2nd Law

a blog by collegiates from around the purple nation (though mostly living in NYC) in the midst of transitioning to the real world

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

John McCain Does Not Speak For Us

This June, Senator John McCain will speak for Columbia College's Class Day.

Every year students of the American University system are given a chance to select their graduation speaker. The outcome is difficult to predict. In some instances, it can be satirical, like when Ali G (aka Sasha Baron Cohen) spoke at Harvard. In others, it can be glamorous, as is the case this year with Jodie Foster and UPenn. Other times, it can be painfully boring: UChicago - unsurprisingly - only chooses a speaker within the faculty. There are highs (George W. Bush came to Yale one year) and there are lows (George Stephanopoulos came to Columbia in another). And always, there are politics.

Understandably. Graduation is perhaps the only day (other than those awkward early years of recruitment) that a university will admit to being completely devoted to you. Emotionally, monetarily, temporally, physically. It is the only day from which most of us will enjoy an entire week of partying (thrown in our name and with no shame in a hangover). The only day our families will be forced to mingle and discuss our accomplishments. The only day we are compelled to wear a $44 (and up) article of clothing that is more poorly assembled than my grandmother's sofa-covers. It is special, and most of us - even if we say we don't care - want it to be perfect.

So, what did we expect when Senator John McCain was chosen as the speaker for Columbia College's Class of 2006? In 2000, this might have been acceptable. Back then, he was espoused by the left as a rare Republican who voted with intelligence. In the words of The New Republic: "In addition to shepherding campaign finance reform through Congress - against the administration's efforts to kill it quietly - he co-sponsored a patients' bill of rights with John Edwards and Ted Kennedy; co-sponsored with Charles Schumer a measure to allow the importation of generic prescription drugs; co-sponsored with John Kerry legislation to raise auto emissions standards; and co-sponsored legislation with Joe Lieberman to close the "gun-show loophole" and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in compliance with the Kyoto accords." He was socially aware too - supporting stem cell research and the precedent in Roe v. Wade.

After his brutal loss of the 2000 primary in South Carolina to the foul play of mastermind Karl Rove, a new McCain began to emerge from the folds of the Republican party. This Senator voted for tax-cuts, supported teaching "intelligent design", and endorsed the new anti-abortion legislation that recently passed in South Dakota. And despite originally voting against the Federal Marriage Amendment (which allows marriage to be defined as only between a man and a woman), McCain now supports an initiative to ban same-sex marriage in his home state, and opposes the Employment Non-Discrimination Act which would make it illegal for employers to dismiss employees based on sexual orientation.

To add insult to injury, McCain will also be speaking at the graduation ceremony of Liberty University (One need look no further than the recent NYTime's Magazine story on Liberty University's debate team. Shame on you, Liberty U, publicly lording your debate victories over Columbia's prestigious debate team). The school - located in Lynchburg, Virginia - was founded in 1971 by the spirited conservative Christian Jerry Falwell. For those of you unfamiliar with Falwell's fiery polemics, I shall not hesitate to include one of my favorite of his quotations: "AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals. To oppose it would be like an Israelite jumping in the Red Sea to save one of Pharaoh's charioteers ... AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals." Falwell is the very same man who McCain once (and reasonably so) denounced as an agent of "intolerance."

In response, Columbia students have circulated a petition online titled "John McCain Does Not Speak For Us." Most of the signers respect McCain's right to speak, but are taking the opportunity to show their objection to his political views. As my classmate Wayne Ting wrote, "I believe Senator McCain has the right to speak at Class Day. I don't expect that this petition will stop him from speaking, but I do believe it will send a message that homophobia will not be tolerated."

Indeed, Class Day is a special moment for us all. It is a moment of supreme recognition: our names will be called, we will walk on-stage, and we will be acknowledged and congratulated by the University as graduates. In turn, however, we should use this recognition to call attention to politics and beliefs we find hateful and inconsistent. I encourage everyone to sign the petition here.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Soccer War

A revolution every day...

Although, as a college student, I rarely get to read books for pleasure, I recently finished Ryszard Kapuscinski’s slim (at just over 200 pages) novel The Soccer War. Dubbed by LA Weekly as "the great prose-poet of international disorder,” during his career as a foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Agency, Kapuscinski covered over 27 coups and revolutions, was sentenced to death four times, and was acquainted with Lumumba, Allende, Guevara and numerous other figures of third-world emancipation. From its modest beginning in Accra the year after Ghana became the first African colony to gain independence from Britain, The Soccer War seamlessly jumps to places as varied as the Congo, Nigeria, Palestine, El Salvador, Algeria, Honduras, and Cyprus in the period between 1958 and 1976.

I wouldn’t normally spend time talking about a book published nearly three decades ago, but since many of us will soon be leaving our small island for disparate parts of the world, I thought that it might be enlightening to revisit an era crucial in shaping the structure of that world. While we, the under 30s, are familiar with the sexual revolution, Vietnam, and the Civil Rights Movement, the massive global political transformation that occurred during the 1960s is far less present in our collective consciousness. It has been lamented that contemporary journalism on the developing world, and Africa especially, is often void of historical perspective. Media coverage may give sparse background as it is directly related to the story, but related historical context is usually skimmed over. For those of us who think we know or care about the developing world, the spirit of the era Kapuscinski documents is perhaps worth revisiting.

