Category Archives: culture

Welcome to the Land of Inequality

Teaching American Studies in Torino, as I am for the next two weeks, is an eye-opening experience.  I feel a bit as if I am a native informant, who has to try to undermine the inaccurate views of my students about the United States. One of the foremost of these is the myth that the U.S. is the land of opportunity.

My first class this week will focus on The Monster, Michael W. Hudson’s encyclopedic account of the depredations of the subprime mortgage industry in the U.S. over the last two decades. The industry that, in cahoots with Wall Street banks like Lehman Brothers and using arcane financial instruments like Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) invented in order to profit from the subprime mortgage market, wrecked the global economy.

The sordidness of the subprime mortgage industry is impossible to overestimate. It was run by completely unscrupulous capitalist bosses who purposely targeted working class people of color, people who had finally managed to build up a bit of equity through government-backed mortgage schemes in the decades after the New Deal and the Second World War. Equity, mind you, that was radically less than what the average white suburban family was able to build up in the same period. Here’s an excellent video that gives a sense of the unequal (racialized) landscape of housing in the U.S.:

The subprime mortgage industry targeted working class people of color, siphoning their hard-earned housing equity into an insane Ponzi scheme built on virtually impossible to penetrate financial instruments like CDOs and Credit Default Swaps. The result was a complete crash of the global economy. Here’s a video that very nicely explains how all of these arcane financial instruments worked?

Underlying this crisis of credit reminds us that, of course, the assault on working- and middle-class wages begun by global financial elites in the mid- to late-1970s, led, particularly, by Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. As elites clawed back more and more of the wage gains and other social benefits win during the period since the Great Depression and the Second World War, life for the average person became more and more difficult.

What this led to was the financialization of everyday life. The 99%, in the Occupy parlance, were forced to live more and more off credit (and women had to enter the workforce in order to maintain middle class standards of living). Slowly, people came to think of life itself in financial terms, as a kind of risky investment.

One area in which this shift is particularly apparent is higher education, which went from being seen as a right that was provided to the people free of charge through public higher education systems like the City University of New York and the University of California systems, to being seen as an investment that people had to pay for through tuition charges. This was a Faustian deal, though, since it only made sense – if it ever made sense – when the economy was doing well and this “investment” could be payed down quickly after snagging a well-paying job. Now that unemployment is high for young people, high tuition rates in universities (including public ones) seems more like a scam than a just exchange.

There was a good article in the New York Times today about a couple of French economists who have shown that inequality in the US is nearly as bad as it was during the Great Depression. This is no news break to Occupy activists, but one suspects that the American Dream myth is keeping most people in the U.S. in the dark about this fact, not to mention many people around the world, who continue to think of the U.S. as the land of milk and honey. Here are some amazing charts from the article that demonstrate spiraling income inequality:

It will take tremendous push-back in order to turn this horrible situation around. We’re just at the beginning of such efforts, but the Occupy movement has already initiated some very creative and brave responses to the economic crash. Here is a video of folks from Occupy Foreclosures who block house auction proceedings with choral singing:

The pranksters at Occupy also recently produced a beautiful video that, in Situationalist terminology, “detourn”s West Side Story to cover many of the issues I’ve touched on in this post:

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Accidental Deaths

I’m in Torino, Italy for a couple of weeks to teach a course in the Masters in American Studies program. The course is on American Disasters, but while I’m here I’m trying to catch up on Italian culture. Part of that process simply involves walking around Torino soaking up the ambiance on the streets.  Here are some photos that give a sense of the city:

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I’ve also been having some pretty interesting conversations. My friend Andrea Carosso, who teaches at the university here, told me recently about how pope John Paul II funded Solidarnosc in Poland in order to bring down communism, in the process bankrupting the Vatican’s bank.  Andrea told me that it is quite well known in Italy that the Vatican turned to the Roman mafia for funds following its bankruptcy. Apparently there were numerous other suspicious dealings, including the hanging of “God’s banker” Roberto Calvi – who, as the nickname suggests, was lending the Vatican money – under the Blackfriars bridge in London in 1982 after a complex plot involving Italy’s biggest private bank, Banco Ambrosiano, and the Sicilian mafia.

