Saturday, March 29, 2008

On libraries and gaming

There are lots of librarians out there who fundamentally object to the presence of video games in library collections or video gaming programs for teens and other age groups in library buildings. As someone who has spent countless hours of his life with a video game controller in his hand gaping slack-jawed at a flashing screen, I'm more ambivalent about the implications of gaming in the library.

I recently received an article written by some random freelancer decrying the presence of games in the library. In high dudgeon (and, presumably, with veins popping out of his neck and forehead), he yells into my email inbox:

Unfortunately, it appears that this country's librarians have decided to do their part in the dumbing-down of America. What has happened to this country? All of the librarians I have known were in love with the written word and truly enjoyed opening the door to their world to young people. Perhaps, today's crop of young librarians would be better served answering their calling as arcade attendants and movie theatre managers. Generations of Americans who valued education and insisted that their children understand not only the importance but the enjoyment of the written word, have given way to barely functioning illiterates who spend hour after hour trying to get to the next level of Guitar Hero.

He then goes on to decry the decline of literacy in the United States. Now, I am completely sympathetic to his viewpoint, but public libraries are not and never have been strictly educational institutions. While public education is one of it's core functions, the library's mission is to provide recreational and entertainment opportunities to the people as well. In that sense, I have little problem offering gaming programs to library users. In fact, I do it myself on a regular basis with my teen patrons. They have fun, and it's a way to get people into the library that might not otherwise show up. If they wind up picking up a book on the way out, all the better. Also, I'm not sure the library is even capable of fighting the growing ignorance among the American public in any meaningful way. We do what we can with the resources that we have, but ultimately the most important bulwarks against mass ignorance are the public school system and the press. Perhaps if the schools were not turning out "barely functioning illiterates" on an industrial scale, or if the press were more interested in reporting real news than scandal and celebrity gossip, then librarians would have a bigger audience for more edifying programs and services. Trust me, I'd rather be reading great works of literature with my teens than refereeing video game tournaments.

At the same time, some people within the field take an enthusiasm for gaming too far and try to imbue it with educational functions that it simply does not have in order to justify offering games and gaming programs to folks such as our irate library user above. In a recent article in the New York Times on gaming programming at the New York Public Library's central branch on 42nd Street in Manhattan, a library official argues that

“What we’re seeing is that in addition to simply helping bring kids into the library in the first place, games are having a broader effect on players, and they have the potential to be a great teaching tool,” Mr. Martin said. “If a kid takes a test and fails, that’s it. But in a game, if you fail you get to take what you’ve learned and try again.
..In a lot of these games you have to understand the rules, you have to understand the game’s world, its story. For some games you have to understand its history and the characters in order to play effectively.”

This is the "everything bad is good for you" argument, and I think it's bogus. While I don't have any empirical research to support me at my fingertips, I don't think that the skills that gamers learn while playing a particular game are really transferable outside that context. It's true that many of today's games are very complex and have very rich story lines, but I just finished playing Call of Duty 4 on XboX360 and I don't think that because of that, I've gained some sort of expertise in counterinsurgency techniques. And observing the teens that come to my gaming programs, they're certainly skilled at the games that they play but many of them have trouble dealing with the types of complex arguments and ideas offered in books and other print media, partially because their bias toward the visual has reduced their attention spans. Playing games repeatedly makes you a better gamer, but in itself such activity probably won't help you become a better student or a more informed and active citizen. If we offer gaming services to our patrons it's more or less for entertainment purposes only.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bye-bye to municipal wi-fi?

When I lived in Philadelphia, the announcement of a free or low-cost municipal wi-fi network was an exciting development. It represented an innovative infrastructural investment that spurred other cities around the country to take up similar projects. But as an article in today's New York Times makes clear, these projects were flawed from the start and are stagnating because they were based on a "public-private partnership," for-profit model that was not truly municipal. The networks were not to be owned and operated strictly by the city but would be contracted out to private tech firms, namely Earthlink. From the article:

“The entire for-profit model is the reason for the collapse in all these projects,” said Sascha Meinrath, technology analyst at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit research organization in Washington.

Mr. Meinrath said that advocates wanted to see American cities catch up with places like Athens, Leipzig and Vienna, where free or inexpensive Wi-Fi already exists in many areas.
He said that true municipal networks, the ones that are owned and operated by municipalities, were far more sustainable because they could take into account benefits that help cities beyond private profit, including property-value increases, education benefits and quality-of-life improvements that come with offering residents free wireless access.

