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Wednesday, Sep 5, 2007

If you thought politics made strange bedfellows, look what happens when politics and pop culture combine. That’s right, inveterate rapper and former crack dealer 50 Cent, has weighed in on the 2008 Presidential race (why not?). Here’s what the artist told MTV News in a recent interview:


“I’d like to see Hillary Clinton be president. It would be nice to see a woman be the actual president and ... this is a way for us to have Bill Clinton be president again, and he did a great job during his term.”


While I’m sure Hillary is pleased with the psuedo-endorsement, she might take umbrage with the last part of 50’s statement concerning her husband’s role in her future administration. The former first lady has been attempting to deal with the overbearing popularity of her crowd pleasing companion. In any case, the nod is a welcome addition to a campaign competing with the rockstar status of Barack Obama who has been courting support from the black community.


There are other, more politically astute, hip-hop artists which have not yet vocalized their thought on the current crop of presidential contenders. So this begs the question: When will Kanye West will put in his, er, 2 cents?


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Wednesday, Sep 5, 2007

It can come off as arrogance, sensitivity, or a noble dissent—a high-minded refusal to engage with America’s culture of celebrity, erosion of privacy and self-promotion. It may be just the wishful fantasy that their books might arrive unmediated, might “speak for themselves.”


Great piece in the LA Times this week about reclusive authors and the reasons they shield their faces from public view. Salinger and Pynchon are included, along with author Denis Johnson (Jesus’ Son, the new Tree of Smoke).


 


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Wednesday, Sep 5, 2007

So you think that country mega-star Toby Keith is some GOP slime who’s gonna get carpal tunnel from waving the flag too much?  Well, the guy obviously is patriotic but before you call him a conservative war-monger, you might want to check out his recent screed at Amazon about his politics.


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Wednesday, Sep 5, 2007

This morning, NPR had an item about the impact of the subprime-mortgage crisis on which real-estate experts were complaining that the pendulum has swung too far too quickly: A few months ago loans were too easy to come by; now they are too hard—bankers now have the temerity to verify borrowers incomes. This was accompanied with the usual trumpet sounding about home ownership as the basis of the American dream, and what about the families? If a middle-class family can’t exercise its god-given right to home ownership, then why the hell do we even have an America for? We were then invited to feel sorry for the families that couldn’t afford median-priced homes in bubble-inflated markets, with no indication given that the lax lending helped foster the high prices in the first places. Instead the implicit prescription was more of the germs that led to the disease in the first place.


To give the matter more urgency, the piece went on to elucidate this chain of reasoning. When the middle class feel as though they can’t afford the half-a-million dollar houses for sale in southern California, they may become discouraged about economic prospects generally, and curb their discretionary spending on luxury consumer goods—an interesting link, because expensive housing isn’t always regarded as the luxury good that it is. This downturn in consumption would then spread throughout the economy, bringing on a recession that would harm everyone. We are already seeing some of this in the ways local governments are being affected by the loss of housing-related revenues, as this WSJ story points out. Lower housing prices mean lower tax assessments, and fewer homes sold mean fewer taxes paid, fewer housing starts mean fewer associated fees collected. You start to see how many people have an interest in prolonging the housing bubble, how deeply perverse the incentives can be as long as people believe the inflation in housing can be contained to housing, where it is offset by generous income tax breaks and the happy possibility of home equity loans.


But whenever I hear about housing woes threatening consumption, I think about my frequent complaints about consumerism and wonder whether I should consider this a good thing, if whether my recent fixation of credit markets is a product of hoping that credit will dry up altogether, forcing a shift in values away from consumption, for which there will no longer be any funds. By that logic then, what I am hoping for is a return of the Great Depression, when people were forced to find other ways to occupy themselves than shopping (and working).


But I don’t in fact hope for that kind of material deprivation, rampant unemployment, and generalized insecurity. One thing worth remembering is that increased consumption is different from consumerism. Increased consumption is a macroeconomic fact inseparable from any kind of growth, even if it is restricted to the population. More prevelant consumerism, however, is a matter of social priorities. What’s needed is a way to divorce prosperity from the ethics of frivolity; to find a way to mitigate the corrosive effects prosperity sometimes seems to have on individuals, making them vain, selfish and insipid; obsessed with developing their own identity and lifestyle rather than contributing anything to their communities, etc.—the typical complaints about consumerism. One could argue that these traits are actually good—the libertarian approach that sees self-obsession as a radical expression of freedom. By this argument, shopping makes our lives meaningful—all those important choices about what to buy that we make and almost take for granted—as opposed to the opposite. Consumerism widens the scope of our ultimate activity rather than narrows it into a channel carved out by corporate interests and conformism and a customary allegiance to what appears to be common sense.


