Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Posters for the Iron Heel

And other great posters. Nice find, JB. Seeing these, I couldn't but think of the classic "The Iron Heel" by Jack London:.
`This, then, is our answer. We have no words to waste on you. When you reach out your vaunted strong hands for our palaces and purpled ease, we will show you what strength is. In roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine-guns will our answer be couched. We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces. The world is ours, we are its lords, and ours it shall remain. As for the host of labor, it has been in the dirt since history began, and I read history aright. And in the dirt it shall remain so long as I and mine and those that come after us have the power. There is the word. It is the king of words--Power. Not God, not Mammon, but Power. Pour it over your tongue till it tingles with it. Power.'

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mascot Diplomacy

There is a great story about the Washington Nationals' mascot Screech visiting with the Taiwanese Ambassador ahead of his trip to Taiwan (xie xie Abba). First, I love the historical irony that the Nationals are sending their mascot to the island of the KMT nationals.  Beyond the historical irony, it is smart public diplomacy all around.

Smart because Taiwan loves the Washington Nationals because the Taiwanese pitcher Chien Ming-Wang is on the club. The Nats' "W" hat was pretty ubiquitous in Taipei, as was Wang jerseys.

Moreover, Screech inadvertently probably wrinkled Chinese feather by referring to his visit with the "Ambassador of Taiwan," which is technically diplomatically incorrect as it messes with the "One Mascot Policy."

Finally, I love it that the Taiwanese Ambassador feted Screech with Taiwanese food, as a further instance of Taiwanese gastrodiplomacy.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Tony from Lebanon: "what is this?" me: "it's a bagel & cream cheese." T: "is it like khanafey?" me: "well... it has tehina seeds."

Devil in the Red City

I had a glorious day to myself this sunday, so I headed over to Wash U to explore. On the way, I passed by Forest Park, which is home to the remnants of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, aka the St. Louis World's Fair.  I made my way over to the Missouri History Museum, which had a great exhibition on the event.

I love Expos and World's Fairs for the historical and public diplomacy value found in such events.  From Devil in the White City, I came to learn about the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, but I admit I knew little about the one in St. Louis.  The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Expo celebrated the centennial of Jefferson's famous bargain with Bonaparte, and did so in regal fashion.  All sorts of neoclassical structures were built to showcase humanity  at the turn of the century in the realms of agriculture, trade, science and people.

The sprawling display featured all sorts of fascinating expositions like a City of Jerusalem exhibit, for a city still part of the Ottoman Empire.  There was a twice daily reenactment of the Anglo-Boer War with real vets doing battle once again.  And there were a plethora of BBQ tents, hanging under the "Flag of the Red Steer." Speaking of, apparently St. Louis claims that it eats more BBQ than any other city.  Other gastronomic curiosities unleashed at the fair include the ice cream cone, Dr. Pepper (10-2-4) and puffed wheat.

The event was termed an "Invitation to a foreign land," and it really was.  Camels and elephants were brought in to give rides.  Meanwhile, there were some 50 countries with pavilions at the fair.  The museum noted that the German expo had "[a] rich and diverse collection of exhibits to show the progress and aptitude of an imperial nation, showcasing technological advancement and participation in African colonization."

Furthermore, the Japanese and Chinese exhibits were immensely popular for the glimpse they gave to the Far East.  This was the first expo that China participated in, and offered Americans a chance to explore Chinese culture, foods and decorative arts.  Also, Japan participated and was met with much curiosity from an American audience trying to understand the Land of the Rising Sun.  The museum noted that both the Chinese and Japanese pavilions sought to capitalize on the interest in their goods by constructing traditional objects in nontraditional styles with Western influence and style.

I could not but think of the Shanghai Expo I visited last year, and the symbolism of all of it.  An America at the turn of the century that was brimming with promise and confidence, and poised to take on a new century, compared to a country wrestling with malaise and political paralysis, and corporated half-hearted attempts to take its place at the World's Fair.  All of this juxtaposed with a new country projecting its rise and welcoming the world to its shores.

