Friday, October 31, 2008

Justin Townes Earle - The Good Life

Justin Townes Earle is the son of country music star Steve Earle, the guy who brought back rockabilly in the late 80s with bitchin' records like Copperhead Road.  As if the surname wasn't enough to live up to, Justin's father was gracious enough to give him the name "Townes," one more recognizable than just about any other in country music.  For those unacquainted, Townes Van Zandt led one of the most storied lives in country history, and has been cited as an influence of every important songwriter you know: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, et al.  It's the equivalent of naming your kid "Dan Elvis Johnson" or "Sarah Aretha Robinson."

Earle is in many ways predisposed the fate of so many famous musicians' offspring (read: hype and disappointment).  That is unless he manages to continue to make albums as charming as his debut, The Good Life.  Released back in March of this year on Chicago's Bloodshot Records (hands down the best independent alt-country label in the biz), it's hard to chalk Earle's first attempt at record making up to beginner's luck.

For about half the tracks, Earle decides to look well beyond Dad and Van Zandt, instead harkening way back to the iconic Hank Williams.  His vocals sound far closer to Williams' patented honky tonk croon than to his dad's Springsteen-esque rasp.  His lyrics frequently take the same approach Williams did with his countless lost-without-love songs.  And most pleasantly, the hands off production, which more often than not just leaves the drums out entirely, is reminiscent of Williams' penchant for the stripped down sound of a couple guitars and a fiddle.

He certainly changes it up with tracks like the tell-all ballad "Who Am I to Say" and the Appalachian Civil War story, "Lone Pine Hill."  But Earle is best when he keeps things simple and allows his youth take center stage.  This more playful side is reflected in the lyrics and instrumentation alike, from lines like "All the fancy restaurants won't let me wait inside/ They serve me out the back door and never ask for a dime," to the addictive acoustic pickings on album opener "Hard Livin'."  The true standout, "Ain't Glad I'm Leaving," is Earle's best Hank impression, complete with Grand Ole Opry backup vocals, a healthy dose of twang, and the stinging line, "If you ain't glad I'm leaving/ Girl you know you oughta be"--it's a bit more leisurely, role-reversed "Move It on Over," and it's utterly fantastic.

As a country fan, this year's been a bit of a disappointment.  The list of pleasant-but-mostly-forgettable records is too long to list (see: Sera Cahoone, Justin Rutledge, Shelby Lynne).  Even if The Good Life isn't perfect (it's certainly not), it is absolutely memorable.  Justin Townes Earle might have a long way to go to live up to his name, but he's well on his way.

The Good Life is without a doubt the best country record of the year, although we'll see what Taylor Swift has to say about that in three weeks' time.

Check out Justin Townes Earle on MySpace and on Daytrotter.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Toward What End?

The essential question underlying this post is toward what end are we trying to help the poor? Where are we trying to bring them and are we sure that’s the ideal?

A recent encounter triggered this post:

I visited Northwestern last week and, while at church, I met a tall, awkward, and mostly cheerful Freshman guy. As usual, we went through the where are you from, how do you like NU, etc. Then I asked “What do you study?” and, like 900 others at Northwestern, he replied “Economics.” Hiding my frustration I asked, “Why?’ To which he responded, “I want to go into Finance.” Not satisfied with his response, I probed further: “Why?” His response was what I had both dreaded and expected, “Well, you can make a lot of money.” To his credit, he was honest and I don’t fault him for his relatively unimaginative and deep desire for post-graduation marketability.

Don’t worry, I am not going to rant about how confused he was or about the downward spiral of American society due to rampant materialism. I think this conversation brought up a different, bigger question. The point is that the young man in this story did extremely well at what would probably be considered a near “model high school” in our system. My question is, if this is a model student from a model school, toward what end are we attempting to develop underperforming schools? Are we sure that we have our metrics right for determining the success of a school and a student?

