Filed under: Oddities
Driving through southeastern Utah in June, 2000, somewhere between Arches National Park and Escalante National Reserve, Pauline and I stopped in a town that had the only food store with outdoor, apparently local fresh fruit we’d seen in, oh, probably 200 miles. The sun was blazing, the main road through town was empty, the plane trees were sighing; I believe a single tumbleweed blew through frame. Next to the crates of slightly dried-out peaches and funky, spotted tomatoes was a soda machine. The brand: Shasta. Shasta! Shasta?! (“We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969…”) The price of a can was 25 cents. Unbelievable. I hadn’t even heard the brand name “Shasta” in probably 20 years, and I suddenly felt again with a vivid pang of remembered thirst the moment when the price of a can of soda at the machine down at the Chevy Chase Community Center in Washington, DC went from 25 to 35 cents. I believe the year of that price shift was 1980. How could a can of soda anywhere in the US still cost 25 cents in 2000? It was the soda machine forgotten by time. We stood there looking at each other and laughing like we were in a horror-flick spoof. Come to think of it, we did that in several places on that trip. Utah and Arizona are weird.
The other day my wife came back from L’s Place, the local “supermarket” (in the US, we would call it a “convenience store”) up on Xuan Dieu St., and said she’d seen some cans of Shasta. I didn’t believe it, I thought she’d made a mistake. But this afternoon I went in and checked it out, and she was right. Shasta Strawberry Soda. (They always had kind of weird flavors.) So here’s my question: is Shasta just a fairly common California or West Coast down-market soda brand that’s always been quite common in its regional market, but that had a failed push to go national in the ’70s, so I think of it as a soda of my childhood? And now it gets imported to Vietnam at stores catering to foreigners because of the Vietnam-California ethnic link? Or what?
Anyway, here’s one of those amazing Shasta commercials from the ’70s:
My wife and I are constantly arguing about whether things are blue or green. She generally takes the “blue” position; I take “green”. Or vice versa, I forget. I have never known whether to ascribe the problem to genetic differences in the way we perceive the colors or to a cultural difference in where the boundary between “blue” and “green” falls in Holland and the US. (I mean, she’s wrong, obviously; the question is simply whether her error has a genetic or cultural source.) And then today I saw this optical illusion on Phil Plait’s Discover Magazine blog, via 3QD:
The blue and green spirals are, in fact, exactly the same color: RGB 0,255,150. Check it. It’s for real.
I think this shows that the reason for our disagreement over various blue-green objects is that my wife may see everything else in the universe as slightly orange, while I see it all as slightly purple, for either genetic or cultural reasons, I’m not sure.
What’s going on in Iran remains the most important story in the world, for many reasons, but as ever in the news cycle it’s been supplanted by a bunch of genuinely interesting if ultimately pointless little stories that are still compelling enough to make me want to say something about them. So just to get this out of the way:
- In contrast to Hilzoy, I not only think Mark Sanford’s confession was genuinely human and compelling, I actually sympathize with almost everything about his entire situation, including his attempt to break off the affair without telling anyone where he was going. There may have been nobody in his office he could trust with this information. He could have broken off the affair via phone or email, but if you actually are in love, that feels demeaning and irresponsible. Trying to get four or five days off to disappear and handle a personal problem seems like a perfectly understandable approach. If he were a CEO, that is. As a senior elected official, obviously, you simply can’t do this. But I find Hilzoy’s “leaving his kids without a father” rhetoric quite overblown and puritanical. The episode shows Sanford lacks the extra stability and responsibility one requires in a governor, but it doesn’t make him a terrible person. (The way he handled the stimulus money, however, does make him a terrible governor.)
- Farrah Fawcett was the most famous woman in the world for about six months when I was in fourth grade. Many years later, she used her celebrity to do several morally and artistically good things, which is laudable. Sex symbols should generally be encouraged to do the same; the only problem is that some of them are idiots.
- Michael Jackson: I still don’t entirely understand why people like “Thriller” qua music; “Billie Jean”, in particular, is an extremely mediocre and irritating number. But as cultural text, the disco zombie thing is seminal and has to be a major part of any exploration of racial identity in America, and from this perspective MJ’s subsequent madness is, unfortunately, all wrapped up in why he was important. Regardless of that, “Off the Wall” was great, the Jackson 5 stuff was joyous, and anyone who’s seen MJ’s childhood appearance as Sinatra on “The Tonight Show” (which for some reason I can’t find on YouTube) knows he was one of those figures who at some point in their lives transcend the human and become earthly avatars of the gods of music and dance.
