Saturday, December 29, 2012

Kidnapped in America's Time Machine

We have all seen it in movies.  A person, perhaps our protagonist, is walking down the street when a speeding van pulls up, the door flies open.  Masked men jump out and pull a hood over the person's head.  The victim is tossed into the van and it speeds off.


American Indian authors and artists must feel that way at times.  They may be doing their work, representing their lives in the United States in the 21st century when BAM, out of nowhere, they are snatched away -- driven off not in a van but, more appropriately, in a DeLorean with a functioning flux capacitor.

Kidnapped!  And taken back in time!

Even Sherman Alexie, the most famous American Indian author at the moment, has been snatched off the street this way.  In The Los Angeles Times, no less.  But even The New York Times is not immune to this time banditry.

Alexie is a writer of poems, short stories, novels, and films that are by turns inventive, funny, angry, poignant, and ironic.  His autobiographical novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2007.  War Dances, a collection of stories and poems, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2010.

He is perhaps best known for exploding stereotypes of Americans Indians and mainstream America's desire for natives to fulfill mythic roles in everyday life.  What is he NOT famous for is representing tribal customs and traditional lifeways in his fiction; he famously avoids doing that.  If anyone wears feathers in his stories they are either acting like a fool or they are updating some notion of traditional culture with contemporary flavor.

For instance, a character in "St. Junior" takes his college entrance exam while wearing his grass dance regalia, reminding himself that a native warrior in modern society fights for his people with a pencil rather than a bow and arrow.  In "Do Not Go Gentle," the father of an ailing newborn creates a new healing ceremony in the hospital by beating a drum with a dildo.

Nearly all of his stories are firmly established in modern, urban, media-saturated America.

That is why is was so odd to see this sentence in the Los Angeles Times review of Blasphemy, Alexie's new short-story collection:  "Reading Alexie is like listening to a man tell stories by a campfire."

Out of nowhere -- kidnapped!

Campfire?  What about his fiction -- in style or subject -- suggests a campfire?  There is nothing rustic or unsophisticated about his stories.  His stories are more like those told in a crowded kitchen at a house party -- loud, profane, and funny.  Or perhaps told in a quite booth of a brew pub -- the confessions of someone puzzled by life and love in the big city.  Or maybe while seated beneath the basketball hoop between pick-up games -- Alexie loves basketball and refers to it many times in his prose and poetry.

The reviewer's campfire statement seems very much out of place in a review of Alexie's work, but I can guess where it comes from.  There is this impulse in the United States to confine American Indians to the past, some region that is pure and simple and enviable to the stressed and disillusioned American.  (I have written about it in relation to contemporary American Indian art (and here) and in images of the "stoic Indian.")

That notion of the Indian as pre-modern is so firmly established within the American national mythos and psyche that it can emerge when there is no evidence to support it; in this regard, reality must conform to the assumption.

These thoughts were further impressed upon me when the same writer, a week later, reviewed a new book about Edward Curtis and his famous images of American Indians from the early days of the 20th Century.  I have written before about the conflicted relationship Indian Country has with Curtis.

On the one hand he created important archival images of American Indians intended to depict them as they would have appeared before being inundated by the tidal wave of Americans, their military forces, their religions, and their material culture.  This was remarkable when you consider that not many years before his photographs, the U.S. government was waging genocidal warfare against the same people Curtis photographed.

On the other hand, he altered the appearance of many of his subjects to more closely resemble his assumptions about American Indians, assumptions that confined them to a disappearing past.  An example is when Curtis altered this image to erase the clock his subjects had posed with.  (This image accompanies an essay, "Taking Identity," by my friend Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair about the current conflict between the First Nations and the Canadian government.)

When Curtis was taking those pictures, he was hurtling into the 20th century, adapting to a rapidly changing world, just like his subjects.  But he didn't want to record that intriguing experience of American Indians adapting to new conditions, forging new relationships and identities -- just as they had always done, long before the Europeans arrived.  Instead, perhaps with a kind of envy, he wanted to photograph them NOT changing, NOT entering that new century.

The LA Times reviewer says this about Curtis's photographs: "His portraits, especially, have a timeless quality."  Timeless is an appropriate word here, not because Curtis's photographs transcend the interpretative limitations of historical moments (time), but because they try to stop time, to erase the process by which American Indians entered the 20th century.

He wanted to toss them into a time machine -- just a decade removed from H. G. Wells's novel that gave us that concept.  That was a century ago, and a lot has changed since then, but, with the LA Times as evidence, apparently Curtis's DeLorean still has some gas in its tank.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Campers Give Their Lives for Black Friday Bargains

Perhaps I am suffering from a willful amnesia, but I do not recall in previous years people camping out on Wednesday for their Black Friday shopping binges.  But this year I was struck by how widespread this has become.

Perhaps the camping is made more attractive because more stores are starting their Black Friday bargain-bin orgies at midnight instead of 6 a.m.  So really those campers consumed by consuming are out in the cold for just a little over 24 hours.  So it's no big deal, right?

But the campers are not ALL lined up at the stores opening at midnight.  Some will be spending two nights (some more than that) outside, waiting to get the latest gadgets and toys at the lowest prices.

I wonder, though.  Are they saving that much?

Sure, they can get flat panel HD televisions for half price, saving a few hundred dollars.  Similar discounts on other items abound.  But shouldn't the cost analysis include the time they spent camping out?  (Not to mention the time away from their families on the holiday.)

Henry David Thoreau
When I saw those early images of the retail devotees, I thought of Henry David Thoreau and what he said in his book Walden: "... the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it."