The St. Louis World's Fair also had a real insidious underside that was seeped in imperialism, racism and colonial bigotry.  Over 47 acres  at the fair was a giant Philippines Pavilion to show off America's recently-gained colonial possession.  There were 6 encampments showing off Christian Visayans, Islamic Moros and "pagans" from Igoroto, Negritos and Bogotobo.  The sections were laid out to show off the various "stages of civilization" found, from primitive to Westernized Filipinos.

There was also a significant American Indian theme, that showed "evolutionary representations of cultural progress that led to 'enlightened' civilization."  There were mock Indian reservations held at what is now Wash U with representation from 20 tribes including Lakota Sioux, Osage and Navajo.  At the base were constructed replica dwellings, but towering high above the area was a US Indian school to represent were :Americanization" took place.

In short, there was a real air of patronizing exoticism throughout the fair that simply reflected its age.

Otherwise, an interesting note from the fair was that the first Olympics took place on US soil there.  The 1904 Olympiad wasn't much for an international Olympics.  The thing was so poorly run, that it almost ended the event.

With all that said, it was an interesting display of moment that was so very important at the time, only to be consigned to the pages of the forgotten.  The rest of the museum was interesting too, discussing the history of both St. Louis and Missouri on multiple levels.

After the museum, I drove up to study at the beautiful Washington University in St. Louis.  Wash U has a quintessential college campus feel  The university had been downtown, but the new campus was built just before the 1904 fair and was host to a large portion of the fair.  After the fair ended, the school moved in.  I met a family friend named Lindsay, who is in her senior year.  We hung out on a warm autumn day as daylight faded across the campus, then we went out for traditional St. Louis pizza at Imo's.  Imo's Pizza is a St. Louis institution, know for its circular pizza cut into squares.  The pizza is very, very thin, and covered with an ooey, gooey cheese blend called provel.  It was pretty good.  The crust is almost like a cracker, while the cheesy is less tasty than it is gooey.  Still have t-ravs, gooey butter cake and custard on my St. Louis gastrodiplo list. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

AV 2 SIUE; Kurdpop 2 K-Pop

So as I briefly mentioned in my previous blog, I am working now for American Voices as their Director of Communication.  American Voices does cultural diplomacy work in transitioning countries, and brings American roots music (jazz, blues, bluegrass, hiphop, classical) to such exotic locales as Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan.  We hosts YES (Youth Excellence on Stage) Academies for theater and musical education in Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Thailand and some other locations.  More info to come, but that is still in a holding pattern.

American Voices also sponsors a number of music students in the U.S., including three that live with Marc Thayer, our Director of Education.  Marc has two Kurdish violinists and a Maronite Lebanese violinist staying with him.  A few nights ago, we took the music students plus two other AV sponsored students from Kurdistan and caravened across state lines to Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (SIUE!) to give a presentation about cultural diplomacy and American Voices' work.

When we arrived, we found out that the piano we needed was otherwise supposed to be in use by a gospel choir.  So we played #Occupythepiano, and stole the baby grand.  The Kurdish music students performed traditional Kurdish music on violin, oud and percussion, and John (the exec dir) and Marc spoke about American Voices work.  We also showed a cool clip of a cultural diplomacy hit from AV called "Camp Unity"

 After dinner, we took the Middle Eastern violin troupe out for Korean food. Kurdpop to K-pop. I conducted gastrodiplomacy as I taught the Kurds to use chopsticks and forced them to try kimchi. They weren't big fans, but they like the bulgogi.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Scenes from MittelAmerika

"If only the Israelis would let Evangelical Christians spread the word to the Palestinians in jail, then they wouldn't have to worry about the Islamists."

"The Serbs are Jewish, right?"

And other scenes from Middle America.  But is endearing here.  The bar sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" and I got chills- and screamed "O!"  The bartender Jackie knew everyone's name at the bar  (including mine), and she made me a delicious grilled cheese of tomatoes, pickles and grilled onions.  And St. Louis is a gorgeous red brick, and has architectural charm.  And an arch. I will say this: it is warm here, even in the Autumn chill.

