Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for October, 2008

In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 31, 2008


A few days ago, I resumed posting to my alter-ego photographic and (art/urban) historical weblog, Bubkes.Org.  The title of the latest entry: In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing.” Taking a photograph of a wrought-iron gate in Sofia, Bulgaria (above) as its point of departure, the new post considers the merits of a classic film-based pocket camera, the origins of the decorative iron work that was once characteristic of Balkan cities, and the changing circumstances of Balkan Roma (Gypsies).

Additional photograph-based postings treating small cameras, transformation of cities, and the urban experiences of Roma will follow on Bubkes.Org.  I hope to accompany them with parallel postings here on HakPakSak.  Indeed, In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing” touches on matters of the sort treated within the present “pages.”  Consideration of contemporary small-camera digital photography raises issues as to whether companies’ marketing or users’ actual wants and needs are the drivers behind product design, manufacture, and distribution.  It aslo raises issues as to how technology and taste interact.  Examination of the history and circumstance of Roma in Balkan cities casts light on the interplay of infrastructural shifts and transformations of identity within the urban context.  (Much) more to follow, thus.

Posted in Architecture, Bulgaria, Change, Cities, Economy, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Markets, National Identity, Photography, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Greenspan Wakes Up and the Ideology of Republican Orthography

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 28, 2008

A photo on the front page of October 24’s New York Times portraying a very bemused Alan Greenspan bore this caption:

“Testifying before a House committee almost three years after stepping down as chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets and had failed to anticipate the self-destructive power of wanton mortgage lending, leaving himself ‘in a state of shocked disbelief.'”

What leaves this writer bemused is how Greenspan managed to maintain his professed faith in things as imaginary and counter-intuitive as the “invisible hand” and market efficacy — let alone his job and influence — for as long as he did. The economic and social damage wrought by the blindness and cynicism of free market proponents is incalculable. (For the full text of the article but, unfortunately, without the front page photo, click here)

Also last week …

On Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn I spotted two posters neatly affixed to a boarded-up storefront one above the other. The top poster bore the simple text: Ron Paul for President 2008.  (Note to non-US readers: Ron Paul was a “libertarian” fringe candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.)  The bottom poster was more concise: Vaccination’s (sic) Cause Autism.” The controversial thesis of the sign aside, the orthography of its text — vaccination’s instead of vaccinations — reveals more than the carelessness of its author. The misplaced apostrophe is a suitable metaphor for Republicans’ inability to conceive of collective ownership or collective responsibility and for their abrogation of all matters beyond personal aggrandizement to “invisible hands” and other imaginary arbiters of “self-correction.”

Posted in Media, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Obama’s “Homeostasis”: It must be the Roedjak!

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 19, 2008

In Friday’s New York Times, David Brooks considered the causes and outcomes of Barack Obama’s seemingly even and unflappable temperament — his “homeostasis,” as it were — and suggested two types of presidencies Obama’s style might shape.  Obama, Brooks observes, has the class origins of a Clinton or Johnson, but without their self-defeating needs for affection or respect, and the evenness of an FDR albeit without FDR’s characteristic ebullience.  According to Brooks, Obama’s seeming emotional distance could lead to a presidency that is a needed island of calm and rationality or to one that is an island of ineffectual isolation.  An Obama victory will enable us to find out which.

So far, Obama’s seeming detachment has been exploited by his opponents as proof that “we don’t know who he his” or as a sign of his supposed smugness and intellectual superiority.  And, for quite a number of Democrats, Obama’s politeness and fixed smile are unsettling suggestions of a lack of the politically requisite instinct to go for the jugular.  I would suggest something quite different and far more positive … namely, that Obama knows how to eat Roedjak.

Roedjak is an Indonesian fruit salad, slices of not-yet-fully-ripened tropical fruit served with a sauce of thick sweet soy ketjap, tamarind paste, crushed chili peppers, and a dash of dried dessicated shrimp.  Roedjak‘s harmonic fusion of superficially contradictory flavors is more than culinary.  Roedjak restores equilibrium even while satisfying the senses.  Preparing and eating Roedjak is a tonic during moments of individual emotional turmoil. Domestic disagreements and work conflicts are calmed by sharing Roedjak when tensions begin to escalate. On the symbolic level Roedjak embodies much of what is positive in the wisdom and values of southeast Asia.

