Friday Jams

Had this one in my head this morning:

It seems vaguely appropriate, given that it’s Veteran’s Day. Though I can’t speak to what they are up to here in an informed way, I feel like the rousing feel of this song has an inspiring “rally the troops” kind of vibe without veering into militarism. Maybe it is because the military allusions are historical rather than contemporaneous. Anyway, I like what these guys are up to; they pull off the aesthetic.

I had never seen the official music video for this song, however, and it is criminally abbreviated! The actual song on the album (it is the lead off track, no less) is long and sprawling. That sort of thing can easily feel like too much, especially in the stripped-down, gritty punk genre that these guys come from. If you are going to have an epic, over-the-top, Civil-War-meets-New-Jersey-punk singalong, you had better own it. The full version of the song is able to pull this off. They are able to be anthemic while stopping just short of cheesy. The video fits the song well but it is a shame it is only half the song.

To compensate for this, here is a live version of the full song, the best quality I could find in a quick search (note to self, attend one of their shows if they come around):

And finally, in the interest of completeness, the full album version (with just the album cover as the video image):

Penn State and Righteous Indignation

Until yesterday morning I had met each new development in the Penn State saga with resigned sadness. I have never been to State College, PA but have friends and roommates that graduated from Penn State and/or are from that part of Pennsylvania so I have some sense, albeit indirect, of the importance of why the university’s football program and Joe Paterno in particular are so important to the people associated with it.

It is of course absolutely heartbreaking to hear about the sexual abuse of innocent children and that this abuse took place years ago and has remained hidden by university officials who ostensibly valued brand management over justice. Indeed, that the whole matter was unfolding in the already strange discourse of college athletics, a discourse best characterized by hyperbole and a misplaced sense of importance. David Roth summed up this situation perfectly in his scathing piece on the matter in which he noted that “[t]he college football discourse was never designed to handle something this serious, and is as unprepared for it as the business discourse was for its switch from facile boosterism and clammy wealth-humping to post-crash forensics.”

Nonetheless, it did seem sad to see that Joe Paterno’s career, a career marked by both impressive and unusual longevity and an even more unusual “grand experiment” that strived for both academic and athletic excellence, would likely end on a note of humiliation and scandal. One can even try to empathize with why Paterno would (however foolish and short-sighted such thinking might be) want to keep quiet on the matter out of concern over bringing ill repute for his program. And it is certainly easier to pontificate about what he should have done for people entirely removed from the situation. But of course, any basic understanding of morality entails doing what is right even and especially if doing so is difficult, so that he was so unceremoniously fired seems entirely fitting given the nature of what happened. But at the same time it only made an already terrible situation that much more unfortunate.

But it was the events that followed Peterno’s dismissal that quite literally gave me pause. I went to bed shortly after hearing that the Penn State Board of Trustees had fired, effective immediately, both their storied football coach and the university president, and the first news I saw the next morning was that of the student riots that ensued.

For whatever reason, perhaps naiveté, perhaps ignorance, I never expected that result, and had no idea what to make of it at first. It seemed so strange, both in the context of the gravity of this specific situation but also the political context more generally. I could only imagine how an Occupy Wall Street organizer might react upon seeing thousands of college students rioting in the streets over the terminated employment of an elderly football coach. I imagined said organizer’s head exploding. Of all the things to make people take to the streets, with so many causes in need of support, people are rioting over this?

I really had to sit and think about it for a while. I wanted to move beyond facile explanations like the problems of college culture or the political apathy of the current generation of students. Instead of just dismissing the actions of Penn State students as misguided and unnecessarily destructive, though there are certainly both these things, I wanted to try to understand why they had come to be this way.

In the end, while the actions of the Penn State rioters are destructive, inappropriate, and misplaced, I think this shows that people badly want institutions – and leaders – in which they can believe. That for so many such an institution was a college football program and its long-tenured coach might be attributed to misguided and perplexing priorities, but certainly the failure of other institutions including and especially the system of representative government in this country plays an important role in this as well.

In this regard, the Penn State riots and the Occupy Wall Street protests are two sides of the same coin. While many see the Occupy movements around the country and throughout the world as a way to demonstrate and draw attention to issues of economic inequality and elite dominance of public policy, many others, especially those who have been permanently encamped at the protests and participating in the general assembly meetings intend to establish not just a movement but a venue thorough which they might achieve meaningful participation. They are both rallying against corrupt institutions as well as establishing their own.

