorest sectors of society -- those who don't earn a living wage, who need to work three jobs to make ends meet, and need I mention "illegal immigrants"? The poor: whom the well-off characterize as morally and culturally deficient leeches, in so many words. The poor: whose socioeconomic poverty is somehow their fault, and theirs only.

It's this cult of victimization that's uniquely American, it seems to me. The well-off Finns have their complaints, sure. But at least many of them are able to distinguish a problem of social inequality (the poor needing help and the state mismanaging the system that distributes "help" to the poor) from a basically personal feeling of resentment, which, as Nietzsche reminds us, is the other face of self-righteousness (the poor are themselves deficient and so offend "me" by taking "my" money).

But why take my word for it? Durham's weekly news magazine The Independent cites this quotation from a recent article in the daily newspaper The News & Observer:

"The last thing I want to do is put more money into education, because I don't want to pay for something I never use."
--Bob Williamson, 46, a childless real estate executive from Wake Forest, quoted in an N&O story about how a majority of Wake County residents who don't have children oppose new taxes to help the schools keep up with growth.

So goes the American creed.

[For: Katri, Maria, Tiia, Lissu, Laura]

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Almost Infamous

The BBC's Matt Frei wrote a humorously observant article on this week's prominent celebrity jailings. Paris Hilton checked herself in at a Los Angeles county jail to serve 23 days for multiple DUI arrests. For his politically motivated "outing" of Valerie Plame, Scooter Libby was sentenced to 30 months in jail and ordered to pay $250,000 in fines. Paris and Scooter will serve time for different offenses, then, but it may become apparent that they share a peculiar quality among fallen celebrities: the ability to use the media's fascination with their infamy to orchestrate their resurrection.

As a celebutante, Paris has from the very beginning endured waves of criticism, attack, and targeted vitriol. Her incarceration is perhaps seen by many as the capstone to a profoundly reckless "personal" life -- one spent sun-bathing in the ego-feeding limelight of the public's mass-mediated attention. And yet Frei makes the point that Hollywood jail-time has the potential to redeem a fallen star's cachet: "It is the preparation of a new role and the script is predictable: the contrition, the return journey to honesty, the charity work, the book deal, the vegetarian recipes, the jailhouse fashion line, the cult of self-improvement lapped up by the attendant media, a stint squirming on Oprah's couch." When it comes to stars, we seem to take (perverse) pleasure in seeing them fall, repent, and eventually rise again.

Scooter's case is more complicated, owing to his being on the side of an unpopular administration and the figurehead of a disastrous, win-at-all-costs, war-mongering ideology. He is a minor figurehead, yes -- a bobblehead, if you will. But Scooter is a necessary figure; his crime is a discrete, punishable component of what is in fact a mind-boggling galaxy of Bush/Republican foreign policy foibles.

Will Scooter have the same chance at redemption that Paris surely will? It depends. He could fade into obscurity after he finishes serving his sentence, electing to quit this media/political business once and for all. (A Paris Hilton sans fame and/or infamy is quite unthinkable, on the other hand.) Scooter could also remain indefinitely infamous should Bush grant him a presidential pardon. Or he could go the way of so many former criminals and victims: becoming a Hollywood writer/producer. Scooter has already made clear his hope that his soft-core pornographic novel The Apprentice will one day be made into a movie.

If Scooter does get to make his movie at some point in the not-too-distant future, perhaps his path will cross Paris's once again and she'll get to play the leading lady (or mistress). Now that would be a Hollywood coup worth Netflixing.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Task of the Reviewer

I began posting book reviews on about a year ago to kick-start the process of writing on a daily basis. My dissertation had suffered long periods of dormancy, and posting book reviews was just one of the ways I thought I could teach myself how to enjoy writing -- any form of writing -- in view of schedules and deadlines.

I was also spurred to enter that virtual universe of reviewing after reading Michael Eric Dyson's contribution to the New York Public Library's series on the seven deadly sins: Pride. I maintain that this is a dreadful piece of writing. I found Dyson's book to be at once self-indulgent and hollow: brash and condescending without any hint of self-reflexive criticism. A good third of the book is devoted to Dyson's own career, and he betrays not an iota of irony when he takes two former students to task (he basically insults them in prose) for supposedly being disruptive in one of his classes. As you can see for yourself, my review reflects my very low opinion of this book.