Benefits beyond private profit? What a novel idea!

Nobody expects to make a profit out of public transit but it's a necessary piece of any community's infrastructure and that's why government government has to put up the money for it. The same idea applies to investing in free or low-cost high-speed Internet access. Unfortunately many cities such as Philadelphia simply don't have the capital budgets to make such investments. That's why it's probably necessary to have a commitment at the state and/or federal levels to make real municipal wi-fi possible, but in an environment where significant public spending on anything else besides weaponry is anathema, I don't see that happening any time soon. It's completely insane that the richest country in the history of the planet can't come up with the will or the money to make such important and necessary investments for its own economic and cultural well-being, but I'm used to these things by now, I suppose.

As an aside, the article briefly touches on an aspect of the municipal wi-fi issue that has potential relevance for public libraries. “If we don’t have Internet, that means I’ve got to take the bus to the public library after dark, and around here, that’s not always real safe,” says a young North Philly resident who has come to rely on the low-cost network and a laptop provided for free by a local community organization. For many public libraries, free computer and Internet resources has become one of, if not the most, important ways to get patrons in the library. Sometimes I get the feeling that I don't work at a library but a big computer lab that just happens to have some books in it. My library and many others provide patrons with a free wi-fi hotspot, but having a city-wide network would be preferable for a variety of reasons. It's possible that the adoption of municpal wi-fi networks might reduce demand for library services, but I'd like to think that this isn't a zero-sum game and that patrons come to the library for a variety of reasons. Like the books, for example.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Friday Art Explosion

George Grosz, Fit For Active Service, 1916-1917

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

That Obama speech

I feel a bit schizophrenic about the speech that Barack Obama gave Tuesday in Philadelphia. The media billed it as his grand statement on race, prompted by the recent firestorm of controversy that has surrounded Obama's relationship with his former pastor. In my view, however, the uproar surrounding this whole incident is not just about race and may in fact be about something even deeper.

Rev. Jeremiah Wright's statements (many of which I would agree with) questioned a notion that is deeply held by the overwhelming majority of American citizens: that this is a fundamentally moral and just nation. Wright did not just speak about the realities of race in the U.S. He forcefully denounced U.S. foreign policy and the notion that America is only a force for good in the world, even when it is committing or abetting horrific acts, such as the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Most Americans simply can't deal with the notion that their country perhaps does more harm in the world than good, or that others might view us with less than total admiration. I think after almost eight years of the Bush administration and its vast criminality, many people's sense of the innate goodness of America has been unsettled. They want to feel good about America again and Wright's statements strike at the source of such insecurities. I think the feeling that Obama might not be totally invested in the idea of a fundamentally benign America (recall the American flag lapel pin flap or the controversy over his wife's comments about being proud of America for the first time during the campaign) and not just the fact that he is black might explain at least some the incredibly strong reactions to some of the things that his former pastor said. And it definitely explains why he chose to give his speech in front of an enormous phalanx of American flags.

That being said, even tough I take issue with some aspects of Obama's speech, I found it to be largely compelling and even moving in places. While denouncing Wright's particular statements and disavowing any notion whatever that the U.S. or its allies (namely Israel) might be the source of oppression or instability in the international arena, he bravely refused to completely disown the man and the black church community from which he comes. He lucidly explained the history of racist structural inequalities that continue to constrict the lives of African-Americans and other people of color while deftly addressing the fears and resentments of working-class and downwardly mobile middle-class whites. In doing so he identified a common enemy - corporate power - as well as common goals: better schools, healthcare, housing and jobs for all. Before this speech I was more enthusiastic about the excitement and movement surrounding the man's campaign and not Obama per se. But after yesterday's speech I'm more enthusiastic by the possibilities offered by the man himself. Clearly a lot of the right instincts are there. We have to do the political work necessary to allow him to act on them if he gets elected this fall.

Five Years Too Many

Today marks a very ignominious anniversary. Five years ago today, our government launched its invasion of Iraq with promises that it would be a "cakewalk" in which our troops would be hailed as "liberators" by the Iraqi people and be home in time for supper. Well, five years, billions of dollars, thousands of dead American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis later, we're still there with no end in sight.

On March 19 in 2003, I and several of my friends and comrades were arrested in an action in front of the federal courthouse in Camden, New Jersey to protest the beginning of the war. We were right then, and unfortunately the need to engage in struggle to end the war continues. I hope to see you at tonight's anti-war march in Brooklyn, which begins at 6:00PM at Grand Army Plaza and ends at the military recruitment station in downtown Brooklyn. More details can be found here.