That is, the price of an object is not counted merely in the number of dollars you must sacrifice, but also in the time required to earn those dollars, the time required to travel to the store and obtain the item, and, especially for Thoreau, the amount of time required to maintain the object once it is acquired. 

What is the true cost, then, of that smart phone or Furby?  If the campers had to calculate the amount of their life they exchanged for those hot Christmas-list items, would the deals be worth it?

The bargains become especially dubious when we consider just how many gifts are returned -- last year about $46 billion in gifts were taken back.  Economist Joel Waldfogel thinks gift-giving is bad for the economy, partly because so many of us are bad at it -- "on average gifts generate 20 percent less satisfaction than items we buy for ourselves."  All those unwanted presents?  According to him they are destroyed wealth.  The time you spent earning the money (and perhaps the time spent camping out) to buy the present that winds up returned or stored in a closet and never used?  It is worth nothing.  Wasted.

However, I imagine a great deal of the shopping that happens on Black Friday is more hedonism than altruism.  That iPad is going home with the camper and not being sent to a cousin.  At least in that case, Waldfogel would not call the purchases commerce rather than destruction, so that is good.  But Thoreau would ask whether the bargain was worth it.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

American Flag Shotgun Guy to the Rescue!

Last week someone heckled Mitt Romney during a campaign speech.  The man stood up and demanded the candidates stop their silence on climate change. 

His shouting was drowned out by the crowd chanting "U-S-A! U-S-A!"  They took the chant up rather quickly, as if it was a perfectly logical or automatic response. 
I immediately thought of a meme I have seen, one the website calls "american flag shotgun guy."  I have included a Sandy-inspired use of him.

The response of the pro-Romney crowd to the heckler and the response of american flag shotgun guy to the pending storm struck me as vivid illustrations of something that we call a non sequitur.  That is Latin for "does not follow."  This describes a statement that does not logically respond to or arise from the previous statement.  

How are that flag and that shotgun going to stop Hurricane Sandy?  How will patriotism counter climate change?

(I have included a couple of my own american flag shotgun guy images below.  You can go to the website and make your own.)

I understand the crowd being upset with the heckler.  They had the right to be, since he was interrupting their event.  But I think their response is interesting.  The crowd did not respond with a counter-argument or even "shut up!"  Instead, they responded with a patriotic chant, as if they were attending the Heckler Olympics.

The assumption that talking about climate change -- especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy -- is somehow unpatriotic is strange or even nonsensical.

Or is it?  To address climate change seriously would mean to alter our lifestyles, and Americans do not like to do that.  (However, that begs the question: Don't frequent hurricanes alter our lifestyles?)  Also, to seriously address climate change could disrupt the economic structure of the nation -- that is, moving away from fossil fuels would be a threat to some very powerful corporations.  Those companies make very good profits from the lifestyles Americans prefer. 

(People tend to prefer things that are readily available to them, so if their choices are limited, so are the range of their preferences; therefore, lobbyists for established industries work hard to keep new industries from offering alternatives consumers might prefer.)

So, if patriotism means defending the established order of the nation, then the climate-change heckler was being unpatriotic.  If patriotism means calling for action against a threat to the nation's health (rather than its established order), then the crowd's response does not make sense.

In either case, I can see how the crowd's response is ideological.  In the first case, I would say it fits the definition of ideology as a form of discourse that serves to maintain the power relations in a society -- in this case, allowing the fossil fuel industry to continue dictating national energy policies, but also allowing people to maintain personally convenient but ultimately destructive lifestyles.  Terry Eagleton describes it this way in his book Ideology: An Introduction:

A dominant power may legitimate itself by promoting beliefs and values congenial to it; naturalizing and universalizing such beliefs so as to render them self-evident and apparently inevitable; denigrating ideas which challenge it; excluding rival forms of thought, perhaps by some unpsoken but systemic logic; and obscuring social reality in ways convenient to itself.

In the second case, we can see the way an ideology can obscure the true nature of social or economic relations.  Through a process called "mystification," an ideology (quoting Eagleton again) "takes the form of masking and suppressing social conflicts."  In this way some ideologies are criticized for being "an imaginary resolution to real contradictions."

In the case of the Romney heckler, simply loving one's country is an imaginary solution to the real problems caused by our dependence on fossil fuels, problems such as climate change (droughts and hurricanes); economic exploitation and undue political influence by corporations; and the economic dependence of people on those corporations for jobs, especially during the recovery from a recession, a dependence that encourages people to sacrifice control of their lives and their environment -- and to chant patriotically when someone calls attention to that.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Gwen Stefani, Cher, and "Indians"

So that was a first.

TMZ just called my office looking for a response to the new music video from No Doubt, "Looking Hot."  The song has a Wild West visual theme, even though the sound and lyrics do not have an obvious connection to that.

You can see for yourself that Stefani's sexy costume comes close to the "sexy Indian" costumes that we see each Halloween.  Adrienne K. tracks such things at her blog, Native Appropriations. 
[Update Nov. 3: No Doubt has pulled the video and issued an apology, but you can find it here.  See the story at Indian Country Today.  So I added some images from the video.  The online images I found do not show Stefani in her all-white head band, leather pants, and vest, which is what reminded me of Cher (see below).]

The TMZ reporter wanted to know whether I found the imagery in the video offensive.  I am pretty hard to offend, so I am perhaps the wrong person to ask that question.  I look at pop culture imagery and try to figure out how it works before I figure out whether I like it or not.  So I tried to provide some brief perspective on why other people might be offended by the video.