Political commentators — other than those Republican cranks who have accused Obama of having attended fundamentalist Muslim Koranic schools — have overlooked the Indonesian facets of the Democratic presidential candidate’s personality and past, his formative years on the island of Java and his being part a family with Indonesian connections as well as Kansan, Kenyan and African American ones.

In Java, outward emotional evenness and formal displays of respect are inherent to the workings of families and of villages.  Frontal confrontations are avoided and adversaries are given room to retreat.  Such stances are central to the the stylized conventions of Java’s traditional complexly hierarchical society and to the realities of domestic, social, and political life on an overpopulated agrarian island and in crowded mega-cities such as Jakarta.

On the surface, Java is devoutly Muslim but Javanese Islam rests on older strata of Hindu and Buddhist culture.  The characters of the Buddha and of the heroes of the Bhagavad Gita still resonate as strongly as those of the Prophet Mohammed and Ali.  They are part and parcel of classical Javanese theater and dance and of raucous puppet theater and shadow plays. In Java, one learns that displays of restraint are incumbent on leaders and are signs of strength in people at all levels of society.

And so, for the sake of the US and the world, I’d rather see the American presidency in the hands of a Roedjak eater than a heart-beat away from the rule of an eater of mooseburgers.  Join me for a mango, anyone?

Posted in Commentary, Food, Identity, Media, National Identity, Politics | 2 Comments »

The End of Exurbia and Soros on Investing in Infrastructure

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 15, 2008

In the US, as elsewhere, the mortgage and housing market collapse, skyrocketing motor fuel prices, overloaded highways, and the absence of adequate public transportation are serious enough by themselves. The compounded effects of their interaction, however, are just as serious and even more complex. One result is the threatened demise of exurbia, i.e. of residential communities located far from the cities and towns that provide employment to their residents and that were built on the economic premises of cheap land, cheap credit and cheap motor fuel. With fuel motor fuel prices in the US now reaching the levels that the rest of the world had learned to live with and plan around, residents can no longer afford to live in exurbia and, with housing prices low, they cannot afford to sell their homes and move elsewhere either. An introduction to this paradox is provided by Driven to Despair, part of Blueprint America, a series of programs on the US Public Broadcasting System treating issues facing the country’s flawed and neglected infrastructure.

Last week, investor and philanthropist George Soros was a guest on Bill Moyers Journal, also on the US Public Broadcasting system. Soros spoke out about the end of what he calls “Market Fundamentalism” and how an economy based on speculation and disinvestment rather than production and complicated inadequate regulation and government intervention led to the present financial crisis. “Market Fundamentalism” is a wonderful term. Blind faith in the corrective efficacy of markets is indeed on the same level as religious fundamentalism, in its irrationality, inhumanity, and surrender of individual and group responsibility. I’d add that belief in “markets” and the “invisible hand” is no less absurd than belief in dialect materialism. It is also a sign of people who never read Adam Smith thoroughly. Most important, especially for those who follow the “infrastructure” thread on this site, Soros suggested that our economy could be kick-started and sustained by investment in combatting global warming and in renewing infrastructure. Readers of this site will find this a familiar theme.

Posted in Economy, Infrastructure, Media | Leave a Comment »

Call Me Hussein: The Language of the Third Reich and the Politics of Middle Names

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 12, 2008

Years ago, when I worked in the field of so-called “marketing communications,” I used to tell colleagues that there were two fathers of modern advertising: St. Paul and Dr. Goebbels. Paul was a true believer who knew how to craft the message of a small sectarian movement and convey it throughout the Roman world. Nazi propaganda chief Goebbels was a hate-driven man who was a master of twentieth-century communications media and who knew how to use the power of the big lie to manipulate individuals and nations. Goebbels also understood the subtle power of contrived language to reshape people’s perceptions, emotions, and behavior and turn their ideals on their heads.

