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Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

Living the News: Health Care Refugee

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 21, 2009

Soon after the inauguration of US president Barack Obama, I posted an entry commenting on Pete Seeger’s  inaugural day performance of Woody Guthrie’s  “This Land is Your Land,” including near-forgotten verses of the song that had gone underground during the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era.

Since then, another of Guthrie’s songs has been on my mind, “Dust Bowl Refugee.” Dust Bowl Refugee was Guthrie’s ode to the plights of American farmers during 1930s who, driven off their farms by drought, soil erosion, and bank foreclosures, trekked westward, working, when they could find work, as migrant agricultural laborers and casual laborers. (For the lyrics of Dust Bowl Refugee, click here).

My own present-day version of Dust Bowl Refugee has a title of its own, Health Care Refugee. I’ve spent most of the past winter in Istanbul, Turkey, partly out of preference and partly out of necessity. Indeed, you might say that I am a health care refugee.

My Netherlands-based health insurance — a policy I inherited from a job in the Netherlands in the 1970s and that I have maintained throughout my “career” as a peripatetic freelancer over the three decades since — recently stopped covering all but the most critical emergency medical treatment in the US.  Not surprisingly, the insurance company had finally balked at the astronomically over-inflated costs of medical care in the US.  But, niggardliness and tighter strictures on policy claims also mark a shift by Dutch insurers from a culture of dedication to policy-holders to dedication to investors and shareholders instead. Even as far away as the once rigorously social democratic Netherlands, it seems, decades of US prating against “socialism” and in favor of leaving individual and social welfare to the whims of an imagined “market place,” has cast its indelible shadow.

My alternatives were simple: Pay for needed health care out of my own pocket in the US (impossible), go to the Netherlands to seek treatment (this would require renting and maintaining an apartment there), go to Bulgaria (where I already maintain an office), or seek treatment in Turkey (where I had the chance to  “apartment sit” and the opportunity to avail myself of  library and research facilities).  The only two feasible options, thus, were Bulgaria and Turkey. The inadequacy of Bulgarian health care, the state of Bulgarian hospitals, and the characteristic unwillingness of Bulgarian doctors and dentists to admit and honor the limits of their know-how and abilities made the decision easy — I headed to Turkey.  And, thus, I joined the growing ranks of health care refugees.

What state of inequality or desperation would it take for health care refugees (with means and without) to compromise a counter-flow eastward and southward to worldwide flows of economic, human rights, and life-style refugees moving westward and northward?  The subject of flight is finally being broached in the press and in commercially sponsored studies (see, for example, this March article in the New York Times and a few paragraphs buried in this report from an accountancy-consultancy firm).

Balkan Medical Corruption and Under-Reporting

Last month, the Times also posted this article on corruption in hospitals in Romania, a situation not unlike that which causes me to do anything to avoid hospitalization in Bulgaria.  The article, however, is characteristic of much of the reporting on the eastern Balkans that appears in the Times, i.e. it treats long-standing problems and developments as freshly discovered news.  This particular story appears about 19 years too late.  Is this because the Times had consider the eastern Balkans to a news backwater or a training ground for reporters with no knowledge of the locale or interest in doing  research.  Or is it because in the 1990s and the Bush years, the US press was so self-satisfied with the “fall of communism” and the “end of history” that anything the “free market” brought with it, including inequities and corruption, seemed laudatory?  Well, better late than never, although…

Lobsters or Lard?  The Times or the old New York Post?

In debates on the relative worth of weblogs and the traditional press, I almost always weigh in in favor of the “mainstream media,” but the Times’s Balkan coverage makes me wonder.  So does this recent piece from Jane Brody’s venerable reporting on personal health.  The thrust: Americans who live on steak and lobster and “creme brulee” now should discover the what she calls the basics that got us through the last depression — potatoes and fruit, she writes, rather than white flour and lard, the diet of the poor today.  Americans who live on steak and lobster? Who is she talking about?  Not people on my planet and not people hurt by the present state of the economy.  And fruit rather than flour and lard in the Great Depression?  In the richest of households maybe.  What readership (or, more probably, advertising demographics) is the Times targeting?  Makes me long for Dorothy Schiff and the old New York Post, let alone the belated Bronx PM and the old National Guardian (all “google-able” for those who don’t know them).