This is what I gave the reporter:

Cher-okee Princess
I think that the American Indian community is very sensitive to how its members are portrayed in the media, including music videos like No Doubt’s “Looking Hot.”  American Indians have been misrepresented so often in so many ways and with so many negative consequences that many are  leery of any pop culture representations.  It is rare that any of those representations are authentic  or accurate or serve a positive purpose for the American Indian community – honestly, those images are rarely created with an American Indian audience in mind, so their creators do not care about accuracy or positive purpose.

So, when I see Gwen Stefani dressed as she is in this video, I do not think about any really Indian.  I think “Hollywood Indian.”  Stefani here is inspired more by Cher from the music video for “Half Breed” than any American Indian who actually existed. Because of that, some people might be tempted to dismiss the video as campy, goofy fun.  But that is part of the reason many people in the American Indian community object to such depictions:  in the popular American consciousness, these campy, make-believe Indians have replaced real, living and breathing Indians.

Ryan Red Corn twerking.
A colleague in American Indian Studies at my university suggested I refer the TMZ reporter to "I'm an Indian Too," a video by The 1491s, an American Indian comedy/filmmaking troupe.  In the video Ryan Red Corn channels Jackass's Chris Pontius in dancing around lewdly as a tragic hipster Indian wannabe.  You can see some of their stuff at their website,

Party on, Ryan.

[Updated Friday night: I haven't seen anything on the TMZ site; this reporter was calling for specifically.  I won't be surprised if they don't run anything.  It just isn't a very interesting music video.]

Monday, October 8, 2012

Columbus Day 2092

My poem originally published in Studies in American Indian Literatures (Summer 2008)


the letters flew
on Columbus Day
little messengers
landing on porches and desks
to tell the Europeans
they must leave
must imitate the salmon
and return to their homes

the Europeans had never heard
of the company on the letterhead:
Wovoka Real Estate Investment Trust
the talking heads on cable networks
were puzzled at first
they thought it was a Polish company

the trust had been hidden beneath
a coat of other names
a coat of papers and papers and papers
layers of shell companies
shells had once served the California natives
so well and had become useful again

the Europeans had been tricked
at their own game, with their own magic
-- contracts, signatures, laws, money

hundreds of paper masks were pulled
back to reveal one dancer beneath

fueled by a century of bouncing balls
spinning wheels
thick chips caressed and stacked
by the blue-haired
and the sun-starved
the Wovoka Real Estate Investment Trust
had bought every piece of America
that had been for sale
and it was all for sale

the famous Indian poet and Hollywood Squares regular
Sherman Running Jump Shot used his own
personal wealth to buy a bar
called the Crazy Horse
and close its doors on Columbus Day
-- and then set it on fire
CNN broadcast his smiling announcement:
“The Happy Hour of American History is over, folks!
We don’t care where you go, but you can’t stay here!”

the ghost dance vision was not fully realized
not all the Europeans left
since many were not Europeans anymore
they were husbands, wives, cousins, children
of the joint owners of the trust
many others stayed as well
but they paid rent
they obeyed the rules of the new landlords

everything was different
after that

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Eastwood's Empty Chair Is Filled With Meaning

Clint Eastwood has directed some great movies, but who knew he was a gifted, satirical performance artist?

On the last day of the Republican National Convention, he pretended to debate President Obama, but Obama was represented on stage by an empty chair.  This was a nearly perfect visual metaphor for the entire convention -- through their various lies and misrepresentations, the convention speakers were describing an Obama that does not exist.

The distortions and deceptions told during the convention provided much fodder for The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, bloggers, fact-checkers, and news outlets.  The most startling was perhaps when the website for Fox News, where Republicans are treated rather kindly, posted Sally Kohn's "Paul Ryan's Speech in 3 Words," in which she said the "speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech."

In "Republicans vs. straw men," writer Irin Carmon described the strange dilemma of a reporter engaging with people (speakers and convention delegates) who are opposed to positions no one holds, to policies that do not exist.

In the study of rhetoric, there is something called a "straw man" argument.  Thanks to Eastwood, I think we have a new name for this type of argument: "the empty chair."

At least this chair can talk back.
The "straw man" is an opponent of your own creation whom you argue with and easily defeat.  The straw man is your creation because you have taken your opponent's argument and misrepresented it into something your opponent has not said and does not believe.  You are no longer truly debating your opponent; you are debating an imaginary opponent.

It might as well be an empty chair.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

David Beckham & Skynet Hiding in Plain Sight?

Getty Images
No wonder David Beckham is such a good soccer player -- he isn't human.  He is a T-1000.

That is my conclusion based on the statue of him created for an H&M underwear promotion.  Perhaps the clothing store chain is a front for Skynet?

And no wonder he took a pay cut to stay with the Los Angeles Galaxy.  It wasn't to be with his wife, Victoria, whose profession keeps her there.  It was to continue his search for Sarah Connor, since we know from the Terminator movies that she lives there.

Monday, August 13, 2012

James Madison and Millionaires in Congress

I saw this image about rich people in Congress on the Internet recently, and it brought to mind a passage from The Federalist Papers that I recently re-read -- with underlining from my undergraduate days at the University of Oklahoma in 1983 or 1984.

See!  It pays to keep all of your college textbooks!

In #10, James Madison writes about the sources of conflict in society.  He writes that "factions" are inevitable, and so government must be designed to limit the potential damage from these conflicts.  Some of this should be accomplished, he says, by limiting the amount of governmental power obtained by any particular faction.

He cites several sources of conflict, but he says "the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distributions of property."

This unequal distribution for Madison does not seem to mean only the difference between those who have property and those who do not.  He seems to also mean the competition that exists among factions that derive their property from different sources or activities.  However, I think we would agree that the difference between those who have and those don't is a major source of conflict in the political arena today.

