Monday, July 30, 2007

labor & boycotting Israel

Following efforts by British unions to boycott Israeli goods and imports, the Jewish newspaper Forward ran an editorial about the U.S. labor movement 's "angry rise in defense of the Jewish state."

I'm kind of conflicted here. Not because I support the boycott -- the ubiquitous amnesiac comparisons to South African anti-apartheid boycotts drive me crazy, and the strategy is flawed if not outright inhumane. No, I'm conflicted because on one hand, the editorial reminds readers (both Jewish and not) of how crucial a role Jews play in the labor movement, and how crucial a role unions play in creating the just and decent society envisioned in the Torah. On the other hand, the piece slides a little too effortlessly between generalizations about supporting Israel and generalizations about what constitute progressive values.

Here's what I liked about it:

It points out that left-wing doesn't necessarily mean anti-Israel, and that there's no reason for people who support Israeli sovereignty to make that assumption in dealing with the American left. These distinctions need to be made more often, because the kind of moral absolutism that informs leftist ideology encourages them (us?) to assume a consensus about who is and is not an "oppressor" or a "victim." I've certainly encountered the expectation that people in the labor movement should "support Palestine" and be angry at some amorphous combination of Zionism and Israel (it's never quite clear which). And I can't blame them for assuming we all agree on the Middle East, since most of the coalitions on the left rely on the same kinds of pre-established consensus: HMOs are bad, the Iraq war is a bloody, greedy mistake, corporations are anti-union, rich neighborhoods hate homeless people, etc. By the way, "supporting Palestine" among leftists usually means "opposing Israel," and, I'm equally disappointed to say, vice versa. So it's good to have the balancing viewpoint highlighted by the Forward, though the labor movement remains divided on this issue. Or, divided to the extent that anyone considers it during the normal course of his/her campaign work, which, I have to say, I hope for the sake of the near-50 million people living without health insurance is an extremely rare occurrence.

I loved the description of Jews in the labor movement, harkening back to the early days of the the
Forward and recalling just how many Jews lead America's unions. It's a good reminder that Jews in America are not uniformly wealthy, well-educated bankers, jewelers, economists, and professors -- we also "work for a living" and try to help others do the same. And obviously, it's rare for a major newspaper to refer to unions as "the single largest force for social justice and progressive values within American society." So that was nice to read.

Now what I didn't like so much:

Though the article stayed fairly clear of ideological issues in the Middle East conflict, it did present to the reader an subconscious (yet perhaps deliberate) conclusion, using a twist on the transitive property. If American labor is "pro-Israel," and American labor holds a truly progressive worldview, then true progressives should support Israel. After all, unions are the single largest force for social justice and progressive values in American society. If those progressive folks support Israel, you should too. Maybe that's a stretch, maybe not, but the editorial's narrative leads in that direction, and as I read it I wondered which of the articles subsidiary conclusions the Forward cares about the most, and what their aim was in writing an editorial that attempts to connect/unify pro-Israel and pro-union sentiments.

Personally, I don't believe that a truly progressive worldview -- one focused on the preservation of human rights, equality of opportunity, and a fair distribution of wealth throughout society -- would ever produce a pro/anti-type judgment on Middle East politics. In fact, the parts of the Jewish Labor Committee letter that appealed most to me were the paragraphs explaining why this kind of boycott doesn't work, and why the more humanitarian and rational course is to pro-actively support those organizations and leaders in both societies that are working towards peace and solidarity. Given the political volatility and addiction to violence that characterize discourse and action in the region, I'm increasingly of the opinion that a surge of progressive activity in the labor/social movements of both Israel and Palestine will be necessary to achieve any sustainable, enduring peace. And I wish the Forward had highlighted that aspect of the JLC statement a little more. As it was, the editorial kind of claimed the American labor movement for the pro-Israelites, which was neither accurate (I know 'cause I work in it), true to the JLC statement itself, or productive to the Jewish community's understanding of unions.

As for the deep connection between Jews and the labor movement, it always gratifies me to see that history preserved and (when appropriate) exalted. But, as the editorial rightly observes, that connection has frayed and somewhat disappeared over time. Now, I'm no expert on how the Jewish community makes decisions, or why it has evolved in the ways it has. I don't know enough Jewish history or have enough experience dealing with the most powerful Jewish institutions. But it doesn't seem to me that perceiving anti-Israel sentiment amongst unions would really explain why most Jews -- along with most Americans -- have little use for the labor movement.

The real reason is that most American Jews have embraced the American versions of capitalism, government, international trade, immigration, and neo-liberal economics. Our community has done well through those means, and with the exception of that progressive Jewish minority, we haven't done much to challenge them. So I'm very glad to see the
Forward arguing that "guaranteeing general welfare" and "dispensing equal justice" are/should be core Jewish values and points of connection with the labor movement, but most synagogues shrink from active political participation in the community, let alone the kind of courageously progressive stands that we need and expect from progressive organizations. Of course, the same could be said for the moribund sections of the labor movement. But it's worth pointing out that American unions haven't just "declined" due to their own inaction or obsolescence. They've been abandoned by the American people, Jews included.