But having had some familiarity with the defensive nature of people's responses to reviews (especially when it comes to political and social commentary), I added a closing paragraph to my review that revealed my stakes in critiquing Dyson: a progressive myself, I believe public-intellectual showmanship by the likes of Dyson does a disservice to progressive critical thinking. It brings our discourse down to the level of a polemical shouting match, and it touches on only the most superficial layer of social and political understanding (e.g., Dyson hails Halle Berry's and Denzel Washington's winning Oscars as being "good" forms of pride, over and against the KKK's "bad" form of pride).

The very next review I wrote, on Herman Grey's Cultural Moves, was just as critical, but this time I approached my argument from a more "academic" perspective. I again revealed my stakes in this act of criticism: as someone thoroughly invested in black cultural studies and African American cultural production more generally, I think Grey's sociological determinism seeks not to understand black arts on its own terms but to regurgitate the theoretical point that black arts is always "different" from presumably "white" hegemonic cultural production. Cultural Moves, for me, is a book of academic navel-gazing and not a sincere effort to think about what black arts might mean for its actual practitioners and receivers.

So you can see I've been very careful with how I approach reviewing on I'm keen on making critical points, but I'm also aware of the various audiences I'm addressing -- I try to inaugurate a conversation between me and them that makes clear my position (with which they may or may not agree) and my investment in making that position. To be sure, I apply such a degree of care to books that are explicitly "about" social and cultural affairs: Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope, to take the most recent example.

Having explained all that, you can imagine my surprise when someone took the time to send me a message, via, to let me know she finds my reviews heinous:

You gave Fukuyama's (!) book 5 stars essentially saying, 'hey please, come line this reactionary's pockets with money' - and Rachel Roy etc. - and you gave Herman Gray's book ONE star? Ugh! Must you review? - can't you go join some neocon think tank or something and stop ruining people's ratings with your lame criticisms? Better yet - write your own book for critique. Thank you."

Well, there goes "writing for an audience"!

First, I'm not sure exactly what this person meant by adding "Rachel Roy etc." (i.e., Rachael Ray) to the mix in such an offhand manner. Is Rachael Ray a political "reactionary"? Or does this person take issue with Ray's admittedly populist (heaven forbid "mainstream"!) approach to home cooking? (There are longstanding debates on about Rachael Ray's "dumbed-down" approach to cooking, with elitist "foodies" taking the masses to task for their lack of "taste," in both senses of that term.) Whatever the case may be, I can only imagine this person was attempting to flash her liberal, hipster, and/or anti-mainstream credentials by denouncing my positive reviews of Rachael Ray's cookbooks.

More important, however, is her claim that I'm somehow a political reactionary myself for giving Francis Fukuyama's America at the Crossroads a positive review. Now the full text of my review clearly states that what I appreciate about this book is the candor and intelligence with which Fukuyama critiques the problem of George W. Bush's war-mongering and interventionist attempt to "spread democracy" the world over. It's Fukuyama's contention that the philosophical roots of neoconservative thinking insist strongly against such interventionism. (And so unlike other reviewers who seem to think Fukuyama is defecting from neoconservative principles, I actually point out that he's lambasting Bush for not holding true to them.) My review clearly states that I disagree with philosophical neoconservativism but that I appreciate the critique of Bush Fukuyama is able to mount in its name. Fukuyama's is a well-reasoned argument, in my estimation, and one way, out of many, of trying to work through the implications of Bush's disastrous, pig-headed foreign policy.

If there's anything I'm guilty of, at least based on my review, it's the belief that the project of democratic reform must first take root in the actual communities supposedly in need of democratic reform. This is the belief, over and against interventionism, of the need to buffer civil society with strong institutions and shared power structures. It's a belief shared by conservative realists, liberal socialists, and NGOs alike. Now it may not be the "utopian" post-power structure that many of my colleagues in graduate school advocate for, but it is, in my opinion, a real, viable alternative to the pressing issue of U.S. imperialism acting under the guise of "spreading democracy." Where I differ radically from Fukuyama, then, is in how "institution-building" as such is conceived: I reject neoconservative principles and support Western European-style socialism, where civil society is strengthened by the state not letting market capitalism run roughshod over the interests of the people, especially the poor and working classes.

