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Archive for November, 2008

Locating Obamaland, Cotton and Presidents, and Accurately Rendering American Divides

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 20, 2008

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Further to Purple v. Pixilated below and JP Rangaswami on Reds and Blues and Purples, I point to two recent entries on the excellent weblog Strange Maps.  In Where is Obamaland?, Strange Maps takes us first from the state level to the county level and then (via Mark Newman of the Physics Dept. at the Univerity of Michigan) to a series of cartograms (click here) that transcend the strictures and dogmas of traditional cartographic projections to chart the boundaries of the political fault-lines that divide the US.  Newman’s cartograms hint at the importance of intentional relationships vs. strictly spatial ones in characterizing and understanding our world.  Newman’s final cartogram (illustration above) provides an solid point of departure for discussing the effects of settlement patterns, historical asynchronicities, ethnic self-identification, and shifting demographics and economic differentiation on American politics and worldviews.  In From Pickin’ Cotton to Pickin’ Presidents, Strange Maps illustrates how the abberations of the economies and social orders of the seemingly distant past invariably echo in the present, taking the arcane case of the correlation of pockets of deep-south support for Obama with the geographic distribution of mid-19th-century cotton culture.

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Posted in History, Identity, National Identity, Politics | 1 Comment »

Viktor Klemperer, Values-Based Identity, German and Dutch Perspectives Online, and Two Glorious Mistranslations

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 19, 2008

Links to my recent piece on The Language of the Third Reich and the Politics of Middle Names led me to two articles in the English-language online edition of the German news magazine Der Spiegel treating German-Jewish wartime diarist and analyst of totalitarian language, Viktor Klemperer.  The first article contains an excerpt from an entry in Klemperer’s diary written in the aftermath of the firebombing of Dresden.  The second article refers to a diary entry written earlier in the war in which Klemperer poses the conundrum that, based on enlightenment values, it is he who is German and the Nazis and their supporters — the very people who exclude him from German identity and, in the end, the very right to live — who are un-German and destroyers of all that is German.  Klemperer’s entry poses the opposition of values-based communities to contrived 19th and 20th century concepts of race-, ethnicity-, and language-based nation states having exclusive title to present and promised geographic territories.

Both articles appeared in Spiegel Online International which, despite its somewhat Time magazine-like style, is an excellent window though which monolingual Anglophones can observe European affairs and opinions up close, as well as US affairs through European eyes.  Americans often hold forth about the arrogance and condescension of Europeans towards them but, quite oddly, few if any Americans ever read the European press.

Spiegel Online International appears on the web in association with nrc.nl, the English-language web presence of the NRC Handelsblad, the erudite albeit sometimes pompous paper-of-record of the Netherlands.  The realization of a combined Dutch-German news presence online says much about the efforts Western Europe has made to transcend national differences and wartime scars.  It also says much about the power of the internet to erode artificial distinctions of national mindsets. (Note to Blackberry and iPhone users: Spiegel Online is also available in a mobile edition).

Glorious Mistranslations

Among the features of nrc.nl is its Denglish blog, a regularly updated compendium of malapropism-like mistranslations.  The editor of Denglish asks readers to submit their favorite Dutch-English linguistic confusions.  Here, thus, are two of mine:

1. Supporting the Undertaker

At a meeting of the World Economic Forum during the 1970s, Joop Den Uyl, leader of the Netherlands’ Labor Party (PvdA) spoke on the role of labor-private sector rapprochement in strengthening his country’s economy.  Den Uyl proudly announced: “In Holland we social-democrats always support the undertaker!” (The Dutch word for entrepreneur is ondernemer, literally under-taker.)

2. Equine Sex

Some years later, the Netherlands’ conservative Christian Democrat Premier Dries van Agt, when asked by Margeret Thatcher what he planned to do in his upcoming retirement, confided: “Madame, I plan to fuck horses.”  (Fokken is the Dutch verb meaning  “to breed.”)  Legend has it that the Iron Lady replied without missing a beat: “I wish you success!”