The classic, and possibly the only, study of the language of Nazi Germany is Viktor Klemperer’s brilliant Lingua Tertii Imperii (“The Languague of the Third Reich”). Klemperer, best known in the West for his posthumously published pre-war and wartime diaries (issued in the US in a two-volume abridgment entitled “I Will Bear Witness”), was a Jewish-born convert to Christianity and professor of French literature in Dresden. Klemperer’s background was as rich as his interests; his father was an orthodox Jew turned reformed rabbi and his uncle was orchestral conductor Otto Klemperer. Klemperer was saved from war-time deportation by being partner to a childless “mixed” marriage and later by the disappearing into the chaos that followed the fire-bombing of Dresden. After the war, Klemperer chose to remain in Dresden — in East Germany, thus — proudly clinging to his German identity. He also joined the Communist Party, a decision he chronicled in his book “The Lesser of Two Evils” and that later, in the aftermath of Stalin’s Anti-Cosmopolitan campaign and Doctors’ Trials, caused him no small inner anguish.

That “Lingua Tertii Imperii” remained relatively unknown in the west during the cold war was in part due to its East Bloc pedigree and also to the embarrassing applicability of its insights to the language of post-war denazification and the reinvention of national identity and political discourse in West Germany. This was a shame, not least because the language and style that Goebbels perfected and Klemperer documented survived the denouement of Nazism to manifest themselves in what on the surface seem the least likely of places — including the present US presidential campaign.

Two of the most oft-quoted, albeit simplest, examples of Klemperer’s treatment of Nazi reshaping of the German language refer to the words fanatisch and aufziehen. Under the Nazis fanatisch (fanatical) was transformed from something negative into something worthy of emulation, an exhortation to over-the-top true-believer-ship and transcendence of reason; aufziehen was transformed from a word whose meanings included the act of winding clocks to an approving term for the staging of manipulative events on a grand scale.

Both these words came to my mind during the recent Republican convention, especially during Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s speech accepting her party’s vice presidential nomination. The choice of Palin and her contrived stance as an establishment-hating populist were case studies in aufziehen. In her acceptance speech, Palin made good use of the Nazi’s big lie technique, repeating over and again, amongst other exaggerated claims, the absurd and easily disproved contention that the Democrats are responsible for America’s staggering national debt. Palin’s tone of voice and body language were also classic Goebbels, her references to Democratic candidate Barack Obama were laced with sarcasm and dismissive gestures. On the television screen, the facial expressions of many of the Republican delegates cheering Palin’s comments appeared stereotypically fanatisch, betraying mixtures of rage and near-ecstasy, the stuff that street brawls and civil wars are made of. As a coda, during the vice-presidential debate, Palin described how, if elected, she would expand the role and power of the vice presidency in the American congress, this redolent not only of current US vice-president Dick Cheney but also of the Nazis’ bullying tactics in the German parliament following their rise to power in 1933.

The Politics of Middle Names

Goebbels’s fellow Nazis understood the power of names as well as words. Raul Hilberg, the pioneer historian of the administrative workings of the wartime murder of six million European Jews, described the underlying method of the Nazi’s war against the Jews as identification, concentration, and extermination. Part and parcel of this process was the compulsory assignment to all Jews of identical middle names, “Israel” for men and “Sarah” for women. The desired effects were to make Jews visible, portray them as caricatures, rob them of their individuality, and break their spirits. Given the minority position of Jews and the scope of the power turned against them, such stigmatization invariably accomplished at least the first two of these goals and more often than not the last two as well.

Over the past week, a vicious undertone in the Republican campaign rose to a crescendo as Palin and McCain used Obama’s passing acquaintance with a long-ago member of the one-time Weather Underground in a manner worthy of the Nazis’ heavy-handed attempts to incriminate their opponents in the 1933 burning of the Reichstag. During the same week, supporters of the Republican ticket increasingly and ever-more-archly referred to Barack Obama as Barack HUSSEIN Obama — this not as a paean to Democratic candidate’s mixed heritage but as an ad hominem slur and questioning of his “Americanism” and professed Christianity. By the end of the week, the flood of hatred proved too great even for John McCain to control and he was heckled and booed by his own supporters while trying to speak up for the “decency” of his opponent. The Republicans’ emulation of Goebbels, it seems, has created a Frankenstein.