PS: A welcome to the world to Annabelle Lee by the Sea.

How to get out of recession, St. Louis style

In St. Louis it is by playing winning baseball.  The Cardinals run to the World Series brought in enough cash to stave off furloughs.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Foreign aid on the chopping block?

My friend and pd colleague Matt Wallin over at the American Security Project has a great piece in The Hill on why not to cut foreign aid.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

I dare you

I get a great news aggregation email from Zachary Peterson of RFE/RL called the Rundown.  Yesterday, his update had the simple line: "Just click here and read this story." Of course I couldn't resist such temptations, I would recommend you do the same.

Ears open in AfPaklandia

A great piece in FP on trying to understand a Pakistani perspective on Afghanistan, and a reminder that listening is the first virtue of public diplomacy.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Chapter: The Next

I woke up in the darkness and caught a shuttle to the airport.  The problem with shuttles and their time windows is that I was fetched with an inordinate amount of time to spare.  I caught the first leg of my journey from Baltimore to the Motor City, and slept the entire way.

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

And yet I was growing torpid and mossy as I languished in the ennui of limbo.  But an opportunity presented itself, and I took it.  So now I am Communications Director of American Voices, a nonprofit that conducts cultural diplomacy.  They do such work with special focus on strife-torn areas like Iraq, Afghanistan and the like.  With any luck, I will get to tour such luxurious locales.  I will share more details in the coming days, but for now some of the news is embargoed. 

Meanwhile, I had been trying to shake the nerves that come with new endeavors.  But little signs kept me moving forward with cautious alacrity.  Like a double canon on the day everything went down.  Or the statue of our Quixotean hero in the Motor City airport to remind this knight-errant that the spell that had kept him trapped in La Mancha had been broken.  Or the big arcoiris that greeted smiled down after I had been pelted with hail (Ah, midwestern weather...)

Travel is like yoga to me.  It allows me the moments when I can just breathe and focus on what is next.
-Stephan Starr

I boarded the flight to Paris of the Midwest, took a deep breath and began to focus on what is next with a clarity I have lacked in a while.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Call-Center Diplomacy?

Indian companies have been setting up call-centers outside of India, many in the Philippines. I saw this firsthand when I was in Cebu, as I noticed Indians visiting and working at the IT parks.  The big question is: will Indian public and cultural diplomacy to the Philippines follow? The karoke-crazy melodic Filipino society would be a grand match for Bollywood.  The Filipino-Indian relationship could be an important one in the coming century, and the Philippines should be a prime target for India's Look East Policy.  Perhaps Bollywood can be the bridge.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


NPR has a wonderful story on my cousin Ruth Gruber.  She is most famous for being the reporter on the ship Exodus, but as you can see from the story, was pretty famous for a lot of other things too.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

When Jewish eyes are smiling

I went to meet my friend Dan last night down on the H Street corridor at a fantastic place called the Star and Shamrock Tavern.  That's right a Jewish deli and Irish Tavern combined:
"The Star and The Shamrock is a New York- style deli and traditional Irish pub. Sound like a contradiction? Jewish and Irish cultures, celebrated (and tormented!), have more in common than you'd think! Misery loves company-- Oy Vey! So come in and enjoy the best of both in one place! Sample an extensive mix of Irish bottles and drafts, alongside a pint of He'brew Ale. Try a Reuben with a side of latkes and a pint of Black and Tan, or a shepherd's pie with a side of matzo balls. Irish Folk or Klezmer? Both go great with a fine Irish or Rye Whiskey! So here's to your good health, and to life! Sláinte and L'Chaim!"

Amerika ist Wunderbar

Gotta love Rammstein for this one. Kiitos Taru:

Open the harbors

Thank you Congress for having enough sense to pass the FTA bills with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.  I still can't believe it took so long to get them passed, but better late than never.  If we are to ever get the American economy back on track, it is going to take a lot more openness for our economy and a lot more trade with dynamic economies like South Korea.  