Of course I doubt my critic actually read my review: it seems she only compared my star ratings among books (especially Herman Grey's, for whatever reason) and made up her mind that I belonged in a "neocon think tank." As for her claim that my review "line[s] [Fukuyama's] pockets with money," I would simply point out to her that if one were to live life divesting from supposedly reactionary causes and businesses, we'd have to give up most, if not all, of the commodities and amenities that infuse modern society. It's not just Fox News and Wendy's I'm talking about here. I also hear the Coors family is rather conservative (that's an understatement, by the way), and who really knows what Whole Foods is up to these days (for the record, I like Whole Foods)? (On Whole Foods and this ideology of "organicism" in our supermarkets, see Michael Pollan's widely celebrated The Omnivore's Dilemma.)

In the end, I'm quite happy to have provoked a response from my critic. I doubt she'll ever want to hear what I have to say here, but then again critical debate in general is somewhat lacking on the Internet, owing to the medium's immediacy and tendency to evoke knee-jerk, defensive responses. Perhaps we'd do better speaking in person.

As for my future as an reviewer, I'll carry on just as I have carried on: making critical points, saying what I liked and disliked, reviewing books both popular and obscure, "academic" and mainstream, and always being wary that I'm writing for an audience.

The one thing I will refuse is heeding to some sort of ideological litmus test, of which my critic and many of my professional colleagues are equally guilty. For my critic, I'm not liberal or progressive enough. For some of my colleagues, I'm not radical or "utopian" enough. My task as a reviewer is not to meet any ideological standard that demands an "enough." It is simply to be this: insistently and self-reflexively critical.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Good Bye, Wojciech Jaruzelski!

The BBC and other news agencies reported that a Polish man, Jan Grzebski, woke up from a 19-year coma and was shocked to discover that communism had fallen in his native country -- only to be replaced by a rampant market economy.

A former railworker, Grzebski was hit by a train in 1988, just one year before elections in Poland made it the first post-communist eastern European country. For 19 years Grzebski's wife Gertruda tended to his health in the hope that he would someday awake from his comatose state.

When Grzebski did emerge from his coma, he found himself in a Poland utterly transformed by the "collapse" of communism. He told Polish TV, "When I went into a coma there was only tea and vinegar in the shops, meat was rationed and huge petrol queues were everywhere...Now I see people on the streets with mobile phones and there are so many goods in the shops it makes my head spin."

What I like about the BBC's coverage of this amazing story is that there's a hint of irony in the way it highlights Grzebski's reflections on post-communist Poland. As far as I can tell, it's the only "western" news agency to quote Grzebski saying, "What amazes me today is all these people who walk around with their mobile phones and never stop moaning...I've got nothing to complain about." Communist habits die hard? Or is it that Grzebski, by virtue of historical accident, has been afforded keen insight into our contemporary market-mediated condition? What's the point, he seems to ask, of so many consumer "choices" if we're becoming increasingly unhappy human beings -- people who don't appreciate the fact of life, the gift of consciousness, itself?

Grzebski's story is an interesting counterpoint to German director Wolfgang Becker's 2003 movie Good Bye Lenin! There a GDR, party-leading mother falls into a coma shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. When she awakes several months later, her son concocts a plan to protect her fragile heart: pretend that the GDR still exists and that communism hasn't been supplanted by market capitalism.

The scheme is admittedly hilarious in theory, but I found the jokes wore thin after a while. Hiding the Coca-Cola billboard directly across the street from his mother's window takes a bit of slapstick skill, yet the son's hijinks, for me, tend to underscore the mother's seeming anachronicity -- her being anti-modern, "not with the times," a remnant of the GDR/communist past. I would thus describe Good Bye Lenin!, produced in the now unified Germany, as a decidedly West German take on the former East German situation.

Jan Grzebski's story encourages us to do something different: rather than ridicule his communist leanings, his seeming anachronicity, we'd do well to take heed of his modest observations on contemporary life. His clarity of vision is not a joke -- it's a gift.