Footnote: Call Me Hussein

I am particularly sensitive to the politics of names. My own family changed its name in the early-1950s in the shadow of the social and political pressures in America at the time. This said, this morning I decided — out of solidarity with Barack Obama and disgust with Republican stigmatization of his “un-American” names and origins — that from now until election day in November I will adopt “Hussein” as my own middle name and introduce myself on all occassions, informal and official, as “Stephen HUSSEIN Lewis.” Bigotry, innuendo, and the legacy of 1930s Germany call for protest and satire. Care to join me?

Posted in Commentary, Communications, History, Identity, Language, Media, Politics | 1 Comment »

Infrastructure of Work and Society: Five Failed American Axioms

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 9, 2008

Both sides in the US presidential campaign and debates — albeit one side far more than the other — use language and cling to axioms that obscure reality, make “change” unlikely, and keep America out of sync with the rest of the world. Five examples follow:

1. “American workers are the best in the world”

Nonsense. Americans may be decent sprinters but Western Europeans win the race. Good health care, regular vacations, job security, employee participation in management, lower stress, and no necessity to work two or three jobs to pay the kids’ educations makes Western European workers the world’s most productive. The growth of Asian economies speaks volumes about the quality of Asian workers just as does America’s outsourcing of its most exacting tasks to them. The diligence of Central and South American workers now bolsters America’s productivity through immigration. Turkish workers spend their lives laboring at highly segmented tasks. Even Eastern European workers are on their way to surpassing Americans. In alcohol-sodden Bulgaria, for example, workers tend to be “jacks of all trades and masters of none,” the upside of which is the ability to improvise and to more-or-less fix and keep running all things in their environment regardless of scarcities or systemic collapse.

2. “The Middle Class”

Both presidential candidates talks of helping the “middle class” but neither say a word about helping the working class or the poor. Avoidance of the term “working-class” is part-and-parcel of America’s pathological fear of “socialism.” It also belies the harsh reality that social mobility in America has been on the downturn since the 1950s. Not speaking of the poor is either callousness, blindness, or the abandonment of the tradition of the party of FDR and LBJ (let alone the party of Debs and or even that of LaFollette).

3. “Families”

Candidates speak of needs, opinions, and values of “families.” This in a country where the number of single and divorced adults rivals that of married ones and in which a good proportion of those nuclear families that are intact are dysfunctional. Since World War II, housing policies, suburbanization, and westward and southeastward migration have compromised multigenerational families (except amongst the poor and marginalized ethnic minorities), as has the Americanisation of immigrants. Eastern Europe and the “third world” have far stronger family values and structures. In fact, America may have proved itself to be a family-breaker and, through this, a compromiser of its own social infrastructure.

4. “We Honor Your Service”

Both candidates become Uriah-Heep-like in their obsequiousness when talking about the military or when speaking with present- or ex-servicemen. Obsequiousness toward the military was a hallmark of Franco’s Spain, Peron’s Argentina, and other tinpot dictatorships. It is also a matter-of-fact reality in countries such as Turkey, where, in an unusual balance of power, the military, with its proven willingness and ability to stage coups, is the guarantor of the survival of a secular state in a predominantly religious country. I would like to hear the candidates also “honor” America’s war and draft resisters for their sacrifices. A few words of “honor” and thanks for “service” to America’s lowest paid workers wouldn’t hurt either.

5. “Business is better than government”

This is the mother-of-all failed axioms, especially in the month when America’s iconic financial sector turns to the government for bailouts. During the last debate McCain trotted out this worn chestnut to denigrate Obama’s modest health-care proposals.

This brings us full circle. Universal health care is one of the features of European social infrastructure that ensures productivity by keeping health high and stress low. An important question for Americans is whether health insurance should be viewed as a luxury as it is now, a commodity as McCain proposes, or an essential aspect of social infrastructure as Obama proposes in part. The answer is not just a function of one’s morality but of one’s method of accounting. If one takes a longer and broader view, money invested in infrastructure — i.e. those physical and intangible systems and processes on which the social and economic life depend — pays off in macro terms even if initially developed or delivered at a short-term loss. The consensual nature of government and its operation beyond enterprise-level constraints of profit and loss make it the ideal provider or prime-mover when it comes to infrastructure. In fact, the provision and maintenance of infrastructure might be at the very essence of what government always has been, is, and should be.

