BEING RIGHT FOR THE WRONG REASONS

Posted in Rants on April 16th, 2008 by Ed

As some of you are well aware, I'm obsessed with Cold War-era culture. While re-reading one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction, Kenneth Rose's One Nation Underground: the Fallout Shelter in American Culture, I did the grad student thing and followed up on a footnote. It led me to an equally interesting article about the social and cultural history of Cold War-era civil defense indoctrination in schools by historian JoAnne Brown: "A is for Atom, B is for Bomb: Civil Defense in American Public Education, 1948-1963" (jstor access required). The entire article is fascinating (if you're me) but one part just floored me. It says everything you need to know about the time period – and probably goes a long way toward explaining baby boomers.

Many large public school districts (including New York and San Francisco) implemented a plan to issue metal dog tags to all school children. The stated purpose was something about helping to identify lost children, although everyone over the age of four understood that their real purpose was for the identification of bomb-charred corpses. I'm sure that militarizing the act of being in school, not to mention indoctrinating little kids to expect death to rain down from the skies at any moment, had some relatively profound psychological effects on the kiddies. But it could have been worse. Here's another plan proposed by the Deputy Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools in 1951:

Tattooing is considered occasionally, but generally rejected because of its 'associations' and impermanence in case of severe burns.

What a snapshot of 1950s America: a bunch of white guys sitting around talking about tattooing five year-olds….and rejecting it not because it's unfathomably fucked up but because tattoos are unreadable on scorched corpses. Oh, and those "associations" with the Holocaust. Which had wrapped up only 6 years before this quote. But let's assume they would have overcome that minor obstacle had they devised a tattoo ink that withstands a 5,000 degree fireball and a hundred lifetimes worth of gamma rays in 3/10ths of a second.

It stuns me, not having lived through the period, how matter-of-factly people managed to talk about nuclear war as though it were A) imminent B) unavoidable and C) survivable. They talk about ID-ing all the dead kids with about as much emotion as field trip permission slips and new math textbooks.

I strongly recommend Rose's book if you're even remotely into social criticism. While the topic might not seem like it, this is a book anyone could enjoy. If you do have a specific interest in Cold War culture, I also recommend Tom Vanderbilt's Survival City: Adventures in Atomic America (an architectural critic's look at the crumbling ruins of buildings and structures purpose-built for World War Three) or Andrew Grossman's Neither Dead nor Red. And of course you can't overlook culturally-revealing staples of fiction like On the Beach, A Canticle for Liebowitz (in my all-time top three favorite books ever), or Alas, Babylon.

BOMBING OUR WAY TO URBAN RENEWAL

Posted in Rants on April 15th, 2008 by Ed

If you live in or hail from the Midwest you have a more acute understanding of the term "urban decay" than any other Americans. You know what grainy Kodachrome movies of Flint, Buffalo, Gary, Dayton, Fort Wayne, or Harrisburg looked like in the 1950s compared to the post-industrial, vacant, demilitarized no man's lands they are today. You know how every single harebrained government, academic, or think tank "revitalization" plan from the 1970s and 1980s was test-cased somewhere in the region (almost inevitably St. Louis or East St. Louis). You've seen the Sarajevo-like relics of American experimentation with Soviet panelak housing such as Pruitt-Igoe, Cabrini-Green, and the Robert Taylor Homes. The suburbs in which you probably grew up talked of nothing but explosive population growth for the past several decades while as a society we have waffled along the thin line between trying to save our rotting urban cores or abandon them to fate and poor (usually black) people.


Robert Taylor Homes – Poverty Containment Unit #14b

The depths to which many urban areas sunk in the 1970s and 1980s – most glaringly Detroit, New York City, and St. Louis, but certainly others as well – cannot be overstated. It spawned an entire genre of white revenge/vigilantism films like Death Wish, Dirty Harry, and Robocop. It led many well-meaning reformers to throw up their hands and many ignorant policymakers to wonder what the hell was happening. It caused many Americans to wonder, apparently with straight faces and no hint of irony, why the idea of vertically stacking 100,000 dirt-poor, jobless people on a 4 square mile footprint in areas devoid of civic, educational, or economic/employment opportunities was not working. And huge numbers of urbanites just packed up and fled.