Articles of note:
Spencer Ackerman argues that to really fight terrorism, we need to get out of Iraq.

In These Times reports on Iraq Veterans Against the War's recent Winter Solider hearings and the plight of Iraq war vets.

Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier on the economic impact of war.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Slavoj Zizek: "Go to masturbation. Leave me alone"

Slavoj Zizek gave an in-studio interview with Amy Goodman for today's Democracy Now! program about the lectured he is scheduled to give tonight to open up this year's Left Forum gathering in New York. While talking about the various conflicting legacies of the events of 1968, he started talking about how there are apparently big masturbation gatherings going on all over the world. Here are excerpts from the transcript:

It’s the same with ’68. If you ask people today, what will you get? Ooh, that wonderful explosion of creativity, anti-bureaucratic, sexual liberation, and so on. That’s, for me, precisely the least interesting part of ’68. That’s the ’68 which was perfectly integrated into today’s ideology, self-expression and so on. So if you want to draw the line, one line from ’68, it is what, for me, as an old-fashioned guy who likes erotics but with love, is the nightmare. Today’s legacy of that ’68 is alive. And, you know, they have in California, and now it’s spreading to Europe, a terrible thing called masturbation. People gather, you masturbate publicly, you’re not allowed to touch the other, and, of course, each one has to pay some money, which goes to politically correct causes and so on. And the idea, it’s like self-expression: you are alone, but in a crowd. This kind of—this is what I don’t like...If we indulge a simple nostalgia for ’68, it means sexual revolution and all that, so I will tell to those guys, “Go to masturbation. Leave me alone.”

I didn't know that they just got masturbation over in Europe, but I'm not surprised that California sent it there.

I'd give anything to see someone ask him a question about masturbation tonight, but alas, I can't go. I'll probably be too busy masturbating.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Socialists re-elected in Spain; radical Spanish librarian not happy

Congratulations to Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) on their triumph in yesterday's elections. The PSOE certainly has its share of problems, but Zapatero has done much since his election in 2004 to establish a more independent foreign policy and overcome the legacy of Franco's fascism and Catholic moral authoritarianism. So cheers to this good news.

An article in the New York Times on the election contained a couple of quotations from a radical Spanish librarian critiquing the PSOE's actions while in power that I found to be interesting:

In the upscale Madrid neighborhood of Salamanca, Gloria Perez, a 58-year-old librarian, said the poor economic performance of Mr. Zapatero’s government prompted her to shift her vote this time to the United Left, the main Communist Party, from the Socialists.

“Zapatero has not done enough to bring down the price of rents, control mortgage costs, help young people and get us workers better salaries,” Ms. Perez said. She added that she was not impressed by tax incentives offered by the two main parties, including the Socialists’ promise of a 400-euro tax rebate, about $620, for all taxpayers.

“What good is 400 euros going to do me?” she said. “That’s bread today, hunger tomorrow. We need reforms that will help us in the long term: better work contracts, better salaries, less inflation.”

While I would likely have been a PSOE supporter, I wish we had more like her among the ranks of American librarians, and especially in my union local.

Bush: reading is actually not fundamental

Where is Laura Bush when we need her?

I just received word that President Bush's 2009 federal budget proposal does not include any funding for the popular and successful Reading Is Fundamental program, which distributes free books to kids through local public libraries. Here at my library branch, the RIF program might be the most popular of all our activities, if the chaos that takes over the childrens' floor each Friday afternoon between 3:00 PM and 5:00 PM is any indication. Please take the time to send a message to your congressional representatives urging them to restore funding to the program by clicking here.

To put things in perspective, the budget proposal includes $515.4 billion for the Department of "Defense" alone ("a nearly 74-percent increase over 2001," the department's budget overview almost gleefully notes) as well as a $70 billion "emergency allowance" to support the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Further, Bush will apparently "request additional funding once the specific needs of our troops are better known." Oh goody. Compared to these astronomical figures, the $26 million required to run the RIF program is a drop in the bucket. But apparently, here in America, we have more important priorities than teaching kids to love books and reading. We have a GWOT to win (and defense contractors to keep in business).

