Archive for November, 2009

I frequently find myself caught somewhere between the criticism of twitter as full of mindless blather and the praise of it as a new venue for communication and information sharing (see: protests in Iran as examples of the latter and just about anywhere else as examples of the former). But as someone trained as an historian, I’m less interested in historical ruptures and things being created ex-nihilo than I am in the strange ebb and flow of historical tides, especially where technology is concerned.

So, I found myself thinking about Ham Radio because the thing about Ham Radio was that people mostly tinkered in their basements and sent out signals trying to get in touch with as many people as they could. When you tuned in another Ham operator, you usually acknowledged receipt of the signal by sending them a postcard in the mail, noting the time and day of the signal you tuned in. The postcards themselves are sometimes really beautiful, but that’s a different story.

See where this is going? On Ham Radio, people were communicating over long distances, with one another, but the impetus and conventions here had less to do with saying something in particular; the impulse here was to say anything at all. The goal was not the proverbial “deep and meaningful” conversation, but just the act of communication.

So, and I went ahead and bought a bunch of ham radio postcards on ebay (mostly because I could, but also because, it turns out, they’re fascinating). I bought a lot of 264 cards from the early 1950s, collected by a man named Dale Wolters of Zeeland, Michigan. Call Letters: W8GEH. All of these cards were sent to him from people who heard his signal — and they are from all over the world: South Africa, Spain, Germany, the Caribbean, Mexico. Ham Radio was global long before all this talk of “globalization.”

People were connecting just to connect long before twitter breathed its first tweet.


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Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family, and founder of The Revealer, has done new reporting on the connection between American religious conservatives and the proposed anti-gay legislation in Uganda.  The connection comes through an organization called “The Family.”  As Sharlet’s book details, The Family is a secretive fundamentalist organization dating from the 1930s that seeks to cultivate political leaders with a combination of quirky theology and conservative policy.  Among other endeavors, they provide housing for senators and congressmen, run Bible studies, and host the annual National Prayer Breakfast.  On Fresh Air this week, Sharlet discussed the role of The Family in Uganda.  A nice summary of this matter can be found at Episcopal Cafe.  Take a look.  But be forewarned—it’s scary.

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Last night I saw the Coen Brothers’ new film, A Serious Man. It’s quite brilliant and thoughtful in a whole slew of ways, from the fact that it opens with a quote from Rashi and 10 minutes of perfect Yiddish to its incessant interrogation of faith, human behavior and the indeterminacy of both.

But this post is about a lampshade. A strategically placed lampshade.

One of the most striking qualities of the film is its pitch-perfect reconstruction of Jewish material culture in the late 1960s-early 1970s. I recognized — viscerally recognized — so much of the film’s aesthetic from the rabbis’ tchochke-full offices to the vast modern terrain of the synagogue sanctuary to the awkward phrasing of a bar mitzvah boy’s Torah reading. Every element in this film was so well crafted, so thoughtful, so precise in its calibration, that this lampshade stood out.

The lampshade appears in a scene in which the main character goes to see his rabbi about his ongoing existential crisis, and has to see the junior rabbi, instead. On the wall of the junior rabbi’s office is a map of Israel. I grew up in synagogues and classrooms that had that pink-and-yellow Carta map of Israel on the wall. It — like so much else about this film — is unmistakable. But, the middle of this map, from about Haifa in the north to about Kibbutz Yotvata in the south, is obscured by a precisely well-placed lampshade.

The lampshade obscured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the whole of the geography that has been at the center of so much contention since Israel began its occupation in 1967. A pre-1967 map would have depicted the State of Israel with the Green Line as its boundary, and with Gaza as part of Egypt and the West Bank as part of Jordan. The scene, which cuts back and forth between the characters in conversation, shows the map a whole bunch of times, and each time, there is the lampshade.

The lampshade is the Coen Brothers’ version of the blurring technology that covers other, similarly contentious… umm… parts when they appear on television. In this case the issue isn’t modesty — it’s politics. It’s history. It’s memory. It’s the ongoing reluctance of much of American Jewry to acknowledge the complicated history of the State of Israel, and the realities of historically contingent and shifting borders. Frankly, it’s a cop out that reveals that even the most scrupulous attention to historical detail will always reveal its present-orientation.