Or one can refute the complaints. Maybe such self-involved and shallow people don’t actually exist and are only posited by the advertisements that are designed to sustain consumer enthusiasm, yet this is belied by the apparent success of such ads (they keep making them and devoting millions of dollars to them) and the theoretical apparatus that has identity being formed by such cultural influences, as in Judith Williamson’s case (critiqued here) that ads function as Althusserian ideological state apparatuses allowing us to define ourselves in a way that is complicit with the economic system they support.


The important question, I guess, is whether economic growth relies on consumerism—whether consumption will only grow at the rate required or in the directions necessary for capitalism (consumption of goods made for profit in order to display status) when consumers are prodded ideologically. John Kenneth Galbraith argued as much in The Affluent Society but many other economists scoffed at that assessment. But one can’t reject consumerist values merely out of being offended by their puerility—one person’s BeerFest is another person’s Hamlet. It seems that the point where one differentiates between consumption and consumerism is where critics of consumerism become enivronmentalists, insisting that sustainability is the basis upon which to restrict growth and develop alternative values.


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Wednesday, Sep 5, 2007

Then we heard bangs from away down left down the boulevard, over by the Invalides, and a muffled roar. We looked at the television screen and saw the Eiffel Tower, all lit up. They had set up fireworks so that they began at the base of the tower, exploding in gold and violet around its piers, and then dramatically in gold bursts and haloes, working their way up to the top. As the fireworks reached the top, the entire tower turned on; twenty thousand or so small flashbulbs that had been wired to the tower went off at once, blinking hyperfast. The tiny constant explosions of the little bulbs made the tower look as though it had been carbonated, injected with seltzer bubbles. It was a beautiful sight. I thought of going out to see it firsthand, like a responsible reporter, but it was late—hey, come to think of it, it was after midnight—and anyway, the children were asleep. So we watched the whole thing on TV and were proud anyway, one last virtual CNN experience, but with a living room window open, and the cold air coming in, and one ear at least hearing the muffled bangs of the real thing taking place a few blocks away.
Adam Gopnik. Paris to the Moon.


September 4, yesterday, was the day that George Bush arrived in Sydney. I waited for the time to shift to September 4 in America so that I could listen to a preview of Bruce Springsteen’s new single, Radio Nowhere, available only on Amazon.com for twenty four hours. It was also the day that William Gibson’s new novel, Spook Country, was released in Australia. So I bought it and put aside Paris to the Moon for the moment. Spook Country is set in February, 2006, and one of the strands of the story is surveillance and tracking systems being used for “locative” art pieces.


“How did you get into this?”
“I was working on commercial GPS technology. I’d gotten into that because I’d thought I wanted to be an astronomer, and I’d gotten fascinated with satellites. The most interesting ways of looking at the GPS grid, what it is, what we do with it, what we might be able to do with it, all seemed to be being put forward by artists. Artists or the military. That’s something that tends to happen with new technologies generally: the most interesting applications turn up on the battlefield, or in a gallery.”
William Gibson. Spook Country.


I’m not reporting on the Asia Pacific Economic conference meeting of 21 world leaders that George Bush is attending; I’m living in Sydney and reading about APEC in the Sydney Morning Herald while the events happen in my proximity.


“I believe we are writing one of the great chapters in the history of liberty and peace.” So said George Bush during a brief writing break to have lunch with a collection of Australian military personnel at Sydney’s Garden Island naval base. The President and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice helped themselves to snags and barbecued corn in the company of hosts John Howard, wife Janette and a very pleased looking Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, who was very attentive to Dr Rice at the salad bar.


I have no context of my own for APEC. I’ve read too much science fiction perhaps, watched too many Star Wars movies and episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation so what I’ve read about the arrival of the world leaders leans towards the fantastic. The American delegation, at 650 people almost twice as large as the home delegation in Australia, seemed like Darth Vader swooping in on the Death Star with his own vehicles and own weapons, and declaring “sovereign immunity” to avoid having local quarantine officials board his plane. Leaders of some tiny nations, New Zealand, for instance were more like Luke Skywalker and his couple of robots hot-rodded from spare parts, flying in on commercial flights and accepting protection from Australian security.


Photograph of Sydney Street during APEC by Dan Patmore

Photograph of Sydney Street during APEC by Dan Patmore


The newspapers and television need chaos and drama but I’ve only seen quiet things, the efficient business of security being handled as if it were event management, the fences and concrete barriers and elaborate system of passes and restricted access reminds me of the fortification of Albert Park Lake, in Melbourne, for the running of the Grand Prix.


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