Friday, July 20, 2007

we can bring it back

Last night I saw Sonic Youth perform the entirety of Daydream Nation. I almost didn't even get there. Having ridden BART across the bay up to Berkeley, and walked from Downtown across the entire campus to the Greek Theater, the last bit running because I was late, I arrived at the venue and there was no show. The way the theater is positioned from the North, you can't really see anything till you arrive, so it probably looked pretty funny to passersby when I jogged determinedly up to a completely deserted complex, then stopped and stared in horror and, I have to admit, some tiny degree of relief. I wasn't sure I could sit through all of Daydream Nation -- as cathartic and revelatory as some of it can be, the album still contains periods of prolonged boredom punctuated by Lee Ranaldo pretending that melody's gone out of style. What happened was, I'd bought tickets for the following night's show, at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles.

So I called Camille, and -- brief note: this is why I got married -- she tolerated a few minutes of whining, followed by a few minutes of fake, forced commentary like "Nevermind, it's not that big a deal" to cover my brokenheartedness, before finally getting on Craigslist and persuading me to walk over to the Berkeley Community Theater, where the show was actually taking place. It's actually about a block from the BART station, so not a huge sacrifice. Anyway, I bought a scalped ticket for $5 above face, displaying a phenomenal lack of haggling ability when, having gotten the guy to agree to face value (don't like to pay less, refuse to pay more), I realized I didn't have change and just gave him two twenties instead of insisting. I was so relieved. The only time I've been any good at haggling was when I was in Senegal, where it's just basic practice, but it didn't stick. Although I got pretty good at eating fishbones and unidentified beef chunks there too, so I guess I left a lot of skills behind.

The show was awesome. I actually have very little to say about it. a Kim and Kim and Kim and Kim was hot despite looking (as always) slightly reanimated. I hadn't realized how much of a "Hip Dad" vibe Lee Ranaldo puts out, but that was also entertaining. Thurston Moore is ageless and godlike, as Sleater-Kinney recognized awhile ago. The album felt more bombastic live, in part because the Berkeley Community Theater doesn't have the best sound system for a waves-of-noise band like Sonic Youth. Kind of the same problem with the Roots when we saw them there in 1999. "Teen Age Riot," "The Sprawl," "Total Trash," and "Silver Rocket" were incredible. Hearing Daydream Nation from start to finish reminded me how much of what I love in music these days came in some part from the bracing novelty of that album. I'm very glad I got a chance to see them do this somewhat unique tour.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Re: The Bridge is Over (10 Responses)

Slate says Youtube is killing the hiphop beef, and endangering the genre as a whole. While I like Hua Hsu's observation that beefing over Youtube is just plain lame, the analysis (such as it is) deserves some more careful attention. Hsu's arguing that, instead of putting creative energy and effort into dis tracks, like they used to, hiphop artists just release crappy videos with no thought given to care or quality. Well, the conclusion certainly rings true, but there are a few flaws here:

1) Dis tracks are, on average, not very good. They don't tend to be well-crafted, incisive commentaries on their target. The beef between Nas and Jay-Z produced two really good tracks, maybe not even that depending on your tolerance for homophobia and for sampling the Doors. The rest were pretty "LAAAaaaaaaaame," and that particular beef occurred between two fairly gifted lyricists. What do you expect from writers like 50 Cent or Cam'ron? The fact that Youtube beefs involve weak, self-centered, poorly-conceived video comebacks should surprise no-one who's bought a mixtape or listened to Hot 97.

2) Beef isn't at the heart of hiphop, and the end of highly-publicized beefs on record will have no effect on the quality or the future of the music. People seem to confuse beefs with battling -- a legitimately crucial element to hiphop. We can trot out Shan/KRS, LL Cool J/Everyone, Biggie/Pac, but the truth is that the best hiphop doesn't come from beefs. Entertaining songs, album hype, identity politics? Sure. But at the core, hiphop is about projecting yourself, not critiquing someone else (unless you're applying your worldview to them (cf The Coup or "Pussy Galore"). Ask someone to tell you about The Chronic, they aren't going to mention the Eazy-E disses, because those moments are the least interesting and most forgettable on the album. Did beefing with Wrecks 'n' Effect put A Tribe Called Quest at the top of their game? How about Eminem or Tupac? Dis tracks usually end up the least memorable parts of an MC's catalogue, even the good ones. Obviously there are exceptions, but treating hiphop beefs as anything more than manufactured hype betrays the real nature of the genre.

3) The examples in this article are terrible. Were we really expecting a masterpiece from Fiddy? Or Cam'ron? Or Puff Daddy? We're worried because these guys didn't put any effort into releasing a quality product? Mainstream hiphop tends towards cookie-cutter, homogenously dance-able crap that leaves absolutely no taste in your mouth. Youtube is not the problem here.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

How can you tell if a multinational media conglomerate has been using your computer?