Posted in Bulgaria, Economy, Health Care, Media | 1 Comment »

Gerrymandering the Internet, Continued

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 17, 2008

Further to my last post, Doc Searls expands on the fragmentation of the web in Splinternet.  In World-Wide Regions, James Robertson relates the absurdities of geographic coding of DVDs.  As an additional absurdity, I quote below the well-meaning and obviously pained text of a webpage that popped up when I tried to log-on to the music service Pandora from my desk in Sofia, Bulgaria:

Dear Pandora Visitor,

We are deeply, deeply sorry to say that due to licensing constraints, we can no longer allow access to Pandora for listeners located outside of the U.S. We will continue to work diligently to realize the vision of a truly global Pandora, but for the time being we are required to restrict its use. We are very sad to have to do this, but there is no other alternative.

We believe that you are in Bulgaria (your IP address appears to be 87.126.21.115). If you believe we have made a mistake, we apologize and ask that you please contact us at pandora-support@pandora.com

If you are a paid subscriber, please contact us at pandora-support@pandora.com and we will issue a pro-rated refund to the credit card you used to sign up. If you have been using Pandora, we will keep a record of your existing stations and bookmarked artists and songs, so that when we are able to launch in your country, they will be waiting for you.

We will be notifying listeners as licensing agreements are established in individual countries. If you would like to be notified by email when Pandora is available in your country, please enter your email address below. The pace of global licensing is hard to predict, but we have the ultimate goal of being able to offer our service everywhere.

We share your disappointment and greatly appreciate your understanding.

Sincerely,

Tim Westergren
Founder

Readers not familiar with the word “gerrymander,” its etymology, history, and effects might find it worthwhile to click here.  How we chart geopolitical boundaries shapes legal jurisdictions, national identities, and the very “non-rationalized” emplacement of infrastructure.  It also interprets how we interpret the significance political mandates (see this past post on the mapping of the recent US presidential election).  New and old forms of gerrymandering, apparently, affect how we use and envision the internet, are served by it, and structure and control its services and infrastructure.

Posted in Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Music, National Identity | Leave a Comment »

Apple’s iTunes, NPR, Barriers to Giving, and the “Appliancing” of National Boundaries

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 10, 2008

A central element of the ethos and significance – or at least the rhetoric – of the Internet Age is the transcendence of the arbitrary geographic and political boundaries we have inherited from the past and the liberation of the exchange of information, the conduct of commerce, and the formation of communities from the constraints of physical locations and boundaries.  Consider the following case to the contrary …

“This American Life”

I am – or rather was – a regular listener to Ira Glass’s wonderful eclectic radio program This American Life, broadcast over non-commercial, listener-donation-supported National Public Radio (NPR) in the USA and available courtesy of NPR worldwide over the internet.  The ubiquity of the internet had given me the luxury of listening to the program “on demand” during my long periods of work and residency abroad –  that is, if and when I can find an internet connection with sufficient bandwidth to stream the show.  To ensure enjoying This American Life without being tethered to my computer, whenever I stumbled upon suitable signals I took to downloading current and back episodes as podcasts via iTunes for later on my iPod and Blackberry.

Paid Podcasts

A few weeks ago, this system “crashed,” so to speak, and fatally at that.  While downloading podcasts to my computer in preparation for a long flight from New York to Istanbul and a few internet-less weeks thereafter, I discovered that I could gain access only the most recent episode of This American Life.  Podcasts of past episodes were only available for sale from Apple’s iTunes store at a price of $0.99.  This sounded very reasonable. By paying $0.99 for each one-hour-long weekly episode, I could  both obtain the programs and conveniently make regular donations to its support – an excellent alternative to the disruption of writing out a check or calling in a credit card number donating during National Public Radio’s seasonal on-the-air and over-the-internet fund raising drives.

