25 February 2007

To Do, or Not To Do

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Observationally, it sometimes seems that the world of politics can be divided into two types of people: those who know what to do, and those who know what not to do. Just look at the debate over the war in Iraq.

There is a large group of “those who know what to do” (let’s call them “knowers” for short) lead by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, and supported by the likes of Senator McCain. The “knowers” believe certain things firmly, e.g., that by adding a “surge” of troops to this war, the United States will be able to turn around fate of the collapsing Iraqi state. There is also a group of “knowers” (people like Representative John Murtha) who are equally certain that the war continues to be a mistake, and that the best solution is to withdraw American troops immediately.

Contrast this with “those who know what not to do” – the “what nots” for short – which may consist of the largest group of politicians at present, from Democrats like Senator Hillary Clinton and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to Republicans like Senator John Warner. Generally speaking, the “what nots” are clear on the things that won’t work: that a troop infusion won’t help; that a timetable for troop withdrawal is needed, but not too fast and not too slow; that the United States shouldn’t not engage with Iran and Syria, even if we shouldn’t engage with them either. You get the picture.

This split of the “knowers” versus the “what nots” on the Iraq war is just a microcosm of the issues in the 2008 presidential race. In some ways, it was President Bush who created this framework when he called himself the “decider” many months ago, stressing the importance of a strong executive. This malapropism was funny at the time, and of course denies much of the essence of how American federal governance is supposed to work (according to the terms of the Constitution, anyway), but it has also – at a time of war – established a baseline from which candidates will be judged.

The “knowers” will attack the “what nots” by declaring them unfit to lead at a time of national doubt. The “what nots” will return fire by declaring that the “knowers” have been all too wrong before, and all too inflexible in their decision making. One set of candidates, exemplified by Senator McCain, will attempt to show their preparedness for the president’s job by impressing upon the voters the strength of their commitment to a particular course of action. The other group, currently lead by Senator Clinton, will try to connect with voters by recognizing their insecurities and concerns, and stressing the things they won’t do as president.

Depending on one’s disposition, this framework presupposes either that a firm statement in favor of a specific course of action is better than a firm statement on the need for deliberation and consideration – or vice-versa. But beyond the Iraq war, the problems get worse (believe it or not). On Social Security, income taxes, immigration, and even environmental issues, Americans are presented with dire predictions and a bold (but poor) course of action (e.g., private investment accounts, tax cuts for the wealthy, a wall along the border with Mexico, loosened polluting restrictions which will benefit business) or dire predictions and a menu for inaction (e.g., “preserve” Social Security by preventing change, allow the tax cuts to expire, legalize the illegal immigrants, and let the Environmental Protection Agency). The impact on our civil liberties is equally bad, with the “knowers” proclaiming the need for more restrictions in order (somewhat ironically) to protect our freedom, while the “what nots” deride these restrictions without shaping a course of action on their own.

Voters should resist this dichotomy because it represents a set of false choices, too often presented in a coded fashion that allows both sides to elide important details. Americans have a right to expect more: more options and more ideas, even if these also reflect more difficult and challenging choices. For example, establishing private investment accounts for Social Security may have sounded like a simple idea, but it ignores critical parts of the rationale for Social Security in the first place. At the same time, pledging to preserve Social Security in its current form is as meaningless as trying to “guarantee permanent funding” for public broadcasting: it denies a very real need for periodic change as our nation evolves. The same is true for income and estate taxes, for our environmental policies and our immigration programs (where the Lou-Dobbs-ian choices are either build a wall and keep people out or let all the “illegals” in; there is a clearly a wider range of options than just those), for our basic civil liberties, and, yes, also for the war in Iraq.

If there is one pledge American voters should consider making as they evaluate candidates, it is to reject both the “knowers” and the “what nots” outright. Any candidate whose solutions to the complex challenges the U.S. faces are – simply and definitely – to do something or not to do something is simply and definitely ignoring something. We should demand better than that.

18 February 2007

Stupid Schools

Via Reason came this choice story about a high school principal with (apparently) bigger things to worry about than education: senior Patrick Agin, who participates in the Society for Creative Anachronism, and wanted his yearbook photo to reflect his interests.