It seems that we hold wealthy and “high-performing” suburban schools as an ideal toward which we ought to be developing the underperforming urban and rural schools in our country. So what if every school in the country had average ACT scores of 26 with 80% of their students going to college? Would students necessarily have a more coherent worldview, sense of purpose, or desire for justice? In my mind, if a student can excel in our educational system, get accepted to a top college, and have such a narrow a vision about the possibilities of their life, something is broken.

When it comes to international development, the most cited statistic is that x number of people live on less than $2 dollars per day. Why is it money that we are so concerned with? Haven’t we learned that money doesn’t necessarily lead to a sense of fullness or happiness? I think the only appropriate goal of those who wish to develop poor communities is “Do people have the capacity to live lives that they have reason to value?” The imposition of our paradigm on the world represents a violent subversion of their identity, it puts them into financial, not human, categories.

Underlying all of this is a general frustration about how we think about helping poor communities. We assume that the institutions of the wealthy are the goal and we “develop” accordingly. What is that we are desiring for poor communities? That they too can become entrenched in a cycle of acquisition and maintenance? Maybe there is a different paradigm that we should all be working toward, wealthy and underprivileged communities alike. What would your alternative education or international development paradigm look like? What are the proper metrics of success?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How Responsible Are We?

And never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence
-Bill Clinton

Since the onset of the Second Congolese War in 1998, an estimated 5.4 million people have died as the result of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The US Government did essentially nothing to address the situation. This raises the question:

-As a state, are we morally required to act in the face of massive deprivation of human livelihood within foreign countries?

It is generally agreed upon that international military intervention is permissible and even required when humanitarian crises are so extreme as “to shock the conscience of mankind,” including genocide, massacre, ethnic cleansing, etc. When states are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens from large-scale loss of basic rights, such as the right to life, then the international community must collectively intervene on the basis of numerous treaties, common humanity, and a commitment to human rights. However, this does not solve the problem. It seems obvious that someone should do something, but who and in what way?

Nobody would expect the Salvadoran Government to protect Congolese citizens from rebel forces, but why not? El Salvador is utterly incapable of leading such an intervention. The actors that are most capable (given their military and economic strength as well as their strategic advantage) assume the moral imperative to act once the general need to act is recognized among the international community. Consider the following situation:

A man begins to choke in a restaurant and falls to the ground. The entire restaurant turns to look and see that he is having difficulty breathing, it appears he will die if nothing is done. If there were an emergency physician in the restaurant, would he not have the most responsibility to help the suffering man, given his capability as a trained doctor? If the doctor sees too many risks (lawsuit, personal health, etc.) involved and refuses to help, isn’t the duty to act then passed on to the next most capable individual, perhaps a nurse? Everyone in the restaurant should help the best they can, maybe by calling 911 or helping with crowd control, but it is the most capable individual(s), the physician, who ought to orchestrate the effort.

I would argue that the general principle here of “capability-based obligation” in crisis situations applies in international society as well.

The most powerful nations and organizations of the world have a duty to act because of their capabilities. There is no better or more appropriate body than the United Nations Security Council to authorize military intervention for humanitarian purposes. However, if the Council is unwilling to act in a timely and effective manner to stop genocide or ethnic cleansing, the burden of protection is transferred to the next most capable power, which is arguably the United States. Of course, other members of the international community are also required to act in whatever way feasible; it would be unfair to expect the hegemon to be the sole provider of relief in every humanitarian crisis. However, the hegemon (similar to the doctor) has the duty to lead the collective effort. We, the United States, had (have) the capability and thus the duty to orchestrate a multilateral intervention in the DRC to prevent mass crimes against humanity.

The United States has continually shirked responsibility to protect from large-scale loss of basic human rights abroad. To be blunt, we have a racist foreign policy; no country in Western Europe would undergo that sort of damage without a strong response from our government. Until the American people internalize responsibility for their global brothers and sisters and demand that our government affirm the humanity of all people, we will continue to have an overly narrow and unfortunate articulation of our national interest.