Reinforcing Artificial Boundaries

Excellent, or so it seemed, until I read the fine print.  As it does with its iPhone, Apple “appliances” its services to geopolitical strictures inherited from the pre-Internet age and to a jingoistic concept of national identity quite contrary to the expansive spirit of This American Life and to the “worldwide” as in Worldwide Web.  Podcasts of This American Life are available for purchase and download via iTunes only from IP addresses within the boundaries of the United States.  Also, even within the US, Apple does not accept for payment credit cards issued by overseas banks.  Last, even when listeners from within the US attempts a purchase a credit card issued by a US bank, Apple will not sell them podcasts if their iTunes Stores accounts were originally registered from abroad.

By jigsawing its services to fit national boundaries, Apple fragments the efficacy and global scope of the internet and denies NPR broader listenership, international impact, and potential revenues.  By outsourcing  exclusive sales of podcasts of the This American Life to Apple’s iTunes Store, NPR denies the benefits and insights of listenership and the pleasure of contributing to the support of Public Radio to Americans living and working abroad, not to mention citizens of all other countries.

The Internet and Its Infrastructure

Those who participate with me off-line in the examination of the future of  infrastructure and the Internet will recognize in the above case a familiar conundrum.  The Internet — in its role as prime infrastructure for the formation of community and conveyance of the information, entertainment, knowledge and transactions — is intangible and without physical location.  However, the infrastructure that supports it is quite physical, an ad hoc non-purpose-built amalgam of fiber, copper, and wireless  strung together, enabled, and animated by protocols.  By resting on a “borrowed” infrastructure, the Internet has inherited the “gatekeepers” that own and control, charge for, and regulate these legacy elements – telecom operators and service providers, cable TV companies, governmental authorities, etc.).  Such organizations still carve up the world according to geopolitical entities and borders defined between the late-eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth and gerrymander services and access accordingly.  Apparently, so does Apple.  Apple’s method of “appliancing” country-by-country reinforces anachronistic borders and undermines the potential of the internet to transcend past divisions.

Apple and AK

Last month, a chance glace at Freedom Against Censorship Thailand led me to this report from the Christian Science Monitor re: Turkey’s current blockage of YouTube and Blogger, a reprise of its blockage of WordPress a year ago.  The present affair stems in part from a YouTube video posted by Greek football fans cast aspersions on the sexuality of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the iconic father of the modern Turkish state. Turkish law forbids the insulting of Turkishness and of the Republic, its founders, and symbols. Last year’s ban on all weblogs containing the name “wordpress” in their URL’s derived from a order issued by the local court of a religious neighborhood in Istanbul in response to a law suit filed by a Turkish “creationist” who claimed to have been libelled by an entry in a weblog hosted by WordPress.Com – an Internet Age case of “killing the messenger.”  The AK Party is Turkey’s ruling political party; the question of whether and how its incumbency prompts or facilitates such bans is a matter for discussion in another context.  For the moment, let’s leave it at saying that the heading to the present paragraph is a matter  of alliteration.  As to Apple, its geopolitical-entity-based approach to distribution of and access to podcast material is similar to Turkey’s operation of a “Great Firewall” congruent with its national boundaries and in accordance with its whims.  Opinions to the contrary?

Afterthoughts:

1. No More Newsprint, No More Disk(c)s

The Christian Science Monitor is America’s first venerable mainstream newspaper to end its print edition and become an exclusively online publication.  For details on the Monitor’s shedding of  its corporeality click here.  Not long after the Monitor gave up newsprint, Atlantic Records reported that for the first time its sales of music in mp3 format surpassed its sale of Compact Disc recording.  Music is by its very nature ephemeral and incorporeal and, in the scheme of things, the mere 100 or so years over which music has been distributed in the physical embodiments of phonograph cylinders and records, tape and CDs has been but a curious aberration.  A sad farewell to album cover art and liner notes, thus … and to slyly shaped invitations for guests to come over to look at one’s record collection.