Posted in History, Identity, Internet, Language, Links, Media, National Identity | 5 Comments »

Purple vs. Pixelated: The Obsolescence of States and the Reality of Differences

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 19, 2008

A few days after the US presidential election, colleague JP Rangaswami posted two maps of results from the 2004 election.  The first map showed the results by states, portraying them as red or blue. (NB: In the US quite oddly and contrary to the political color-coding used in the rest of the world, blue represents the sometimes left-of-center Democratic Party while red is the color of the right-of-center Republicans).  The second map showed results by county, giving a more variegated portrait of results.

JP writes that the difference between the two maps suggests that there are neither red nor blue states — nor counties, cities, and households — but only purple ones. My own take is that America’s red/blue divide is very real, albeit one that can no longer be encompassed by geographic boundaries gerrymandered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Just as in digital photography, what appears purple from afar is divisible on a pixel-like-level into primary colors.  Fault-lines separating red and blue are increasingly divorced from geography.  They might be hard to chart but they are very real nonetheless. My short comment on JP’s post can be read here, for a far sharper take on the reality and permutations of the red/blue divide see Frank Rich’s The Moose Stops Here.

The larger implication is that America’s states appear purple because they are entities without substance, irrelevant to real fracture lines that divide the country and define the issues that confront it.  States are administrative inheritances from a past age and are increasingly obsolete as clusters of interests or self-identification.  Immigration and trans-state migration within the US, the rise of megalopolises that span state boundaries, and the divorce of economic functions from locational agglomerations call into question the utility of states and their efficacy in coping with or resolving economic, infrastructural, and environmental challenges.

Posted in Commentary, Identity, Politics | 5 Comments »

An Intellectual’s Ascent to the White House and the Half-Century Decline of American Conservatism from Intellectuality to Ignorance

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 13, 2008

In Obama and the War on Brains, Nicholas Kristof comments on the return of intellect to government and the damage done to public policy by a culture of ignorance.  In The Perils of Populist Chic in the Wall Street Journal, a political conservative bemoans the half-century-long fall of the American right from intellectuality to self-cultivated provincialism.

Posted in Commentary, History, Media, Politics | 4 Comments »

Infrastructural Convergence: Broadband over Power Lines

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 13, 2008

From the Wall Street Journal (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122644998675019183.html):

International Business Machines Corp. said it has been hired to work with rural electricity cooperatives to provide high-speed Internet service over power lines.

The project is a sign that using the electricity grid for communication — a technology utilities have long been interested in — has finally matured.

IBM said it signed a contract with closely held International Broadband Electric Communications Inc., Huntsville, Ala., to manage the installation of broadband systems at 13 cooperatives in seven states. The initial contract is for $9.6 million, but an IBM official said the company anticipates getting more business from some of the nation’s 900 other rural electricity cooperatives. IBM said it is also working with electric utilities overseas.

The system works by using standard power lines to carry a radio-frequency signal in the magnetic field that surrounds the wires. The signal is continuously amplified by low-priced repeater boxes clamped to the lines. When an electricity customer signs up for broadband services, the supplier mails out a special modem that is plugged into the wall outlet where the computer is plugged in. Pricing starts at $29.95 a month, International Broadband says.

Electricity providers have for some time seen the Web communications potential in their wires, but, until recently, the necessary signal-transmission devices have been too slow for high-speed connections and too expensive to compete with existing telephone wires. More recently, the technology has improved, but big utilities couldn’t see a way to compete with established cable and telecom carriers in urban and suburban areas.

But rural areas, which account for most of the 30 million U.S. homes that don’t have broadband access, provide an opportunity. Internet providers have avoided these locales because the population is too sparse for cable or phone companies to lay fiber or coaxial cable profitably, and hills and trees disrupt wireless networks.

Posted in Infrastructure, Internet | Leave a Comment »

Obama Victory: “Get Thee Out,” Mayakovsky and the Dust on My Blue Passport, and In Praise of a Skinny President

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 9, 2008

I’ve waited before posting a post-Obama-victory entry.  Wiser people and better writers have already have had much to say.  Just a few peripheral observations, thus …

“Get Thee Out”

President-elect Obama used church cadences in his acceptance speech (i.e. the responsive chanting of the phrase “yes, we can!”), so forgive me if I step out of character and get biblical.