Regulating these competing interests "forms the principal task of modern legislation."

To assure the fair and effective regulation of these competing interests, Madison states something is essential:

James Madison
No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. 

He immediately backtracks, though.  He knows that the people elected to government are citizens too.  They are not monks, removed from society.  It is inevitable that they will be involved with legislation about issues impacting them personally.  Sometimes those elected officials can be trusted to set aside their personal interests for the public good.  But not always.

This can be managed so long as those personally interested in the legislation are not in the majority.  The power of the majority keeps the influence of the self-interested "judge" in check.  The problems come, Madison says, when a majority of the officials have their judgment biased by self-interest. 

When that happens, that majority can "sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens."

As the cartoon's caption states: "There's Your Problem."  It is hard to argue that the personal wealth of those in Congress does not influence their actions on legislation; it also is hard to argue that their actions on legislation do not influence their personal wealth ("How Members of Congress Get Rich Through 'Honest Graft' ").  They have a vested interest in many of the bills on which they act as judge, and their vested interest is many times different from the interests of their constituents.

As the cartoon graph indicates, the wealthy constitute a sliver of the population but a large portion of  Congress.  How often are the interests of the minority (regardless of party affiliation) ruling the majority?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Swoosh! There It Is. What's Up with Car Designs?

I wish I had patented the car swoosh.  It is everywhere these days.

"Swoosh" is the name of Nike's logo, perhaps the most successful logo in advertising history.  The sign became so closely associated with the company, its products, and the ideals it wanted to associate with its products that in some Nike advertising campaigns there was no need to include the company's name.

The swoosh said it all.

Nike Culture: The Sign of the Swoosh is a book by Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson that discusses the evolution of Nike's global marketing strategies.  According to that book, the swoosh's creator was a Portland State University art student who was paid $35 for her design, which the company's founder was not enthusiastic about.  He wanted something more closely resembling the stripes on the sides of shoes from Puma and Adidas.

Goldman and Papson state the swoosh was initially "an empty vessel -- a visual marker that lacked any intrinsic meaning" (17).  The swoosh's meanings came only through its repeated use in Nike messages, where it became associated with the ideals of "athletic excellence, a spirit of determination, hip authenticity, and playful self-awareness (1).

I do not know that they are right about the swoosh not having an intrinsic meaning.  First, can any sign have intrinsic meaning?  The meanings for all signs seem created by consensus, convention, and relationship to other signs.  Second, I think the swoosh conveyed some meaning before it was deployed in Nike ad campaigns -- otherwise, why would Carolyn Davidson have created it?  Nike founder Phil Knight told her that he wanted something to suggest "movement" and "speed,"  so she had some meanings in her mind when she created the swoosh.

Hyundai Elantra
One possible way the swoosh suggests movement and speed could be this: It echoes the wings on the shoes and/or hat of Mercury, the speedy messenger of the Olympian gods.

Also, the swoosh looks like a check mark, which is a sign of approval, fulfillment, accomplishment, or success.  And Nike is the Greek goddess of victory.

I think we can see echoes (conscious or not) of the swoosh in the recent designs of many cars -- cars from different classes and from different manufacturers.  Somehow the inverted swoosh found its way into the automotive world's zeitgeist.
Mercedes Benz CLC

Look at new cars and you can see an inverted swoosh in the panels, starting at the front wheel and extending toward the rear wheel.  When I drive on the freeways of Los Angeles, I see them everywhere on all kinds of cars -- Toyota Pruis, Mercedes Benz CLC, Ford Escape, Hyundai Elantra.  The list is long, and I don't have room to show all of the design variations here.

Ford Escape
Since the swoosh is inverted, it no longer resembles a check mark, so I think those associations are not at work when one views (or reads) the automotive designs.  But I think the auto swoosh does suggest movement and speed.  It resembles the side view of an airplane wing, suggesting flight and successful movement.  Also, think of images from cars in wind tunnels and how the smoke makes visible the movement of air over the car body.

Toyota Prius
The auto swoosh seems to be making visible the otherwise invisible movement of air over the car.  The auto designer would also want to suggest that air movement is smooth and free of turbulence, aiding the speed of the car.

But when you are driving the car you cannot see the auto swoosh.  So how does it work to please the driver?  First, the driver was a buyer.  So the auto swoosh was seen on the road or in ads, and it gave the potential buyer positive associations about the car.  Second, the auto swoosh suggests the smooth movement of air even when the car is parked.  The driver can be reassured of the quality of the car when it rests outside of his/her home or work.

Air foil
Just as the Nike swoosh would have created positive associations of speed, movement, and success for its wearer (even though the swoosh is not very visible when you are wearing the shoe), so too the auto swoosh creates positive associations for the car's owner.

I think the auto swoosh can be decoded in this manner, and I have no larger point to make.  I do not think there are hidden contradictions within this sign -- in semiotics we frequently look for such contradictions.  But I do think it is interesting that so many different auto designers came up with this same decorative element.

I call it decorative because I do not see much aerodynamic benefit from this element on the panels (but then I am not an engineer).  In theory, all cars should look exactly alike, in that there should be one ideal aerodynamic design.  And there was a time when cars were all starting to look alike.  Compare images of a Ford Taurus, a Toyota Camry, and a Honda Civic from 1995, for example.  They all resembled each other, I believe, because their designers were all in pursuit of the same thing: aerodynamic design to improve gas mileage.

Since then, advances in engine and transmission technologies have given much larger fuel efficiencies than were being achieved with body shapes.  So the designers became free to give autos more stylish flare.  Interesting that so many have chosen the same flourish.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Outrage at Outsourcing -- Does It Make Sense?