Every search you make, every click you take, I'll be watching you

The thought of Sting stalking anyone is scary enough, but scarier still is the enormous amount of information Web companies are collecting about their users' consumer preferences in order to market to them more effectively, according to an article in today's New York Times. By collecting oodles of information about our search queries in Google and our purchases on Amazon, these companies are then able to charge astronomical sums for advertising space on their webpages.

Unsurprisingly, industry figures don't see any potential pitfalls in such practices. “What is targeting in the long term?” said Michael Galgon, Microsoft’s chief advertising strategist. “You’re getting content about things and messaging about things that are spot-on to who you are.” I suppose if you think that who we are is defined solely by the things that we buy, you'd have to concede Mr. Galgon's point, but luckily not everyone takes that dismal view. According to the article, 85 percent of respondents to a recent poll said that companies should not be able to track online behavior to show people ads. I hope that as public awareness of such practices spreads, opposition will grow. If not, however, we might find ourselves in a situation like this before long.

Friday, March 7, 2008

"The fundamentals are sound," or; How to lie with statistics

As you may have heard, companies cut 63,000 jobs from the economy in February, a staggering figure that seems to confirm the fact that the U.S. economy is indeed on the verge of entering or has entered a recession. But somewhat strangely, the unemployment rate also fell in February. Not too many people are familiar with the statistical methodologies that allow such a phenomenon to happen, but David Leonhardt spells it all out in a really good piece in today's New York Times. As Leonhardt explains, "the government's definition of the unemployed includes only those people actively looking for work. And last month, the number of people in that category fell significantly. It seems that more of the jobless gave up looking for work. So the unofficial number of unemployed fell, even as the labor market worsened."

The piece gives a short but rather interesting account of how the current methodology came into being. Well worth reading.

Monday, February 25, 2008

John Berry: how market ideology is killing librarianship

John Berry's editorial in the February 15 issue of Library Journal is brief, but it ruthlessly critiques the ways in which business-oriented management practices are destroying the foundations of the library profession. The money paragraph:

The resulting “destination” libraries resemble the cookie-cutter design of the grocery store, aimed at making sure everyone who comes in goes out with “product” (books, CDs, DVDs, or downloads). What the patron takes is of as little concern to the storekeeper librarian as it is to the supermarket manager. The success of the enterprise is measured in the number of products collected by patrons, now called “customers.” It is no longer measured in the usefulness or impact of the service on the quality of life in the community served.

Read the whole thing here. Spot on. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Say No To Nader

Here we go again.

I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and even in 2004 (please don’t crucify me, the votes were cast in New Jersey where the Democratic nominee won handily both times against Bush). I have nothing but respect for his decades-long commitment to protecting American consumers and workers from corporate predation, and his criticisms of the American political system and the two main parties are for the most part undeniably accurate. But after witnessing his announcement yesterday on NBC’s Meet The Press, it’s clear to me that Nader’s 2008 campaign deserves no support from young people on the democratic left. This is a vanity campaign, seemingly motivated primarily by a personal vendetta, which will amount to nothing more than an enormous waste of time and energy for anyone that gets involved with it. Here’s why.

Nader represents nobody but himself at this point in his career trajectory. He is not attached to any third party, and is not the main spokesperson for any kind of existing social and political movement. All of the social forces that brought some substance to his 2000 campaign, namely students and youth, for better or worse are clearly in Barack Obama’s camp. They will not be going anywhere else, even if Obama makes no attempt to stake out a more progressive position before the November election, assuming he is the nominee (a possibility that looks more likely every day). Nader simply does not appear to have any substantive reservoir of electoral support to draw from, rendering his effort little more than a vanity candidacy. In this context, support for the Nader campaign represents a withdrawal from actual politics and an empty moral gesture. Where the hell were you the past four years, Ralph?

Further, I can’t discern one iota of strategic thinking motivating Nader’s latest decision to run for president, unless his “strategy” is to do whatever he can to make sure the Democratic nominee loses the election, as if this would somehow help the party and our country move in a more progressive direction. If anything, as an article in yesterday’s New York Times indicates, this run seems primarily motivated by Nader’s personal vendetta against the Democratic party, which worked to keep him off the ballot in many states in 2004. I was not happy with the party’s treatment of Nader during that election either, but he might as well have just gotten on Meet the Press and said “nanny-nanny-poo-poo” to explain to the Democrats and to the country why he’s running again. It’s much more accurate than his rather offensive comparison of himself to African-Americans under Jim Crow (a statement symptomatic of his general tone-deafness on issues of race and identity, I might add).