I went to school with kids like this, too. They're typically smart, passionate about history, and, yes, creative. I never bought into the whole "creative anachronism" construct, but never once did I think these were kids with serious issues -- kids who shouldn't be allowed to play with their swords if they want to. (If there were dangers around, it was usually from the dumb kids, not the smart ones.)

That they wouldn't let this kid use this photo is, in a word, absurd. But it also reflects a constrained mentality about how to encourage kids' interests, and and about what constitutes a real threat to the American way of life (as with yesterday's New York Times story about girls who participate in wrestling -- with boys). The only good thing is that, as Reason notes in an update, the school gave in, after some legal pressure was applied. Here's to the ACLU, despite the fact that this fight should not have had to happen in the first place.

11 February 2007

Liberal Propaganda

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

In the interests of full disclosure – and as a disclaimer of self-interest – let me state upfront that I listen to WNYC, my National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate every morning and many evenings, and I contribute financially, faithfully each year and to the best of my ability. I rely on, and value, the news reporting capabilities of WNYC and NPR, and I try to show it through those contributions; as a supporter of WNYC, I also know that part of my contribution goes to support NPR. There, I’ve written it down for all to read; make what assumptions you like.

The Fallacy

Still, when a few well-meaning people recently sent me an online petition from MoveOn.org to “Save NPR and PBS once and for all,” I nearly hit the roof. Click that link and see for yourself that the MoveOn.org petition says, in its entirety, nothing of substance. In fact, here’s what it does say:

Save NPR and PBS once and for all

President Bush just proposed drastic cuts to NPR and PBS. We've stopped similar cuts in the past, but enough is enough: With the new Congress, we can make sure this never happens again. Sign this petition to Congress.

“Congress must save NPR and PBS once and for all. Congress should guarantee permanent funding and independence from partisan meddling.”

As of this writing, the page – indeed, the MoveOn.org site as a whole – provides not one iota of more detailed information about whether these funding cuts are serious, who proposed them, in which budget cycle they are set to occur, or anything else; it simply proclaims that the cuts are happening. All links within MoveOn.org (such as this one, listing current campaigns) point to the page with the petition, but none list the specific details of these proposed budget cuts.

My own research into the threats to public broadcasting funds proved inconclusive on this point. Snopes.com, the myth-busting website, has a page that says it’s true cuts are threatened – but the page is dated June 2006. A search of articles in The Washington Post turns up nothing within a 60 day range, and an archive search lists the most recent articles on this topic as being from 2005. The New York Times site turns up much of the same: one article from April 2006 about PBS stations running their own ads on this issue, while the remainder of the articles date from 2005 or earlier. Hmmm; this hardly feels like a pressing issue.

The Lunacy

For those readers not yet with us in February 2007 (as I write this), President George W. Bush recently proposed a $2.9 trillion budget for the next year, ludicrously promising to resolve the U.S. deficit within five years, all while keeping those tax cuts for the rich and famous he so dearly loves. Oh, and Bush’s follies (and our pain) in Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated to cost $145 billion in 2008 and another $50 billion in 2009, to say nothing of the $163 billion spent this year, or the billions spent in the previous three.

I recite all this not to suggest that the little bit of funding for PBS and NPR should be otherwise allocated, given these problems. Not at all. Rather, I think these (and many other government spending numbers too numerous to list here) are important because, while MoveOn.org allocates resources towards this “save PBS / NPR!” issue (among its many others) it is worth keeping in mind how absolutely value-less this campaign really is.

First of all, there is the worthlessness of online petitions generally – and more specifically, the worthlessness of Yet Another Online Petition from an organization that has made these its bread-and-butter outreach program since the last presidential election cycle. If you would like to read more about this issue, I strongly suggest Barbara Mikkelson’s excellent essay on Snopes.com, which addresses a range of concerns about these petitions. Perhaps you, dear reader, have fewer politically-active friends than I, but I am quite tired of people e-mailing me such nonsense.