Posted in Change, Commentary, Economy, Health Care, Infrastructure, Language, Markets, Work | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructure for Transcending Borders

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 8, 2008

This week Kevin Barron (Institute for Theoretical Physics, University of California at Santa Barbara) and I continued our exchanges on the nature of the infrastructure of the Internet and on the Internet as the emergent infrastructure of the processes that drive the world.  Our current tack is to give urgency to issues critical to ensuring the future adequacy of the infrastructure of the Net by identifying and examining pressing world and regional issues that depend in part on the Net-as-infrastructure for their resolution.

Near to the top of our list is the current and potential role of the Internet in transcending geopolitical and cultural barriers, not least those engendered by the artificial national boundaries stamped on the world map in the post-imperial, post-colonial era.  In academic circles outside of the United States, nationalism studies and the studies of nations vs. regions, as well as of submerged peoples, are now flourishing.  Cultural conflicts, by the way, includes religious ones, the timeliness of which need not be addressed.

The critical role of cross-border communication was underscored this week in the New Yorker Magazine’s excellent summing-up of the issues facing America and the world in their analytic and passionate endorsement of US presidential candidate Barrack Obama.  To quoite the article:

The next President must also restore American moral credibility. Closing Guantánamo, banning all torture, and ending the Iraq war as responsibly as possible will provide a start, but only that. The modern Presidency is as much a vehicle for communication as for decision-making, and the relevant audiences are global. Obama has inspired many Americans in part because he holds up a mirror to their own idealism. His election would do no less—and likely more—overseas.

I would add that the next president also has an obligation to surround himself with staff who can accurately articulate, analyze, and communicate events, trends, and moods outside of the US.  The US journalistic establishment has a similar obligations, i.e. to report rather than echo policy or entertain as increasingly has become its want.  Similarly, the Internet (read: the Web and Blogospher) should encourage exchange rather than jingoism or holding forth.  Every small step helps.  A step in the direction of exposing the US to the concerns and emotions of the rest of world is provided by intitiatives as modest as Words Without Borders.  I also regularly read Qantara, an initiative funded by the German government. Words Without Borders, by the way, came to my attention through a mailing from Idlewild Books, a new small bookstore in lower Manhattan specialized in travel books and travel literature.  As native New Yorkers will recognize, the store bears the original name of New York’s international airport prior to its redubbing as  JFK in memory of the late president.  The essential role of small bookstores in the intellectual and economic infrastructures of cities will be the subject of a future post at this site.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The Toxic Cynicisms of Amnesiacs: “Drill, Baby, Drill” and “Never Again!”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 7, 2008

In 1973 and 1974, I was a graduate research assistant to Henry Cohen, founding dean of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School for Social Research in New York. Henry was not an academician. He was a seasoned New York City bureaucrat with an innate talent for balancing competing constituencies and getting things done within giant organizations. He was also a master of malapropisms. Henry would prompt students to understand the complex “woof and wharf” of New York City politics and chide long-winded speakers to “stop beating a dead horse to death.”

At the risk of beating a dead horse to death myself, I’d like to add a coda to yesterday’s post on Palin and Language. The subject: the Republican mantras “Drill, Baby, Drill” and “Never Again!” …

The Republican promotion of offshore oil drilling as the solution to America’s energy problems is either a red herring or a proof of their poor grasp of energy matters. But the mantra of “Drill, Baby, Drill” that they use to promote this policy is proof of their historical amnesia or near-obscene bent toward cynicism. “Drill, Baby, Drill” is an obvious paraphrase of “Burn, Baby, Burn,” the chant that was the background score to the urban uprisings and riots that traumatized a score of American cities during the 1960s. Promoting an empty energy plan by purloining and paraphrasing a chant associated with the tragic outcomes of America’s deep-rooted race and class divisions goes over-the-top, especially at a time when economic inequality reaches new extremes in America and when race remains a dividing line in American society and an undercurrent in the present election.