Instead of holding fast to their delicate, exquisite reconstruction of 1960s Jewish life, the Coen Brothers cave in to the demands and fears of early 21st century.

Even the past still has a present.

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When I was a kid and I got the flu it meant days home in bed.  I’ll try not to glamorize this, but I do recall some fairly blissful mornings with a pile of Kleenex, cough drops (remember Ludens—they used to taste just like candy!), and the TV all to myself.  I’m sure this wasn’t convenient for my mom who was a single parent, but we didn’t have flu vaccine so there wasn’t any way else to manage.  We just did.

I just took the girls to get their vaccines, and while I was waiting in the long line of other similarly haggard looking parents doing the same I had to wonder—when did we get so desperate to keep our kids from getting sick, and why?  Is it that the flu is worse now than it was when I was a kid?  h1n1 aside, I don’t think so.  More likely, we just don’t have time these days for our kids to get the flu. It’s ok if we get the flu because we can straggle into work in various stages of consciousness and, if it gets that bad we can always stay home and check emails from bed.  But when the kids get sick you can’t work.  Well, you can, but it’s hard.  Plus you look like a really crappy parent when you’re over on the computer while your kid moans from the other room.  Perhaps this is what makes flu season so scary and the flu vaccine such a balm.  We live lives without any back up—a sick kid can’t go to school and there isn’t any other childcare available to many of us.  We can’t take the time off work because in the age of the iphone, work is everywhere all the time.   A sick kid equals workplace disaster.  Preventing illness allows us to keep living lives that have little room for error, man-made or biological.

When the nurse gave the girls their post-vaccine pep talk about how they wouldn’t get sick now and wasn’t that wonderful, I found I only half agreed.  Sure, I don’t want them to be sick.  But maybe they should be.

My mother had polio, so I have to be careful not to suggest that the good old days were when people got sick.  Still, I think there is a point to getting “everyday” sick; illness is part of the natural rhythm of things.  And again, I’m not talking about h1n1.   I wonder what’s in store for this generation of kids taught in classrooms with Costco sized hand sanitizer bottles who learn group songs about the virtues of hand washing.  Will they be susceptible to superillnesses because of limited immune experiences?  Will they be unempathetic to those who are ill or disabled?  Will they equate the good life with bodies and lives consistently under their control?

It all makes me long for that box of Ludens, and a day on the couch.

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November 9th marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a momentous event that signified the end of the Cold War.  I was a sophomore in college when the wall fell.  Today’s sophomores in college were not yet born.  I sometimes forget that a whole generation has now grown up in the United States with essentially no personal memory of the Cold War.  What they know of that forty-year geopolitical conflict they have learned in history class, or heard from parents and grandparents, or taken from popular culture.

When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, the Cold War was a prominent backdrop to my life.  It was a continual presence in my pre-teen and teen imagination and in the broader culture of the time.  I worried about nuclear holocaust.  I was freaked out by the television movie The Day After.  The Soviet boxer Ivan Drago intimidated me in Rocky IV.  The opening scene in Red Dawn, in which invading Russians and Cubans parachute into a schoolyard and open fire on teachers and students, really unnerved me.  I ardently agreed with Sting when he sang, “I hope the Russians love their children, too.”  I wrote poems and songs about atomic war, radioactive fallout, and post-apocalyptic nuclear mutants.  I was actually very concerned about the mutants and what I would do about them if I survived an atomic attack.    