Then there is the bait-and-switch element to these proposed PBS/NPR funding cuts. I wrote about this back in June 2005 (Don’t Be Diverted To Sesame Street), and I firmly believe this is still true: conservatives attack the system because it makes for great politics. It stokes up their political base while driving the lefties nuts – so the lefties start circling the wagons to protect public broadcasting’s funding scraps (which is what they are, really, at under $1 billion dollars in a $2.9 trillion annual budget), which naturally leaves other – bigger – problems unresolved.

Those other, unresolved issues? Both parties have completely failed to address the problem of funding Social Security. Health insurance is a huge issue, with some 50 million Americans lacking coverage, but most Democrat’s plans (those in Congress, and those running for president) are as pie-in-the-sky as the GOP’s idea of investing your Social Security dollars in the stock market. The Iraq war continues, and while the Democrats managed to wrest back control of Congress based on precisely this issue, no one on the left is any smarter than the folks on the right, to judge by the abject failure of anyone, anywhere, to articulate a workable solution to this rather intractable problem. In fact, it sometimes seems like the only thing that Congressional Democrats can do successfully is save PBS and NPR, while the GOP keeps pushing along those tax cuts and chipping away at our civil liberties.

Last but not least, MoveOn.org should be held to account for the financial and fiscal stupidity of their petition: they do not explain what would it mean to “guarantee permanent funding” for PBS and NPR. The money has to be based on something, and come from somewhere, but MoveOn.org does not attempt to prove that such funding is affordable, address the possible changes in budgetary needs over the course of many years, or the changing technologies that might affect the costs of PBS and NPR operations. We are left to imagine what this Federal allocation will be in, say, 2020 – and to assume that public broadcasters do not need the kind of accountability and oversight of other Federally funded programs. Unmentioned, too, is the fact that the tax-deductibility of contributions to these stations is a very real (and very large) government subsidy. Perhaps the people who consume these PBS and NPR programs should be asked to step forward and increase their level of support to help sustain the system?

I grew up watching Sesame Street, Electric Company, and so on, and I hope my (as yet unborn) children will have a chance to do the same some day; likewise, I hope to be able to keep listening to NPR news into my dotage. We live in a dramatically wealthy – if poorly managed – country, and unquestionably our budget should be big enough to accommodate the little bits of money needed to keep these programs, and their broadcasters, on the air. But propaganda is propaganda, whether for the right or the left; spreading such nonsense helps no one. And if a petition has any value at all, I’d rather see such efforts devoted to addressing the many big challenges facing Americans, the threats to our mortal soul that look certain to bankrupt the nation and stall our future. Under that kind of optimistic scenario, one thing is for sure: no amount of lefty handwringing will be able to save public broadcasting then.

04 February 2007

Fred Was Right

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Whatever the history of the phrase “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” the cliché certainly applies to our relationship to art as much as to anything else. There are countless instances in which my first experience of a work of art has defined my relationship to the work – and sometimes the artist – from that point forward. For example, in my mind, I still see Rembrandt’s painting of Moses and the Ten Commandments as it hung in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem – before that city, and its art collections, were reunited and rehung elsewhere – even though I have seen it since, in its new gallery; I still marvel at the painting’s power, but it feels slightly out of place. Similarly, when I think of Miles Davis, I think Kind of Blue; that album is a jazz masterwork, sure, but it also defines Miles Davis for me because it is the first one of his that I set out to hear consciously, intentionally. Long term, Kind of Blue has affected (one might say infected) my ear for every recording Davis subsequently made.

The issue of first impressions has been much on my mind since listening to The Shins’ new album Wincing the Night Away, the band’s third. For those of us devoted to art and artists of any kind, what we usually want is to see the right kind of evolution take place over a spectrum of works: too much of the same thing gets boring; too radical a departure and the artist may lose the audience’s interest. Sometimes, this is intentional: Wilco’s 2004 album A Ghost Is Born, with its long semi-silences, certainly managed to alienate me, a fan since the band’s brilliant 1996 double-disc Being There. At other times, it feels like there isn’t enough evolution (e.g., Neko Case, whose songs I enjoy, but which all start to sound alike after a while). And then there is evolution that borders on revolution, combining artistic brilliance, alienation, and (what else to call it?) destiny: think of Dylan’s “Royal Albert Hall” concert, in which he finishes the first set as an acoustic, slightly-folksy hero, and begins the second half of the concert by redefining himself as a fully-electrified rock star.