Musically Made in Taiwan

Neda Uluby of NPR had a phenomenal piece on Taiwanese music as contributing to its identity.  She spoke about Taiwanese Death Metal, as well as traditional Taiwanese songs done in a modern style.  The piece focused on music as a form of expression post-martial law, and the use of Taiwanese and aboriginal languages as a form of expression:
Chthonic's pretty famous in death metal circles worldwide, but its fanbase in Taiwan is a little unusual for a band that cavorts around stage in black makeup. "They get old people coming to their shows," says Brown. "They're sitting in the audience smiling happily and enjoying this head-banging music."
These old people, says Brown, appreciate freedom of expression as only those who have lived without it can. Chthonic incorporates Tawainese mythology and takes pro-human rights positions on sensitive subjects like China's occupation of Tibet. And those older fans, who were once forbidden from speaking Taiwanese, get a huge kick out if hearing it sung like this.
Using music to rediscover Taiwanese identity is also the work of a 40-year-old classically-trained singer named YunYa Hsieh, who's known professionally as Mia Hsieh. She leads a group called A Moving Sound that explores traditional Taiwanese music including songs from its 14 aboriginal tribes. Music like it was suppressed during decades of marital law. Now Hsieh combines it with decidedly contemporary sensibilities.
The piece was a tremendous bit of cultural and public diplomacy for Taiwan, and is a reminder that the best forms of such business come not from when you promote what you are doing, but when other people notice of your authentic, organic cultural idiosyncrasies and share it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


"When they ask me who’s the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I’m gonna say, ‘You know, I don’t know, do you know?’ And then I’m gonna say, ‘How’s that gonna create more jobs?’ I wanna focus on the top priorities of this country. That’s what leaders do.”
-Herman Cain

The man has likely captured the all-important durka-durka vote!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Gilad, Bibi and Hamas

I am infinitely pleased to see that Gilad Shalit apparently on the way to freedom.  But pardon my cynicism for the timing of this release.  Bibi was reeling from Israel's isolation after Abbas went to the UN, and so was Hamas.  This was a way for both Bibi and Hamas to change the channel on Abbas' bid for Palestinian statehood in a diplomatic manner.  Bibi gets a win with the Israeli public because he was able to bring Shalit home as well as undermine Abbas and the PA (apparently releasing Barghouti? really?); Hamas gets a win with the Palestinian public because it flexes its role as a player and one who delivers tangibly for the Palestinians; Abbas and the PLO in turn look weak and unable to deliver concrete improvements or results.

While not quite the old Middle Eastern maxim of "the enemy of my enemy," to me this is a reminder about the speciousness that Israel and Hamas can not find some modicum of working relations.  Hamas was tacitly allowed by Israel to come into existence to undermine the PLO in the 1980s. Forgive this cynic but I don't especially trust Bibi or Hamas when it comes to their political calculations, and I find this case a clear example of Bibi and Hamas finding a bit of common cause.  

Saturday, October 08, 2011


Great find, Oz.

PS: From #OccupySesameStreet: "Big Bird is too big to fowl."

The cult of persuasion and self

"And the conclusion was this:  is that people, whether they were joining a cult or a brand, they do so for exactly the same reasons.  They need to belong and they want to make meaning.  We need to figure out what the world is all about, and we need the company of others. It is simply that."
-Douglas Atkin, Merkley and Partners Advertising

Teşekkür Ederim to Efe for sending this fascinating PBS documentary "The Persuaders" about PR, neuroscience and the emotional, irrational sell.

He was also kind enough to send me the Century of Self, about Bernays, Freud, psychoanalysis and PR.  I had posted clips on Bernays earlier, this is the full documentary:

The first part deals with Bernays and his role in creating PR in the 1920s.  Around 1hr 30 is a bit about his role in the coup in Guatemala in 1954.  Gotta just love his notions of "the engineering of consent."

Interestingly, I went back to Yom Kippur last year and found a similar conversation taking place on my blog "Yom Kippur, Materialism and Envy."