Joe Biden mentioned the DRC during his VP debate; I hope he was for real. What do you think? Do we have a duty to act in these situations? If so, will an Obama administration be less likely to shirk?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Dave: Good Guy or Evil Socialist?

I'm going to borrow a phrase my cowriter used in his last post: "As a caveat, this is an exploration more than an argument."

In the last week, I have been reading Dave's posts in conjunction with a myriad of essays on political theory (shudder), and more specifically, the primary political ideologies: liberalism, conservatism, and socialism.  It is essential to read this post knowing that I am an infant when it comes to these topics, and therefore, it's likely that I'm quite a bit off.  With this context in mind, I would like to cautiously respond to Dave's last two posts.

In "Achieving Community," Dave stated:

"Our ability to experience social justice as individuals depends on our belonging to a community, as it is only in community that our basic human needs are met."

Forthright declaration that human needs can only be met via the community is the foundation of Socialist ideology.  With this assumed, Socialists prioritize the community instead of the individual.  Thus the state equates the importance of individuals; people are but "cogs of a machine" working for the ultimate success of the entire community.

In stark contrast, Liberalism, which comes from the Latin "liber" meaning "free," is based upon the liberty and rights of the individual: the freedom to speak, write, assemble, earn, trade, and own, all in the pursuit of individual desires, needs, and success.  The state must respect its citizens as people, not treating them as mere "cogs."  State power must be both: (1) limited as much as possible wherever it infringes upon an individual's freedoms, and (2) utilized to protect its citizens from such infringements.

In "To and Fro: The Failure of Libertarianism," Dave stated:

"Libertarianism fails because it is premised on...the centrality of self-interest." 

In actuality, self-interest is the centrality of the aforementioned Liberalism, of which Libertarianism is but one of many schools.  And by no means has Liberalism "failed."  Quite the opposite, Liberalism is the foundation of the American political discourse.

It should be noted that Socialism is not rooted in Christian thought.  Socialists do not view cooperation and redistribution of wealth through a lens of "good" or "holy" the way Jesus Christ might have (remember: "It's easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven"), but through one of social justice and communal empowerment.  Dave's realization regarding the selfishness of Liberalism was reached via the writings of a pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and was therefore founded on the Christian ideals of love ("agape") and faith.

I'd like to make it perfectly clear that I do not disagree with Dave.  Instead, I'm attempting to explore the notion that Christian religion (or perhaps "love") and American politics--the latter of which, Dave never explicitly mentions in "Achieving Community"--may very well be inherently opposed to one another.  Hence the absolutely essential need for separation of Church and State.

So: What's the point?

I suppose I would argue that self-interest and individual competition, as encouraged by Liberalism, are not cause for worry.  If anything, these tenants are precisely what make modern, Western governance and economy work well.  As contradictory as it may seem, strides towards a "world community" should be taken only insofar as these foundations are--at all costs--protected.

And since I stated from the outset that this post wasn't an argument, but an exploration, I'd like to ask the brave souls still reading: How?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Project Runway Season 5 Wrap-Up

Yes, I'm about to follow up Dave's insightful post on community with my reactions to the season finale of Project Runway.  Yes, I'm aware that not merely watching but blogging about a fashion show makes me a tad (ahem) flamboyant.  But gosh darnit, I love this show, and this is my blog.

I've been an avid fan of the reality show since its inception in 2004, when my rad fashionista sister brought it to my attention.  For those of you unfamiliar with the show's concept, it works roughly the same as ABC's The Apprentice: a handful of (mostly) talented, (mostly) young fashion designers are brought to NYC, given challenges that test their skill, ingenuity, and creativity, and are eliminated one by one each episode.  The final three designers (in some seasons, four) are given a chunk of cash and a few months to create an entire line of 10-12 garments to be shown at New York Fashion Week, a dream come true in itself.  These lines are judged, and a winner is selected.