As a Polish journalist, Kapuscinski’s perspective has little of the latent self-importance or white guilt which might underlie that of a British, French, Belgian, or even American journalist in the same position. As he explains to some Ghanaians in Mpango towards the end of the book, “My country has no colonies, and there was a time when my country was a colony… There were camps, war, executions… That was what we called fascism. It’s the worst kind of colonialism.” Perhaps this background, and the fact that his roots lay behind the iron curtain, gives Kapuscinski’s prose a humility found rarely with other western writers.

Kapuscinski reminds us frequently throughout his narrative that what he is writing is not a book, but “disjointed fragments;” the plan of an unwritten book fit into the spaces between dispatches and chapters of other non-existent books. Ironically, it is this fragmentation which gives The Soccer War its cohesion; had it dealt with each subject comprehensively it would have quickly grown into a massive unreadable volume; had it focused solely on a few subjects it would have failed to capture the spirit of an era marked global transformation.

The book takes its title from the 1969 war between Honduras and El Salvador; a war which grew from the conflict surrounding a soccer match. Kapuscinski narrates his experience of the war and its beginnings with impassive candor; the war seems at the same time so fantastic and so ordinary that it could be an episode out of Garcia Marquez. In another chapter, Kapuscinski describes driving out of Lagos through enemy territory during the Biafran war.
Each roadblock he passes demands money and exacts a heavy price upon failure to pay. Along the road Kapuscinski passes burning cars and charred bodies. After two road blocks he has been beaten near unconsciousness, doused with kerosene, and nearly burned alive. Knowing that he has no money left, he decides to run the next roadblock, dodging Molotov cocktails and gunfire in a borrowed Peugeot.

Driving out of Lagos a few months ago, it would have been difficult for me to imagine that only 30 years ago, on the very same road, Kapuscinski might have been dodging homemade bombs and speeding over flaming roadblocks. Much has changed, but, although I was not there in the 60s to judge, I imagine that much has also stayed the same. Although driving out of Lagos is a vastly different experience today, there are still roadblocks every few kilometers and often you still have to pay a "dash" to the policemen manning them. Although I was dismayed by the sad state of the roads and the rampant corruption, reading The Soccer War a few months later put these things into jarring historical perspective. I don’t mean to imply that the problems of the present should be written off in light of the past, but rather that a little bit of historical context can go a long way when looking at the contemporary world. Prior to reading The Soccer War, my understanding of the events Kapuscinski narrates existed in a historical vacuum. The Algerian War for Independence, 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Biafran War, the 1973 Chilean coup, the Soccer War, and a host of other contemporaneous events were unconnected in my mind. By jumping unhesitatingly through time and across oceans, drawing philosophic (and occasionally questionable) conclusions about events often difficult to believe, Kapuscinski’s narrative connects events which, to those learning about them from safe inside the Ivy League, would otherwise remain unconnected.

After finishing The Soccer War it is impossible not to wonder what drives someone to put themselves in the near death situations Kapuscinski routinely encounters. Such a person, as one of my friends remarked, “must have a death wish.” While this may certainly be part of the equation, in the subtext of the book Kapuscinski himself offers another explanation. Before he begins the narrative of his death-defying drive out of Lagos, he mentions the inexplicable feeling of passing close to a lion in the wild. “I knew no one could describe it to me,” he writes. “And I cannot explain it myself.” As he cannot describe this or Poland to the Ghanaians in Mpango, so is it impossible to really describe the events covered in The Soccer War. However, Kapuscinski’s blend of personal and political, prose and poetry, fact and (presumably) fiction, makes these events as accessible as is possible to to those of us who did not actually wittness them.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The End of the World: An Alternative to I-Banking

As first published in The Current: Spring 2006, with permission from the author.
By Birk Oxholm

I'm graduating in three months. I've never paid a bill, written a check, or had a steady girlfriend. I've only had sex once, which is far worse than being a virgin. The replacement counts during my time at Columbia for my mail key, ID, and credit card stand at fifteen, nine, and six, respectively. And actually, I heard we were supposed to sign some form in order to graduate, which I haven't signed, so I guess I'm not graduating in three months.
But at least I'm an educated person, right? Well, sure, except that I don't really know, or care, about art or music, or math and science for that matter. But at least I've got a lot of great books, though, and I'm steeped in the Western canon, right? Well, yeah, I've got loads of books, hundreds of them, of which I've opened exactly 19% (I counted). Those books really make the room look smart, just smart enough for a woman to comment on them and then leave.

But at least I've learned how to think. Because if there is an essence to thinking, surely it consists in either unceasing, self-flagellating-cum-self-aggrandizing self-analysis or violently generalizing, obscenely pointless cross-cultural enterprises like "Zen and Kant," and "Squanto and Shinto." One of these papers, I won't say which one, is still waiting from last semester to be written, which is another reason why I probably won't graduate.

The only way I could possibly get a job, assuming I actually filled out an application and came to an interview, would be if I were asked the question, "What are your weaknesses?" at which point I would thoroughly impress them with my impassioned, eloquent, well-organized explanation of my manifold flaws and neuroses. All in keeping with the mantra of my career services counselor, who, after keeping my smelly ass away from the finance interviews, advised me to "turn your weaknesses into strengths." This was after she told me I had "summed it up pretty good" with my assessment that "they probably won't want a writer who doesn't actually write."

