Friday, February 25, 2011

Welcome to the Jungle

Waiting for Lefty in Madison.
According to Rush Limbaugh, I am a "petulant, immature ... bottom-feeder freeloader."

That is, I am a teacher and a union member.  

Limbaugh was referring to the thousands of pro-union demonstrators at the Wisconsin state capitol.  He is not alone in his sentiments, as some anti-union demonstrators are there as well.

However, for all we know, the anti-union folks could be paid workers from nearby companies owned by the Koch Brothers.  They are the billionaires who seem to be Gov. Scott Walker's parent company and who have a vested interest in seeing labor unions destroyed.

Regardless of who the ant-union demonstrators work for, they seem to be just that: workers.  Folks who labor for pay from another person.  As Montgomery Burns affectionately calls them: "wage donkeys."

Release the hounds!
Yet there they are, demonstrating against their fellow wage donkeys -- in this case, state teachers -- who are fighting the governor's efforts to remove their union's collective bargaining rights.  The anti-union folks expressed resentment and perhaps even jealousy of the pensions and health benefits the teachers have.  They suggested the teachers are being greedy to attempt retaining anything the governor seeks to take away.  They seemed to believe the teachers should be grateful simply to have a job.

Their sentiments are echoed by a blogger for U.S. News and World Report's website.  The item is bluntly titled "Wisconsin Public Union Members Should Feel Lucky to Have Jobs."  In it Mary M. Shaffrey writes, "Having been laid off twice, I would be grateful for any salary and any benefits, because something is better than nothing. In this time of economic challenges, I would think most would agree with me, especially those who claim to represent the workers."

I am struck by the fact that the workers are directing their anger and resentment toward other workers rather than at the government officials threatening employee protections.  Has the competition for jobs become so fierce and are workers so desperate that they fight each other for the scraps of jobs and benefits that fall their way?  Rather than resenting the people at the table who are dropping them?

We can assume that those demonstrating against the union crowd work in the private sector.  The desperation there makes them envious and resentful of those who work in the public sector.  Yet rather than be resentful of the private sector leaders who seek to constantly lower wagers and benefits -- who send jobs overseas, who keep profits in the bank rather than create more jobs -- the workers want to reward them.  Perhaps the workers believe that if the corporations get more tax breaks, they will create some more jobs.

Forget whether any new jobs would be fairly compensated, provide benefits, or even be safe. 

Perhaps the union members in Wisconsin should be handing out copies of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle.  It tells the story of Lithuanian immigrants who come to America believing they will find better lives -- but instead they find a world of workers at the mercy of employers who offer low wages, unsafe work conditions, and no health care.  Those are all misfortunes that labor unions helped eliminate. 

The protagonist, Jurgis, sees his family disintegrate in a world with no protections against abuses and exploitation.  Finally, he is injured and finds himself unable to compete for even the lowest of jobs.

He could not hope to tide himself over by odd jobs of loading trucks; he could not even sell newspapers or carry satchels, because he was now at the mercy of any rival.  Words could not paint the terror that came over him as he realized this.  He was like a wounded animal in the forest; he was forced to compete with his enemies upon unequal terms.

The power of labor unions in the United States has drastically declined in the private sector, and its last stronghold is in the public sector.  Once it is eliminated entirely, as seems to be the plan of some Republican leaders, American workers could find themselves in Jurgis's position.  That is a history we should not want to repeat.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Tea Party Time Machine

I have looked in vain on Craigslist for a used Delorean with a working flux capacitor.

I want one so I can take a trip back in time with my libertarian friends, whether they are tea partiers or not.

They talk an awful lot about what the Founding Fathers intended when they created the Constitution of the United States.  They insist the First Dudes wanted a very limited government, and they feel we should have one today.  They want fewer regulations, fewer laws, fewer taxes, fewer fees, fewer government agencies, etc.

I want Dr. Emmett Brown's time machine so I can acquaint them with the world in which Jefferson, Franklin, and others lived and to which the Constitution was a response.

Back to the Future III
But since Doc is still living in the Wild West with Clara Clayton, I will need to rely upon the words of someone who lived through the Revolutionary era, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur.  He wrote a popular book in 1782, Letters from an American Farmer, and in it is a famous essay, "What Is an American." In the essay, Crevecoeur waxes poetic about the differences between Europe and America:

It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything, and a herd of people who have nothing.  There are no aristocratical families, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one; no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury.  The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe.