President Obama recently released an anti-Romney ad that seems rather effective.  In it, Romney is criticized for his part in outsourcing jobs to Mexico, China, and India and for having tax-haven accounts in Switzerland, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands.

I believe Obama's attacks on Romney have been effective.  I believe Americans are generally unhappy with American jobs going overseas.

But this outrage puzzles me.

Sending jobs to where labor costs are the lowest should be an expected consequence of the "free market" capitalism many Americans believe in.  Or think they do.  Many Americans express a kind of cognitive dissonance in this regard.   On the one hand, they staunchly defend capitalism as the greatest economic system in the world, and on the other hand they want that capitalist system to be loyal to them.  That is, they want markets to be free, but they want those markets to play favorites.  They do not seem to notice the contradiction.

This demonstrates a flawed understanding of the principles of free-market capitalism.  Capitalism recognizes few loyalties other than profit, perhaps no loyalties other than that.  Capitalists seek to maximize their profits, even if that means sometimes taking jobs overseas.  The principle of maximized profit, the supremacy of self-interest, encourages this.

In this regard I find the behavior of many American companies similar to the behavior of many American consumers, and so I am puzzled when those consumers get upset at the makers of the merchandise they buy.  The practice of Americans companies seeking the lowest possible labor costs is similar to the practice of American consumers seeking the lowest possible prices for goods. 

If you can get tube socks for $9 or $3, which are you more likely to buy?

If you can hire one person to make tube socks for $9 an hour or another person for $3 an hour, whom   are you more likely to hire?

I know some people will claim they cannot afford the $9 tube socks.  The MUST buy the $3 tube socks.  But this is not true for everyone in Wal-Mart.  There are many people there who can afford the $9 package that was made in America -- but, they would argue, why should they pay an extra $6, when they can get the Chinese package?

Maximizing one's savings is a motivation similar to maximizing one's profits.

And there are companies who would say they MUST reduce their labor costs if they wish to remain in business.  They are like those consumers who plead poverty when asked to justify their shopping choices.

In some ways the two practices -- seeking cheaper goods and seeking cheaper labor -- are linked.  The greater the downward price pressure American consumers placed on American producers of consumer goods, the greater the incentive for those American producers to shift their production overseas.

The habits of shoppers and employers may also be linked in this regard: People who lost their jobs to outsourcing often found new employment that paid less; this meant more people buying the cheaper, foreign-made goods, which increased the price pressure on American manufacturers, which, in turn, sent more jobs overseas.  Rinse and repeat.

The solution to some of this concern about outsourcing is a kind of protectionism -- protecting American manufacturers from foreign competition through tariffs and quotas.  But economists generally have told us that protectionism is bad.  It leads to inflation, and it blunts the benefits of competition; the protected companies get lazy and stop innovating.  However, I think many Americans would accept some inflation if it meant better-paying jobs in America, and some protectionism does not necessarily mean the end of innovation. 

I think many Americans, despite their advocacy of free markets, prefer an economic system that has loyalties to people and not just profits.  They just haven't figured that out yet.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Spectacle vs. Character in War Horse

War Horse -- Nick Stafford adapted Michael Morpurgo's novel.
A basic question in studying literature is this: Do readers and audiences follow a narrative for the plot or for the characters?  That is, do we read a story or watch a play in order to enjoy the unfolding of events or the intrigue of human personalities?

Of course, we follow narratives for a mixture of both.  It would be hard to have interesting events taking place without interesting people involved in them.  It would be hard to have interesting people without interesting events that reveal their personalities and relationships.  Henry James describes this interaction most famously in his essay "The Art of Fiction": "What is character but the determination of incident?  What is incident but the illustration of character?"

An example of character-over-incident is the TV series Psych.  The mystery solved each week is perhaps the least interesting thing about the show.  I watch because I want to see the interaction of the characters.  I want to experience the quirky relationship between our heroes, Shawn and Gus.  Similarly, does anyone watch a rerun of Monk because the storyline is intriguing?  Or do we watch spend some time with Tony Shaloub's character?  This is especially illustrated when discussing reruns.  We know who the guilty party is -- there is no mystery -- so why watch?  Because we like the characters.

Jose Ortega y Gossett discussed this phenomenon in an essay on the development of the novel -- "But soon adventures by themselves lose attraction, and what then pleases is not so much the fortunes of the personages as their self-presence.  We enjoy seeing those people before us and being admitted to their inner life, understanding them, and living immersed in their world or atmosphere."

One can see some of this in the summer's biggest movie, Marvel's The Avengers.  Reviews of the film consistently praised the interaction of the characters and their development rather than the spectacle of its special effects.  When I saw it, I grew impatient with the extended battle sequences.  I wanted the film to get back to the personaities, to, for example, the bickering between Captain America (good cop) and Iron Man (bad cop).

This events-or-character issue came to mind when I recently saw the stage production of War Horse in Los Angeles and found myself getting increasingly frustrated with the show.  I was impressed with the puppetry, and I enjoyed seeing the audience become emotionally involved with Joey the horse as if they had forgotten there were men inside the rig/costume.  However, as the play progressed I grew tired of its spectacle and wanted more from its characters.

(I had skipped the film version because I was familiar with what happened to horses in modern combat, and I didn't want to see any of that depicted realistically.)

Charging into battle.
For me the play became a series of events rather than the revelation of anyone's "inner life."  Look!  The horse is pulling a plow!  Now it is charging into battle!  Now it is jumping barbed wire!  Now it is pulling an ambulance!  Now it is pulling a cannon!  Now it is challenging a tank!  Now it is trapped in barbed wire again!