So the job prospects are looking bleak at the moment. But don't feel sorry for me. I'm actually pretty set. Because I am unnaturally skilled at falling, occasionally literally, ass-backwards into loads of money.

I break a lot of bones. I think the medical term for my condition is osteoporosis. Normally, it's found in elderly women, but hey, I lucked out. I broke my leg in both 8th and 12th grade, not coincidentally critical times in a young man's sexual maturation. But it wasn't until after I broke my leg senior year that I realized I could cash in on my infirmity.

I had pretty much just gotten back on my feet. I was playing quarterback in a touch football game at my job as a camp counselor. I dropped back to pass, and as I let the ball fly, some idiot kid rushed me and hit my thumb with his hand as he tried to block it. "Stupid kid," I thought, "that kinda hurt." If I could find that kid now, I would hug him. By the end of my shift, my thumb had swelled up to the size of an apricot, which, though it sounds small, is actually pretty big compared to a normal thumb.

My boss said I should probably get it checked out. I shrugged it off and drove myself home, then got my mom to take me to the hospital. Sure enough, it was broken: the kid had jammed my thumb a tiny bit back in my hand and a few chips were out of place. I got a cast, went home, skipped work for a couple days (oooh, the pain, the pain), then finally came back to the sympathy of all my colleagues. Towards the end of the day, my boss pulled me aside, and asked the fateful question.

"Have you decided whether to file for worker's comp?"

"Um, yeah, I guess."

"Ok," she said pleasantly, "here's the paperwork."

I thought a little pocket change for my troubles might be nice, so I filled out what I could there, and then took the rest home for my Dad to fill out the insurance stuff. Things got a little complicated with the thumb, to the tune of minor surgery, but the only lasting damage was a series of bumps that appeared on my thumb when I flexed it. I thought it looked like a dinosaur's neck.

I was pumped when I got the settlement in the mail a few months later because I had just gotten a portable CD player, and I wanted to buy some CDs. But when I opened the letter, and looked at the number, my knees buckled, and I started thinking about other kinds of CDs, financial ones (even though I don't know what those are).

Let me explain quickly about how the insurance company determines how much worker's comp you get. It uses a complex formula that takes into account the actual wages lost from missed work, the average amount you work per year, the part of the body that's injured, how well it heals, and potential future-earnings loss. I worked part-time during the school year, and full time during the summer. That averaged out to about 18 hours a week. I only lost a few days wages. The doctor said that my thumb was 98%(!) better. Sometimes I can't help but wonder, what if I could have convinced the doctor to write, say, 94%? Would the sum have been thrice as high? But I put those what-ifs aside when, like last week, my dad calls to congratulate me that the pocket change I was expecting, which he put into a nice little mutual fund, has just cracked five digits.

Thinking about going into I-banking or consulting? Sure, it's lucrative. The hours are rough, hellacious even, but it pays, like 60K a year out of college and you can't beat that, right? Well, consider this: let's say the hours are 60 per week. That's about 3000 hours a year, meaning that you'll be making in the neighborhood of $20 an hour, plus benefits. I had to endure an excruciating .1 seconds, plus approximately six weeks of tedium and a few grueling sets of thumb extensions. For that infinitesimal stretch of agony, I got about 360 million dollars an hour, or about 18 million times what you'll be getting for slaving away at some desk. While you're selling your soul, I'll be cultivating mine in Rishikesh.

You're probably wondering, how can I be like you? Well, you probably can't. Being only 18 at the time of the accident was absolutely critical to the fact that they gave me a shitload of money. But hey, if you're a really young freshman (call me) or a math prodigy (don't), then run recklessly to your place of business and look for the nearest wet floor without a "Wet Floor" sign.

For those of you who lack the over-ossification of youth, the bone-breaking game, like life, gets harder with age. Employers are no longer prone to vastly overestimating your earnings potential and handing you boatloads of cash. Fortunately, with the loss of your ability to get compensated because your employer doesn't realize how much of a fuck-up you're going to be comes the freedom and opportunity of new and exciting ways to leech off the wealthy. I want to introduce you to the second most beautiful phrase in the English language (after "cellar door"): "property liability." Property liability basically means that if you get hurt on someone else's property, and they could have prevented it, they have to pay you for it. This works especially well when that someone is, to paraphrase my friend Jacob McKean, "A multi-billion dollar real-estate corporation masquerading as a diploma mill."

I worked at Columbia this summer, at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, doing cutting-edge research that involved taking files out of folders, creating new folders, and putting the files into the new folders. I was heading out for some early morning activism one weekend while talking to my mother on the phone. "How you doin', sug?" is the last thing I remember her drawling.

I turned left out of Broadway, and very soon after found myself splayed out on the concrete, in an extraordinary amount of shock and pain. I was walking on the wire mesh grating next to the dorm. I was wearing flip-flops. The front corner of one of the grates was curved up slightly, but not so much that it was easily visible. As I was walking, my sandal slipped underneath the curved-up grate, cutting the shit out of my foot, and serving as the fulcrum for a lever with me on one side and the entire earth on the other. It only takes a rudimentary knowledge of physics to understand that I ate pavement really, really hard. My phone clattered out into the street. I groaned and crawled over and told my mom I'd have to call her back. Then I rolled over and groaned again. It would have been appropriate at this point if a dog, a pug, had peed on me.