It’s generally awesome, but I do have the sense that DeLong is unfair in his trashing of Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism. He derides Marx’s claim that a commodity is a “mysterious thing” because in it “the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product.” Nobody, DeLong says, thinks this way; “Nobody I talk to believes that ‘values’ are objective quantities inherent in goods by virtue of the time it took to produce them.” But it seems to me that this is sort of Marx’s point: nobody does think that way. Instead we imagine the commodities to just exist in pure exchange relation to each other, paying no attention to the social web of activity that brings them into existence for exchange and use, which is the real human story. Basically Marx is taking a humanist stance here and trying to posit that the really compelling thing we ought to be looking at in our little fleeting lives here on earth is human beings and how they spend their time with each other, rather than the things they are employed to make. And I think at some basic moral and aesthetic level, that’s true. The problem, as DeLong says, is that the labor theory of value is completely useless as an economic yardstick, and leads one off into absurdity. And DeLong is also right to find here the roots of Marx’s sense that markets are fundamentally tools of unfreedom rather than of freedom, with all the needless suffering and poverty that misconception would entail through the next century-plus. But I still think the insight of “commodity fetishism” is a powerful one and that Marx’s move, of disassembling people’s reified sense of the naturalness of commodities and their worth, is a powerful one that often comes in handy.
Filed under: Oddities
In a blog post that can only be described as groundbreaking, Ta-Nehisi Coates imagines white people as uncomplicated pre-lapsarian noble savages because we suck at dancing, and are thus free to simply be in our bodies — we are for others what we are for ourselves. Black people, on the other hand, suffer from an inevitable divided consciousness when they dance, because they’re good at it and are thus subject to expectations, becoming reflective, involved, and caught up in the whole Hegelian dialectic of consciousness. (As evidence he adduces this video of Karen O of the “Yeah Yeah Yeahs” bobbing around like an idiot.) Having flipped the script on the entire history of post-Columbian European racialist culture, TNC then takes off for Easter.
Filed under: Oddities
He tweeted yesterday:
America has been and remains the greatest force for good in history.
It would seem that things that have allegedly always been and remain true are not best suited to Twitter tweets. (What my twitter page would look like: ISAAC NEWTON The force of gravity decreases with the square of the distance. ANNEPZ just caught Vampire Weekend at Bowery they rocked! BEN FRANKLIN Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy wealthy and wise. Etc.) Or maybe McCain is thinking of it more like those daily calendars with the inspirational slogans on them, except now you can get an inspirational slogan every minute.
Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias and Josh Marshall find the missing connections. John Cochrane’s plan for “health status insurance” will solve the Medicare crisis, enabling the US to adopt Paul Ryan’s plan to lower the top marginal tax rate to 25%, and making it possible for entrepreneurs fifty years from now to easily obtain individual health insurance on the private market. That’s how Cochrane’s grandson, Zefram Cochrane, will be able to retire to his ranch in Bozeman, Montana in the 2060s, spend his time tinkering around with decommissioned ICBMs, and ultimately invent the warp drive on April 5, 2063 — leading to First Contact with the Vulcans, who presumably perfected their own health-insurance system long ago with their super-logical brains.
Filed under: Oddities
A propos of Kieran Healy (referencing Lance Arthur via John Gruber) musing on the emotional queasiness of norm enforcement in the context of iPhone line-cutting: I exercised a thoroughly novel and effective technique of line norm enforcement 3 weeks ago in the Kuala Lumpur airport, and now I want to brag about it. I was in line at the boarding gate, where security agents were conducting X-rays and patting people down, slowing the progress of boarding to a crawl; a long line had formed. On my right, a group of young dark-skinned guys in hip clothes, speaking what sounded like Bahassa, edged up in a groupish insidious way to the point where the front two of them were parallel with me, or slightly ahead. They were chatting with each other in a fashion that allowed them to pretend they were unaware of the fact that they were cutting in line. Over a period of about a minute I came up with the kind of comment that usually only works in movies, and then worked up the gumption to actually use it.
“Are you guys from Singapore?” I asked the group’s lead member, a 20-something with a black T-shirt and an ear stud.
“No,” he said, looking up at me and smiling uncertainly.
“No, I didn’t think so,” I said. “If you were from Singapore, you wouldn’t be cutting in line like that.”