Season 5 presented an impressive array of personalities and talents.  And although I thought some episodes were a bit on the drab side, and some contestants were utterly abysmal (cough, cough, Blayne, cough, cough, Keith), the season ended with one of the better finales in the show's history.  It's here that I switch gears and quit with the polite intro.  On with the specifics.

Kenley the high-pitch-bitch, Korto the African with 'tude, and Leanne the painfully boring Portland hipster--yes, it was quite the final three.  As a refresher, here were their lines:

In prior seasons, there has often been a designer who did well in multiple challenges, was enormously skillful, was very popular with viewers, and who ultimately had an exceedingly boring final runway show.  Such was the case with season 2's Daniel Vosovic and season 3's Mychael Knight.  These designers had the talent to respond to a challenge with specific parameters, but when given the freedom to produce a line representative of their style, fell short. 

I must admit I was fairly certain Leanne would fall prey to similar perils.  She showed some impeccable craftsmanship this season, particularly with her fantastic car seat garment:

Fortunately, Leanne had a stunning line.  But first, let me say a brief word about Kenley & Korto.

All season long, Kenley made cute clothes well.  This culminated in one of the season's best pieces, the bridesmaid's dress she put together to bump Jerrell in the penultimate episode.  But I just never found Kenley's style to be all that, well, original.  The judges constantly called her out on silhouettes which looked remarkably similar to the work of other designers.  Perhaps most astonishing are the similarities between her wedding dress and one made by Alexander McQueen, something Michael Kors pointed out.  Now, I should clarify that I know next to nothing about fashion and its history, but Kenley basically made throwback outfits.  And ultimately, Project Runway has always been about finding the "next big American designer."  In that regard, did Kenley ever really have a chance?

Personally, I thought Korto's line was quite strong, particularly in its marketability.  Like season 2 winner Chloe Dao, Korto makes clothes women might actually want to wear--fancy that.  But let's be honest, the only reason Chloe won that year was because Santino couldn't close; in an effort to please the judges, he held back, and his style was lost.  Korto's line probably would have beaten Chloe's, but it just wasn't forward-thinking enough to top Leanne's.

Leanne took an abstract concept (water), used 50% sustainable fabrics, integrated her architectural style, and ended up with an elegant, cohesive collection.  The line was undeniably modern, pretty, and skillfully constructed.  While the colors were a bit dull, they certainly weren't ugly.  And keeping the line conservative in color allowed for her knock-out punch to be just that.  Not to mention that, as Nina pointed out, Leanne did it all: a pant, a short, skirts, and dresses.  You name it, Leanne had it, and it was all executed beautifully.  Without a doubt, Leanne showed the most potential to truly be the "next big American designer."  Yes, as they've done in all five seasons, the judges picked the right winner.


At the end of the day, season 5 of Project Runway was as good as any, and they've all most certainly been excellent.  Thanks to a well-spoken and constructively-critical cast of judges, two phenomenal hosts, and enough drama to keep things interesting, Project Runway has exceeded all expectations.  Regardless of your knowledge of--or interest in--fashion, everyone who has ventured out of their house in the last year has some idea of what looks both beautiful and modern.  And that's the show's greatest strength: every viewer can be a critic, and even the staunchest of critics can occasionally be floored.  Here's to hoping Lifetime doesn't blow it.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Achieving Community

As a caveat, this is an exploration more than an argument.

I have had a deep desire for some time to fully understand and experience authentic community. Living in the information age forces us to think even harder about community because it no longer depends on proximity. Last night, I read two things that challenged me to think more about the importance of community:

1) In his book, Faith of Other Men, scholar W. Cantwell Smith writes, “Surely the fundamental human problem of our time is to transform our new world society into a world community.”

2) Martin Luther King Jr. writes, “Agape (Greek: unconditional love) is a willingness to go to any length to restore community.”