I hobbled over to meet my friends and tell them that my part in the revolution would have to wait another day, then carried on to St. Luke's. It was relatively empty, so I got through everything—waiting, blood pressure, insurance, waiting, initial exam, broken wrist, x-ray, broken wrist, waiting, casting, prescription drugs, waiting, thinking…broken wrist — pretty quickly. I quit my job the next day

I didn't want to pressure Columbia for compensation. I'm not like that. But it did seem pretty clearly to be their fault, and, although my father was paying for my rent and food, I still had to make a living. The only means by which I could afford to, um, read and eat pain pills was my other job: babysitting an autistic kid. In the end, however, the fight was about one thing: justice. I had been somewhat embarrassed when I fell. And there was a slim to moderate chance that I could develop a mild case of Carpal-Tunnel Syndrome. How easily could they have fixed that grate? And what about those who would come after me? I couldn't let others be victimized. So I called my uncle, a high-powered attorney, and he called the lead counsel for the university, and they worked something out, getting me back my lost wages. Justice, in the tradition of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It wasn't easy justice. I had to track down like ten hospital records, and give a couple statements recounting the trauma, and, for a few of these tasks, I was not on Vicodin. Also, for this accident, which was much more painful that the last one, I was compensated at the comparatively low rate of 97.2 million dollars an hour (still nearly five million times the wage rate of an entry-level I-Banking position).

But the business had changed since I was young. You couldn't just have one big score and get out. The only way to survive was—is—to settle into a nice routine, pulling a few small jobs a year. Which is why I was so grateful to find myself, a scant three months later, lying in a puddle outside of East Campus with a dull, aching pain in my wrist.

I had left a party in EC that night, sometime during that 40-day stretch of rain last semester. I was walking and talking with a girl I had met in the elevator, which should have been my first clue that something weird was about to happen. Sure enough, as I turned the corner onto EC Plaza, my foot slipped out from under me on one of those super-slick blocks of granite, and, sagaciously, I tried, and failed, to catch myself with my newly reattached ulna. Clutching my wrist and grinning, I assured the young lady that I would be all right, I just needed to go to the hospital. Struggling to contain my glee, I wished her a pleasant evening and then made for St. Luke's. I stopped by my room to pick up a book—Religion and Nothingness, I'm not even kidding—and arrived at the hospital at about 2 a.m. After a familiar routine—I know it's boring but a job is a job—praise Jesus, it was broken.

Once again I faced a tough decision. I mean, ya'll know how slippery that stone is. I'm sure everyone here at some point hydroplanes outside Butler. And, are you really going to tell me that Columbia, she of the five billion dollar endowment (I would have to work for nearly an entire day to get that), cannot afford to dig up all the granite paths on campus and replace them with something safer for the rain, like Velcro or gravel? So really, it wasn't that tough a decision. I'm currently in talks with Columbia, and I'm only asking her to pay my medical bills. But if she doesn't, she can expect to see me in a court of law, where undeniable arguments will be advanced. And Columbia, who, to her credit, has been exceedingly cooperative heretofore, will come to know with whom she is fucking if she does not accede to my demands. I'm feeling brittle…and clumsy…

Now one thing to understand is that not everyone can be me. I've been cursed with a gift—a penchant for mischance. Perhaps my children will be so lucky.

But there are things that anyone can do in order to increase the likelihood of a profitable calamity. To be clear, we're not deliberately injuring ourselves. That's disgusting, depraved, and besides, it's fraud. We're simply taking advantage of our God-given weakness and frailty. To that end, there are three attitudes to take up to facilitate disaster:

Rule # 1: Be Aggressive. Run around a lot at work. Take chances. Subtly provoke. Remember it only takes one slip up, on anyone's part, to make you the victim.

Rule #2: Be Proud. Remember that these companies you're working for are very likely part of the corporate cabal financing the military-industrial complex and profiting from the American imperialist war machine. They will easily be able to give you the small settlement you deserve for your pain and suffering.

Rule #3: Be stupid, blissfully unaware, and lacking any common sense. Consider: before I tripped on the grate, I was talking loudly and inanely on the phone without paying any attention at all to where I was going; when I slipped in the rain, I was wearing flip-flops, like a complete idiot; and when I got hurt playing football, well, I sure as hell wasn't gonna get beat by some punk third-graders, so I put a little something extra on the pass, causing my thumb to hit his hand just hard enough to finance two years of travel in India. A thoughtful, accountable person would never do any of these things, thus, we must be constantly vigilant against all forms of responsibility.

By following these three rules, one finds oneself on the path to abject failure, and thus success. Although one must also be blessed with moral ambivalence, physical wretchedness, and felicitous misfortune, constant laziness and blame-shifting will take one far. Verily I say unto you, blessed are the weak, for we shall inherit the earth.

BIRK OXHOLM is a senior in Columbia College. He has written in the margins of many books, including his mother's People Magazine from the late 90's (he finished the crossword). Hope springs eternal.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

New Yorkers and the Touch-Screen

NYC Dorkbot at Location One: Dexterous Technology

Most New Yorkers are familiar with the touch-screen. Ever since the station-agents stopped selling tokens (does anyone know in what year?), the entrance to the underground is purchased from the automated tellers that line the tile walls of any station. Beginning with the universal prompt, “Touch screen to begin” and available in three languages or more, one can have anything from the single-ride to the unlimited metro pass.