Things have changed, haven't they?  The rich and the poor are quite removed from each other today.  According to figures from 2007, 10 percent of Americans own nearly 70 percent of the nation's wealth -- and the top 1 percent own nearly 34 percent.  The bottom half of the population?  It owns 2.5 percent of the nation's wealth.  I think half of the nation constitutes a "herd," don't you?  And 2.5 percent comes pretty close to "nothing."

The Constitution was written to restrain two sources of power that were prone to abuse, at least in the eyes of Jefferson & Company: the government and the church.  The British government had operated frequently through patronage (who you know, not what you know) and for its own benefit rather than for the people, and it had little accountability to its citizens.  The church was wealthy and influential since it had been closely integrated with the government.

But in the time since Washington grinned through wooden teeth, a new source of considerable power arose in the United States, the corporations ("the manufacturers employing thousands").

The framers of the Constitution understood that competing interests in the populace and within government could keep each other in check, but only if their powers were equitable.  How could they have known that corporations would develop to such size and influence, would hold more sway in the Capitol than the nation's citizens?  When Franklin was dangling that key from a kite string in a lightning storm, little could he have imagined something like General Electric -- projected revenues of nearly $142 billion in 2011.  If GE were a nation, it would be the 50th wealthiest country in the world.

Exxon Mobil's estimated revenues of $460 billion this year would rank it 21st among nations, just in front of Sweden.

If there had been institutions of such power and resources in Jefferson's time, I imagine he would have left us with a different Constitution.  And longing for a return to those "good old days" of Crevecoeur's life is a pointless daydream -- unless you can build your own flux capacitor.  In the meantime, corporations are perfectly happy to support the populist drive toward less government, since fewer regulations mean more freedom from accountability toward others and from responsibility for the public good.

Who, other than a strong federal government, would be powerful enough to counter the strength of such corporate giants?

The real problem, I tell my libertarian friends, is not that we have a big government; the problem is the kind of big government we have.  We have one that seems to work harder for corporations than citizens.  Changing that government might help; getting rid of it won't.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Next on "Inside The Actors Studio" -- Kim Kardashian

Part Three of my musings about Kim Kardashian.

As I watched Kim and Kourtney Kardashian sunning their augmented breasts in Miami on a friend's yacht, I thought to myself, "How do we watch this stuff?"

I didn't mean "Why do we watch this stuff?"  I meant literally "How?"

I was watching a clip of Kourtney and Kim Take New York on Hulu, and Kim was on this yacht with her sister and a friend.  She was fidgeting with her ever-present Blackberry, and she let out a big sigh that drew their attention.  They asked what was wrong, and Kim said, "I'm just trying to deal with this kind of like privately, but Reggie and I broke up."

I was struck by the irony of her statement.  She was trying to deal with her Bush break-up privately -- while being filmed talking about it.

What we call "reality TV" is filled with such moments, moments when the folks on screen seem to have a private experience for the benefit of the camera crew that is present when they speak and the millions they hope will watch later.  This should make us ask, "Just how real is reality television?"

I know this is not an original question.  I imagine most of us would answer it quickly: "Not very."

Since we know their reality is limited, I asked myself whether we watch such shows in a manner different from the way we watch "regular" drama.  When we watch a regular drama, we know what we see is not real.  It may imitate the real, and it may do this quite faithfully.  But those of us in the audience know what we watch is, in a sense, a lie.  This does not stop us from getting emotionally involved in the events.  This does not stop us from experiencing emotional reactions to what we see on the screen.

At the heart of the audience's experience is identification.  People in the audience identify with the people they see in the production.  They may think, "She is like me.  I have felt her pain before."  Or they might think, "I have never known that fear, but I imagine it is powerful!  Look at me, my heart is racing, yet I am sitting safely in my home, wrapped in a Snuggie and eating S'mores."  That is to say, even if we cannot relate our own lives to the lives we see on the screen (or read on the page or witness on the stage), we imagine ourselves in those lives.  We experience, vicariously, the actions and emotions being imitated for us.  And the fact that they are not really happening does not diminish our pleasure nor our participation.

Aristotle recognized this long ago and wrote about it in Poetics.  While many plays in his time were based upon historical events or on characters well known to the audience through myths, he noted there were some plays "where incidents and names alike are fictitious, and yet they give none the less pleasure."

Although Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief" to argue for implausible or fantastic events in stories, the idea extends to many forms of storytelling.  For instance, while watching 3:10 to Yuma, I am supposed to suspend my disbelief that a man with a prosthetic foot -- one made in the 1870s no less -- could jump from roof to roof in hot pursuit of a bad guy.  (I'm sorry.  I snorted in the theater at those scenes.)  But at a more fundamental level, I suspend my disbelief enough to watch any of the film and allow it to influence my thoughts and emotions.

