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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2006

Wal-Mart is by no means the only employer who is guilty of the labor practices this NY Times article details, but as Ezra Klein never tires of pointing out, Wal-Mart sets the standard that others will have to follow to be able to compete. (After all, it is the world’s largest employer.) These most recent moves—purported to allow the company flexibility to efficiently deal with fluctuations in store sales volume due to seasonal variation, bagaries of the business cycle—seek to undermine the benefits that accrue to employees through longetivity. Also, old workers are prone to expensive inconveniences like sickness, and tend to be more “inflexible” in their ways (they are less amenable to having ther hours rejuggered at management’s whim) that put a burden on the company.


some Wal-Mart workers say the changes are further reducing their already modest incomes and putting a serious strain on their child-rearing and personal lives. Current and former Wal-Mart workers say some managers have insisted that they make themselves available around the clock, and assert that the company is making changes with an eye to forcing out longtime higher-wage workers to make way for lower-wage part-time employees.


Since most workers in discount retail don’t really gain any skills from long-term employment, and since they have been successfully prevented from unionizing, they are easily and ideally replaceable every so often, before they reach any service-related goals and raises that may have been dangled before them to keep them striving and focused while on the job. “These moves have been unfolding in the year since Wal-Mart’s top human resources official sent the company’s board a confidential memo stating, with evident concern, that experienced employees were paid considerably more than workers with just one year on the job, while being no more productive. The memo, disclosed by The New York Times in October 2005, also recommended hiring healthier workers and more part-time workers because they were less likely to enroll in Wal-Mart’s health plan.” Experienced employees figure out how to make the employer’s system work more to their advantage. That’s why you need to lean on them until they quit.


This is in no way surprising. Employers have no incentive to show any loyalty to their employees—the illusion that they have ever cared has always stemmed from the pressure the existence of strong unions exerted on them. Pensions, benefits and such—the entire concept of human resource departments (which are detestable precisely because they pretend to perform the function of union representatives while working in management’s interest)—were often concocted to forestall the progress of unions. But things have changed, and employers have nothign to fear anymore, nothing to prevent them from shifting all the insecurities of the business cycle onto workers, those least fit for coping with them. As Klein explains,


Folks forget sometimes that unions aren’t just there to argue for better benefits and salaries, but better working conditions, more stability in hours, more respect for seniority, and easier mediating between family and work. They exist, in other words, to ensure that employers uphold their end of the “work hard and get ahead” bargain. Except, unions don’t really exist anymore, and they certainly don’t at Wal-Mart. This is the result.


The point is that there is no such bargain in American society, and that there ever was one in the good old days is an illusion. Employers regard labor as a cost to be controlled, not as people whose welfare needs to be considered—such bleeding-heart sentiment was proven useless with the “defeat” of socialism and the proclaimed end of economic history. If workers and employers both prosper, it’s not because of some spirit of fair play and ethics, it’s not because some employers are congenitally nice and paternalistic, it’s because both sides have leverage over each other that forces them to split the proceeds. The bargain, to the extent that it existed, was forced by labor having a representative in the negotiation in the form of unions. Unions, though, have been systematically stripped of their ability to effectively organize, and the NLRB is staffed with Republicans hostile to their very existence. So employers rationally extend their advantage and insulate stockholders at the expense of employees. This leaves workers to fight with other workers for what protection remains, continually undermining one another while the company blithely sails along, meeting its growth targets and pleasing Wall Street. It’s an old story, and it probably sounds like a string of leftist cliches, but the utter boring predictability of it, and the reluctance to tell that same old tired workers-getting-screwed story yet again is one of the most potent weapons management has in its arsenal.


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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Richard Buckner —"Town" From Meadow on Merge Records. Meadow is the 8th full-length recording from Richard Buckner, and the latest chapter in a story that began in San Francisco, back in the early 90’s and has seen Buckner travel across the U.S. and Canada many times. Buckner’s body of work has always seemed to be about motion vs. stillness, whether it be running away or toward something, or watching something or someone leave or approach: the restless energy of the heart, full speed ahead, the consequences taken and embraced, the good and the bad. The false starts, roadblocks and pitfalls along the way only add to the richness of the journey.