However, as Jeff Han – from the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at NYU – explained, touch-screens such as the MTA's are fairly basic in their capabilities. The single point of contact is a limiting system, as the command of action becomes dependent on the first touch and renders the rest of the screen useless. Han believes that touch-screens could become much more complex, and is currently leading a team on multi-touch interaction research (that is, a screen that responds to multiple touches at the same time). As Han says of the possibilities, “While touch sensing is commonplace for single points of contact, multi-touch sensing enables a user to interact with a system with more than one finger at a time, as in chording and bi-manual operations. Such sensing devices are inherently also able to accommodate multiple users simultaneously, which is especially useful for larger interaction scenarios such as interactive walls and tabletops.”

Han gave a presentation on his research on multi-touch screens at the Location One Gallery last Wednesday, at an event hosted by New York’s dorkbot. His neglect in explaining the more technical aspects of the multi-touch system (they call it “frustrated total internal reflection”) was forgiven by the beautiful videos of the team’s researchers playing with various programs designed for the multi-touch screen. The multiple and simultaneous commands provide an amazingly different type of interface with graphic design, photo and video editing, board games, and map searches (to cite a few of the demostrations). They also provide dexterious alternatives to the keyboard and mouse, opening the way in making technology more compatible to our human form. As one audience member called out, “When can we play?”

To check out videos of the touch screen, click here.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Because No Human Being is Illegal

Sorry to be a downer in the witty world of blogs, but there's not much more to say than this (see the press release below) except that you should find out more about the Sensenbrenner Bill (which is being pushed through the Senate to make being or assisting an undocumented immigrant a FELONY), and do something in your power to oppose it. Like join the rally tomorrow, Monday, that is going from City Hall to Battery park, starting at 1 pm.

If you're curious about the specifics of the bill, H.R. 4437, click here to read more.


Sunday, April 9, 2006
12:00 p.m.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
710 S. Sultana Ave., Ontario, CA 91761

Louise Corales, whose 14 year-old son, Anthony Soltero, died on April 1 after committing suicide, will speak to the community and ask for a prayer for her son this Sunday, following the 11:00 a.m. mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Ontario, California.

Eighth grader Anthony Soltero shot himself on Thursday, March 30, after the assistant principal at De Anza Middle School told him that he was going to prison for three years because of his involvement as an organizer of the April 28 school walk-outs to protest the anti-immigrant legislation in Washington. The vice principal also forbade Anthony from attending graduation activities and threatened to fine his mother for Anthony's truancy and participation in the student protests."Anthony was learning about the importance of civic duties and rights in his eighth grade class. Ironically, he died because the vice principal at his school threatened him for speaking out and exercising those rights," Ms. Corales said today. "I want to speak out to other parents, whose children are attending the continuing protests this week. We have to let the schools know that they can't punish our children for exercising their rights."

Anthony's death is likely the first fatality arising from the protests against the immigration legislation being considered in Washington, D.C. Anthony, who was a very good student at De Anza Middle School in the Ontario-Montclair School District, believed in justice and was passionate about the immigration issue. He is survived by his mother, Louise Corales, his father, a younger sister, and a baby brother.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Treadmill Torture?

In American culture, "going to the gym" is considered a chore. It goes on the same list as "return movie to Blockbuster," "pick up dry cleaning," and "wash the dog." Americans are such time-stressed people that we are told by doctors, nutritionists, and trainers to work out, exerting a 70-80% heart rate, for 30 minutes to squeeze an adequate amount of exercise into our day. Many have come to believe that if you don't workout at 70-80% heart rate, your exercise is inadequate. But in reality, distance, as we learn in the equation d(istance)= r(ate) x t(ime), is what really matters. If you travel the same distance but at a slower rate, which takes more time, you exert the same energy. The problem is, who has any time?

Well, according to AC Nielson Co., the average American has over 4 hours of extra time a day, which we spend watching TV. Granted, some of the TV watching is done while multi-tasking, but it
still contributes to the fact that over 60% of the population is overweight. Sixty percent of the population! And this percentage is only getting worse, especially as fast food culture continues. This February, Wendy's, in a competitive streak, announced that it will target Hispanics (generally a low-income population that finds fast food extremely affordable) as their new demographic. Hiring Enrique Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and Gloria Estefan as their new spokespersons, Wendy's will contribute to the severe obesity in the U.S. which is found especially in minorty groups. Their tactic mimicks McDonalds' publicity campaign that targetted black populations in the 90's. With a rising national concern about the obesity epidemic, McDonald's, the forerunner in fast food culture, has received serious criticism manifesting into law suits such as Pelman v. McDonald's, and movies like Supersize Me. But the happy-clown corporation remains Americans' favorite. So what do nutrition experts say is response to this epidemic? Healthy eating and exercise. Ah yes, healthy eating and exercise - which demand the two key components of capitalism: time and money. Time to cook healthy meals and exercise, and money to buy good products and home exercise equipment.

With a lack of time and money, I have always preferred the gym treadmill, but admitted that there
is something quite freightening about it - as with all stationary equipment. You move, sweat, and get muscle pains the next day, but you never go anywhere. Many of my friends, who will go unnamed, find sweating repulsive and working out to be torturous. I have always rebutted their arguments, but thought that I would give them a head start by sharing this excerpt from a book entitled "Beyond Slavery" by Frederick Cooper, Thomas C. Holt and Rebecca J. Scott. All three authors contributed one essay exploring race, labor, and citizenship in post-emancipation societies. The locations varied including Jamaica, Lousiana, Cuba and Africa. Since its publication in 2000, the book has soared in reviews and sales. The essays were incredibly insightful, and definite page-turners for a history-buff. But it was the first essay by Thomas Holt that I thought could contribute interesting insight into the problem of modern exercise for today's Americans.