PS: And a tremendous PS it is.  On the YouTube channel where I was watching the Century of Self video, there was a promoted  video from BP on how wonderful it is to vacation in the Gulf.  F'ing perverse.

PPS: A great op-ed in WaPo on the religion of Apple and the cult of Jobs

Octopi Wall Street

Mother Jones has a great piece on the cephalopods that have wrapped their tentacles around American capitalism.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Smilla's Sense of Culture

"There is one way to understand another culture. Living it.  Move into it, ask to be tolerated as a guest, learn the language.  At some point understanding may come.  It will always be worldless.  The moment you grasp what is foreign, you will lose the urge to explain it.  To explain a phenomenon is to distance yourself from it." 

Nostalgia's warm embrace

Somewhere in the realm of the quiet and nostalgic, I swim through memories of forgotten days.  They always seem like other lives.  Lost lives, perhaps.  Lives that exist only in memory while I toil in the present.  Days in the diagonal city of silver.  Or cities of blue, of pink, of gold.  Sometimes, I reach in my bag and pull out hostel receipts, museum entries, train tickets or bus fares from far-away lands.  Madras to Villivakkam, 5 rupees only.  Manila Bay dorm, 350 pesos.  2 ringgit to enter Ft. Cornwalis in Penang.  As if I stowed these tickets in the deep recess of memory's pockets, only to pull them out for a nostalgia's warm embrace.  

Strike up the Brand!

A great article in Smithsonian Magazine by Richard Coniff on nationbranding and its hucksterism:
You know the sense of decorum and probity that marketing consultants have brought to our political campaigns? Now they’re doing the same thing for whole countries. It’s called “nation branding,” a new, improved way to jostle for attention in the global marketplace. A key part of the mission is to sum up a nation in a single dazzling phrase. “Malaysia, Truly Asia,” for instance, or “Chile, All Ways Surprising.” South Korea briefly touted itself as “Dynamic Korea.” Officials later switched to “Korea, Sparkling,” but had second thoughts when someone pointed out that it sounded like a fizzy drink. “Miraculous Korea” was briefly contemplated as a replacement, but finally everyone settled on “Korea, Be Inspired.” (“Korea, So Good We Made Two” was never a serious contender.)...
With some countries, as with some political candidates, the best strategy may be to manage expectations—for instance, “China: Now 55 Percent Less Communist!” Or “Amazingly Asian Myanmar: Not Just for Jailed Dissidents!” Sweden has such a reputation for fabulously beautiful people that underselling might take some of the pressure off average-looking Swedes. What about “Eat Stinky Fish, Watch Disturbing Movies”?
The consultants themselves often seem a little vague about what they’re selling. Even brands they consider genius can look remarkably interchangeable. If it’s Tuesday, this must be “Amazing Thailand.” Or is it South Africa “Alive With Possibility”? Did we just touch down in “Positively Transforming” Estonia? Or is it “Iceland Naturally”?
Feeling confused? Ultimately, a wishful traveler might yearn for Bolivia—or anyplace, really—where “The authentic still exists.”
Even more hilarious are all the comments on the piece online of Latvians complaining that the flag in the graphic is Austrian not Latvian, and the guy looks like a Germanic knight.  Obviously Latvia has already failed at nationbranding or this mistake might not have transpired.  This contrarian likes it even more that Coniff's last article in Smithsonian was on Luddites.  Thanks for the heads-up, Ima.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Sackcloth and ashes app

Am I the only one in the world who doesn't give a f-ck about Steve Jobs passing? (beyond the fact that it is too bad someone passed away in his prime) Memorials at Apple Stores, really? All I am asking for is a lil perspective because the lamentations among the grieving global masses in sackclothes and ashes is getting a bit out of hand. Tech industry wants to mourn, fine. But let's hold off the beatification.

PS: WaPo journalist Paul Farhi, who wrote well about the media-fueled 9/11 anniversary gestalt, wrote a great piece that on the media and this bout of mourning.  He also cited a great piece in Gawker that Jobs was not God.  And to be frank, Jobs wasn't always even all that nice either.