Amazingly, it worked; they looked somewhat abashed and fell back into line behind me.
In general, however, trying to mau-mau people by reappropriating what you believe to be their cultural tropes is strictly unadvisable. The probability is that you, rather than they, will end up looking like an idiot.
Filed under: Oddities
The Washington Monthly has a great article this month by Kevin Carey, “Too Weird for The Wire,” about how black drug dealers on trial in Baltimore are increasingly falling under the spell of anti-government conspiracy theories originating with white supremacist groups like the Posse Comitatus, and using them to mount insane, hopeless “defenses” that just consist of reciting long absurd constructions of no legal value (based in various crazy rural myths about the illegitimacy of the 14th Amendment, etc.), while rejecting the advice of their own lawyers and judges. The article is a great read:
Suddenly, the leader of the defendants, Willie Mitchell, a short, unremarkable looking twenty-eight-year-old with close-cropped hair, leapt from his chair, grabbed a microphone, and launched into a bizarre soliloquy.
“I am not a defendant,” Mitchell declared. “I do not have attorneys.” The court “lacks territorial jurisdiction over me,” he argued, to the amazement of his lawyers. To support these contentions, he cited decades-old acts of Congress involving the abandonment of the gold standard and the creation of the Federal Reserve. Judge Davis, a Baltimore-born African American in his late fifties, tried to interrupt. “I object,” Mitchell repeated robotically. Shelly Martin and Shelton Harris followed Mitchell to the microphone, giving the same speech verbatim. Their attorneys tried to intervene, but when Harris’s lawyer leaned over to speak to him, Harris shoved him away…
…Although Mitchell and his peers didn’t know it, they were inheriting the intellectual legacy of white supremacists who believe that America was irrevocably broken when the 14th Amendment provided equal rights to former slaves. It was the ideology that inspired the Oklahoma City bombing, the biggest act of domestic terrorism in the nation’s history, and now, a decade later, it had somehow sprouted in the crime-ridden ghettos of Baltimore.
The article reminds me of the kinds of ritualistic behavior one finds in vodun sects and cargo cults. In Jean Rouche’s classic 1957 anthropological film “Les Maitres Fous,” the Haouka sect in Accra in the late ’50s mimics and burlesques the forms and signs of British colonial authority (white pith helmets, the Union Jack, carved wooden toy firearms) to invoke magical powers of healing. Here’s the first third of the movie — the important stuff starts 6 minutes in:
I spent some time in 2002 hanging out with practitioners of gorovodun, a popular sect in my then home of Togo, which worships a pantheon of spirits with mainly Arabic names and appearances. The initiates fall into trances and begin to speak made-up languages which sound like Arabic or Haussa — the languages of Muslims from the Sahel. The power of these kinds of sects is to reappropriate the trappings of the exotic and unfamiliar, and their connections to certain kinds of power, and to turn that aura into a kind of psychological, performative power of its own. In that way it’s a lot like vogueing.
Anyway, I know there are dangerous racial overtones to making the vodun comparison here, but that’s not what I’m getting at — I think “speaking in tongues” in white evangelical churches is very similar. (Of course that also probably has African roots, but we’ll leave that be.) The point is just that this is a typical and somewhat understandable reaction of uneducated, unworldly people who are caught up in very sophisticated social and technological systems that have tremendous power over them. This is equally true for white supremacists in Alabama in the ’70s and for black drug dealers in Baltimore today. By mimicking the forms of the system, they seek to gain control over its power. Of course to those who do understand and control the system, their performance appears to be insanity, parody, or some kind of religious art form.
Unlike vodun, though, the “flesh-and-blood defense” is completely pernicious and ought to be stamped out.
Filed under: Oddities
This has been a weird day. First David Brooks runs a column arguing that behavioral geneticists will soon be predicting everything about human behavior are nowhere near explaining very much about human behavior, and probably never will be. Then – even more unbelievably – the great Scott LeMieux writes a post that can only be described as ignorant. He claims that InBev, the Belgian company that’s just taken over Anheuser-Busch, brews no tasty brands of beer.
Seriously, this is one gigantic mountain of crap. Well, Boddington’s is OK, although when I feel like the genre I prefer Old Speckled Hen, if only for those cool coasters with the wolf in a suit.
This is just ridiculous. Hoegaarden? Leffe? If I didn’t know better I’d think this man had never been to the Low Countries.