Michael Harrington, the dean of American socialism from the 1960s to the 1980s, counseled us to aspire to build the “left wing of the possible.” This new Nader candidacy represents the exact opposite. There is no possibility of a Nader victory, and its only possible outcome besides total irrelevance is facilitating the continued occupation of the White House by the right wing. Young activists on the democratic left should offer critical support to the Obama candidacy and build relationships with young Obama supporters while pointing out the shortcomings of the candidate and the political tendency he represents broadly. As democratic left activists have said hundreds of times, while electoral politics is incredibly important, building the movement in our campuses and communities is what matters most. Nader’s quadrennial crusade gets the equation exactly backwards and threatens to divide whatever progressive energies already exist. That’s a resource we can’t afford to squander.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A new Prince in the kingdom of vegetarians

Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder recently solidified his place in my man-crush pantheon by announcing that earlier this month, he became a vegetarian after reading a book about the horrors of factory farming (the article does not name the title of the book, however). One wonders how this development will affect his fantasy baseball value; if anything, I'd say this lifestyle change should add at least five steals to his season total. Hopefully his power numbers won't dip so carnivores won't be able to claim that vegetarianism makes you weak.

Famous vegetarian sports personalities: Who would have expected Robert Parrish to make that list?

Friday, February 15, 2008

5 Theses on Public Libraries and Social Networking

Lately I've been thinking a lot about public libraries and their use of social networking sites in their work with children and young adults, and because I'm feeling lazy right now, I just want to list some ideas I've had in this regard Martin Luther style. I suppose I just have 90 more to go.

  1. The basic concepts behind Web 2.0 and social networking sites particularly have the potential to radically democratize media and communications. However, because of the fact that most of these technologies have been bought up by enormous corporations, the profit motive overrides any other social concern.
  2. As such, social networking sites in their current form are just massive data-mining operations to acquire information about kids’ cultural interests and consumer preferences in order to sell products to them. This is insidious and evil.
  3. Through these sites, corporations take our precious social bonds and friendships and transform them into a means of making money. This is also insidious and evil.
  4. Public libraries, as institutions fundamentally concerned with non-commercial ends such as educating the people to participate in a free and democratic society, should not uncritically embrace such technologies in their work, especially with children and young adults.
  5. Someone needs to create social networking and Web 2.0 tools in a non-profit, open source format that they will not sell off to Google, Yahoo, Fox or some other conglomerate. Until then, I suppose public librarians will be forced to make use of tools such as MySpace or Facebook while also informing young library users that through these sites, companies are using them as marketing tools.

Young adult librarians interested in providing media literacy resources to their users (and anyone else interested in these issues) should check out Hey Kidz! Buy This Book: A Radical Primer on Governmental Propaganda and Artistic Activism for Short People, by Anne Elizabeth Moore.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Freedom Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson

Murray Bookchin once made a distinction between "social anarchism" and "lifestyle anarchism," and if we adopt his conceptual scheme this work definitely falls in the latter. It is, after all, catalogued in the self-help section rather than the social science section. This is a lively, wide-ranging and anarchic assault on modern Western lifestyles and a plea to adopt the author's personal philosophy of "anarchy, medievalism and existentialism" as our own.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed this book is that it is so peculiarly English. Hodgkinson makes his case largely through extensive references to the heavy hitters in the English canon: Johnson, Lawrence, Russell, Wilde, the Shelleys, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and Godwin just to name a few. Late 1970s and early 1980s English punk rock, as exemplified by the Sex Pistols and CRASS, is a major influence on his argument and his brand of backward looking, almost conservative radicalism is in the vein of William Cobbett, William Morris and George Orwell (and he quotes all of these chaps extensively as well). While his use of his texts is not very deep and indeed rather superficial at times, it's a pleasure to come across so many great thinkers and writers in one book, especially when they are encouraging you to quit your job, drink, have guilt-free sex, start a vegetable garden and engage in work that actually interests you.

The book does possess some serious shortcomings, however. Hodgkinson's depiction of medieval times is rather idealized and almost completely overlooks its more nasty and brutish aspects. His advocacy of completely abandoning any attempt to intervene in the political system does not sit well with me because I think it is a mistake to hand the state over to the most conservative and reactionary elements of society. Unlike the author, I don't think that it is feasible for everyone to completely reject large-scale economic organization to become yeoman farmers. Political and economic struggle in order to secure the basics of life for all is still more necessary than ever, and in order to secure increased freedom and leisure for all such efforts need to be institutionalized in some sort. And there's no reason why the provision of social welfare by the state cannot be decentralized in some fashion. But then again that's why I think anarchism is far more effective as a personal ethic than a political program, and that's why the sections of the book that deal with ways in which to improve your everyday life are far better than his sections on government and class. It's also kind of strange to hear a man who is perhaps best known for running a magazine (the UK-based The Idler) telling his readers not to read magazines, while also telling the reader that they should check out magazines that friends of his have produced.