Even worse is Palin’s proffering of “Never Again!” as a cry of protest for holders of foreclosed mortgages and owners of devalued real estate. Their plight and rage is real enough but “Never Again!” is a slogan that has been used for a half-century by Jews throughout the world as a blunt statement of their willingness to fight against future attempts at mass murder and by Jews and non-Jews alike to draw attention to ongoing acts of genocide that continue to torment and disgrace mankind. Is it possible that while guarding Alaska against Russia and Canada Palin was too busy to learn of such events or to have heard the phrase?

In 1946, at age 23, Henry Cohen left the US Army to become the administrator of one of the largest displaced persons camps in occupied Germany. A summary of his experiences at the camp — and of the tensions between Jewish survivors and the US military — can be read in this transcript of a talk he gave in 1996. In it, Henry’s emotions and humanity shine through his bureaucratic prose. I wonder what Henry Cohen would have made of the policies of McCain and Palin or of their trivialization of the inequities faced by Blacks in the US and Jews in Europe. But I do know he would have honorably yielded to Palin his title of master of malapropisms. And, so, in memory of Henry, I’ll stop “beating a dead horse to death.”

Posted in Cities, Commentary, History, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Palin and Language, McCain and Strategy, “Supporting Our Troops,” and Alfred E. Newman Redux

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 6, 2008

Like half of the population of the United States (i.e. the half that opposes the Republicans) I had intended to write about vice-presidential candidate Palin’s misuse of language and deformation of facts and logic during the televised debate with Democrat Joe Biden last Thursday.  However, better and brighter people beat me to the punch.  And, as often as not, the best and the brightest is Bob Herbert of the New York Times.  Click here for Herbert’s incisive Palin’s Alternate Universe.

McCain and Strategy

Equally worthy of merit, but far less known, are the reflections of Jan Searls, a retired career naval officer and sister of my long-time friend and colleague Doc Searls.  In a short piece buried deep in the comments section of Doc’s weblog — so deep, in fact, that I won’t post a customary link — Jan debunked Palin’s snide aside that Biden did not know the difference between “strategy and tactics.”

Tactics without strategy, Jan notes, is what enmeshed America in the Vietnam War.  She adds that it has also been the hallmark of the Bush Administration in Iraq, in its so-called “War on Terror,” and, by extension, in its domestic policy.  On the basis of her decades in the military, Jan Searls deflates John McCain’s supposed mastery of strategy and tactics by pointing out that: “… McCain never was a leader in the well-honed military sense. He went from playboy plebe to pilot to POW to politician.”

“Supporting Our Troops”

In the jingoistic language of US political discourse the phrase “supporting our troops” has become confused and conflated with presidential requests to — and Republican candidates’ conviction that we should — send more troops and materiel to Iraq.  The real support to the troops is taking place at the grassroots level and in the Obama camp.  Examples: Retired naval officer Jan Searls is out this weekend knocking on doors in rural North Carolina on behalf of the Obama campaign.  My good friend and neighbor Eric Werthman, a psychotherapist, filmmaker, and life-long political activist, is doing the same in the depressed small towns of southeastern Pennsylvania.  Eric, by the way, provides free-of-charge therapy and counseling to Iraq War veterans with problems of adjustment, rage, and what is now called “PTSD” (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the “Shell Shock” of past generations).  In his own private time, thus, Eric does what the Republicans refuse to do, provide Americans, veterans in this case, with the support they need but often cannot access or afford.

Footnote 1: Twisted Language and Twisted Logic, Afghanistan-style

Late last year, I met up with a long-time acquaintance who is a high-ranking US diplomat in Afghanistan.  When I asked him the state of the pursuit of Bin Laden and the subduing of the Taliban, he answered: “The Taliban is finished.”  How did he know this, I asked.  “Simple,” he replied, “they are committing more attacks on civilians in urban areas … a definite sign that they are desperate and on their last legs.”  Hopefully, in the time since, he has spoken with the general whose name Palin cannot remember.

Footnote 2: “What, Me Worry?”

I’ve tried to keep a somewhat professional tone in posts to this site, so forgive me the following lapse (although few things I would say could match the obscenity of the Republican opposition to ensuring Americans with the health care that is considered matter of course in other “first world” nations*).