Adding to the sense of skullduggery, last night I went to see the latest film by the exceptional Italian film director Marco Tullio Giordana. The film deals with a bombing that took place in a Milanese bank: the so-called Piazza Fontana bombing. The subject has been treated before, including in the great playwright Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

The story, as the film explains, hinges on the framing and then “accidental” suicide of an anarchist activist who was being held in custody in relation to the bombing. Giordana’s Romanzo di una strage demonstrates that this suicide was actually a murder carried out by interrogators who are working in cahoots with state authorities. During a time of political mobilization in the 1970s, Right wing elements within the state colluded, the movie suggests, with CIA agents to carry out the devastating Piazza Fontana bombing in order to legitimate the decree of a state of emergency in Italy and the suspension of constitutional liberties. The idea was for Italy to follow in the footsteps of Greece, where a military regime had taken power two years before the Piazza Fontan bombing (with NATO support). Giordana’s film also focuses on the role of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro in staving off the imposition of martial law, implying that this helps explain his subsequent killing (which, we are led to suppose, did not occur at the hands of the Red Brigades). Here’s a trailer for Giordana’s film:

Pretty scary stuff, particularly given the financial instability currently roiling southern Europe. The resonance of this history was underlined to me this morning, when I came across the following video about the resurgence of Greek fascism while readingThe New York Times:

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Beirut Dispatch: The Arab Spring and the Muddled Left

Lebanon is a country with a long history of sectarian strife. The remnants of the civil war, which pitted Christians against various Muslim groups (Shiite and Sunni are both represented in the country), with groups like the Druze additionally complicating the fray, are still evident here in Beirut, despite the relative civil harmony in the country today. But then it was precisely such splits that the Arab spring challenged, so it’s a very exciting time to be here in Beirut.

Given the tectonic shifts the entire region is undergoing, it should not be so surprising that the politics underlying the conference organized by the American University of Beirut’s Center for American Studies and Research, a conference which I recently attended, should be a little muddled. In fact, the conference theme – Shifting Borders – reflects the huge changes the region is currently undergoing, and the resulting complexity and confusion among political and cultural analysts about the future.

That said, some of the presentations at the conference reflect pitfalls that the Left really needs to avoid if it is going to contribute significantly to the democratizing currents that have been sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East over the last year.

For example, the conference began with the keynote address by Rani Khouri of the American University of Beirut. Professor Khouri argued that we are currently living through one of the most significant changes in modern Middle Eastern history. The significance of the mass uprisings were sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor, on 4 January one year ago is to introduce the first process of citizen-based self-determination, leading nations in the region towards a genuine politics of sovereignty.

For Khouri, the mass uprisings and the movements for democracy they unleashed redress grievances felt since the anti-colonial nationalist movements of the 1950s and 1960s liberated the region from colonial control, but then introduced different varieties of authoritarian military rule. Often, these dictatorial regimes were tied to foreign powers, including, of course, the US. As a result, they lacked popular legitimacy on a variety of levels.

These uprisings were generated, Khouri argued, by a combination of material grievances – based on declining incomes across the region – and popular demands for the meaningful recognition of their citizenship, constitutional changes to enshrine democratic processes, and social justice.

Khouri’s major intervention was to challenge the Islamophobic discourses so often heard in the Western media. He explained that Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are reaping electoral gains from the revolutions of the last year precisely because they have been so effective in articulating popular discontent with the status quo across the region in recent decades. They have, he argued, consistently expressed popular anti-imperialist sentiments, argued for popular empowerment, provided a sense of transnational unity, and have delivered basic service to people in the increasing absence of the state (or of any aspect of the state other than its police-military face).

In order to question Euro-American Islamophobia, Khouri compared Islamist groups to the Civil Rights movement in the US. Both, he argued, were driven by assertions of social justice and human dignity. As a result, such groups gave people a sense of human and a belief in their ability to change history. This link between the US Civil Rights movement – which often had a religious underpinning – and Islamist movements in the Middle East is an interesting and original comparison.