And so, while watching a show such as Kourtney and Kim Take New York, the viewer allows himself to forget that everything the sisters say is being recorded and they know it is being recorded -- and surely the sisters shape what they say or do because of that camera.  At some level they must be aware of how what they are saying is fitting into some storyline that has evolved through the creation of that episode or that is likely to evolve.  (They also must know their show is a collaborative effort.  What they say and do will be further shaped by editors, especially after the sisters tape the various cutaway commentaries on the episode's events.)

In this sense, a show such as theirs is not so much "reality TV" as it is "improvisational drama."  Larry David's HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which he plays a character named "Larry David," is famous for its improvisational creation.  David gives his actors the bare minimum for a scene, and the actors create the rest as they go along.  As they stay in character, they are aware of the plot they need to follow, but they also are aware of the need to make each scene funny.

Similarly, Kim Kardashian plays a character named "Kim Kardashian" in scenes that are meant to resemble her life, knowing that as she goes through each scene she must do and say memorable things -- look glamorous, be happy, be heartbroken, be sentimental, be rich, etc.

After I started thinking about this aspect of shows such as hers, I came across another name for them: docusoap.  Part documentary, part soap opera.  It sounds fitting.  But that name seems reserved for the types of shows that document people (most likely not celebrities) doing things in the "real world," such as Deadliest Catch.  The people in those shows may play to the camera, may manufacture drama in order to get more air time, but they also must be aware of the competition they are a part of or the dangers that surround them.

The kind of crabs that might threaten Kim and Kourtney are not the kind you pull from the Bering Sea.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force
I am not saying that the Kardashians create television as compelling as Six Feet Under, The Wire, or even Aqua Teen Hunger Force.  While I suspend my disbelief in watching those shows -- "Come on!  A giant milkshake would never say that!" -- I also admire their invention and the craft of their construction.  I admire their understanding of human nature and the commentary they make on it.  But I do wonder whether the process of watching those shows is much different from watching the tawdry televised pathos of America's rich and famous.

I realize that not everyone watches these shows in the way I have described.  Not everyone watches something like Jersey Shore in the same way Aristotle would have enjoyed Antigone.  Some watch more like Romans enjoying their gladiators -- if the warriors sported Bumpits and fake tans.

I know many people tune in to see the human train wrecks that some reality TV shows present to us.  But not all watch for that, and some folks even watch as if the shows presented unmediated glimpses into the lives of other people.  But even those who watch like Romans at the Coliseum are to some degree reacting to events on screen as if they were accurate imitations of life, not people impersonating themselves in storylines intended to attract attention; the Roman-style viewers react as if they are watching real people doing real things -- evoking from the viewers genuine outrage, pity, scorn, or laughter, evoking that catharsis and purgation of human emotions for which Aristotle said drama was intended.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Kim's naked ambition

Part Two of a series.  Part One: "Ain't nothing little about Kim."

Kim Kardashian recently claimed she was upset that W magazine displayed her naked body in its November "Art Issue."  Through her tears on a recent episode of Kourtney and Kim Take New York, she claimed she had been told her semi-private parts were going to be covered with artwork.

Perhaps she should have been worried more about the art than her parts.

On the cover of the magazine, the curvaceous queen of reality television is strategically covered by the work of Barbara Kruger.  Kruger is famous for combining words with images from advertising or celebrity portraits.  Her works comment on the consumer-driven culture of the United States, and they critique the force of advertising and media to shape our identities.

In the case of "Kruger Meets Kardashian," the young woman's body is superimposed with three blocks of type: It's all about me.  I mean you.  I mean me.

With the first line, Kruger seems to suggest Kim is telling us honestly that she is the center of the viewer's attention.  The straightforward look on Kim's face reinforces this.  And who could say she is wrong?

As the W article, "The Art of Reality," points out, Kim has become famous for being Kim.  Not because she has talent, but because she is.  And people want to watch her be Kim.  Millions of people watch her on the E! network.  She has millions of followers on Twitter.  She has lines of her own merchandise, and she endorses others.  Her every move gets reported on.  Her recent failure to dance on stage with Prince got major rotation on Yahoo!, along with tidbits from Donald Rumsfeld's autobiography and "Where to find amazing pies."