Xiu Xiu—"Boy Soprano" From The Air Force on Kill Rock Stars. It comes in waves of nausea and unease. The Air Force is a wraith, and wraithlike it moves according to genuine, human rhythms; we see frontman Jamie Stewart staring into the void, or into the past, or dipping his hands into the sick pink hues of human grease, into bad love, suicide, rape, sex, stormy friendship, domination, dependency, with husky voiced lyrics that come rising up like steam from some deep and dark and cold dungeon miles below Earth’s surface.


Portastatic—"Sour Shores" From Be Still Please on Merge Records. If I were clever, I’d tell you to think of Be Still Please as the introverted sister to Bright Ideas. But I’m not. So I’ll just tell you that Mac McCaughan is better than he’s ever been – the guy is on a hot streak right now that I’d chart somewhere between Mascis ‘87, Coppola ‘74 and Dwyane Wade ‘06.



Novillero—"The Hypothesist" From Aim Right For the Holes in Their Lives on Mint Records. Pop-rock music rarely weaves its namesake styles effectively. Pop music overrides rock music most often and turns it into a wimpy mush. Or bands are too concerned with rocking out and they forget the importance of hooks and wit. Novillero don’t have that problem. The hooks are plentiful, the arrangements are varied, the melodies are memorable and immediate, and the horns are tastefully implemented.



The Fix —"Rat Patrol" From At the Speed of Twisted Thought on Touch and Go Records. Within a period of 22 odd months or so, The Fix came blazing—pillaging your town, exploding and burning fast before you knew what hit you. And it’s only now that you remember how awesome 1981 was—or at least blessed now with the hearsay and memories because you couldn’t have been there to witness The Fix.


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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.



Week 10: Lagaan (“The Tax”)
2001, Color, Hindi
Dir: Ashutosh Gowarikar
I probably wouldn’t even be writing this User’s Guide to Indian Cinema if it weren’t for LagaanLagaan initiated the era of the “cross-over movie,” Hindi films that are made and marketed for an international audience. Who would have thought that the most recognized Hindi film in the world would be an art movie about cricket? Cultural theorist Ashis Nandy sums it up perfectly, “Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English.” As irony would have it, the game of the oppressors is embraced and transformed by the oppressed into something new, invigorating and culturally in tune with India’s heritage. Lagaan starts off with a bet. In 1893, a remote village has continually been harassed by the local British authorities who have been extorting tax money on the village’s meager crop.  The charismatic youth, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), in a fit of rage, rashly challenges the British to a game of cricket. If the villagers win, they’ll never have to pay the back-breaking taxes.  If they lose, they’ll pay double. Unfortunately, none of the villagers know how to play cricket. Enter Lucy (Rachel Shelly), a lovely memsahib who sympathizes with the villagers—and fancies Bhuvan. She teaches the villagers, a veritable dirty dozen of hapless blokes from various religions and castes, the rules and secrets of the game. It’s a lavish period piece and a rousing sports movie. At face value, Lagaan is a typical movie about the Raj: privileged, nasty whites in regimental uniform beating ragged villagers, poor farmers wearily praying for rain so that their crops grow, the whiff of forbidden love between a white and a native.  But his gentle direction of his actors, his staging of the musical numbers and the final, pulsating cricket match, a game for survival, is what sets the movie apart as the best of Indian cinema.


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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2006

After seeing the film The U.S. Versus John Lennon, I was interested not just about how the idea of dissent is quieted by threatend to kick people out of the country (see John Lennon and the Politics of Deportation) but also what there was to now learn about someone who had already been such a public figure like Lennon. While most Beatles fans thought that JL lost his noodle when he did his bed-in’s, he was just being wily, using his star power to call attention to his peace initiatives, no doubt fuelled by Yoko’s background in Fluxus performance art. In the film, a number of old friends recall JL and his political convictions, including Black Panther Bobby Seale who insists that he was a close friend of Lennon’s.