I wonder what the Cold War means today for Americans who did not grow up with it.  Our political discourse is rife with Cold War references, even if they are sometimes (okay, oftentimes) incorrectly used: President Obama is a communist, or a socialist, or a Manchurian candidate; health care reform will bring back gulags or make the U.S. like Cuba; communist symbols can supposedly be found on prominent Manhattan buildings (or so claimed Glenn Beck, telling FOX news viewers he found images of a hammer and sickle in Rockefeller Center).  Contemporary American culture is similarly throwing us back to the Cold War era: take for example the TV show Mad Men, the newest Indiana Jones movie, the documentary Virtual JFK (which imagines what might have happened in Vietnam if Kennedy had lived), and the recently published book The Hawk and the Dove, a dual biography of Paul Nitze and George Kennan.  There’s even a popular indie rock band from Fullerton called Cold War Kids.  And in 2010, Hollywood will release a remake of Red Dawn; in this version, teenagers will fight an invading force of Chinese and Russian soldiers.

So for the post-Cold War generation, that historical era lives on in partisan political name-calling and in popular culture.  Still, it’s strange for me to think that the Cold War is already becoming the stuff of popular memory.  For me, it will always be linked inextricably to my childhood, and especially to my childhood fears about how the world might end.  My college students today tell me that they don’t even worry about nuclear war.  Instead, they fear the world will end as a result of global warming or an infectious disease outbreak.  Or some believe that it won’t end at all. Perhaps that’s progress.

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Reading the Twi-Hards

The other day when I was getting a haircut, my 30-something female stylist told me that she had been reading Twilight, the bestselling novel about teenage romance between Bella the human and Edward the vampire.  My hairstylist and I talked about the book for a while (which I have not read), and then she described the evening when she first watched the film version (which I have seen) at home on DVD.  She told me that at the end of the film she was in tears, and she inexplicably cried out to her husband, who was working on his computer in the next room, “Why can’t you love me like that?”

Last spring, an undergraduate student in my popular culture class told a similar story.  A friend of hers had broken up with a boyfriend because the love she had with the boyfriend did not approximate the love that Bella and Edward shared.  And that was the kind of love that the young woman wanted.

When I share these stories with friends, their responses always range from disbelief to disgust.  No one coos, “Ah, how sweet.”  Even the hairstylist told me she was embarrassed by her behavior.  Why do fan stories like these make us so uncomfortable?  I’ll offer two perspectives, one cultural and the other historical, that may help us think about this question.

One of the negative stereotypes we have of fans of any cultural phenomenon is that their behavior potentially verges on fanaticism.  Being a fan is okay, but being a fanatic is not.  Showing loyalty to a professional football team by wearing a jersey on game day is a reasonable way to express fandom.  Maintaining a candlelit shrine to the quarterback in one’s living room is excessive.  Why?  As a culture, we feel the need to differentiate between acceptable and extreme fan behavior, even if we don’t necessarily agree on what exactly the demarcation is.  Moreover, we often believe that our own personal expressions of fandom are completely reasonable; it is always others who are fanatical.  As a 39-year-old fan of Star Wars, I have a Mr. Potato Head Darth Vader on my desk, and I talk like Yoda sometimes with my friends, but that’s normal.  Someone shouting out, “Why can’t you love me like Edward loves Bella?”—well, that’s downright bizarre.

There is also a long history in the United States of women’s reading habits being subjected to public scrutiny and harsh judgment.  Over 200 years ago, for instance, (male) commentators warned about the impact of fiction reading on the female sensibility.  Consider this passage from “Novel Reading, a Cause of Female Depravity” (1797): “The poor deluded female imbibes erroneous principles [from novels], and from thence pursues a flagrantly vicious line of conduct.”  Or this admonition from a 1792 tract: “Novels not only pollute the imaginations of young women, but likewise give them false ideas of life, which too often make them act improperly.”  When we tut tut the Twilight fans, we actually evoke a long standing, biased discourse about gender, leisure, and the cultural construction of romance in America.

I believe it’s important to take fandom seriously, even if it makes us uncomfortable.  Fandom is one way that everyday people express their sense of identity, community, and cultural participation.  Studying fandom can also reveal our societal biases about “good and bad” recreation, or “right and wrong” expressions of cultural enthusiasm.

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All Idiot, no America

Last week I went to see Berkeley Rep‘s much-hyped staging of a rock opera set to Green Day‘s 2003 concept album American Idiot. This seemed like a sure-fire winner of an evening. I am a huge fan of the album, I grew up in Berkeley, Green Day famously got their “start” at 924 Gilman, a local punk club, and I know that Berkeley Rep also helped launch Stew‘s brilliant musical Passing Strange — so I figured this couldn’t go wrong.

