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Wednesday, Jul 19, 2006

Economists always like to complain that there is no real incentive for voting, since one vote (yours) never decides the outcome. As Steven Landsburg explains in this 2004 Slate column,

Last time around, about 6.5 million votes were cast for major party candidates in New York state and 63 percent of them went to Al Gore. Assuming an electorate of similar size with a similar bias, my chance of casting the deciding vote in New York is about one in 10 to the 200,708th power. I have a better chance of winning the Powerball jackpot 7,400 times in a row than of affecting the election’s outcome. Which makes it pretty hard to see why I should vote.
The traditional reply begins with the phrase “But if everyone thought like that ... .” To which the correct rejoinder is: So what? Everyone doesn’t think like that. They continue to vote by the millions and tens of millions.
Even for the most passionate partisan, it’s hard to argue that voting is a good use of your time. Instead of waiting in line to vote, you could wait in line to buy a lottery ticket, hoping to win $100 million and use it to advance your causes—and all with an almost indescribably greater chance of success than you’d have in the voting booth.

Landsburg must be delighted then that the state of Arizona now has a ballot referendum to institute an award of $1 million to one lucky voter chosen at random. This seems borderline unconstiutional, but you can see the immediate appeal. More people will vote, and more people voting is a de facto good thing. But is it? Steve Benen argues that this is probably a bad idea: “The logic behind this effort is that higher turnout is an inherent good. I disagree. An unengaged voter, who knows literally nothing about the candidates or the issues, may feel inclined to cast a ballot on Election Day, filling a ballot with choices he or she made more or less at random, for a shot at $1 million. That person hasn’t become engaged by the process or captivated by a sense of civic duty; that person is essentially throwing darts at a board for a chance at a cool million. Democracy doesn’t thrive on more votes; it thrives on quality votes — an engaged electorate that knows the issues, studies the candidates, and cares about the outcome. Even if a lottery boosted turnout, and I suspect it would, what’s the benefit? Who wins when a potential bribe spurs minimal action among those who would otherwise not care?”

But we can’t assume that the new voters this scheme would attract would be any more poorly informed than voters who currently exercise the franchise. People already vote out of a misplaced sense of duty, seeing the civil action as a viable and laudable replacement for actually following politics and being aware of governmental issues. A better argument against this gimmicky scheme is that it debases the vote and makes it incidental to the contest, something like the Big Mac is to the Monopoly game piece. It implies votes are for sale for the infintesimal amount that is equivalent to the odds-adjusted real value of $1 million lottery ticket. (One of Benen’s commenters estimates it come out to around 55 cents.) If votes are for sale, you should get a lot more for it than that, especially considering how much lobbyists pour into campaigns in order to win those votes.


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Wednesday, Jul 19, 2006

It’s been a month now since a New York Times article (Summer of Love Redux) helped to popularize a new type of music—freak folk. No doubt that for the performers and groups who fall under this banner, it’s a blessing and a curse.

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Wednesday, Jul 19, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Eric Bachmann
“Carrboro Woman” [MP3]
“Lonesome Warrior” [MP3]

Thom Yorke - Cymbal Rush [Live on The Henry Rollins Show]
PopMatters review: The Eraser

Bedouin Soundclash
“Waiting for My Ruca” [MP3]

Golden Smog
“Another Fine Day” [MP3]

The Rakes
video: “Open Book” [streaming]

Stephen Perkins, RAS 1, Eric Wilson (of Sublime), Josh Fischel, Angelo Moore (of Fishbone), 2Mex, Murs, and more
video: “Doin Time Jam Session” [streaming]

Parenthetical Girls
“Love Connection pt. II” [MP3]

The Kills
“Passion Is Accurate” [MP3]

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Tuesday, Jul 18, 2006

I’ve been trying to pin down what is off about Carlene Bauer’s story at Salon about the end of Sleater-Kinney. I too “still believe in feminism, and I still believe in the saving power of rock music,” as Bauer proclaims at the end of the article, so why am I left feeling skeptical and unconvinced?  Part of it has to do with the hyperbolic deck line: “The breakup of Sleater-Kinney signifies the end of an era when women made a loud and unapologetic noise—onstage and in society.” Has that era really ended? Was it really contingent on one semi-popular indie-rock band? Seems like the media is full of loud and unapologetic women—Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter come to mind—who soldier on even though their era is through. And must every female voice in the public sphere be assessed in terms of its volume (a.k.a. its “shrillness”), even metaphorically? Volume seems a dubious metaphor for having an influential and respected voice, suggesting it’s a sheer quantitative rather than qualitative thing. And announcing someone’s refusal to apologize, even in the context of praising them for it, seems to reinforce the notion that culturally speaking, apologies should be expected. It as though Sleater-Kinney deserves praise for refusing to apologize for existing. This seems a patronizing sort of plaudit. As does this: “Sleater-Kinney—friends and artists whose friendship and art has nothing to do with expensive shoes and self-deprecation—are quitting when they seem most necessary.” Are female friendships really gnerally as shallow as this implies?  (And can a band really be politically “necessary”? Why just them? Where was the love for 1980s progenitors such as Salem 66 or Scrawl—who by the way might have been mentioned instead of bete noires Liz Phair and Courtney Love). It seems a weird way to praise a band that is also celebrated for having “never wasted time running other women down.”