By the numbers

Since I once worked at Marketplace, let's do the numbers (thanks, Harper's):
  • Percentage of the current U.S. debt that was accumulated during Republican presidential terms: 71
  • Percentage of profits American corporations paid in taxes in 1961: 40.6
  • Today: 10.5
  • Percentage of U.S. college grades that are A's: 43
  • Percentage of Americans in a July poll who said they approve of God's job performance: 52

Marx revisited

Not that I am much of a Marxist, but as my friend Taru said, he asked some good questions even if he didn't have the right answers.  Writing on Harvard Business Review, Umair Haque has an interesting piece on "Was Marx Right?":
In case you've been on Mars (or even just on vacation), here's a surprising idea that's been making the rounds lately: there might have been something to Marx's critiques of capitalism after all.
Now, before you leap into the intertubes, seize me by the arm, perform a citizens' arrest, and frog-march me into the nearest FBI office, exclaiming "See this suspicious looking brown guy? He's a card-carrying communist!!" please note: I'm, well, not. I'm a staunch believer in capitalism (hence, the title of my book.) 

Yet, I do think — and after reading the dismal, dreary headlines every day, not to mention checking the value of your 401K, house, job, economy, society, and future lately, I'd bet you do too — that prosperity as we know it might be lazily circling the glowing inner rim of the burbling event horizon of a massive supergalactic black hole. And when it comes to doing much about it (wave hello to your new friend, "double-dip"), well, the status quo's pretty much out of options, out of ideas, and running out of time (hey, is that a Congressional "super-committee" being stalked by lobbyists I see? Who came up with this brain-melter of an idea?).
Hence, indulge me for a paragraph or two. Now, please note: This is a hugely divisive topic, and by "was Marx right?" I don't mean "Communism is the glorious future of humankind, my brothers in arms!! (And I am your leader — bow!!)". For, of course, I think we've had plenty of compelling demonstrations that it wasn't. Rather, I mean: "Was there maybe a tiny mote of insight or two hidden in Marx's diagnoses of the maladies of industrial age capitalism?"
Let's take Marx's big critiques of industrial age capitalism, one by one (and with a grain of salt: since I'm far from a Marxist economist, it's entirely possible my quick, partial descriptions leave much to be desired).
Immiseration. Marx claimed that capitalism would immiserate workers: he meant that labor would be "exploited" — not just in a purely ethical sense, but in a narrower economic one: that real wages would fall, and working conditions would deteriorate. How was Marx doing on this score? I'd say middlingly: wages in many advanced economies — notably, the most purely capitalist in a financialized sense — have failed to keep pace with productivity; not for years, but for decades. (America's median wage has been stagnant for roughly 40 years.) In macro terms, labor's share of income has plummeted, while the lion's share of growth has accrued to those at the very top.
Crisis. As workers were paid less and less, capitalism would be prone to chronic, perpetual crises of overproduction — for they wouldn't have the means to purchase or invest in enough goods to keep the economy humming. As Marx put it, there was likely to be "poverty in the midst of plenty." How's Marx doing on this score? Not bad, I'd say: the last three decades have in fact been characterized by global crises of what you might crudely call overproduction (think: too little demand chasing too many disposable widgets, resulting in a massive global debt crisis, as vanishing middle classes took on more and more debt to compensate for stagnant real wages).