"The experience of Jamaican freedpeople suggests, however, even more profound contradictions in the ongoing nineteenth-century efforts to reconstruct the social order. Emblematic of many of those contradictions was the treadmill a device originally designed for British prisons but introduced into the West Indies during the apprenticeship period to "discipline" refractory workers in lieu of the now banned whip. The treadmill consisted of wooden steps around a hollow cylinder on which a prisoner was made to step as the mechanism turned. The effect was to make the prisoner "work." It was, of course, work disembodied of any material object or product and managed by the state rather than a private employer. The prisoners committed to "the workhouses" were apprentices who refused to work on the plantations under the conditions prescribed by the apprenticeship system established by the Abolition Act of 1833. The treadmill was intended, therefore, not simply to punish the workers but to reform them.

Most discussions of emancipation policy—in Britain as elsewhere—picture these workers as male. It is evident, however, that most of the inmates portrayed in the treadmill illustration seen here are female. This is consistent with contemporary discussions and official reports, which invariably portray women as the most rebellious and refractory workers.[61] The fact is that in Jamaica, as in many other slave societies, women constituted the core of the field labor force, especially on sugar plantations. Consequently, in striking contrast to the emancipators' discursive construction of the slave worker as male, slave women were necessarily the principal targets of any effort to instill work discipline in free laborers."

I find Holt's discussion of work disembodied from any production to be very relevant to this conversation. Obesity is a grave issue in this country, and even though it has been recognized as a national concern, it is still poked fun at by movies such as the recent "Phat Girlz." The truth is that we have succumbed to being disconnected from our production, as Marx warned, even in our exercise. We have no time for a stroll after dinner or an afternoon walk, so we squeeze in a 30-minute routine, or ten-minute abs into our daily schedules. With little time to live and work, constantly micro-managing, exercise becomes torturous. Unfortunately, capitalism has made our health a secondary responsibility - and our bodies suffer at its mercy.

So the next time you go to the gym-think about being connected to your workout, and more importantly, to your body.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Still Dreaming

Yesterday marked the passing of the 38th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Like most of my peers, I grew up in a neighborhood that renamed itself with "Milky Ways." Down the street from the MLK boulevard (which used to be Grove Street), one can find the city's MLK junior high school. His face appears in city murals, parades, street signs, and school buildings. MLK is a myth for me, a symbolic figure who represents a time when people had to fight for their civil liberties. According to my elementary school history lessons, MLK is a hero who overcame and won what all African Americans deserved a long time ago: their rights.

But as a panel held at Columbia two days ago asked, "How far are we from the dream?" The disaster of Hurricane Katrina has revealed that the economic and political rights of African Americans still remain pitiably disparate. And with the local New Orleans elections approaching, it is predicted that a sizable third - something under 200,000 people - of the New Orleans population (most of which are black) will probably not return. Or at least not anytime soon because of their financial situation. While there is a scramble to establish a system of absentee voting, the turnout for the displaced Hurricane victims is predicted to be troublesome. On a national level, this has startling consequences. Louisiana is a southern state that has always swung blue, thanks to its large and active black population. But the displacement and terrible mismanagement of the rebuilding and recovery efforts have allowed a powerful voting force to disperse. If the New Orleans racial demographics remain the way they do now, it will hardly be a shock when Louisiana turns red.

What many people forget when remembering MLK is his comprehensive understanding of injustice. That is to say, the problems that face African-Americans have no single solution. As a leader, MLK understood black injustice much more thoroughly than classroom history gives him credit. His support for labor movements and economic justice has been greatly ignored, and his activism in other arenas of American politics (he spoke against the Vietnam War) was just as strong and passionate. As another year passes him into history, we must not use him as a tool to gloss over the past. He does not represent a total victory. Nor must he be appropriated by the very people (this past year President Bush spoke at the funeral of Coretta Scott King) that dismantle the social, political, and economic rights of African Americans and other minorities today.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Rediscovering Matthew Barney

On Tuesday March 28th, Justin and I went to the Japan Society (located on East 47th Street) to watch a free screening of Matthew Barney's new film Drawing Restraint 9. We entered the foyer and were seated after a quick wink. Even when comfortably seated in a red-velvet chair, I could not say that I was prepared for the two-and-a-half hour expedition that I was about to embark on: starting in a whaling port in Japan, continuing through the mystical hull of a WWII ship and then to the Arctic, all the while exploring the depths of Barney's mind.

Barney is considered by some to be the greatest living modern artist. He was born in San Francisco in 1967; at age six, he moved to Idaho with his family. After his parents divorced, Barney mainly lived with his father in Idaho, playing football on his high school team, and occassionally visited his mother in New York City, where he was introduced to art and museums. Barney continued playing football at Yale, where he began experimenting with more creative artforms and mediums. After graudating in 1991, he entered the art world to almost instant controversy and success.