Khouri argued that the electoral victory of these movements would have the same impact as the triumph of the Civil Rights movement in the US: the religious grounding of these groups will become less evident as they take over the state and become engaged in basic issues of effective service provision that are necessary in order to retain their popular mandate.

This argument seems questionable to me. To what extent are currents of fundamentalism in Islamism more comparable to Christian evangelical groups in the US than to the Civil Rights movement? Moreover, to what extent will such groups move towards secularism as they are confronted with the increasingly intractable political-economic woes of neoliberal capitalism? Moreover, given the likely intensification of climate change in coming years, can we assume that these movements will settle easily into the liberal democratic capitalist trajectory that Khouri seemed to assume – drawing on the US model – is the universal norm and goal?

The central problem in Khouri’s argument, in other words, is its liberalism. As far as I could tell, there was no analysis of the anti-capitalist element in the revolutions of the last year. Nor was there any acknowledgement of the problems such movements will face as a result of increasingly grim global crises of capitalism. Because of the liberal framework of Khouri’s analysis, he ironically ended up retaining a neo-colonial sense that the US is the telos or goal towards which the societies of North Africa and the Middle East must aspire. Given the current political-economic crises in the US and EU, such an argument seems harder to sustain and more self-defeating than ever.

Juxtaposed with this liberalism at the keynote, organizers of the conference had also invited a number of Iranians to present their work, including the head of American Studies at Tehran University. A professor in such a position could only be complicit on one level or another with the increasingly authoritarian regime in the country. Sure enough, during his presentation, this professor proceeded to argue that Iran is one of the major victors in the region as a result of the revolutions of 2011. Although this Iranian was quick to denounce US imperialism, he ducked questions about the ungoing repression in Syria and of course had little to say about the violent suppression of the Green Movement – which can, in many ways, be seen as one of the antecedents of the Arab Spring – in his own country.

The fact that CASAR organizers gave public platforms to both liberals such as Khouri and the Iranian contingent suggests the extent of the muddle about what a progressive politics in the Middle East might look like. How hard it is to forge a coherent anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal and anti-homophobic front. This is what democracy must look like, after all, in the Middle East and elsewhere. If the Left does not stand up for all these values, it will be on the wrong side of history.

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A Walk on the Wilde Side

My friend Nick Frankel has just brought out a new edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  It’s creating quite a buzz since Nick’s new edition restores quite a few sexually charged passages that were suppressed by Wilde’s Victorian editors.

Surprising that it’s taken this long to restore this material.  Check out this interview in which Nick, Associate Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, explains why Wilde’s original editors cut out the homoerotic material that he’s now restored, and offers a fascinating discussion of the social and political context that legitimated the persecution of Wilde and other queers in late Victorian Britain.

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City of Lights

I’m spending a week in Turin, Italy, teaching a short seminar on “American Disasters” in the M.A. course at the Università di Torino.  Here’s a copy of the syllabus.

During the evenings, I’ve been walking the city.  It’s a truly beautiful place, filled with nineteenth century arches and arcades.  At this time of year, the city is also full of light displays.  Here’s a brief video of the city of lights:

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I’m in Austin, Texas visiting family.  It’s hot as hell here, but so far the forests aren’t burning down as they are in Russia.  Austin is a pretty progressive town, with a very forward thinking municipal energy company that does a pretty good job of encouraging people to switch to renewable energy sources.  My parents actually had to enter a lottery to get the right to buy wind power from the city – shows how popular it is!  And TX has some of the biggest wind farms in the country.

Nonetheless, people live like they’re in outer space here during the summer.  It’s over 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day in August, and everything is air conditioned.

Signs of awareness of the environmental crisis are not hard to find, though.  I recently went to a show at the Austin Museum of Art.  Called “Running the Numbers,” it focused on the work of the photographer Chris Jordan.  He was apparently a corporate lawyer whose work included defending oil companies until he had a kind of conversion experience and became a photographer focusing on the mammoth piles of detritus produced by our culture.  He began by simply photographing junk yards piled high with used automobile tires and similar objects.