After, for example, the Robert Taylor homes experienced 28 murders in a single 48 hour period it became kind of hard to defend the status quo. Cities began quietly demolishing their concrete and rebar prisons. The game of "Who can offer potential employers the biggest tax break handjob?" began in earnest (which is effectively government job and income subsidy, but we don't call it that because we believe only in the majesty of the unfettered free market). Crackpot renewal and beautification schemes, usually involving red brick, bunting and lame "attractions", petered out. Reality began to sink in. Some cities modestly recovered or are beginning the long, slow climb towards recovery. Others have just said "fuck it" and abandoned all hope of recreating their halcyon days.

Take Youngstown, for example. They've given up on trying to return to their heyday as the third largest steel producing city in the nation. Instead, they're literally destroying vast swaths of the city – abandoned housing, potholed streets, and vacant commercial spaces. Urban renewal with bulldozers. They plan to lure back some industry (my money's on "casino" or "state prison") with a novel pitch: This place has been abandoned. Cheap land and desperate job-seekers abound. We are so poor that we're willing to bend over and take it with no lube. You can literally do as you please. If this sounds familiar, it's essentially the argument that Bangladesh makes to get Reebok factories.

So it has come to this, I guess.

It makes some sense – when 50% of the population has fled in a few decades there is no logic to maintaining city infrastructure where it is no longer needed – but goddamn is it depressing. The decay represents a complex, contentious mix of socio-political-economic forces. We can't figure out how to fix it (or even begin fixing it) so we're dismantling cities and hoping to start fresh. I wonder how long it will take some Cato Institute urban planner to recognize the efficiency of leveling urban rot with fuel-air explosives instead of bulldozers. Maybe the folks of Youngstown could return to work making bombs.

IRAQI ENDGAME

Posted in Election 2008 on April 14th, 2008 by Ed

James K. Polk was a noteworthy president, worthy of a better fate than to be forgotten outside of the dozens of middle schools that bear his name. George W. Bush has certainly sampled liberally from the Polk playbook, although that he did so consciously is dubious. That he knows who James K. Polk is, for that matter, is dubious.

After the U.S. annexed Texas in 1845, Mexico was pretty irritated. They had ideas of hanging on to it (and a lot of other territory). Polk was convinced that pre-emptive war with Mexico was necessary to protect the newly-stateified (not a word) Texas from the inevitable Mexican attack. The problem was that he couldn't talk Congress into declaring war, which used to be a prerequisite to the U.S. being in a war. Quaint days, those were.

Here's where Polk got crafty.

He exercised his Commander-in-Chief powers to mobilize a large portion of the Army (under Zachary Taylor) to the U.S.-Mexican border. A funny thing happens when two armies from hostile nations are in close proximity; they start fighting. They progress from trading insults to threats to hot lead. And Polk understood that once a war begins, there's no effective way to stop it without dire consequences. So the first time an angry, sun-stroked Mexican soldier lost control of his itchy trigger finger, the Army said "We were attacked" and responded with both barrels. Lo and behold, Congress declared war shortly thereafter. Start the war first, get approval second. Brilliant. Think about Congress's preferences. 1) No war 2) Win war 3) Lose war. Eliminate #1 and their next highest preference becomes the dominant strategy – even when "victory" is nebulous and undefinable.

The people responsible for starting the war in Iraq understood this (Our Leader not being among that group). While the less intelligent among them believed in their faith-based projections – they'll hail us as their liberators, the fighting will be over in 6 weeks, and all the various factions will get along – but the real architects of the war…..they knew. They knew that all they had to do was start it. Start it and, like a rudderless ocean liner that goes nowhere but never stops, it will take on a self-sustaining momentum of its own.

As I listen to the various presidential candidates' positions on the war, something that we've been whispering as a nation since 2004 has become inescapable: there is no endgame. There is no "good" solution. There's not even a solution. No one has a plan. And that was the plan all along. It's a colossal clusterfuck, and leaving makes it worse. The goal was to entangle the military in a terrible situation which could only get worse following a withdrawl.

The reason I do not give two shits about this election is that the candidates all lead to the same outcome – we're in Iraq for four more years, and then four more after that. Repeat an indeterminate, but likely large, number of times. Obama and Clinton might actually believe that they're going to end our involvement. Does anyone else? Sadly I think a lot of people do. They are in for a real disappointment in that case. The hypothetical Democratic presidents will be cowed into staying in order to "look tough" to the Republican and military establishment. Or they'll simply bow to the overwhelming logistical impossibility of leaving.