Turning society into community, having the courage to restore community, where do these provocative ideas leave us? I want to explore what community is, where it comes from, and why it matters. Realizing that defining community is a potentially limitless task, I would like to err on the side of conciseness and argue that community is consensual interdependence formed on the basis of:

1) Interaction, the degree to which we engage one another

2) Common vision/ purpose

3) Shared narrative

4) Collective values

Which, when combined lead to a feeling of community, a sense of:

1) Belonging

2) Influence and voice

3) Mutual trust

4) Collective identity

These factors, in turn, create mutual loyalty and collective responsibility for those within a community. How then do we move from a world society into a world community? Why does love require us to restore communities?

Our ability to experience social justice as individuals depends on our belonging to a community, as it is only in community that our basic human needs are met. The disenfranchised of the world are those who have not been fully included within a real community; they have not reaped the benefits of voice, belonging, identity, trust, and mutual loyalty. Furthermore, perhaps a community’s experience of justice depends upon it being part of a larger Community that ensures its vitality. In terms of the disenfranchised of the world, maybe they are a part of a wholly disenfranchised community (think of an oppressed people group or those in an IDP camp). The question then becomes, how do we empower communities do ensure the vitality of their own members and how do we build bridges between communities to ensure the vitality of communities?

Responsibility then is three-fold in community, there is responsibility of one-to-the-other, of the community to the individual, and the Community to the community. Only when individuals and communities internalize these responsibilities can we move to a more inclusive world community, founded on agape.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ryan Lizza on Joe Biden

Last week, I reflected upon John McCain's transformation from noble politician to despicable strategist.  There is no better example of this than his surprising selection for vice president, Governor Sarah Palin.

But what of Barack Obama's choice for vice president?

Having established his intimate knowledge of the man, Biden then shook his head sadly and added, “But ladies and gentlemen, I know John well. John does not disagree with George Bush on any single substantive issue.”

Biden used that line of attack during the debate with Palin, on October 2nd, which was seen by seventy-three million viewers—more than watched either of the Obama-McCain debates. He continued to link McCain to George W. Bush, while praising Obama and promoting his agenda—the consummate Vice-Presidential candidate. Yet, unsurprisingly, Palin has dominated the coverage. The press section of Biden’s campaign plane is dominated by young television reporters who don’t get much attention from their producers in New York and Washington. One evening when I was there, several correspondents played Guitar Hero while a crew from the television show “Extra” threw darts at a magnetic board.

On some days, only a single print reporter is covering Biden, and weekly studies of the news by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism note that Biden was the subject of between two and six per cent of all stories each week in September. (Palin was the focus of between fifteen and sixty per cent of a week’s worth of news in that same period.) Pew has noted that Biden is “the virtually forgotten candidate,” someone who “has consistently been an afterthought in the coverage.”

It's hard not to like the Joe Biden that Ryan Lizza introduces us to in this week's New Yorker.  More specifically, it's hard not to respect the thought that went into Biden's selection, both on his part and on Obama's.


Before McCain's mind was made up, Governor Palin responded to a question from CNBC's Larry Kudlow regarding her VP candidacy by saying, "As for that VP talk all the time, I'll tell you, I still can't answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day?"  Unfortunately, the Democrats have done to Palin what they so often charge the Republicans with; the quote is taken entirely out of context.  In fact, Palin continued, "I'm used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration.  We want to make sure that that VP slot would be a fruitful type of position."

It's simply lazy to cast Palin as not understanding the VP's role.  If anything, she aptly suggests that many of our past VPs have done very little, and that a position of this nature would not suit her.  Ironically, this is precisely the role she has assumed in the McCain administration.