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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2006

Part of my trip to Southern California was spent in Palm Desert, one of the “other Desert Cities” referred to on the I-10 exit sign for Highway 111, which runs from Palm Springs out to Indio, before it heads to that environmental disaster area known as the Salton Sea. ON the way there from L.A., you first pass through the wind farms in the mountain pass and the creepy rows of wind turbines that render the landscape alien and forboding. Harvesting wind energy seems a good idea, but still, the hills seems to have been colonized by some relentlessly churning alien life-form—I felt like I understood the concept of visual pollution at a visceral level. The whirring blades are mesmerizing, in a bad way. They create a delirium of planes and angles shifting and changing in a lulling rhythm, making it impossible to see anything else. It’s a wonder there aren’t more accidents on that winding downhill stretch of the freeway, where it seems like the average traveling speed is around 85 miles per hour. Beyond the turbines, you enter Palm Springs, the desert city that is not “other” and is the oldest of the group. It’s an unremarkable town that sits in the shadow of a stupendous mountain. The sublimity of the landscape makes the human doings there seem a bit insignificant, piddling, so it’s suitable that most of what goes on there is golf and tchotchke shopping From there, on 111, you enter Cathedral City, then Rancho Mirage (home to the Betty Ford Clinic, a rehab center), then Palm Desert, where we stayed. From the highway these towns are indistinguishable—just one shopping strip after another, with some hotels interspersed here and there. Streets are named for moribund performers: Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Fred Waring. I could think of no good reason to be there, and that was what made it perfect.


Unlike most touristy places, which garishly try to cajole you into doing and spending, thrusting temptations your way and working to intensify your restlessness, Palm Desert was an oasis of sobriety. No wonder the rehab centers are there. No wonder people talk of going to the desert to dry out. At night—we were there on a Saturday night, and it was quiet as the moon—even the lights were subdued; so much so that most of the stores and restaurants seemed to be closed, seemed indifferent to our business. There were activities imploring us to attend—no bands playing, no limited-run reperatory cinema, no places to see or meet people, no night life of any kind. It seemed like we were so alone. It was beautiful.


Having nothing to do and feeling no pressure to do anything exciting are two very different things. It seem like anything we turned to was going to be fulfilling. We went to the outdoor pool in the warmth of the evening and sat in the hot tub and when we got too hot, we went swimming. We met a few recent graduates of the “program,” which seemed to be a Betty Ford euphemism. We went to eat at an anonymous chain restaurant and recieved pleasant, generic service. We felt like nobodies in nowhere land. I wished we would have booked a longer stay.


I’m always troubled by forced leisure, so much so that vacations rarely feel warranted or comfortable to me; they often seem like an alternate form of work. I feel like I’m trapped in what Baudrillard calls the fun morality, the obligation to treat leisure productively, to use it to manufacture distinction if nothing else. It’s very hard to just waste time, to let yourself destroy it. The pressure can become intense to find something useful to do with the vacation time, made artifically precious by the meaningless work it’s framed with. It can lead to moments of self-consciousness within the vacation—which remove one from the present moment and place in time and sends one to the purgatory of hypotheticals and second guesses: Am I really living up to the time I’ve been alotted? Has this all been worth it? Worth what? What is the point of comparison?


Living in New York, I’m constantly aware of ambitious people, and the pressure they put on themselves and the people around them. It’s in the pace of everything that happens, and I become infected with it—it shows in the way I am ready to run people over on the sidewalks when they aren’t going fast or in the impatience I freely exhibit when the person in front of me dodders around for exact change while I’m anxious for my coffee. Los Angeles has similarly ambitious people, though it seems to exhibit itself there as a kind of desperation to be paid attention to rather than a heedless haste. But when you reach the other Desert cities, ambition seems a million miles away. Urgency is unthinkable there. It dawned on us that this could be the point of the place, to evaporate ambition in the dry heat and leave you adrift in endless expanse of undifferentiated time. The ultimate vacation is from ambition, from the need to score distinctive accomplishments—to remove yourself from the ongoing competitive status game that haunts our every action. In the desert cities, places that don’t especially want tourists so much as retirees, who are beyond ambition and anxious only to fill out the rest of their days with pleasant distraction, that vacation, possibly a permanent one, is always waiting.


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