2. Google and “The Great Game”

The Emergence of Google as the world’s prime search engine and the proprietary of Gmail, YouTube, and Blogger has given the “Company that Does No Evil” unparalleled knowledge of what is on the Web as well the ability to control how to find it. It also has given Google an unparalleled knowledge of who uses the web and how.  This has turned Google, a private company with no accountability to any constituency, into a negotiating partner of national governments whose laws or policies do not  reflect or respect the ethical stance claimed in Google’s own slogan.  Thus, Google now functions on a diplomatic level with the ability and clout to forge country-by-country compromises affecting internet activity and the free flow of information and opinion, Turkey’s YouTube and Blogger ban not least among them.  Click here for a journalistic portrait of Google’s emergence as a party to “The Great Game” of diplomacy via the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Posted in Censorship, Commentary, Content, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Music, Podcasting, Politics | 2 Comments »

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

Not a Bit Surprised: The Financial Crisis, Reading Beyond the Mainstream, Real(?) Estate, Yankee Stadium, and Impeach Palin Now

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 28, 2008

So far, the current US financial upheavals have not effected me.  I don’t own stocks or real estate and I don’t carry debt. The collapse of the housing market, Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, and the large insurance and banking houses didn’t even cause my blood pressure to rise.  In fact, they didn’t even come as a surprise.

Reading (and Viewing) Beyond the Mainstream

One reason might be my reading.  In my student years I read Marx.  The effort I put into Marx might have cut into my time at the front lines of the sexual revolution but it paid off by prompting me to see through myths of the efficiency and beneficence of “markets” and realize the myopic inefficiencies of enterprise-based profit motives.  Most important — to my spirit albeit not to my “net worth” — it led me to look for value in the inherent worth of things rather than in their speculative potential.

I’ve also always looked beyond the traditional press.  I cut my political-reading-teeth on the legendary I.F. Stone’s courageous belated “Weekly.”  Since the 1980s, I’ve subscribed to Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer, a little known and erratically published broadsheet that uses economic analysis to see through, rather than justify or exploit, economic news and trends.  Today, in the Internet age, I read Jim Kunstler’s Clusterfuck Nation which  passionately and knowledgeably explores the relationships between infrastructure and economy and the prices to be paid for urban sprawl and SUV-driving suburbia.  And, in the age of diminishing attention spans, I’ve become a loyal viewer of the short videos of the Internets Celebrities, Rafi Kam and Dallas Penn, producers and presenters of “Bronx Bodega” and “Check Mate” (to view the videos click on the appropriate icons at the top of Celebrities’ site).

Real(?) Estate

Back in July I met Dallas Penn for bagels and lox in a luncheonette near Flatbush Avenue to discuss ideas relevant to the Celebrity’s planned new production “Real(?) Estate.”  The basic idea (without giving away plot or “MacGuffin”): The Celebrities would, in their usual mix of contrived innocence and spot-on insight, hit the streets (and apartment buildings) throughout the city to prod and expose the abstract and illusory nature of urban property ownership, down to the trade in air-rights.

The Internet Celebrities, by the way, are models of fiscal prudence.  Their productions are not financed by loans or “IPO”s and will not be bailed-out if they fail.  Instead, their videos are funded by plain old-fashioned cash donations from ordinary hard-working (or slothful) folks like you and me.  You can play your part by clicking here.   And do it quickly!  Had the Celebrities been able to get “Real(?) Estate” out six months ago, the mortgage crisis and subsequent financial implosion might never have taken place.

Yankee Stadium

During our discussion of the tulip-crisis-like trade in sliced-and-diced three-dimensional urban space, Dallas Penn pointed out that sports stadiums occupy volumes of space that could house thousands or tens of thousands of people or serve as immense urban parks, yet they are used for mere parts of each day for, on average, only 80-some-odd days a year.  This does not mean that stadiums should be done away with but that new stadium projects should be carefully weighed.