I imagine the next several weeks will see a great deal of soul searching in State College, PA, as administrators and students alike come to terms with the aftermath of riots, a still unfolding and tragic sexual abuse and rape scandal, and the end of an era for a football program. Hopefully with this reflection comes both insight on how these events came to unfold as they did as well as a sense of determination to direct such clear desire to be part of something meaningful towards actually achieving it.

Swag and Misdirection

Yesterday vaunted literary journal THE POLITICO bring us news of an Obama Administration executive order that will “direct government agencies to, among other things, ‘stop using taxpayer dollars to buy swag.’”  No more government branded clothing, pens, and mugs, less “information technology devices” for government employees, and so on.

What do we make of this? Certainly, we could approach the matter from the standpoint of etymology, but experts have already settled the matter. “You old people killed swag just by knowing about it,” indeed.

So what does this mean in the context of public policy and governance? It seems to me that the Obama administration has become distracted, and more problematically, has bought in to the conservative framing of government as wasteful and unnecessary.

By way of background, this particular executive order falls under the broader Obama administration initiative “Campaign to Cut Waste.”  Here we have a fun video President Obama made explaining said initiative:

Of course, there is a lot here that makes sense. Whenever I receive a new, thick telephone directory delivered in a will-not-biodegrade-ever plastic on my doorstep, I lament how wasteful this is since I am just going to google whatever telephone numbers I need anyway. So fine, let us stop printing the Federal Register since all that information is online already. And I think the President is right to call for a professional mindset that avoids waste in the first place. This is a good plan for any organization.

However, there are problems here. As the president rightfully reminds us, there is wasteful and inefficient government spending and resource use that we should identify and eliminate “even if we didn’t have a deficit.” A more appropriate way to understand what we are saying here is “even if we hadn’t accepted the prevailing notion that the most pressing matter facing the government is the deficit, and this deficit exists because the government has grown too large.” Sadly, the executive order to eliminate swag and the Campaign to Cut Waste (as advertised here) more generally will not only fail to mollify those who champion the “government is the problem” narrative but only makes the problem worse by accepting that argument and trying to play to it. It is a fight the Obama administration will never win in the long term and one they are only making worse by trying out-flank. They are, in the parlance of the West Wing’s Leo McGarry, “accepting the premise of the question.”

What the Obama Administration is saying here is that “your suspicions are confirmed, conservatives, the government is wasteful and here are examples of how wasteful it is.” The administration’s goal is to make people think they are solving the problem of waste, and thus the deficit, by addressing the matter. But this will not help convince people already of the opinion that the government is too big and is the course of whatever problem is troubling them. So why do it?

One could say “low hanging fruit,” but there is more going on here than that. The real reasons problems like “the deficit” or whatever other complex social issue is under discussion are complicated and seriously addressing them is a politically-sensitive challenge that involves carefully articulating issues and taking on powerful interests. What is happening here is that the real problems are being masked by simulacra and their causes are being obfuscated and replaced by more well known targets that are already socially defined.

Ken Layne at Wonkette addressed this issue months ago in his critique of Vice President Biden’s use of the website as an example of unnecessary government spending, a $125 enterprise which Layne rightfully juxtaposed against the $125 billion spent on fighting in Afghanistan. Layne noted that not only was the tortoise website not really a strain on the budget in this context but that the funding for the turtle website could easily be considered money well spent under a particular set of values, one that includes concern for protecting the environment and not letting entire species of animals fall prey to poorly conceived and unsustainable approaches to economic development.

(It is also worth noting that Wonkette again hit the nail on the head regarding the swag ban with the headline “Expert Fun Ruiner Barack Obama Outlaws Personalized Mugs”)

So the issue is one of problem definition. Yes, the United States has a long-term debt problem. But this problem was not caused and nor can it be solved by cutting down on government swag. Indeed, there is no dispute that long-term debt problems are fueled by growth of entitlement programs, especially Social Security and Medicare. (Of course, even if we were to only consider discretionary spending, the amount spent, and likely wasted on the military dwarves whatever saving the administration can hope to achieve by eliminating swag. And if the notion that money spent on the military somehow doesn’t count in debates on the budget wasn’t already clear, the fact that “the new orders will not affect baseball caps and windbreakers worn by federal law enforcement officials in the field or commemorative ‘challenge coins’ distributed by military commanders to troops and their spouses” only serves to underscore this point.) And the way in which we address these issues is not straightforward any efforts to do so would involve taking on entrenched interests through a political campaign and citizen mobilization around a carefully articulated set of values.