Finally I was watching with my arms crossed.  I didn't want more events.  I wanted some characters that I could get to know, through which I could experience human emotions and psychology.  I wanted to see some humans grow and change.  I didn't want to simply watch people experience the trials of love and loss and war; I wanted to experience it too, and that is done, as Ortega y Gossett and other critics have said, by allowing me into that "inner life."

In between the scenes of Joey in the war, we meet a parade of characters who enter and die rather quickly.  We do not get to know any of them well, and almost all of them are flat, including some rather important ones.  The novelist E.M. Forster is much quoted about "round and flat characters."  He defined flat characters as having just one particular quality that is repeatedly emphasized by their actions or by the narrator.  They have little in the way of complicated motivations.  He wrote, "The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising us in a convincing way.  If it never surprises, it is flat."

We do not get to know the people in War Horse largely because there is no time -- the play is too busy rushing to the next spectacle to develop its characters.

Unfortunately, this problem includes the play's human protagonist, Albert.  Granted, he takes a great risk in going to war to find his beloved horse, but the play does not explore more about the nature of that bond.  He runs about the battlefields talking about his horse and how determined he is find it.  Yet he starts the play as the somewhat whiny 16-year-old son of an overbearing father and doesn't change much by the end of it -- despite the passage of four years and a world war.

But I seemed to have been alone in my unhappiness with the play.  My audience gave the cast a standing ovation.  They enjoyed the parade of spectacle, and I am not criticizing them for their enjoyment -- even Forster says flat characters can be quite effective.  The audience members seemed satisfied that sentiments were depicted for us rather than recreated for us.  For me, that is a key difference between events and character.  Events can show me the appearance of sentiments (love, hate, sorrow, grief, joy, etc.), but it is through character that I can experience those sentiments myself.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Crazy Like a Fox or an Evil Wizard

I live in Southern California, which has a large Spanish-speaking population.

Incluyendo mi esposa, por ejemplo.

So, Spanish-language television has a large presence here, and I have been seeing billboards for a  venture started this year by Fox Television: MundoFox.  Thirty-four stations around the country are signed up to carry its programming.  But I am puzzled by the logo.

When I saw my first MundoFox billboard I thought it was announcing the grand opening of a Target in Mordor. 

I realize the logo is most likely intended to look like the "on" button for an electronic device.  You know, in binary code 1 is "yes" and 0 is "no," so 1 = "on" and 0 = "off."  So Fox is announcing that it is "turning on" its Spanish-language network.

However, my initial association is with the much-more famous Target logo and the fiery eye of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings films.

And even though I know what the billboards advertise, that logo makes me curious less about watching futbol or telenovelas and more about whether I can buy orc-sized tube socks.

Friday, June 22, 2012

My Aging Brain Is a Pop Culture Toaster

"Cheers, Old Man!"
Fifty isn't old, is it?

According to 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy, "Rich 50 is middle-class 38."

The problem is, I am 50 but I am not rich.

Yet, I do not feel old.  Although I get the occasional mailing from AARP, I do not sense that retirement or "slowing down" is around the corner.

But then I was asked this question while getting my hair cut recently: "Would you like me to clean up your eyebrows for you?"

Am I getting an old guy's unruly eyebrows? 

What passed through my mind at the moment was going off on the stylist like Julianne Moore in the pharmacy scene from Magnolia.

"You don't know me!  You don't know who I am, what my life is like!  You have the indecency to ask me about cleaning up my eyebrows?  Don't you ask me to clean up my eyebrows!  Shame on you!  Shame on you!"

Of course, that would be the version edited for public consumption.  In the film, Moore is a bit more raw in her emotions and language (her scene part starts at around 0:55).

Honestly, I did not want to go off on the stylist.  She is a nice person doing her job very well.  But it was the first time that question had been asked of me. It was an unwelcome milestone.

The event also made me curious about watching the scene again, to see what exactly Moore says.  In my memory, she yells at the pharmacists partly for calling her "ma'am," for treating her like an older person.  In my mind and in conversations, the scene had functioned as a kind of shorthand or icon for the fear and defensiveness of being treated like an older person.

But when I watched the scene again, I realized that she reacts to being called "lady," not "ma'am."  She gets upset at the anonymity with which she is treated, not at some insincere respect.  And this insult is on top of the apparent disapproval by the young pharmacist who does not know the details of her troubled life. 

We need two sniglets, which is another word for a neologism (new + word).  One for those mental film and music clips that instantly, perhaps even involuntarily, run through our heads when triggered by certain events -- "You can't handle the truth!" etc.  And one for when those clips are taken out of context and, essentially, misused, such as my "Shame on you!' clip.

Hmmm... The first phenomenon could be called a Mental Pop-Tart.  Pop-Tart is appropriate because the sound bite pops into your head instantly and it is drawn from popular culture.  The second could be a Mental Pop-Fart, with its similarity to a "brain fart."

So those are my gifts to the world today.  Use them wisely. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The First Casualty of War: Truth

I was teaching a course on the literature of the Vietnam War when the United States invaded Iraq.  Some of the similarities were creepy and disheartening -- making me despair of Americans ever truly learning from their own history.

One example: George Bush's mythical Weapons of Mass Destruction that were the excuse for the invasion were eerily similar to Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin Incident -- the mythical attack on a U.S. warship that gave him the excuse to escalate the U.S. military involvement against North Vietnam. 

For some other similarities, read Michael C. Herring's America's Longest War, which was one of the textbooks for my class.  Also, watch the documentary Hearts and Minds and pretend the talking heads are discussing Iraq and Afghanistan rather than South Vietnam.  It isn't hard to do.