The Yankee Stadium project is a case in point.  Last week, Bill Moyers echoed Dallas Penn in a close-of-show editorial exposing the new stadium as a publicly-financed boondoggle benefiting the private sector — a Mae-and-Mac/AIG/WAMU meets the “national pass-time” as it were.  At tremendous public expense and little cost to its private-sector owners, the old stadium is being replaced with a new one that will have a capacity of 5,000 fewer seats but a greater number of corporate “private box” facilities.  The new stadium will occupy a larger footprint of Bronx territory than the old one did but will feed less back into the local economy of (as the Internet Celebrities underscored in “Bronx Bodega”) the poorest urban county in the United States.  Not least, the stadium project sweeps away a cultural if not physical monument — the “House that Babe Built” — the longest lasting of New York’s one-time legendary troika of baseball fields (the other two, Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, fell victim to … real estate development).

Footnote: Impeach Palin In Advance and Dallas Penn on the Presidential Debates

Bob Herbert writes about the crisis obscured by the current financial crises, i.e. the apocalyptic crisis that could ensue if Palin would ever accede to the presidency.  Herbert calls on Republicans to dump Palin from their ticket now — abortion for the good of the nation, as it were.  And, voters should think hard about what the Palin nomination tells us about the kind of administration McCain would appoint if elected.

Dallas Penn voices the frustration many of us felt as Obama pulled his punches during the debate, letting McCain off the hook a number of times and compromising his own positions and personality, as well as the stances of his supporters, in a possible attempt to woo centrist and “undecided” voters.  When reading Dallas’s post, however, don’t waste time on the link to the infantile video by Sarah Silverman.  Silverman’s “Uncle Moses-ing” and suburban whine are offensive.  Contrary to Silverman’s view-from-the-suburbs, out here in Brooklyn we have many Jews (this writer included) whose politics are far, far to the LEFT of Obama’s, who do not necessarily define themselves in terms of America’s racial bifurcations, and who have never been to Florida nor even thought of owning a Cadillac (well, one that runs, anyway!).

Posted in Cities, Commentary, Economy, Infrastructure, Links, Marx, Media, Politics | 1 Comment »

The Infrastructure of the Internet and the View Across the Bering Straits

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 15, 2008

For some months this spring and summer, as part of a work-related project, I took part in an email-list “discussion” on issues pertaining to the infrastructure of the Internet.  Participants were mostly from the US with a sprinkling of others from as far away as New Zealand.

As the list took on a life of its own, I noticed a trend.  The more vocal of the US participants held forth rather than discussed and in doing so sounded oddly like the blustering right-wing American radio commentator Rush Limbaugh.  This was not only a matter of their tone and propensity toward ad homonym argument but also of their preoccupations.  Like Limbaugh, they were vituperative about America’s “regulators” and “regulations” and also seemingly blind to the achievements and problems of the rest of the world and the approaches of other countries to the issues they face.

The current economic woes in the US — e.g. the mortgage and housing market collapses, the folding of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, the bankruptcy of major banking/investment houses — appear to be functions of inadequate regulation and ineffectual government involvement.  The same goes for the messes that attend to the country’s power grid, transportation infrastructure, and health care and educational systems.  Imaginary “markets” as exalted by the US right-wing are no substitute for responsive and effective governance.  (For an interesting take — by no means identical to my own — on the importance of quality rather than quantity of regulation and the across-the-board failure of regulation under the Bush administration click here)

After the Second World War, the US economy comprised roughly four-fifths of the total world economy — but that was 60 years ago.  Today, the worldviews of many Americans appear stuck in post-WWII self-congratulation. Oddly, despite the phrase “world wide web,” such US-centrism seems to effect many local internet types as well.  But there is more to the internet than the US alone. An item in the Times this August (click here) pointed out that the majority of the physical infrastructure of the internet is now located outside of the US as is most of the net’s traffic.