That second phrase -- I mean you -- is echoed in the W article.  The author follows Kim to a promotional appearance at a Nordstrom's in Santa Monica, California.  Several times Kim comments on her close relationship to her fans.  At one point she says, trying to explain her popularity among young women, "They have sisters or they don't have sisters, and then they see me as a sister.  They relate to me.  And I'm honored."

These moments of sister solidarity are undercut, though.  Those fans gathered to greet her in Santa Monica are limited to the first 200 who purchase at least $75 worth of FusionBeauty products.  And the article suggests that more than a few of Kim's Tweets involve pumping the products she has endorsed.  It seems sisterhood has a price.

I mean me.

Perhaps Kim didn't pick up on Kruger's potential critique.  Perhaps she was happy simply to be covered up by the work of a famous artist, since in the media-driven world today the reason for a person's fame is less important than the fame itself.  Perhaps for Kim it didn't matter what Kruger was saying; it was enough that Kruger is famous and her art sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Kruger easily could have recycled an earlier piece of hers for covering Kim's corpus: "I shop therefore I am."  After all, Kim spends a lot of time on her television show shopping, and much of Kim's involvement with her fans centers on shopping.

But it might be more appropriate to state, "You shop therefore I am."  Or "I sell therefore you are."

Both options suggest the strange cycle of codependency that develops between seller and consumer.  They need each other and they perpetuate that need -- those "sisters" consume in the desire to feel connected to Kim, and Kim's desire to be desired depends upon those "sisters" consuming.

A Kruger work that could not be recycled for Kim's cover is one that features Judy Garland and the phrase "i never wanted to be your icon."  It seems that Kim would most definitely like to be that.

Coming Soon

Part Three: Is "docu-soap" a better name for reality TV shows?  How about "improvisational drama"?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Ain't nothing little about Kim

Did you hear the news?

Kim Kardashian is upset because W magazine printed nude pictures of her.

She regretted posing nude for Playboy.  Then she regretted posing nude for Harper's Bazaar.  And most recently she regretted posing nude for W in its November "Art Issue."

For someone who regrets posing nude for magazines, doesn't she pose nude for a lot of magazines?

But all of this makes sense.  She is a star of a reality TV show, so therefore we can trust nothing that she says to be ... real.

If those pictures were printed in November, then why did her regret make the news in late January?  Because her tears over her exposed ta-tas were seen in a recent episode of Kourtney and Kim Take New York.  The scene (link) was recorded around November, so that means she kept her displeasure, unlike her daunting body, under wraps for several weeks.

Kim is no fool.  She knows how to keep her name in the headlines.  Those photographs had played themselves out, but her TV tears revived them quite easily.  Her name -- and  the images -- were all over the Internet again, and she didn't even have to pose for another picture.

Again, Kim is no fool.  In the TV scene she calls the photographs "full-on porn."  They are not pornographic, although calling them that enhances the sense of injury or injustice done to her.   But she knows what porn is.  Her career as a professional celebrity was launched by a sex tape made with her then-boyfriend and singer Ray J.  Before then, she was merely a sidekick for Paris Hilton.  Since then, Kim is closing in on Paris in earning power ($6 million/year vs. $8.5 million/year), and by some measurements she has surpassed Paris in appeal for product endorsements and aspiration (people who want to be like her).

Since her sex-tape days, Kim has made herself into a brand that sells a complicated mixture of sexuality and classiness, corporeal beauty and capitalistic brains.

And then this week we learn that -- surprise -- she doesn't regret posing for the W photographs.  She told Us Weekly that now she loves her nude photographs.  In the dramatic arc of these photographs she occupies several positions: first, she is a daring, sexual beauty; then, she is a good girl crying tears of embarrassment and injustice; finally, she is still a good girl but also a mature woman, one who can distinguish dirty pictures from art and who is happy to have participated in the latter.

In announcing her initial unhappiness with the W photographs, she said she thought key points of her body would be covered with artwork.  And they were -- on the cover.  The only thing covering them in the other shots was a layer of silver paint.  Photographer Mark Seliger made an interesting choice in that color.  It seems gold would have been more appropriate -- echoing both the James Bond film Goldfinger (whose movie poster and opening credits featured a woman covered in gold) and the legend of King Midas, who could turn anything he touched into gold.  With the exception of the ill-fated Kardashian Kard, Kim seems to be a Queen Midas: any product she endorses sees its sales multiply.  Having about five million followers on Twitter can do that.

Coming Soon
Part Two: Barbara Kruger's art covers Kim Kardashian's private parts, but what is it saying?

Part Three: Is "docu-soap" a better name for reality TV shows?  How about "improvisational drama"?