But, there is a prevailing understanding that government is wasteful and government workers are inefficient and overpaid. So, to make it seem like the administration is addressing the deficit problem, here are efforts to get rid of government-branded trinkets and, as the video shows us, wasteful websites for musical groups composed of government employees and websites for silly endangered turtles. Rather than fighting the tough battle and making the tough decisions the president says we should make and fight (though he does not say when or how), the efforts outlined in this video describing the Campaign to Cut Waste and the Executive Order on Swag rely on established tropes that government is too big and wasteful and government workers are lazy and inefficient and, in this example, spend their off-hours making bad blue grass music.

The idea that the whatever savings cutting government swag would produce would be meaningless in the context of the deficit problem more generally is so obvious it seems unnecessary to even bother typing it. Indeed, hearing the president’s statements on the matter as he signed the executive order banning swag made clear just what the point of the whole endeavor was. The president’s remarks and the way the executive order was framed focused on the idea that while ultimately, any meaningful policy designed to reduce the deficit must come from congress, we don’t need to wait for congress to take action to reduce spending now. Thus, the president’s remarks to the media on why he was signing this executive order neatly illustrated that the purpose of the order had little to do with how much money it would save and more to do with the fact that it would allow the president to make a statement to the media about what the administration was doing while congress remained at an impasse. It was the statement and the news coverage that was the whole point.

And that  is what makes the language and the framing of the issue so problematic. By picking these fights on these issues, the administration only exacerbates the problem and the conservative characterization of government. We have already witnessed the need to push back against negative portrayals of government workers. Seen in this light, the idea of banning swag is not only fighting the wrong fight but counter productive.

I joked earlier about the use of the term swag, but the decision to use such a colloquial expression was certainly intentional and purposeful. The term ‘swag’ not only connotes style, but flaunting style. We are set up to picture government employees awash in cool gear and high-tech gadgets new laptops, riding around in fancy government sedans and attending fancy conferences in Vegas. But the same Washington Post story that describes these items directs away from this caricature to a reality in which government agencies have been forced to cut back considerably already. This executive order and the discourse surrounding it, especially that of the president, only serves to portray government employees negatively, scapegoating the very people whose skills and efforts are needed to successfully govern the country.

The problem with this approach is perfectly captured in a statement by federal worker, reported in the Washington Post: “I like working for my agency and want to show pride in it and our mission — the same way that I would for a favorite sports team.” We should want to create a culture where government work is a source of pride and a Treasury-branded coffee mug is a sign of prestige rather than waste. But the Obama administration has instead chosen to portray federal workers as decked out in unnecessary swag. This portrayal is not only a distraction from a more meaningful debate on how to address the pressing issues that the country faces, it also serves to reinforce the negative depiction of government and its workers so often championed by the administration’s most ardent conservative critics.

It need not be this way. Indeed, President Obama has passionately argued for government as a positive force, a place where citizens can come together to address social problems, and as vehicle for us to be our brother’s keeper.  But in his efforts to leverage existing attitudes about federal employees and government waste to construct an image that these his administration is addressing while congress remains in gridlock, President Obama is effectively ceding ground on broader debates about the important place for an active government in democratic society that he himself has spoken of so eloquently.

This is a start.

So here we are. Barring some kind of  self-serious and constricting mission statement, my goals for this site are to write on political and cultural topics outside my academic work and post things that are awesome. I had (very briefly) tried “blogging” (still the worst word in the language) before, and it wasn’t my scene. It seemed to me that the way blogs distinguished themselves was by either commenting on events moments after they have occurred (I do not have time for this) or by out-snarking one another, which can feel forced. I have found hat while I still enjoy reading blogs like Wonkette or Gawker, especially as breaks from academic reading, I have also been trying to read more long-form pieces that have a bit more depth and polish. While  that is not exactly the format I am going for here, I do endeavor to post pieces that have been subject to more thought and revision than the standard write-about-this-topic-as-quickly-as-possible-before-the-news-cycle-moves-on sort of internet posting.