It breaks my heart to see so many people pouring their hearts and souls into Obama. Not only am I dubious of his odds at this point, but his election will result in far less "change" than his followers are expecting. I suppose every generation needs that political figure who represents their crushing disillusionment with politics – a McGovern for the present day. Sure, the Democratic candidates will nibble around the edges of our involvement in Iraq, making slow, token withdrawls, treating the troops a little better, and not so blatantly using the conflict as a welfare fund for defense contractors. But there's no escaping our continued involvement. Another generation of young voters will learn that the differences are all in the margins; the things that really matter are entirely beyond our control.

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NPF: SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 11th, 2008 by Ed

Allow me to momentarily use the powerful bully pulpit of Gin and Tacos to self-promote on behalf of my other pursuits.

I'm in a band called Tremendous Fucking. We appeal mostly to people who like early Jesus Lizard, NoMeansNo, Light of the Sun-era Trenchmouth, and getting punched in the head. Probably doesn't describe you very well, does it? We are a letter-perfect response to a question no one asked. Nonetheless, we have a strange habit of making people experience enjoyment when they see us play or listen to our music. "This is not what I normally listen to, but I really enjoyed it anyway" is a common reaction.

Of course I'm leading up to the hard sell. Our new CD More Blood in the Monitors , recorded by Mike "Corn Dog" Bridavsky (the non-union Mexican equivalent of Steve Albini) and mastered by Bob Weston, hit the world last weekend. You should buy one (bottom of the page, item Step026). It is also on iTunes (or will be any minute now, according to Apple) if you prefer that route. A few tracks are available as a preview via MySpace.

I realize it is not our shared musical taste that brings you to this website, but the band and I have spent the better part of a year and several thousand dollars on this endeavor so I'd be derelict if I didn't try pushing it. It's also one of the few things I've ever done of which I am proud. Without qualification. If you're curious, I play the drums, sing a very little bit of backup, and concoct ridiculous song titles.

GROUNDHOG DAY

Posted in Uncategorized on April 10th, 2008 by Ed

So, remember when Gen. Saint Petraeus made his first appearance before Congress in the fall? Remember how it was anticipated by the media with all the fanfare of a new Harry Potter novel? Well, he did it again this week. Am I completely off the rails to say that it attracted as much interest as a new collection of Cathy comics?

I feel like we are just so goddamn tired as a nation. Seven years' worth of scripted, stage-managed sheep shows with pre-determined outcomes, seven years of pointing-out-the-obvious critical commentary in response, and seven years of none of it making the slightest difference. At this point we're too tired to put any energy into going through the motions. Media coverage of the recent Petraeus Day was noticeably half-hearted. It's as if they are far too tired to play along with the "Gee, I wonder what he's going to say?" game a second time. My friends over at Crooks & Liars covered it critically, but it's obvious that their hearts aren't in it. There are only so many times one can say the same thing over and over and over again. I think someone wrote a melancholy song about this sort of thing.

I've long been of the opinion that this is all by design; they rely on the fact that Americans will simply get tired of protesting things they can't change. For seven years it has been made perfectly clear that nothing you say, do, or think will have the slightest bearing on the political process. When challenged, people either fight back or withdraw into a shell. Devoted Obama acolytes aside, are a lot of Americans going the latter route? I can't wait to see what a McCain-Clinton race will do to whatever remains of our nation's faith in the efficacy of politics.

CASE: RESTED

Posted in Uncategorized on April 9th, 2008 by Ed

In case anyone was wondering, the miracle of the IP address reveals that the comments about how America isn't even remotely racist on today's post got to this website via an old picture of Pat Buchanan I'm hosting which is linked on the "NEW YORK WHITE PRIDE" blogspot page.

Ha ha! Ha. Ha. Oh man. Good times.

Well, I'm happy with that explanation. I was starting to think my regular readers suddenly turned into a bunch of backward, cousin-fucking racists. Fortunately the backward, cousin-fucking racists are a merely visitors. The bridge between our worlds is temporary and they will soon go back to tending their meth labs.

AT LEAST ONE WAR IS GOING WELL

Posted in Rants on April 9th, 2008 by Ed

The wars on terrorism, poverty, and drugs might not be going well, but the War on Black People is going gangbusters. Oh, wait. The War on Drugs is the War on Black People. So I guess it's going well.