The article itself is a testimonial built on personal anecdotes, the kind that uses one’s own emotional states in the place of more conventionally objective-seeming evidence (the kind of diaristic writing once ghettoized as “feminine”; perhaps blogging is eradicating that stereotype). This mode may be intended to fuse the personal and political, but it can come across as faintly narcissistic: “When I heard the news, I felt a burning need to see them one last time, though I was mindful of the fact that one must be circumspect when one is 33 and about to utter the phrase ‘burning need.’ Surely, one is being ironic. Surely, one has confused the feeling with heartburn. And yet, that feeling just won’t quit. I’ve been listening to music and going to shows for more than half a lifetime now, watching indie rock devolve into backward-looking, fashion-damaged pop, while the culture grows ever more unwilling to admit feminism did anything but give women delusion, heartbreak and resentment. In this blue moment for indie rock fans and feminists alike, I need to pay my respects to three women whose noise never sounded like anyone else’s and kept getting louder and larger the older they got.” Again size and volume are deployed as metaphors for significance, as though women were doomed forever to be judged in such terms. And the characterization of indie rock as devolving, as though it weren’t always already devolved seems strange. Was there really a time when it was free of fashion? And are the non-mainstream bands percolating today really so different in terms of gender equity and fashion consciousness? Plenty of indie-rockers still subscribe to the “non-image” image and it seems like there are other bands around with women in them. (Perhaps Erase Errata is fated to become the new Sleater Kinney.) If Sleater-Kinney had any cultural effects, one of them would probably, hopefully, be the normalization of female rock bands—that is the goal, isn’t it? To take for granted women in rock?—so why does the article make such efforts to champion Sleater-Kinney’s singularity? If it is and always would have been an exception to the general cultural rule, then how can one take heart in its example? I’m not sure if Sleater-Kinney is being praised for being beyond gender somehow or for being extremely gender-specific. Were they great musicians who happened to be women, or are they great for making a specifically female music? (I know, probably both, even though they seem to contradict on the surface.)

Longing to see Sleater-Kinney perform one last time, Bauer writes, “I need to be reminded that my peers and friends are living correctives to those who believe that it’s useless to free yourself from the bonds of biology, history and society, and that you can indeed live a life according to principles that pundits with nannies want to make you believe are quaint unworkable utopian relics of the ‘60s and ‘70s. I need to watch three women issue a billowing cloud of noise and in doing so defiantly redefine what it means to be female and an adult.” Again, feminism is seen as defiance rather than an inarguable and inalienable standard, and it motivates joyous “noise”—implying the music’s power (and feminism’s by extension, since Bauer equates them) derives from chaos and intensity rather than talent, careful planning and ingenuity. Not to discount the antifeminist forces Bauer alludes to here, which are all too pervasive, but if they are so wrong, why are Sleater-Kinney so exceptional? Here we get closer to my short-sightedness, perhaps. I’ll never truly understand the force of arguments from dimwits like Caitlin Flanagan because as a man I’m in a position to not really ever have to take them seriously. They affect me only indirectly. This is probably why I’ll take the trouble to criticize Bauer, whose intentions are clearly good and with whom I largely agree, rather than write about Flanagan, who seems beneath contempt. This may not be a luxury women can afford. When I’m listening to music and not necessarily pondering political issues, antifeminism isn’t like a shackle on me curtailing my possibilities, and I can hear Sleater-Kinney in an entirely different context, one in which the band need not serve as evidence of something larger than the music it creates. I never “need” Sleater-Kinney to do anything besides play good songs; I don’t need them to remind me of anything else but themselves. Does that mean I’m not really hearing Sleater-Kinney’s music, I wonder?

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Tuesday, Jul 18, 2006

More on the precarious state of friendship. In this NYT Magazine article Ann Hulbert argues that recent data showing Americans have fewer close friends than before doesn’t necessary mean that we’re experiencing greater social isolation. Instead, she suggests that in response to the communications technology that puts us more in touch than ever with others, we may have “defined intimacy up” In one of many rhetorical questions she poses in the piece, she asks, “Could it be precisely because we’re more plugged in to a disparate array of people who supply us with information when we need it, offer advice and keep us intermittent company, that our standard of genuine closeness has become more exacting?” I don’t think I’m entirely sure about what she’s getting at here. Perhaps it is this: Since we have a broader base from which to draw friends and better filtering tools for selecting them, our chances are better of selecting friends who are like soul mates, and therefore we don’t need more than a few close friends to fulfill all our needs. If this sounds a lot like that modern invention, the companionate marriage, that’s not accidental. Hulbert hints at the end of the piece that our spouses may be all the friends we need.

When one-dimensional, functional relationships are ever more accessible, the desire to be known and to know another from all sides and from inside out may be lodged even deeper—and may thrive closer to home. A century ago, another philosopher surveying a modernizing world, George Santayana, had already concluded that “the tie that in contemporary society most nearly resembles the ancient ideal of friendship is a well-assorted marriage.”

Another of her rhetorical questions investigates reasons for friendship. “Is friendship a matter of spontaneous sincerity, heartfelt reciprocity, mutual understanding, deep loyalty, moral obligation or shared passion — and can it last?” It seems to me that all of these things may or may not be part of friendship, and what’s more, who cares? Perhaps the essence of real friendships, despite the social networking tools that help define the various degrees of closeness and usefulness of our acquaintances, is that no sustained analysis is required for them to persist. Our commitment to our friends is typically self-justifying, habitual. Friendships are often these wholly unique relations that appear in midst of our decisions and choices as inevitable, given. Most friendships probably can’t bear the brunt of too much analysis; many might start to fall apart if we tried to find justifications for them, and that may be their whole point. The beauty of friendship is that it’s perfectly gratuitous.

So perhaps the crisis in friendship has been created by the way in which communications technology is constantly inviting us to classify and categorize and instrumentalize our friends. In being forced to compartmentalize people, we become alienated from them. When the rampant mechanico-technical rationality that drives Internet efficiency and productivity begins to invade on the few personal, intimate spaces protected from it, we notice.


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