His work has, however, evolved in far more interesting directions recent.  In “Running the Numbers,” digital photomontage images reference famous images from art history such as Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” and Van Gogh’s “Skeleton of a Skull with Burning Cigarette”.  If you click your computer mouse on these images, however, the computer zooms in to reveal that they’re made of hundreds of thousands (and sometimes millions) of smaller objects – aluminum cans in the case of the Seurat image and cigarette boxes in the case of the Van Gogh.  Each image exemplifies a statistic – in the case of the Seurat, 106,000 cans, equal to the number consumed every 30 seconds in the U.S. Very clever – it even comes out better on the computer than in the gallery since one’s eyes simply can’t zoom down to the scale obtainable through the computer.

The museum did a great job of contextualizing the show.  We arrived in the middle of the day and were given a tour by a very knowledgeable young intern who had been present when Jordan came to introduce the show, so we were able to ask critical questions about Jordan’s intentions, references, and impact.  The museum also provided a table filled with books dealing with similar topics, including a new publication by the amazing Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky on the incredibly timely subject of the oil industry.

Burtynsky’s images in this book are, in many ways, far more traditional than Jordan’s work – building as they do on longstanding practices of landscape painting and photography as well as the minimalism of Bernd and Hilda Becher.  But Burtynsky’s work evinces far less of a sense of awe at the physical structures created by industrial modernity and far more of a sense of dread at the horrendous waste streams we produce.  For me, the most powerful images in Burtynsky’s book are the ones at the very end, the ones grouped under the (perhaps wishful) heading “the end of oil.”

Going to a show like this is in many ways quite depressing.  Burtynsky’s overwhelming vistas of waste and Jordan’s even more mind- and soul-numbing aggregations of microscopic objects that illustrate death-dealing habits of mass consumption leave one feeling overwhelmed, desperate, and perhaps even numbed.  But at least there’s some acknowledgment here of the crisis of our times.  Better this than simply sticking our collective heads in the sand.

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The Death of Journalism?

I just read a very upsetting post on the website of Triple Canopy, a very interesting online mixed-media journal.  On the site I found a link to a talk given by Roger Hodge, a friend from my college days who had a mercurial rise at the tender age of 37 to the editorship of Harper’s Magazine.  I was very happy for him, particularly since I remember a conversation when he was thinking of moving out to Arizona to edit some sports magazine.  Of course, I was also pretty envious.

Roger ascended into what passes for the stratosphere in media circles four years ago.  Watching his presentation at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, I learned that he’s recently been given the sack.  I’m terribly sad for him, although I imagine he’ll land on his feet given his eminence as an ex-editor of Harper’s.

In addition, however, Roger’s talk suggested that we should all we worried about the state of journalism.  According to Roger, his recent fate is indicative of and of a piece with the broader decline in journalism.  As he puts it, journalists made the terrible mistake of training their readers to expect writing for free, and now their occupation is disappearing since there are no viable sources of funding.  Roger reels off some hair-raising statistics, including the fact that circulation is down 20% over the last two years at all the magazines that allow auditing, and that’s on top of a 10% decline the previous year.  This terrible collapse began in earnest, Roger argues, in 2006.

It’s not clear what the solution is.  Even someone in such a powerful position as Roger, editor at one of the two or three most significant venues for serious long-form journalism in the U.S., seems to have no answer.  In fact, not only does he have no answer, but he seems incredibly, painfully pessimistic about the future.  Efforts by newspapers and magazines to set up paywalls are doomed, he argues, since people are now habituated to reading journalism for free.  The only way journalists can survive today is by writing books, one of the only forms of writing which people are still willing to buy.

Given this situation, it seems to me that institutions like universities are going to be one of the only sources where support for journalism is going to be found – at least in the U.S.  The goal in the long term should I think be to push for state subvention along the lines of most major European nations, even if this seems like a pipe dream in this haven of neoliberalism.  Without such a step, the danger is that journalists are going to become like poets in the U.S. today, whose vocation is no longer viable economically and who are totally dependent on teaching in academia in order to survive.

Anyway, here’s Roger’s talk:

For a far less pessimistic take, check out this interview with the editor of The Guardian, a paper which is held in a trust and is therefore subsidized.

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