For me, The Shins present an interesting case study for this whole nexus of audience experience and artistic evolution because (like many people) I know the context in which I first heard them (the movie Garden State) and I know the songs I had a chance to learn in more detail from that film’s soundtrack (“Caring Is Creepy” and “New Slang”). Shortly thereafter, I bought two Shins albums simultaneously – 2001’s Oh, Inverted World and 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow – thus re-blending in my mind that whole set of first impressions. It helps that both of these albums are great.

Indeed, the band as a whole is terrific, and now, several years later, we have Wincing the Night Away. The disc represents the listener ideal, the right combination of evolution and consistency. There are a few new directions, with some songs more pop-sounding, lush and light (like “Sea Legs”), others that play with recording overlays that get your attention in the middle of a song (“Split Needles”), and then the odd-ball 56 seconds of subdued-but-driving guitar over a soft voice (“Pam Berry”). Consistency is there, too, in James Mercer’s vocals, and in an overall tonality that says “We are The Shins”; the day the album was released, but before I’d gotten my hands on it, I heard a song in a coffee shop – and just knew. Then there are the lyrics which, like past Shins albums, take time to digest (for those willing to invest) and, here too, Wincing the Night Away does not disappoint.

Still, in an era of digital music, the whole concept of the “album” – of listening to an album in its entirety – can seem quaint, when mixing and remixing and remixing again one’s sonic world can be done at the click of a mouse. This ever-shuffling, digital world changes the aural experience, not only affecting first impressions but also the mental barriers they can establish. So, why was Fred right? After I overcame my too-big-for-her-pop-diva-britches resistance, I was a fan of Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album Jagged Little Pill. Ten years later, she released Jagged Little Pill Acoustic and Fred (who knows who he is) lent it to me for a listen. Where I was a fan of the original, Fred had no such attachments, and we were both surprised by my reaction to the acoustic version: I hated it. I couldn’t get over the missing power and oomph compared to the original, and the disc just seemed like a marketing ploy for an ailing career.

Enter the iPod. Morissette’s acoustic remakes eventually joined my “All Rock” playlist – the indiscriminate and undiscriminating approach to aurally exploring every nook and cranny of my collection – and began to pop-up occasionally. More interestingly, I realized I liked them. Freed from their placeholding album flow, and from the demands of my own memory, the songs emerged as independent works, worthy of a listen, and then another. Fred was right; the album is pretty good.

I have never felt particularly constrained by the idea of focusing on one artist at a time, and listening to an album song by song, in order, seemed normal. After all, that was how the artists themselves assembled it, much as classical composers created symphonies with finely-structured movements. What all this says to me is that while we cannot always control our first experience of new works of art, since we often encounter them accidentally, we can – and should – seek out opportunities to challenge those memories and impressions, to make sure that our interaction with art is multi-dimensional, and not always just nostalgic. Memories, first impressions, are invaluable, but at least with art they may not be the final word.

01 February 2007

Atlanta, Part II

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Atlanta is neither a huge city or a small one, but it is a young-ish community and well-mixed racially: according to information from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2005 American Community Survey, the city’s total population is about 395,000 people for the metropolitan area, and 68% of those people are 44 years old or younger. On my recent visit, however, what most caught my attention was the pervasive emptiness in parts of the city, as well the classic dynamic of another failed American public transportation system.

I stayed in the area called “Midtown,” which is roughly half-way between Atlanta’s Downtown and the fancy Buckhead area further north. Geographically, this was a great place to be, since there are two MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) stations nearby – the “Midtown” station and the “Arts Center” station – as well as a few bus lines; it is central without being all the way Downtown. The MARTA connection mattered: as a New Yorker, I believe in public transportation, and even when I travel, if a city has a system, I try to take it because it changes one’s experience of the place and can speak volumes about the community.