Still, read this book. It's stimulating and entertaining, and will send you scurrying to pick up obscure Situationist texts while you reference Jean-Paul Sartre to explain why you bought a ukulele.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Perlstein on Obamamania

Rick Perlstein's recent opinion piece in the Washington Post on Obama and the legacy of the 1960s is worth a read, as is most everything written by Perlstein. Like myself, Perlstein recognizes the peculiar psychology surrounding the Obama phenomenon and doesn't particularly like it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Celebrity Endorsement Watch: Pope of Mope backs Pope of Hope

According to reports, Everyone's favorite sexually ambiguous frontman, Steven Patrick Morrissey himself, has come out (tee hee) in favor of Sen. Barack Obama in this year's presidential race. Undoubtedly, Obama now has the coveted "English Romantic literature lover" and "animal rights terrorism supporter" voter demographics all but sewn up heading into today's Super Tuesday primaries. Coming on the heels of Hulk Hogan's Obama endorsement, the senator from Illinois can count on the support of voters who loved The Smiths/Morrissey in high school and voters who beat those kids up. Quite a coup if you ask me.

Still waiting on those Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren endorsements. Keep an eye on this space.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Don't drink the Obama Kool-Aid

With the February 5 Democratic primary election less than one week away, the city is caught in the grip of Barack Obama fever. Just going about one’s daily business shows that this phenomenon has reached epidemic proportions. Obama signs adorn the windows of homes and businesses in every borough, from the most palatial brownstones to the dingiest corner mom-and-pop stores. I have even seen earnest young musicians playing songs in the subway for money to donate to the Obama campaign. It’s clear that after eight years of conservative misrule under George W. Bush, New Yorkers (and most Americans for that matter) are desperate for a leader that promises to change the direction our country is heading in and address our foremost concerns – making the economy fairer, ending the war in Iraq, providing affordable healthcare to every American. And as the media endlessly intones, Barack Obama has forcefully laid claim to this mantle of “change,” no matter how nebulously defined.

In his often moving speeches and writings, Obama stresses that his personal history and his mixed-race heritage uniquely position him as the presidential candidate most capable of moving the country in a more progressive direction. There is some merit in this claim. As he likes to remind us, he did spend time as a community organizer in Chicago after graduating college, and in the Illinois state senate he sponsored or helped shepherd along important pieces of progressive legislation on a range of issues. During the run-up to the Iraq war in 2002 he spoke out forcefully against the Bush administration’s imperial misadventure. This is all to his credit.

But upon further examination, Obama clearly is not the unabashedly progressive champion that he and his supporters make him out to be. In an important piece published in 2006 before he launched his presidential campaign, Harper’s Magazine investigative journalist Ken Silverstein shows that even before Obama burst onto the national scene with his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, his transformation from a progressive outsider to a Washington hack all too willing to lend support to the causes nearest and dearest to the heart of corporate America. In 2005, he voted against an amendment that would have ended loan guarantees for an Illinois-based nuclear power company that has contributed handsomely to his campaigns. He also voted for a Republican “tort reform” bill that placed additional restrictions on class action lawsuits, and since he acquired a national profile he has steadily moved away from his formerly strong position in opposing the Iraq war. While he has called for the removal of all “combat troops,” he favors keeping a “quick strike force” in place to protect American interests and fight against “terrorists,” real and imagined. This is not an argument for withdrawal, but rather an endorsement of the indefinite continuation of the occupation of Iraq. And his healthcare plan does not involve universal coverage of any kind and does nothing to confront the entrenched power of the medical and pharmaceutical lobbies.