This week I was reminded of another similarity.  On I saw a story about the Obama Administration defining any adult males killed by drones as "militants."  This is regardless of who those people might actually have been.  And the media, which is rumored to be liberal, reports the dead as militants without questioning or verifying.

Can you say "body count"?

In the Vietnam War, U.S. officials played a nearly identical game, wherein adult males killed by U.S. troops could be considered fighters for the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army -- no questions asked.  The official U.S. strategy was a war of attrition, and so great emphasis was placed on body counts -- the number of enemy combatants killed by U.S. troops.  This gave soldiers in the field motivation to classify anyone killed as an enemy combatant, and it gave U.S. officials incentive to exaggerate numbers.

The game did not end there.  There was what actually happened and then there was the official U.S. version of what happened -- with policy and strategy decisions being based on the official story rather than actual events.

This disconnect between life and language is a major theme of Dispatches by Michael Herr.  He was a journalist who covered the war and produced a book based on his dispatches for Esquire magazine.  He described the daily sessions in which Army officers would give the official description of events, descriptions that frequently had little in common with reality.

Herr wrote: "Nothing so terrible ever happened upcountry that it was beyond language fix and press relations..." (42).  And later: "The spokesmen spoke in words that had no currency as words, sentences with no hope of meaning in the sane world..." (214).

As they say, truth is the first casualty of war.  Calling anyone killed by a drone a "militant" is an example of "language fix."  Since the only people a drone can kill are militants, then all drone attacks are successful, and therefore the United States is winning the war.  Since everyone killed by a drone is a militant, the United States can worry less about alienating the civilian population and distressing the American population.  But perhaps it should worry more.

The "language fix" is more than simple "spin."  In Herr's time and in ours, too often the U.S. government makes key decisions based upon the "language fix" and not reality.  If we didn't learn in Vietnam that the "language fix" fixed nothing, then we should definitely avoid the same mistake now.  But perhaps it is too late.

Monday, May 28, 2012

I See White People

It seems that the Advertising World is looking into the future, and so far Hollywood is refusing to go along.
Watch commercial here.

This Dodge commercial caught my eye recently, as it features a handsome young white man flirting with his sister's pretty black friend in the back seat of his car.  Great George Wallace's ghost!

And if you look elsewhere in TV commercials and magazine ads, you will see an increasing number of mixed couples.  Meanwhile, prime time television series and even those on "edgy" premium channels such HBO remain rather segregated.  (I know there are exceptions, such as the married couple played by Eliza Coupe and Damon Wayans Jr. on Happy Endings.  And I know past shows, such as Scrubs, have had diverse casts.)

The new HBO series Girls got a lot of press when it debuted, and it also caught some flak.  One of the guests on the NPR podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour (which still has not asked me to be on the show!) put it well when she noted that the part of New York City in which Girls is set had been "ruthlessly whitewashed."

You could argue that the show is simply following in the Manolo Blohnik-steps of Sex and the City, which also perceived NYC to be less like a Big Apple and more like a Hostess Snoball.

Look around the most popular television shows and you will see this whitewashing is fairly common.  For instance, of ALL the women Ted has dated on How I Met Your Mother, how many were not white?  None that had speaking roles (at least that I can recall).  Yet it is set in the same city as Girls.  As far as Hollywood is concerned, New York City is as ethnically diverse as Marshall's beloved Minnesota. 

Yet we live in a nation that becomes increasingly more diverse each year.  The number of interracial marriages is on the rise, and white newborn babies were outnumbered by their non-white nursery mates in 2011.

I do not expect network television to start looking like a Benetton ad, but some more meaningful diversity would be appreciated.  By "meaningful" I am thinking of something other than the one "black best friend" in a cast.

However, I realize I may be idealistic here.  Perhaps America is not as diverse or unsegregated as I imagine.  Many Americans work or attend school in diverse groups but go home at night to segregated communities.  It would be nice if all of those communities were reflected on television, and, for me at least, it would be nicer if those communities were seen interacting on the same show.

Ta-Nehisi Coates  discussed this topic recently for The Atlantic, lamenting the lack of diversity within shows and in TV lineups in general: "It is not so wrong to craft an exclusively white world--certainly a significant portion of America lives in one. What is wrong is for power-brokers to pretend that no other worlds exists."

Emily Nussbaum discusses race on prime time in a New Yorker article on Scandal, a show with something rarely seen on television: a black female lead.  She cites a show on CW called The L.A. Complex and a scene in which a white female character auditions for a "best friend" role.  However, the actress is told a black woman will be cast to "really reflect reality" -- “I mean, who has a black best friend, right? Like, in real life, if you’re trying to be all authentic?” She turns to the room full of unsmiling black actresses and asks, “Do any of you have a white best friend? No? Right.”

Is it funny because it's true?

I hope not.  In the mean time I hope Hollywood follows the lead of Madison Avenue.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Signs of ImagiNATION

I saw this image last week after a couple of items circulated in blogosphere about the woman pictured in the feathered war bonnet.  She is identified as Queen Chief Warhorse and as Ms. Elwin Gillum. 

When I saw the image of her in that Plains-style bonnet, I thought about Tea Party demonstrators who wear tricornered hats.  I thought about how group identities, such as ethnic and political identities, are products of fantasy and imagination – even when the group or a person’s claim to membership is legitimate.

Gillum spoke at the recent Healing for Democracy conference in New Orleans, and the discussions that followed tended to involve whether she was or was not an American Indian.  They concerned the question of who gets to speak for American Indians.  They concerned whether the group she represented had a legitimate claim to tribal status.  They concerned whether questioning another person’s identity was legitimate.  And they concerned the implications that fraudulent claims to tribal status presented to federally recognized tribes and those groups seeking that status.
Indian Country is a complicated place.