The Russian invasion of the Republic of Georgia this summer highlighted other issues related to internet infrastructure and the fragmentation and vulnerability of the web.  That Georgia’s internet access ran through Russia made the country vulnerable to cyber-attacks and to potential isolation financially and communications-wise.  A new cable now being strung under the Black Sea will, in the future, route Georgia’s internet traffic via Bulgaria rather than Russia.  But, physical links via the Black Sea are by no means immune from compromise and Bulgaria, although now a member of NATO and of the EU, is a notoriously corrupt country with deep financial ties to Russia’s “black” economy and with absolutely no culture of adherence contractual obligations.

The US is now faced with the chilling possibility that the governor of the state of Alaska — who claims that the physical proximity of her state to Russia and the vistas of Russian as seen from Alaska across the Bering Straits give her requistite background in foreign affaris — has a fair shot at becoming the successor to the US presidency.  I hope my colleagues in future debates on the infrastructure of the internet will take a less myopic view of the rest of the world than the Alaska governor does.

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A Strategic Retreat Into Yesterday’s Imaginings of an Analogue Tomorrow

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 17, 2008

After a frustrating week of wrestling with generative and applianced digital technology — including T-Mobile’s inadequate tech-support and customer-care overlay on international Blackberry service and the foibles of a premium-priced, too-many-mega-pixel pocket camera plagued by miserable “noise” at high ISOs and near-comic barrel distortion at the wide end of its zoom range — I’ve found a mid-summer panacea for the disappointments of the digital age: Visions of an analogue tomorrow as once foreseen in the now-yellowed pages of Modern Mechanix Magazine.  Happy nostalgia for a better future!

Posted in History, Media, Photography, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructure and the Artificiality of Nations: The Internet, Balkan Crossings, and Border Radio

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 10, 2008

Over the last few years I have been involved part-time in the study of the origins and consequences of national identities and nation states.  Countries organized around homogeneous “peoples” united by common religions and languages and sharing common histories, destinies and exclusive title to geographic entities are artifices that came to the fore during the Romantic Age, that solidified during the 19th century, and occassioned wars and genocides in the 20th.

On the work front, I am now involved in a project to create an institute for the study of the history and future of infrastructure — especially the infrastructure of “connectivity” as manifested in the Internet.  Issues of internet infrastructure, national identity, and nation states overlap.   On the surface, the Internet appears to transcend geographic boundaries that delineate nation states and also has provided a platform for enabling individuals to shape their identities and live their lives according to self-defined clusters of interests and allegiances separate from the nationalities stamped on their passports. But, the cables and fibers that comprise the infrastructure on which the Internet rests remain divided and clustered according to national boundaries and regulated and controlled within the contexts of nation states — just as are water, energy, and telephony.

Balkan Crossings

The absurdities of dividing infrastructure — traditional and new — along nationally-defined lines becomes palpable as one moves from the centers of nation states to their edges.  I often travel by night train from Sofia in Bulgaria (once a part of the Soviet Bloc and now a member state of the European Union)  and Istanbul in Turkey (a country that, in its post-1923 incarnation, developed its economy and infrastructure largely on its own).  Trains in both directions between Sofia and Istanbul approach the Bulgarian-Turkish border at 3 a.m.  State-railway-owned electric locomotives are removed from the trains just before they enter the infrastructure-less strip of no-man’s land that parallels the border itself. The trains are then shuttled from one country to the other by jointly-maintained diesel-powered locomotives. Passengers’ passports and baggage are checked once at the Bulgarian checkpoint and again on the Turkish side.  The glowing lights of towns visible from stations on both sides of the border are lit by separate nationally-defined power grids and their residents drink from separate nationally-defined water supply systems.  Telephoning or checking email from the border can be shockingly expensive, a glance at the screen of one’s mobile phone shows that signals switch back-and-forth between those of Bulgarian, Turkish, and Greek service providers (Greece’s northeastern border with Bulgaria and Turkey is only a few kilometers away).