What’s happening is that many people who want to dig America out of the hole Bush has put us into over the past eight years have turned Obama into a kind of political Rorschach test. Desperate for a glimmer of hope after eight dark years under Bush, we have projected all of our hopes for a better country onto him and worked ourselves into a state of irrational exuberance at the prospect of an Obama presidency, as if he can single-handedly make the “change we can believe in” (as if he actually believes in the kind of change that many of his supporters want to see) happen. You can see it in the language used by Caroline and Teddy Kennedy in their endorsements of him. In their eyes, he’s the living reincarnation of the hopes and dreams of the 1960s generation, whose deepest aspirations died in the killing fields of Vietnam and the burning streets of America’s ghettos. If Obama is indeed elected president this fall, he will inevitably disappoint everyone who has invested him or herself emotionally in his campaign by showing that contrary to his rhetoric, he’s really just another establishment politician. I’m afraid that the resulting disillusionment could demobilize the progressive forces who have rallied to his campaign and do even more to damage our chances for effecting bold and far-reaching change in the years ahead.

Now that my top two candidates John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich are both out of the race, I will likely cast a vote for Obama in Tuesday’s primary as an anti-Hillary gesture because she’s even worse than he is. I would encourage others on the democratic left to do the same, but let’s be mindful of what our role this election season should be. If Obama indeed becomes the Democratic nominee, let’s support his candidacy but do our best to encourage others to put down the Kool-Aid and lower their expectations. Ultimately it’s the social movements doing the tedious, unglamorous work of organizing that will determine just how responsive to the needs of ordinary people he or any other politician will be.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Santana. On the Mets. Oh my god.

Right: Mets GM Minaya gets aggressive at the plate.

A Venezuelan has brightened my spirits in the depths of winter, but I'm not talking about those awesome Citgo-sponsored free heating oil commercials with Joe Kennedy in them. I'm talking about Johan Santana, probably the best pitcher in the world, being traded to the Mets today for relative peanuts. I'm still not fully over the shock of last season's epic September collapse, but this at least gives me a reason to care about baseball this year. Our chances of losing in the World Series to the Red Sox, Yankees or Tigers have increased dramatically.

I hope he wears #3 so everyone can bust out their vintage Rafael Santana unis.

Uke 'Til You Puke

After a three-hour long public transportation odyssey in the cold winter night, I am finally in possession of a ukulele. Apparently my musical ability is inborn, because after only 30 minutes of messing around I can bring it with killer renditions of Frere Jacques, Mary Had a Little Lamb and Ode To Joy. I'll be at that Lollapalooza thing in Vineland this summer playing the full Minor Threat discography in the tent.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Rambo's Burmese Days

For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to see the new Rambo movie last night. After seeing some commercials, I had high hopes that it would take cinematic self-parody to new heights. I was disappointed. It was so bad that it couldn't even find a way to make fun of itself. But at least that gives me the opportunity to make fun of it here.

Since we last saw him fighting on the side of forces that would later go on to become the Taliban in Rambo III, our man has retreated to a small riverside village in Thailand to scowl at everyone, make barely audible grunting sounds and wrangle deadly poisonous snakes for a living. This all changes when a small group of sanctimonious Christian do-gooders shows up and ruins everything. They want to get into Burma to bring aid to the Karen ethno-religious minority, which has been brutally repressed by the Burmese government for the past 60 years, and Rambo is apparently the only one who has both the boat and the know-how to get them up-river into that bloody warzone. After refusing initial entreaties by the group's leader, the only female member of the group eventually manages to convince Rambo to help them. Once they get into Burma, all hell breaks loose. Seemingly minutes after they arrive in a Karen village, Burmese troops lay waste to the village, kill lots of people and take the activists hostage. The church group's pastor finds out about this turn of events and pays Rambo and a bunch of mercenaries to rescue them. And that's when the sparks really begin to fly.

The basic message underlying the plot is the argument that the only thing that changes anything in this world is the application of large amounts of gratuitous violence. Call it the Rambo Doctrine. When the God Squadders approach Rambo for assistance at the beginning of the movie, he asks them if they are bringing weapons into Burma with them. Of course they're not, and in response, Rambo grunts "you're not changin' anything." After Rambo singlehandedly dispatches a group of Burmese pirates on the way into country, the group's annoying leader tells Rambo "I know you think what you did is right, but killing people is never right." At this moment you know that in about an hour, Mr. Christian Pacifist will have blood on his hands. Indeed, after one of his crew is killed in an attack, he bashes some guy's head in with a rock. Rambo grunts in approval. This is the movie that should have been called There Will Be Blood, not the latest P.T. Anderson flick.