So, Andrew Keen's book The Cult of the Amateur has stirred up quite a bit of cyberspace dust recently, dividing the (fairly small) world of people who care about the cultural future of the web into the reactionaries (Keen et al), the evangelists (Tim O'Reilly et al), and everyone in the middle (me et al) who just want to watch the Pride of Arizona Marching Band perform "Fitter Happier" and remind Alex Trebek that he's sitting on a goldmine.

I can't decide what I'm more sick of: the webvangelists who can't stop telling us how Web 2.0 will revolutionize every aspect of human thought and culture, or the weblitists who've deluded themselves into thinking that Youtube is to blame for the collapsing standards of Western cultural discourse.

Keen has a disturbing tendency to red-bait, and a fundamentally skewed concept of the purpose of culture and its attendant industries. But I have to admit to sharing some of his panic at the explosion of Web 2.0, albeit for different reasons. Keen views the combination of narcissism, amateurism, and an infinite multiplicity of messages as a culturally corrosive force, quite akin to communism, in his framing. Those things don't bother me so much, since people were amateur narcissists long before Google, and using market strategies to discourage a culture of self-obsession seems bizarre and way off the mark.

What scares me is not a cultural collapse, or a cultural revolution, but a cultural grey-out. (check out Bruno Nettl's The Study of Ethnomusicology for the origin of the term)

Why? Because, as a recent Bear Stearns report confirms, the long tail is growing and user-generated content (UGC) is here to stay. Which means there's money in it. Which means it will aggregate and consolidate. Which means it will blend, desaturate, and flatten out. Don't believe me? Turn on the radio, or watch ABC for a day, or strike up a conversation about politics with someone at a bar. Or, for that matter, get on MySpace. Grey-out, be it rhetorical, aesthetic, ethical, or whatever, has become the norm in mainstream media and discourse, for all the reasons we're familiar with. It tends to follow market activity and, where a desire to consume can be monetized, it bleaches out all but the most palatable and deliverable hues.

There's no doubt that UGC exposes us to fresh and wonderful ways of looking at the world -- made fresh and wonderful primarily by their lack of resemblance to the stifling similarity of mainstream culture. It marks an incredible (if somewhat narcissistic and/or voyeuristic) sea change in our culture. But Bear Stearns knows what they're talking about, and when they anticipate the emergence of new "aggregation vehicles" to deliver this new form of content, they're also anticipating a structuralization and consolidation of UGC into consumable product for wider and wider swaths of the buying population. We might see Youtube as a friendly "aggregation vehicle" right now, with a vast library and a friendly tagging system to sort it, but how's eBay treating us these days? What about Starbucks? That's where the world of UGC is headed, facilitated in large part by the technology and the applied ideology of Web 2.0. Here I'm making a distinction between the anti-corporate, democratic, localized, user-focused ideals professed by Web 2.0 proponents and the reality of Web 2.0's existence in the marketplace -- MySpace (aka Murdoch), Youtube (aka Google), Flickr (aka Yahoo!), and Second Life (aka...well, Second Life. It corporatized itself).

Plus, though corporations play their crucial rule in grey-out, they are not the only actors, nor the most important. The bulk of the responsibility falls on us. I'm afraid that, to some degree, I support Andrew Keen's assessment of human beings as cultural agents. We're great at it, but also we totally suck. When our agency as consumers intersects with our agency as cultural practitioners on a massive scale, the former tends to win out. This, incidentally, explains why for me the struggle is to activate people as economic agents, where their consumption, labor, and values can clash together to a productive end. Ukelele videos and second-life avatars may teach us about ourselves by opening new paradigms of human culture and interaction, but ultimately Web 2.0 is permeated and controlled by consumption. The cost of the product happens to be (more or less) free at the moment, but the basic transaction remains the same. Folks who like to make money are attracted to transactions. They especially love short, repetitive, autonomic, pleasant and convenient transactions, because they get the most bang per buck. UGC fits that mold perfectly.

Is the greyout of Web 2.0 any more worrisome or destructive than the grey-out of FM radio? Not really. But the infuriating paradox in this case is that Web 2.0 is designed to connect you with your special niche in the long tail, giving you respite from the blandness of the rest of the curve. In the old days of Web 1.0 and bulletin boards, the simple effort of finding one's special spot on the tail transformed the action from one of consumption to one of identity formation. The people who made their way to the pre-net equivalent of weren't just melodica consumers, they were melodica people. They occupied their niche, protected it, strengthened it, grew it. The rich culture of thought and activity that surrounded each of these niches contributed to an overall cultural diversity that could give America both the Muppets and 2 Live Crew. When finding your niche becomes an easy, repetitive, temporarily-satisfying task, you become a consumer and markets get interested.

And your niche starts going grey.

(oh, and some help with the title.)