I saw quite a bit of central Atlanta: along the corridor from Midtown to Downtown; from Five Points, east to Sweet Auburn; and from Downtown north and slightly east, to the Virginia Highland neighborhood. The latter part of town aside, what one sees is a lot of empty urban core: massive (new-ish) office buildings and smaller, older structures housing offices, restaurants, and stores – but not a lot of people, unless one counts car traffic. The Highland Avenue stretch in Virginia Highland is lovely, many low buildings with lots of boutiques and restaurants – and because the street runs through a large neighborhood of 1920s middle-class bungalows on cozy, tree-lined streets, it had a completely different feel, a kind of suburbia within an urban context, much like parts of Northwest Washington, DC.

MARTA gets high marks for the modernization and sophistication of its ticketing systems. At the Arts Center Station, which serves as a subway and bus terminal, the computer-driven machines offer a variety of ticket options, and takes credit cards as well as cash. While the subway map is easy to figure out – with two bisecting lines, one’s options are limited – the bus system has not had the same kind of care and feeding; the brochures for specific lines are confusing for tourists, and the stations lack signs indicating whether buses will depart to the north, south, east, or west. The network does get good marks for being responsive to customers: a call to the MARTA hotline got us to a person relatively quickly, who in turn gave accurate information about which bus to take to get to where I wanted to go. But the call shouldn’t have been necessary. (MARTA also offers a series of “tourist bus loops,” but I stayed away from these, opting for the real system.)

Leaving the ticketing area and entering the subway one level down is depressing and oppressive, with heavy concrete walls that feel very close; the space is almost dark. Now, New York City’s subway stations won’t impress anyone, but (like the subway in Berlin) the system itself works so well and is so extensive that its value is clear. In Washington, DC, to take a different example, the “Metro” was designed to impress, with massive vaulted stations that make even the concrete feel like a sophisticated building material; you sometimes feel like you’re visiting the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Subway. Sadly, Atlanta’s MARTA manages to combine the small feeling of NYC’s subway with the oppressive weight of gray concrete, and a two-line plan that has limited functionality. It doesn’t help that the trains seem to take forever: a fifteen minute wait for a train in the middle of a Saturday was not a good start.

With MARTA’s buses, there is another issue: while the buses themselves clearly date from the 1980s, and many show a lot of wear and tear, each bus I rode had been outfitted with a small TV, broadcasting news of one kind or another. This was particularly comical when, late on a Saturday afternoon, the TV was showing market news, with Friday’s closing stock prices for a variety of NYSE blue chip companies. Looking around the bus, it didn’t seem like anyone there had a market portfolio they were particularly worried about. It was a striking incongruity, not to mention a waste of resources that could have been spent on new buses and improved service.

This ties directly to the other part of what makes Atlanta’s system depressing. In a feature on NPR on 30 January 2007 (“Rethinking Social Services in the Des Moines Suburbs”), reporter Rachel Jones begins by saying “The biggest problem for the suburban poor can be summed up in one word: transportation.” I’ll go one further and suggest that this may be one of the biggest problems for the urban poor, too, at least in Atlanta. MARTA clearly has what might cynically be called a symbiotic relationship with the city’s working poor; based on my visit, the riders were primarily African American or Hispanic, mostly older, and mostly looking like there were many other places they’d rather be. No doubt part of their malaise comes from the waiting, the inevitable and seemingly-endless waiting, whether for the subway or the bus, and whether at a large terminal or a bus stop on the street.

It reflects a deep disregard for the value of people’s time: inefficient systems attract the lowest common denominator of rider, because everyone else feels that they cannot waste their time waiting. So instead, those who can afford to, drive. All of which only compounds a range of troubles, not the least of which is significant road traffic (and its terrible environmental impact), but also how and where people spend their time, whether they choose living or leisure experiences that are urban or suburban, how neighborhoods are built and maintained, and even the quality of schools. Jane Jacobs, anyone?