Indeed, this is likely the most violent movie I've ever seen in the theater. Long, highly stylized massacre sequences dominate the movie, in which entire heads get blown off, guts are ripped out of bellies with enormous serrated knives and at one point Rambo even rips out a guy's throat with his bare hands. All of this gore is shocking at first, but then it becomes curiously boring because this is what the entire movie basically consists of when the characters aren't engaging in poorly written and stilted dialogue that isn't even unintentionally funny. It's just plain horrible. However, high comic relief is provided when Rambo somehow manages to take out an entire Burmese army unit with a single Claymore anti-personnel mine, creating a small mushroom cloud and destroying a huge swath of rainforest! And who can forget about the scene where he forges a machete out of a single piece of rebar? Hands down these were the two best parts of the movie.

Stallone's directing is also unbelievably terrible at times. When Rambo and his men sneak into the Burmese army base to rescue the missionaries, you can't really tell who is doing what at any given time. Is that Rambo sliding under the hut to free the hot hippie chick from being raped incessantly by the screaming one-dimensional Asian stereotypes? No, I think it was the mildly retarded Southern guy. Wait, it could have been the snarky British dude or perhaps even the cute and cuddly British dude. All you need to know is that they somehow manage to go undetected, escape and the next day Rambo kills the entire unit by standing on the back of a jeep with a huge machine gun. Problem solved. Rambo then apparently walks home to his family's ranch in Arizona and the movie ends. You don't even get to see him reunite with his family because that would require, you know, writing some dialogue and acting it out.

I guess I have to give Sly props for brazenly tying the legitimately horrendous plight of the Karen people to his paean to violent military intervention. I thought that since the overwhelming majority of Americans have come to reject the Bush administration's murderous and criminal intervention in Iraq, it would be a while before anyone tried to bring something like this to the theaters. Perhaps the utter stupidity of this movie will remind some moviegoers of the utter stupidity of trying to bring change to other people's countries through the use of force. But that's probably asking too much of this movie. Just try to enjoy the part where he blows up the jungle with the mine.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pull the plug on Facebook

The massively popular social networking site Facebook has been in the news a lot lately. The site, which currently boasts about 60 million users, found itself at the center of a major controversy surrounding an application called Beacon, which showed Facebook users which products their friends were buying online. This enormously invasive form of marketing was too much for many of the site's users, who organized a massive protest that forced Facebook to drop the application.

But apparently, this episode was indicative of just one aspect of Facebook's particular awfulness. This morning, I received an email from LabourStart, an excellent online resource for union movement news and a center for online union activism, detailing how Facebook banned a prominent Canadian union organizer from its site because he was using it to organize workers. As the email puts it:

"Derek got a note from the good book, telling him he was trying to add too
many friends, and should calm down a bit, or else. Now as a union organiser,
he’s quite likely to want to add lots of friends - it’s kind of what he does. So
he waits a bit and tries again, and is told he can’t add any more at the moment
and to wait and try later. Fair enough. He waits a bit more and tries again,
same message. By now, he’s probably frothing at the mouth and muttering "must
organise, must organise," so he has another go to see if the coast is clear, and
promptly gets himself a ban. That being a ban from Facebook itself - no more
profile, no access to the stuff he’s built up, no appeal."

Why would Facebook's administrators care whether or not someone was using their site to organize workers? Well, it turns out that the company's top executives and investors are right-wing libertarian fantasists. According to a recent piece by Tom Hodgkinson in the Guardian, Peter Thiel, the man responsible for putting up the money necessary to get Facebook off the ground, is an uber-libertarian venture capitalist whose ultimate goal is to use the Internet to free capital from any and all restrictions. "You can't have a workers' revolution to take over a bank if the bank is in Vanuatu," says Thiel. Ugh.

The piece also details the various ways in which Facebook is an eager handmaiden of the American military-industrial complex and a supporter of a domestic surveillance state. Thus, I am canceling my Facebook account and I call on everyone else to do the same.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I have started a blog. You're welcome.

In my vanity, I have decided to create a blog. Perhaps mine can rise above the din of the millions of other half-assed vanity projects floating around on the web to help me organize my thoughts and say something worthwhile about such topics as politics, culture, libraries and whatever else interests me at any given moment. It is named "autodidact" because I think of the blog as an aspect of my ongoing self-education after leaving the warm but sometimes smothering embrace of academia.

In this and other projects, I draw inspiration from the words of Kurt Vonnegut, who said that "Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous award. You will have created something."

While I certainly wouldn't argue that blogging of any kind can be considered art, at least I'll be getting something out of my system. And even if it winds up sucking, you can make fun of me in the comments section.