I don’t have room here to address all of the issues raised by the blogosphere’s reaction to Gillum.   If you are interested, read about some of those reactions at the blog of my friend Debbie Reese.  What I did want to consider for a moment was Gillum’s “Indian name,” her feathered headdress, and the man standing next to her in neon colors.  What do those things mean?

N. Scott Momaday is a Kiowa writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969, and he wrote an essay famous in American Indian Studies titled “The Man Made of Words.”  In that essay he poses the question, “What is an Indian?”  He answers it by saying “an Indian is an idea which a given man has of himself.”  Later he asks about a human’s “the relationship between what he is, and what he thinks he is.”  Momaday suggests they are inseparable, that a human’s identity is produced by his or her imagination.

For some people, this seems like a recipe for chaos.  Anyone can be anything he wants to be, anything he imagines himself to be.  Regardless of a person’s lived experiences, she can claim any identity.  
I don’t think that is what Momaday intended.  In the essay he describes the importance of imagining experiences one may not have first-hand access to.  For instance, he discusses the importance of a person’s relationship to the land, but not just the land here-and-now; it is important to imagine the land before you arrived and the land after you have gone.  It is important to imagine the land you cannot see from your current place.  Similarly, he writes that it is important to imagine those ancestors who came before you.  It is important to imagine their sacrifices and successes that made your existence possible.  It is important to imagine them fully, in their complexity and humanity.

More than personal identity relies upon imagination.  In his book titled Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson writes that nations are built upon imagination.  Nations are built of many local communities, and the greater the distance between these communities the less their members will have in common.  But having a belief, trait, or experience in common is so important for creating a nation that humans will create it if they need to.  And if even if they do not make it up, they still must imagine it.  Anderson describes the importance of the newspaper in creating a nation: people in distant parts of the nation can easily imagine their countrymen reading about the same events and sharing something of a common perspective on them.  “Remember the Maine!”  American Idol results.  Etc.

This act of imagination is so fundamental to nations that Anderson writes: “Communities are to be distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”

That brings me back to Gillum’s feathered bonnet.  It is initially puzzling because it seems out of place.  She represents a group calling itself the Tchefuncta Nation of the Chahta Tribe.  Chahta is a variation of Choctaw, a tribe of the Southeast United States, and the Tchefuncta River runs into Lake Ponchatrain just north of New Orleans.  Historically, the Choctaw did not wear bonnets like that.  Those were a Plains thing.  So why is she wearing it?   

Is she wearing it because she does not know much about Choctaw history and culture?  Is she participating in a kind of “redface minstrelry”?   Or perhaps she is truly the descendant of Choctaws, but the United States government’s effort to erase Choctaw culture and communities was so successful that she is left to recreate her Choctaw identity out of the bits and pieces she can glean from … wherever.  Including Hollywood.  

If you have read my blog before, you know that I like to entertain the notion of signs – the ways in which humans communicate to themselves and to each other.  I think her feathers could signify “the partial erasure of Indianness” as much as they signify “Indianness.”

However, that bonnet could signal a cultural heritage connected to New Orleans and Mardi Gras traditions rather than to centuries-old Choctaw traditions.  That man standing next to her is dressed as a Mardi Gras Indian.  He possibly is a member of a “krewe” or “tribe” that dances and parades at Mardi Gras celebrations.  These groups elect a “chief” and a “queen.”  When I searched online, I found images of such chiefs and queens, and some of them wore headdresses like Gillum’s. 

The Mardi Gras Indians have their origin in African slave communities in and around New Orleans before it became part of the United States.  Those groups had important links to the region’s Indian communities – through personal and romantic relationships and through a kindred feeling of oppression and resistance.  Their signature flamboyant costumes seem to be an influence of carnival traditions brought by people from the Caribbean.  

Some of the bloggers commented on her name of “Queen” and how this is not a rank bestowed by American Indian tribes.  It was bestowed by Europeans who did not understand how Indian politics and diplomacy worked, who assumed that North America worked as Europe did (or mostly didn’t – Europe was really a mess).  However, Mardi Gras Indians have “queens.”

So, is Gillum imagining herself as an Indian when she wears that feathered bonnet?  Is she imagining herself as “only” an Indian, or is she imagining herself as an amalgamation of African and Indian ancestries and cultures?  The latter makes sense, but when she addressed the group in New Orleans, she emphasized only her Indian identity and ancestry, and she spoke of representing those who were, one could say, Americans before there was an America – but the Africans did not arrive as slaves until after there was an America.

What do her feathers mean?  The answer to that question could be very complicated.

Ding! Ding!
As I said earlier, her bonnet makes me think of the Tea Party demonstrators who wear tricornered hats.  This is their way of signaling their own imagined nationhood.  They see themselves as connected to those Americans who fought against Great Britain in the Revolution – regardless of whether they are truly descended from those people.  Who knows when their ancestors came to the United States?  Whether he is or isn’t descended from some brave Minuteman is not as important as his act of imagining himself to be.  

This connection of the imagination and the past is especially evident with someone like Thomas Jefferson.  Those who argue that the United States is somehow a Christian nation insist upon Jefferson’s implicit Christian leanings, while those who argue for a separation of church and state cite his written sentiments supporting their position.  Each side fights over his ghost, in a sense, trying to imagine themselves as his legitimate ancestor.  It seems hard for humans to imagine themselves in entirely new communities.  They seem to insist on looking for connections to the past, whether real or imagined.

This is not to say that all national identities are merely the stuff of imagination and have no claims of legitimacy.  But all national identities are imagined, and that process of imagining a national identity is intriguing.