Perhaps his most famous work was the CREMASTER films, which gained him simultaneous public acclaim and criticism. The series of five films, created out of sequence (CREMASTER 4 began the cycle, followed by CREMASTER 1, etc.), were bombastic and daring. Barney starred in the film in myriad roles, including characters as diverse as a satyr, a magician, a ram, Harry Houdini, and even the infamous murderer Gary Gilmore. The "cremaster" of the films' title refers to the muscle that raises and lowers the male reproductive system according to temperature, external stimulation, or fear. The films and the pieces Barney created were all shown at the Guggenheim, which later awarded him the first Hugo Boss Award.

Now if you like Cremaster, I will make a leap to say that you will probably like DR9. But if you didn't enjoy the series you may find something in this movie that inspires you to give Barney another shot, as it did for me. This is not to suggest that Barney does not follow his signature extremely slow pace, graphic violence (including dismemberment and cannibalism), intense repitition of symbols, and interest in history (e.g. Japanese whaling traditions and Shinto wedding customs) and mythology (nature and metamorphosis), but he does add new details that heighten and improve the artistic experience.

Generally, my criticism of Barney is that for all of his acclaim as a "unique" and "groundbreaking" artist, he still seems to fall prey to the technique that many modern artists (such as Quentin Tarantino) resort to: sensationalism. A scene from Cremaster 3 showed the gruesome violence of a man getting his teeth crushed while strapped to a post like a horse. It is not the blood or gore that are unappealing as much as the lack of depth and easiness of such a shot. Barney's creation of physical structures such as the wax statues in the Cremaster series and costumes in DR9 have always been artistically incredible. And I have always liked his directorial storytelling, but his decision to use eye-bursting shots dulls down the total experience, leaving nothing to the imagination's own intensity and/or creativity.

With this said, after seeing DR9 I'm willing to give my Barney critique a new consideration. The unbelievably slow pace of the film builds a formidable foundation for the movie to grow from. And once the pace speeds up, the rhythm lends itself to highlighting the significance of a scene. This firm base, created at glacier speed, allows the more risque scenes to entice the viewer without losing depth. Well, you might ask how these "risque" or "sensational" scenes are any different from those I just complained about in Cremaster. The difference is perhaps minimal, but its effects are astounding. Most of the nudity, dismemberment, and canibalism, are elegantly handled. They are slightly obscured by various veils such as underwater shots and thin sheets of fabric. These veils allow the shocking images to entice the viewer but still leave room for imagination. Perhaps this technique of hiding sensational images is Barney's response to viewers such as myself, but it also makes the scene more occult and mystical- a favorite Barney focus. Furthermore, the themes of nature, reincarnation, and Japanese culture that resonate throughout the movie are fascinating. Props and costumes are astounding, and the soundtrack by Bjork, who co-stars in the film, is absolutely incredible.

After re-discovering Matthew Barney, Justin and I left the screening room quite pleased and joined the rest of the audience in the main section of the museum for a party sponsored by the Japan Society. We picked up two (or three) flutes of Nicolas Fueillate champagne and munched on the lobster sushi being passed around. In the midst of balancing two drinks, Justin suggested that we should go take a look at the upstairs, which had been roped off. After a few seconds waiting in line we found our way to the second floor, where we realized the rope had not only been hiding a sushi bar and expensive art, but also a small woman, about 5'3, who was standing in the corner of the room wearing a red kimono and looking quite precious. It was Bjork, looking just as spritely as one would imagine, but with the strong air of self-awareness and comfort that emanates from the Icelandic singer's music videos. I'm not going to continue on her feautures or her friends, but I would like to note that there is something distinct about Bjork's prescence. As once stated by a friend, Bjork retains the French idea of artist celebrity. I agree that she escapes Hollywood stardom (or perhaps was virulently rejected after her Oscar-swan dress); perhaps her more esoteric fame explains her certain je ne sais quoi. A few steps away stood Matthew Barney, also looking quite dashing. All I can say is that he is certainly a Yale boy. All in all, the evening was quite eventful, ending in a celebratory warm spring night.

Pictures from the event can be seen by clicking here.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Interview with Momus, Part II

Returning to Momus and the Whitney: The Clash of Civilizations

Thessaly, Momus, Eremi

As Eremi wrote previously, we are most familiar with Momus through his livejournal. Click Opera, which he updates daily, ranges from personal entries (a description of his day or travels) to thoughtful essays that weave together philosophic and contemporary themes. Two of our personal favorites were his musings on capitalism, and his nostalgic appeal to communism (check out "Emotional Communist" and "Capitalism Hearts Death"). Resonating with our education and worldview, Click Opera always delivered interesting, quirky, or thoughtful perspectives. But we were surprised when he recently delivered an opinion on events concerning the Danish cartoons, citing none other than Samual P. Huntington.

In 1993, Hungtington published a short article titled "The Clash of Civilizations" in Foreign Affairs. "It is my hypothesis," he wrote, "that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future."

The Harvard professor was writing at a monumental moment for political theorists: the fall of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War era elicited various interpretations from the American perspective. For many American neoconservatives, the United States won the Cold War thanks to President Reagan's policy of liberationist interventionism. For others, such as Francis Fukuyama, the Cold War signified an inevitable collaspe of an untenable system. (Fukuyama's most recent book - "America at the Crossroads" - illustrates how these theories led to unfortunate consequences, such as the Iraq War. Bush and his neo neoconservatives took the Cold War to mean that liberalism was inherently at the core of any regime and with enough shaking, liberal democracy would be the last one standing. Hence, no exit strategy.)