Remember all those ridiculous tabloid-y news stories about the "Barbie Bandits?" The cheerful blondes who robbed a Bank of America in Georgia? Everyone involved has been convicted and sentenced. Try matching the roles of the four participants to the four sentences distributed by the justice system:

1. Person who actually robbed the bank #1
2. Person who actually robbed the bank #2
3. Police-alleged "mastermind" of the crime
4. Bank teller working with robbers

A. 10 years of probation, no prison
B. 8 years of probation, 2 years of prison
C. 10 years in prison
D. Plea bargain for 5 years in prison

Give up? Well they're in the right order, silly! Now guess which ones are white women and which ones are black males. Those are also in the right order! Ha ha!

Yeah, first white girl who robbed the bank got two years in the can (of course, she'll serve about 6 months) while the second got no prison time at all. The two (big, scary, dark) "masterminds" of the crime….well, they'll be going away for a while.

God, why are black people so angry? Why don't they like the police? I just don't get it. Slavery ended 150 years ago.

ED vs. LOGICAL FALLACIES, PART 18: POST HOC

Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on April 8th, 2008 by Ed

Sometimes the jokes write themselves. From today's student newspaper on my campus:

Second, they deny that life begins at conception. Every human whether alive or aborted, has been conceived. This first step in life’s process cannot be skipped, if it cannot be skipped and it’s the first step, then it must mean that it’s important and that it’s the beginning. Life begins at conception!

Welcome to the world of the post hoc fallacy. A biological process (sperm meeting egg) precedes another (fetus developing into a viable human life) therefore they are one and the same. Like how eating precedes shitting, and therefore eating is shitting.

Post hoc fallacies are among the oldest flaws in human reasoning, dating back to the days when cavemen banged on drums to make the sun come up. Every morning was a sign that it was working. A post hoc fallacy is any argument that looks at two events in a timeline and assumes that the earlier is either causal to or an integral part of the latter.

I hesitate to play the slippery slope game, but indulge me for a moment as I extend the reasoning used in the example above. We can't have life without conception, so conception is life. Well, we can't have conception without sex. Does life begin at sex? We can't have procreative sex without a male and female meeting one another. Does life begin when they meet? Men and women don't meet each other unless they make an effort to socialize. Does life begin when you decide to go to a party on the weekend?

I'm getting a little ridiculous here but not much more ridiculous than any other post hoc argument. Things that happen in a sequence are not necessarily causally related, and things that are causally related do not magically become the same thing. I wonder if it ever occured to the "Life begins at conception!" crowd that many people are not persuaded by the argument because it makes absolutely no sense. No, it's always that we liberals are misguided, uninformed, or wicked sodomites who hate Jesus. Demonizing one's opponents ("Anti-life!") because they refuse to be persuaded by fallacious arguments is…well, that's just the greatest recipe for political success I've ever heard. Good luck with that.

PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY

Posted in Rants on April 7th, 2008 by Ed

As I recover from a three-day academic conference** I would like to draw attention to Tom Tomorrow's commentary on personal responsibility.

This reality gets lost so quickly in the media narrative. They provide bad information and then openly mock people stupid enough to believe it. I'm certainly not going to let individuals who sign shitty mortgages off the hook; there is an element of responsibility (like maybe reading things before signing them). Nonetheless, there's something to be said for a free, high-intensity, half-decade long media PR campaign extolling the goldmine that is home ownership.

**(These events appear to serve only two purposes: to let professors get shitfaced with their former grad school colleagues and to provide them with an annual opportunity to cheat on their spouse. But in any field it is always good to know who the drunks are, as in the people at the hotel bar before 10:30 AM.)

NPF: WHEN THE DEER TIBIA ABSOLUTELY HAS TO BE THERE BY 10 A.M.

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 4th, 2008 by Ed

This is a little aged but it's still one of my favorite things in the history of the internets: the folks at Improbable Research put the US Postal Service to the test by trying to mail 28 extremely odd items, in most cases simply by affixing the address and postage directly to the item. More than half (18) of the items were delivered, including an exposed $20 bill, new Nikes strapped together with duct tape, a coconut, a street sign, and a fucking deer tibia.

hammer.jpg

Neither the claw hammer nor the helium balloon made it. Damn bureaucrats.