Nonetheless, as I begin working on such a piece, I am feeling increasingly anxious about the blank page that is this site. So much pressure! I thought I would alleviate that by posting something. As I was thinking of how to start, the beginning of the text below popped in my head. It appears in the liner notes for the album Survival Sickness by The (International) Noise Conspiracy, in place of the lyrics for the song “Smash It Up.” I don’t know if you would call it a poem, a manifesto, or what but I have always appreciated its free-form, sprawling call to arms. It is a pretty lengthy and meandering, and there are some things here that do not resonate with me or that I find naive, but at the same time I have always appreciated it and still find reading it inspiring. Strangely or perhaps tellingly I could not find the text anywhere on the internet besides a couple myspace pages, but awhile ago I did re-type the text while borrowing the album from a friend. There are probably some parts that I copied incorrectly but I don’t think that is inconsistent with the spirit of the whole thing. Here it is:

This is a start.  Cover the bathroom with pictures of my friends.  Write letters to people you haven’t seen in ages and invite them to stay at your place.  Redecorate the street signs so that all the traffic will end up in the water.  Steal a map of the city and try your hardest not to follow it.  Borrow someone’s heart for just an hour.  Change your identity with someone for a week or two.  Play soccer with three goals and no referee.  Cross out words like truth, oppression, and boredom in every dictionary.  Steal books and distribute them to strangers.  Shop for free.  Rob a bank and burn the money.  Money Sucks!  Organize a wildcat strike at your job or at your school.  Drop everything and go to the one place in the world you have always wanted to go regardless of bullshit considerations and excuses.  Go to art museums and sneak your own work into displays.  Play acoustic versions of Angry Samoan’s songs at posh cafes.  Run for every public election in your town and stress qualifications you don’t have.  Give library cards to all your friends as a gift.  Get all of your friends to go into Burger King, order water and take as many seats as possible for as long as possible.  Do this every day right before lunch time.  Change time on all clocks that you encounter, at people’s houses, in public places, etc.  Alter all of the street signs in your town/area with names of places in the world which are currently in a state of war, scene of atrocity, or subject to violent oppression.  Stuff the suggestion box in your local video store demanding that all of the DeBord films be available for rental.  Recommend that Henry Miller be required reading in all high schools.  Write “THIS WILL BE YOUR DEATH” on every piece of money that passes through your hands.   Spend more time naked.  Call every crappy radio station and demand that they play more GG Allin.  If you are in a band, never play the same place twice until you have played everywhere once.  On any first date, make it the mission to get you both arrested for something embarrassing and stupid.  Don’t let your date in on this plan.  If you see people chasing pigeons, chase and pretend to kick them.  Laugh a lot more.  If you have something stupid to say, make sure it gets said loud.  Celebrate every holiday from all countries and cultures.  Bathe in public fountains, especially ones in front of commercial or municipal buildings.  Falsify invitations to art exhibitions and give them to homeless people.  Reinvent and make up new and exciting games.  Drift.  Squat in a church.  EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE THEIR OWN CATHEDRAL.

The last line neatly characterizes the simultaneous appeal and solipsism of sites like this very one, further convincing me to go with this as a means of getting the first post out of the way. Below is the video for “Smash It Up,” the song that this piece accompanies in the liner notes for Survival Sickness. (Interestingly, this piece actually appears in lieu of the actual song lyrics.) I first came across this video back in high school, in a long since forgotten pre-Youtube era in which an adolescent version of me would tape episodes of “120 Minutes” on MTV in order to find videos of bands I liked. I remember this video seemed jarring but at the same time exciting, especially since I was only beginning to become politically conscious and so much of my political socialization came from pretty mainstream sources like the evening news or the local paper. (I wonder what I thought neoliberalism meant at the time, other than this group of Swedish post punks wanted it smashed for some reason.) Anyway, the last bit of text in this video is also something that I still find inspiring, and serves as a fitting start to place where I hope to do more writing:

“Much more can be said on these matters. Go ahead.”