Stagnation. Here's Marx's most controversial — and most curious — prediction. That as economies stagnated, real rates of profit would fall. How does this one hold up? On first glance, it seems to have been totally discredited: corporate profits have broken through the roof and into the stratosphere. But think about it again, in economic terms: Marx's prediction concerned "real profit," not just the mystery-meat numbers served up by beancounters, and chewed over with gusto by "analysts." When seen in those terms, Marx might be said to have been onto something: though corporations book nominal profits, I'd suggest a significant component of that "profit" is artificial, earned by transferring value, rather than creating it (just ask mega-banks, Big Energy, or Big Food). I've termed this "thin value" and Michael Porter has described it as a failure to create "shared value." Replace "declining real profit" with "shrinking real value" and it's analogous to what Tyler Cowen and I have called a Great Stagnation (though our casus belli for it differs significantly from Marx's).
Alienation. As workers were divorced from the output of their labor, Marx claimed, their sense of self-determination dwindled, alienating them from a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. How's Marx doing on this score? I'd say quite well: even the most self-proclaimed humane modern workplaces, for all their creature comforts, are bastions of bone-crushing tedium and soul-sucking mediocrity, filled with dreary meetings, dismal tasks, and pointless objectives that are well, just a little bit alienating. If sweating over the font in a PowerPoint deck for the mega-leveraged buyout of a line of designer diapers is the portrait of modern "work," then call me — and I'd bet most of you — alienated: disengaged, demoralized, unmotivated, uninspired, and about as fulfilled as a stoic Zen Master forced to watch an endless loop of Cowboys and Aliens.
False consciousness. According to Marx, one of the most pernicious aspects of industrial age capitalism was that the proles wouldn't even know they were being exploited — and might even celebrate the very factors behind their exploitation, in a kind of ideological Stockholm Syndrome that concealed and misrepresented the relations of power between classes. How's Marx doing on this score? You tell me. I'll merely point out: America's largest private employer is Walmart. America's second largest employer is McDonald's.
Commodity fetishism. A fetishized object is one which is more than a symbol: it's believed to have actually the power the symbol represents (like an idol, or a totem with magical properties). Marx claimed that under industrial age capitalism's rules, commodities became revered talismans, worshipped through transactional exchanges, imbued with mystical powers that give them inherent value — and obscuring the value of and in the very people who've worked labored over them in the first place. It's one of Marx's most subtle and nuanced concepts. Does it hold water? Again, I'll merely pointing to societies in furious pursuit of more, bigger, faster, cheaper, nastier, now, whether it's the retail temples of America's mega-malls, or London rioters stealing, not bread, but video games.
Marx's critiques seem, today, more resonant than we might have guessed. Now, here's what I'm not suggesting: that Marx's prescriptions (you know the score: overthrow, communalize, high-five, live happily ever after) for what to do about the maladies above were desirable, good, or just. History, I'd argue, suggests they were anything but. Yet nothing's black or white — and while Marx's prescriptions were poor, perhaps, if we're prepared to think subtly, it's worthwhile separating his diagnoses from them.
Because the truth might just be that the global economy is in historic, generational trouble, plagued by problems the orthodoxy didn't expect, didn't see coming, and doesn't quite know what to do with. Hence, it might just be that if we're going to turn this crisis upside down, we're going to have to think outside the big-box store, the McMansion, the dead-end McJob, the bailout, the super-bonus, and the share price.
The future of plenitude probably won't be Marxian — but it won't look like the present. And if we're going to trace the beginnings of better, more enduring, more authentic, more meaningful, fundamentally more humane paradigm for prosperity, perhaps it's worthwhile exploring — even when we don't agree with them — the critiques and prophecies of those who already challenged yesterday's.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