A week or so ago, I was examining the facade of a synagogue in Brooklyn and noticed on its bulletin board that the Torah-portion to be read on the upcoming Sabbath was Lekh L’KhoLekh L’Kho is translated in the King James version of the bible as “Get thee out.”  In the original Hebrew, Lekh L’Kho has a crisper sound more akin to “Walk!”, “Get Moving,” or, even more simply, “Go!  Lekh L’Kho is the portion of the Pentateuch in which God tells Abraham to leave his father’s house and head to a new land, to depart Harran for Palestine.  Figuratively, Lekh L’Kho also refers to Abraham’s departure from a place of idolatry to the domain of a monotheistic deity.  How apt in the week of the American presidential election.  Think of the false gods of the Republican years: Deregulation and “free markets,” “trickle-down” economics, the equating of individual greed with the public good, “pro-life” anti-abortion agitation, patriotism and “vets” “WMDs” and “War on Terror,” “the surge,” martial and mercenary definitions of “freedom,” and more.  Together, they form a pantheon of idols sufficient to occupy a score of Abrahams in smashing.

When Abraham left his father’s house, he abandoned the old, cut with the past, and stepped into the unknown.  This took courage.  Those who voted for Obama have the shown the same courage (see Bob Herbert’s Take a Bow, America).  The irony is that the mean-spirited, bible-thumping Evangelical Christian right and the majority of residents of the Old South and the still largely homogeneous Anglo-Saxon and Germanic mid-western states who voted for McCain/Palin would never have had the faith or the courage to abandon idolatry or go forth from their father’s house.  When the Old Testament god said: “Lekh L’Kho” they would have cowered in fright and hid like Cain once did.  Hand me my walking shoes!

Mayakovsky and the Dust on My Blue Passport

I have two passports: a red one (The Netherlands) and a blue one (USA).  The red passport is well worn and the blue one is pristine but for a layer of dust.  Throughout the Republican years it has been far more congenial to move around the world as a Dutchman (which I am by passport only) than as an American (which I am by birth).  On a Dutch passport one travels with anonymity, never upsetting fellow passengers, border police, or hotel clerks.  (How short people’s memories are.  Who today remembers the brutalities of Dutch colonialism or the venality of Dutch collaboration with the Nazis?)  Traveling on the American passport, on the other hand, awakens the condescension of Western Europeans and the envy of Eastern Europeans.  During the Bush years, it made the bearer personally accountable for corporate misdeeds, misuse of the world’s resources, and violence in the Middle East and Central Asia.  Worse still, it often attracted the unwanted good fellowship of fascists, racists, and professional “anti-communists” worldwide who love America for being “white” (66% and falling!) and for rejecting all pretenses of supporting its citizenry (see this post-election editorial in the New York Times).  The enthusiastic international reaction to the election of Obama and the courage of Americans in electing him has lead me to do do something I haven’t done in a long time.  This week, I will blow the dust off of my American passport and, later this month, I’ll hand it to police and clerks in Istanbul, Sofia, and Amsterdam and look into their eyes with pride.

(Pride in passports brings to mind Mayakovsky’s 1920’s poem about traveling abroad on a Soviet passport.  A serviceable but somewhat flat English-language translation can be found here and a bilingual version — Russian original followed by English-language translation — here.)

In Praise of a Skinny President

In years past, I sometimes antagonized Israeli friends by telling them that I had lost faith in Israel and its politics because of the girth of its leadership.  Ariel Sharon was grotesquely obese as was opposition figure Tommy Lapid.  So were the leadership of the religious parties and the membership of the politically influential “Chabad” sect.  During the 1960s, African-American comedian and political activist Dick Gregory used to do a routine that involved asking the women in the audience who they would rather go to bed with … Lyndon Johnson or Che Guevara?  Without waiting for the answer, Gregory would archly say: “… and that is how you judge the vitality of a nation.”  Click here for Finally a Thin President, an “Op-Ed” piece from the New York Times.

Posted in Change, Commentary, Identity, Language, Politics, Religion | Leave a Comment »