However, while the end of the Cold War was treated as a reasonable justification for liberal democracy, it did not fully satisfy why political conflict still errupted across the world. Fukuyama's influencial "End of History" believed that violent political movements (e.g. jihadism) were reactionary backlashes to modernization, as set forth by Weber's theory of progressive disenchantment. (A crude summary: Weber says modernity makes the world more homogeneous, decisions more rational, and as a result, religion loses its role in society. This is difficult to handle.) Taking this one step further, Huntington believed the end of communism signaled the end of ideological differences (that is, liberal democracy won) but the rise of cultural conflict between what he designates as eight separate civilizations.

Huntington's essay recieved more responses than any other essay in Foreign Affairs, before and after. His so-called eight civilizations rest on weak argumentaion and anecdotal evidence, which is poorly supported and easily contradicted by other anecdotal evidence. He mostly believes that civilizations are ordered around religion, but as critics point out, his conception of religion reinforces a limited Western point of view. On the other hand, Huntington has often been evoked and bandied about (mostly by the right) after the events of September 11, which is relevant in terms of exploring why it occured and what to do next. Civilizational culture clashes are worth acknowledging, but upon closer inspection, Huntington's framework is limited and unstable. Both Eremi and I had been taught to read Huntington with caution and an appropriate amount of skepticism. We were curious as to why Currie, with whom we normally agree, chose to align himself with Huntington so instantaneously. Eremi originally wrote a response in 2nd Law here, but when we realized we would have the opportunity to sit down and speak with Currie, we couldn't resist asking about Huntington. In typical Momus fashion, we recieved an interesting and thoughtful response:

Eremi Amabebe: The next question is about your post on the Danish cartoons, which came as somewhat of a surprise to me. You have talked about Muslims in Europe a lot before, so I was wondering if your position changed at all after the whole cartoon row.

Nick Currie: I think Huntington is often misused by people in that debate as someone saying that because cultures are different they can’t get on with each other. And that’s not what Huntington says. As I understand him, he said cultures are different -- deal with it. The world is going to be characterized, yes, by conflict between cultures, but also by the recognition of difference. I think that one thing Huntington wants to negate or deny is the idea that there is a universal morality. Basically, he says that the US -– or the West in general –- has tended to think that its values are universal and that it can impose its values on other people. I think Huntington wants to say that that’s not the case.

Thessaly La Force: I also feel he’s been used by a lot of conservatives inside the United States. Like, for instance, for a Bush senior type of foreign policy.

NC: But the New World Order was about imposing universal, relatively liberal, values worldwide - and Huntington doesn’t endorse that at all. That’s not something you can use Huntington to support. The Neocons are using kind of the same arguments, but they are just pushing them to these absurd extremes. I don’t think you could use Huntington for either of those positions; but I don’t endorse everything Huntington says. I’m basically a culturalist; I think culture is the important unit to look at rather than say, money, or economics.

TL: I have one last question. I know you’re Scottish, and you’ve appealed to the idea of sentiment. I recently read a Richard Rorty piece on human rights where he reintroduces Hume as an idea of how we’re going to overcome cultural barriers and avoid being universalistic, but also cooperate with one another. And it sounded similar your idea of ‘good difference.’

NC: I haven’t read David Hume very closely; he was in that Scottish tradition of humanism. And I kind of see those arguments where people say, ‘Ok, there is no such thing as objective truth or universal values, but what’s wrong with having rights as the next best thing? We might as well have an idea of human rights.’I mean, I can see the argument that we might as well have something, which people could then refer to and say, ‘Bush is breaking this convention, or this right, or whatever.’ In a way, it’s like what Freud called the “small differences” thing; I would have a “small difference” conflict with people who talk about universal human rights, but if there was a war I would be on their side. Those small differences would dissolve very easily. I would say, “Ok, I don’t believe these have any objective foundation, but I will fight for them.”

EA: Back to the Clash of Civilizations. I’m just not sure if I understand you completely; you’re saying that you take Huntington to say, basically, ‘culture is relevant’?

NC: Yeah, the idea that it’s ok to talk about groups. And that it’s even ok to generalize about groups, as long as your generalizations are testable and accurate.

EA: That seems like a nice thing on a group level or an individual level. But as far as foreign policy goes—

NC: Well, it certainly would have prevented the invasion of Iraq if Bush had read Huntington and said, ‘Ok, the Middle East has a different culture from us and we have to respect that difference…’ In a way, I think it would be more acceptable than what they’ve done, if they did what the Roman Empire did. [The Romans] invaded a lot of places, but they gave citizenship to everybody they invaded. I mean, sure, you might have just become a slave or something, but a lot of the greatest Roman writers –like Martial, he was Spanish- were from places that had been invaded and annexed to the Roman Empire. So if America really believed that its values were worth spreading around the whole world, it should make everyone in Iraq an instant American citizen --

EA: Would that go over well, though?

NC: It wouldn’t, of course it wouldn’t. But you can’t just invade people and not make them citizens, yet take their natural resources and whatever else you’re in there for. You should either go the whole way and be totally an imperial power -- which really is superior and really does spread its superior values and accept people as citizens-- or you just shouldn’t do it at all. A good reason not to do it is to say, ‘Ok, we have different cultures in the world and it’s not our business to tell other people how to live.’