For the last months, I’ve had a nagging feeling that I’d seen Governor Palin before.  And then, I remembered.  (Note: to understand this, one must have wasted a portion of one’s youth reading Mad Magazine in its golden years.)  Palin is the spitting image of … Mad’s signature idiot Alfred E. Newman (alias Melvin Coznowski).  But in drag!  And in heat!  Note the protruding ears, the shining eyes, the wrinkle-fee brow, and the smile masking … absolutely nothing.  Mad afficianados will not be surprised if in a future malapropism Palin refers to the US commander in Afghanistan ala Mad as  “General Potrzebezi.” Palin’s motor-mouth presentation and seeming lack of logic struck another familiar note … the onstage persona of American comedienne Kathy Griffin, whose non-stop patter and unexpected mid-sentence swerves in subject matter turn her appearances on CNN’s Larry King Live into a dadaist comeuppance.

*For a concise comparison of the consequences of McCain’s and Obama’s approaches to health care, go to Paul Krugman’s Health Care Destruction in today’s New York Times

Posted in Commentary, Language, Politics | 2 Comments »

Transportation, SUV’s, Jingoism … and Chickens

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 3, 2008

In issues of infrastructure, as in much of life, causality is often far more complex than we initially perceive.  While going through recent newspaper clippings this morning I came across this article which links the rise and fall of America’s petrol-guzzling, pollution-spewing “Sport Utility Vehicles” not to fluctuations in the prices of motor fuel but to Detroit auto makers’ decades-long successful but ultimately backfiring exploitation of a US  backlash against European tariffs on … American chickens!

Footnote: Agglomerations, Internet, and Mansions

Agglomeration was once the essence of the economies of cities.  In the internet age, agglomerations are functions of simulatneity and virtual availability more than physical proximity.  The movement of the heart of America’s house-of-cards financial sector from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to the mansions of Greenwich, Connecticut is a sub-theme of Tom Wolfe’s Greenwich Time.

Posted in Cities, Economy, Environment, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructure and Height, Myopia and McCain

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 2, 2008

Since the 1970s I have worked mostly in Eastern and Western Europe, regularly returning to my native New York for occasional assignments and to enjoy the pleasures and pride of being a New Yorker.

When I first showed up in Western Europe almost four decades ago, the process of post-war recovery was not yet over.  As the years passed, however, I watched Europe slowly overtake America on a number of fronts, in part by engaging in long-term investment in its infrastructure and guaranteeing the health, education, and housing of its people as well as by curbing the extremes of economic inequality.

I’ve also watched changes in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism and seen the gaps in standards and ways of life between east and west narrow, especially as former Soviet bloc nations merge into the European Union.  From a New York perspective, European upswings are mirrored in shifts in the City’s immigrant populations, for example Irish and Polish immigrant communities have declined in size in part due to recent arrivals from both countries being lured back home by comparatively more attractive work opportunities and standards of living.

America, on the other hand, seems lost in a time-warp.  In this year’s presidential speeches and debates, as for what seems time immemorial, Democrat and Republican candidates prove their patriotism by repeating over and again the well-worn claim that America is the “greatest country on earth.”   America might have been so in the immediate post- World War II years but the disinvestment in social and physical infrastructure by the Republicans since the 1980s and the rapacious corporate culling of short term profits have undermined the country — as have the effects of the inappropriateness, extravagance, and incompetence of America’s military adventures abroad post-September 11, 2001.

Inadvertently, John McCain drew attention to an objective measure of this in last Friday’s presidential debate when he pointed out that residents of communist North Korea are, on the average, several inches shorter than fellow-Koreans living in the capitalist South.  What McCain did not say, however, whether out of ignorance or cynicism, is that over the last few decades Americans have become shorter than Western Europeans, over whom they had towered less than a century before.  For what this tells us about disparities in incomes and opportunity within the US, the consequences of the dismantling of America’s “welfare state,” and the absence of adequate insurance coverage and medical treatment in the country, go to this recent posting on the Health blog of the New York Times which, in turn, offers links to longer pieces on the subject from the files of both the Times and the New Yorker.

Posted in Cities, Commentary, Economy, Health Care, Infrastructure, Politics | Leave a Comment »