After my jaunt to the National Building Museum, I went over to the MLK Library.  Hadn't been inside there since senior year of high school.  I am going to use that as a perfect segue to the MLK Memorial, which I visited a few weeks back.  

Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

I know there was a bit of controversy over the MLK Memorial for the "socialist realism," but I think that critique was a bit overhyped.  I have seen plenty of socialist realism statues in China, Vietnam, Central and Eastern Europe and other places and this really doesn't feel like comrade architecture unless you want to nitpick.  I really liked the statue and thought it gave an interesting perspective of MLK that was unique from other statues around this city of monuments.  I also liked the way he was coming out of the stone mountain, I thought it was an interesting rendering that got bonus points for originality.

The location of the memorial is also nice.  I was there on a steely-grey day, and the backdrop of the tidal pool and Jefferson memorial made for great scenery.

I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America.

I also thought the crescent of quotes was a nice touch.  There were some very moving quotes from Dr. King, but that brings us to the other controversy: the paraphrased quote.  That I will accept as a legit concern.  Given that the memorial has a number of direct quotes from the good Reverend, it is not proper to have a paraphrased quote on the actual statue because it leads the audience to think it was actually something he said.  Those behind the memorial did a great job on the whole, but should have known better on this count.  Prof. Rockower will deduct points and bestow an A- on the endeavor.  

Meigs' Pension

I took advantage of a nice day to head down to the National Building Museum near Chinatown.  I had seen something in the paper about an art-deco exhibit there that I wanted to check out.  I first became aware of the National Building Museum during Hillary Clinton's concession speech when she was running for the Democratic nomination.  I arrived to the grandiose hall, with giant corinthian columns running down the middle as people were setting up for a fancy evening event.  I arrived just in time for a tour, and we met by a presidential seal near the columns.  I will explain more about that seal later.  It was an intimate tour, there were only two of us on the tour.  The other "tourist" was the new director for volunteer services so technically she was the volunteer tour guide's boss he quipped to me.

Larry gave an excellent tour of the building which was once the U.S. Pension Building, built by Montgomery C. Meigs.  Meigs had been the Quartermaster General for the Union Army, a huge task of supplying the army with provisions and other logistical necessities. Meigs was an engineer and had been the engineer for the Capitol Dome and Cabin John Bridge.  For this structure, he essentially copied the facade of a building in Rome. The giant red brick building was home of the U.S. Pension Bureau, an extremely important governmental institution during its day.  Apparently, pensions from the Civil War took up one quarter of the government's GDP in its day, for all the vets, war widows and other assorted pensioners.  The exterior is marked by a ribbon frieze of terra cotta statues related to the Civil War, of different soldiers and units.  The building was created in red brick in order to be fire resistant so that all the records would be safe.

Meanwhile, the ornate interior served to host inauguration balls even up until the present.  For many years it also served more functionary purposes as the office for the GAO.  Nice office space.  We toured all the way up to the top, which offered some exquisite views of the sun light draping the amber corininthian columns.

After the thorough and interesting tour, I finished my own tour to visit an exhibit on Hildreth Meire.  Meire was responsible for some of the most famous art deco installations in America.  She designed the beautiful art deco murals of the Nebraska State Capitol.  She also did many of the famous art deco works in New York like the facade of the Radio City Music Hall.

The National Building Museum had some other interesting exhibits like famous skyscrapers built out of legos, including a number of Chicago's skyline and an interesting model of Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water.  There was also a good exhibit on DC's architecture leading from its founding to various turns through history.  

Monday, October 03, 2011

Barack Hoover Obama

Not that I would classify him as such, but there was a fascinating article I remember reading in Harper's that noted as much.  This came out in July '09, when Obama was still riding high, and I dismissed it as an analogy too far.  It seems a little more apt today.  

Sunday, October 02, 2011


After watching the surprisingly good Captain America, I returned to the previous Marvel movie Thor.  Thor had received some good reviews when it came out, and was directed by Keneth Branaugh so I thought it might be promising.

The movie started off ok, dealing with themes of arrogance by the powerful.

That's pride and vanity talking, not leadership. You've forgotten everything I taught you! About a warriors patience.

and proving one's mettle with brains not just brawn (ie using Smart Power).  For his transgressions, Thor is cast out from Asgaard and sent to Earth.  He even has the indignity of getting tazed.

Was that a bad thing, finding out that you don't have all the answers? You start asking the right questions.

There are some good PD themes related to learning to listen and becoming better because.  I heard a Clintonian refrain throughout the movie about people being more impressed with the power of example more than the example of power.

Unfortunately, the movie ends up being pretty shallow in terms of any character development.  I hate to give Natalie Portman poor reviews, but she was pretty lackluster and her character had zero depth- she just batted her eyes at the ripped Thor.  Meanwhile, the movie had a pathetic amount of product placement.  It seemed every other shot had a 7-11, Dr. Pepper or other logo.

On the whole, I give the move a C+. It was slightly entertaining, and had some great potential and cool CGI but was strikingly poor in the realm of depth.  But I am still looking forward to the Avengers movie coming.