But I was wrong and so was the show.American_Idiot-Green_Day_480

The play took the record and managed to reduce all of the punky post-9/11 angst, all of the clever insights and all of the whip-smart political commentary to a thinly woven narrative about three friends and the choices they make (one gets his girlfriend pregnant; one leaves town for fortune, fame and drugs; one joins the army). Green Day’s smarts were reduced to smugness while the actors retained the band’s famous brattiness but none of their brains.

The show seems to have forgotten the ways in which the album conjures up a very difficult 21st century American landscape in which individual choices are always in conversation with larger political and cultural structures. Despite nods to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to George Bush, the play fails to make them speak to its characters, and vice versa.

All of the things that made this album so good were crushed beneath an overblown cast and an under-inflated story. The story of this record lies not in the play’s moralizing tale about drugs, family, salvation, and relationships, but in what it means to not have the choice to live elsewhere when your country is waging wars you don’t support. It articulates frustration and confusion and the knowledge that one might hold on to the American Dream despite the fact that it is so patently a lie. None of the tension that is woven throughout the album managed to make the jump to the stage. The notes sounded right and the postures looked familiar, but the sense of the sound simply wasn’t there.

There were a few nice moments, such as the staging of “When September Ends” as an allegory for an endless autumn, that began on September 11. But following such a moving evocation of that day’s losses, the story somehow fell back into its tritely packaged narrative about individual choices and their consequences. But the record isn’t fueled by petty choices, but by the sense that one can’t choose everything, and that we are somehow, regularly, caught by political and cultural forces beyond our own control. Thus: life in post-9/11 America, where we are all in danger of being American idiots.

On an airplane the following day, I dialed in the album on my iPod, to figure out if what I thought I heard in earlier listenings was still there. It was. The tensions it captures still ring true, the guitars still resonate and the lyrics still stand as one of the strongest expressions of the politics of the last decade. It is still a great album — sometimes the fury ought to remain sound.

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There’s a gorgeous book cover from days gone byTin Pan Alley (1930)

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In recent days we have seen a rather alarming convergence of events related to homosexuality, religion, and globalization.  Currently under debate in the Ugandan Parliament is a bill that would extended the country’s already draconian anti-gay laws, calling in some cases for the death penalty for homosexuals.

As horrifying as this is, it gets worse, since the Ugandan authorities responsible for this proposed legislation have received direct and indirect support from a variety of American and Western forces.  First, those in the US pouring money into Maine to repeal its marriage equality legislation—which is on the ballot today—have over the years also made alliances with anti-gay forces in Uganda. American megachurch pastor Rick Warren once touted his relationships with those in Uganda now pushing these measure, for example, though he claims to have disassociated himself from them in recent years.

Second, religious leaders of the Anglican Church in Uganda have been vocal supporters of the legislation, and Pope Benedict XVI gave these very same religious forces a major boost last week.  The Pope announced that he would create a special arrangement for disaffected Anglican priests, and their congregations, to join the Roman Catholic Church.  Brushing aside decades of painstaking talks between the world’s two largest Christian bodies, Benedict chose to welcome even married Anglicans into the Roman fold.

The reason some Anglicans might want to join the Roman Church, though never stated directly, is obvious to anyone following recent developments in the global Anglican communion:  conservatives are upset by the ordination of women and, more recently, of open, non-celibate homosexuals. Many of those most upset about the movement toward full inclusion of gay and lesbians Anglicans are leaders of the Anglican Church in Africa, including in Uganda.   This recent announcement from Rome is strictly designed to bolster the antigay forces at work in the Anglican Church, including those in Africa.

American and Europeans church bodies have done many good things in Africa in recent years, including advocating for the vast increases in public health aid money implemented by the Bush administration.  Nevertheless, the Pope, American evangelical anti-gay advocates, and conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians in the the UK and the US are all implicated in direct and indirect ways in these outrageous developments in Uganda.

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