Border Radio

Last month, US National Public Radio’s On the Media program broadcast The X Factor, a piece on the history and phenomenon of Border Radio.  Border Radio refers to the radio stations whose immense towers sprouted on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border during the 1920s and 1930s.  Most of these stations were “fugitives” on the run from US broadcasting and truth-in-advertising regulations and were welcome in regulation-free Mexico in part due to the revenues they produced.  The first of the Border Stations was set up by a patent medicine peddling Kansan with an MD degree from a diploma mill in Chicago and a thriving practice in curing male impotence through goat gonad transplant operations. The station was established as the doctor’s own proprietary advertising and marketing device for gonad transplants and associated medicines but soon became a thriving business in its own right.

As more such stations were founded, other flamboyant figures flocked to Border Radio including faith healing preachers who talked in tongues and announcers who moved beds into their broadcasting booths so they could have sex while speaking on the air.  More profoundly, as Border Radio grew it came to reflect the mood and tastes of the American heartland.  East and West Coast based  mainstream radio with its big-band music, movie-star guests, and limp comedies and soap-operas fared well in New York and Los Angeles but the rural states of the former Confederacy and the dust-bowl stricken plains needed a voice of their own.

From its physical location just outside of the US, Border Radio came to mirror rural America and also to reshape it.  Border Radio played a role in solidified and promoting commercial country music and, through the legendary Brooklyn-born disk-jockey The Wolfman, spread rock ‘n roll through the American heartland.  On the political front, Border Radio’s religious programs brought the worldview of rural pentecostal Christianity into the age of broadcasting, feeding the creation of what ultimately became America’s powerful religious right.

Central to the influence of Border Radio was its infrastructure– million-watt clear-channel frequencies whose waves were said to be strong enough to fry flocks of birds in mid-flight and whose signals not only blanketed  America’s heartland but also caromed off the stratosphere to listeners in the South Pacific and in KGB listening posts in Moscow.  Like the Internet, national boundaries were superfluous to Border Radio and, also like the internet, by creating an alternative to the mainstream of its time, Border Radio shaped a new mainstream in its own image.

More on this theme in subsequent entries …

Posted in Bulgaria, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, National Identity, Popular Culture | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructure of Commerce and Manufacturing: It’s All in the Heavy Lifting

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 4, 2008

Often it is the most traditional infrastructure and the oldest technology that underlies and determines the fates of seeming innovations.

Nine years ago, at the height of millennial enthusiasm occasioned by the “Dot Com Boom” and the financial sector’s disposal of billions of dollars of other people’s hard-earned money floating  “IPOs” of  internet-related start-ups without viable business plans, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a seemingly wet-blanket piece in The New Yorker that presented the then sacred-cow of e-commerce as a mere twist on the mail-order business and as nothing more than a new front-end to the US Postal Service.  In Clicks and Mortars, Gladwell proposed that the real innovation behind e-commerce was the 19th-century invention of the road-grading machine that made possible government-sponsored Rural Free Delivery of post which in turn lead to the giant mail-order houses of Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward (Neckermann would be Europe’s closest equivalent) the success of which led to mass manufacturing of ready-to-wear clothing.  The computer on the front-end of e-commerce was little more than a neat twist on the cataloger and payment sides of an old formula.  In the end, goods remain goods and delivery remains delivery.

The same goes for globalization.  Smart last-minute inventory systems, clever financial management, flouting of labor laws, and cozy arrangements with corrupt third-world heavies made globalized manufacturing possible but, in the end, goods need to be moved and delivered.  A summary take on the effects of rising oil prices on the house of cards that is globalization can be found in this recent report in the New York Times.

Footnotes

In keeping with the proud eccentricity of the New Yorker, the full text of the Gladwell article is not available online.  To find it, stop by your local bricks-and-mortar library or invest in the New Yorker’s proprietary full-archives-on-a-single-USB-hard-drive, a solution worthy of Eustace Tilley (the magazine’s emblematic 1920s dandy) in the internet age.

Neckermann, by the way, is the current incarnation of what was once the family business of the forebearers of pop singer Billy Joel.  The Joel family’s Berlin-based mail order house, which grew from their original dry-goods store in Munich, was “Aryanized” (read: stolen and plundered) by the Nazis and their hangers-on during the 1930s.

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