Lizza's great accomplishment is not his (superb) biographical or ideological accounts of Biden, but the clarity with which he addresses Palin's question.  I know exactly what kind of VP Joe Biden will be, and I for one, am excited.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

To and Fro: The Failure of Libertarianism

The first book I read on politics and economics was Free to Choose by the late Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winning economist and conservative intellectual heavyweight. This book fundamentally shaped my understanding of how states, individuals, and markets interact and marked the birth of my libertarian journey. From there I read Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, F.A. Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, Adam Smith, and other leading free-market thinkers. In time, I found myself regurgitating the tired pillars of free-market conservatism:

• Individual liberty is the primary organizing principle of life and politics
• Government is always inefficient and intrusive
• We must decentralize government and deregulate markets
• Markets work better than bureaucracies
• Socialism is inherently evil
• Individuals always act in their best interest

Being a Libertarian allowed me to be different, independent, and maintain an aura of intellectualism. However, I always felt I was trying to support an ideology instead of honestly pursue a coherent political framework. Over the course of a three-year libertarian journey, I slowly (and humbly) came to the conclusion that the central theses of the Libertarian project diverged from my worldview, and my story, at the very beginning.

In my private life, I espoused a philosophy informed by faith and centered on love, service, and responsibility to the other. However, my politics were centered on the primacy of self-interest, markets, and individualism. This dissonance between my personal convictions and my politics was not only unrealistic, but unsustainable. At the bottom of the libertarian project I found an unimaginative, selfish, and empty political worldview.

Libertarianism fails because it is premised on 1) a misguided and wholehearted belief in markets and 2) the centrality of self-interest. On markets, Senator Obama once commented that conservatives have an unhealthy “market fetish,” I agree. Markets are not particularly good at empowering the disenfranchised, equalizing opportunity, protecting the earth, or fairly distributing resources. Markets have no moral compass; they are nothing more than amoral systems of exchange. While markets are great at aggregating information and facilitating the flow of capital, I fail to see how they can form the basis of a politics that aims toward social inclusion, cohesion, and justice.

Second, the libertarian project is based on an ardent individualism and explicit praise of selfishness. Libertarians place autonomy of the self at the center of their philosophy; fairness depends on how free the self is to pursue his or her own self-interest. The libertarian paradigm fundamentally puts the freedom of the ego prior to justice and fairness. All great religions and moral perspectives are founded on an ethic of compassion, of selfless love and service to others. Why then would we develop a political system (libertarianism) that puts the individual before the whole, the self before the other, that sees us as only responsible to pursuing our own interests? The libertarian agenda is void of serious moral consideration or substance; it is selfishness praised.

Libertarianism is an empty, and potentially dangerous, ideology that manages to thrive because it:

1) Convinces people that their selfishness is actually a good thing
2) Has the backing of well-accomplished intellectuals (mostly economists)
3) Appeals to principles of reason
4) Offers a safe alternative for conservatives that don’t like being called Republican

In short, I am thankful for my journey to and from libertarianism; I worry for those who never make it back.

Update on Yesterday's McCain Post

Since I posted yesterday, the London Times published an article which paints a markedly different picture of John McCain than the one we've been seeing.  It contends that the presidential candidate is beginning to diverge from Sarah Palin and her relentlessly negative rhetoric.  The real John McCain shining through, or is he just throwing his running mate under the bus?  Regardless, this whole mess is the result of a brash, irrational choice he made, not Palin.  Just imagine the discrepancies that might arise should they make it to the White House...

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Would the Real John McCain Please Stand Up?

The day before the first presidential election, I told two particularly cynical foreigners that they had a misrepresented view of John McCain; that despite being an Obama supporter, I respected McCain's service for his country and his bipartisan work in the Senate; that by most measures, he would be a strong President.  It's simply that, like Barack Obama, I disagree with the bulk of McCain's opinions.  But he's a noble man...right?

In the past few months I have witnessed a radical transformation of McCain, an enormous flip-flop, if you will.  First blinded by the prospect of winning, and now, the fear of loss, he has succumbed to the pressures of American politics, and in so doing, he has changed.

Our story begins August 29, when McCain selected Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate.  Despite a long list from which to choose, including many longtime friends and colleagues, McCain went with a woman he had only met twice prior.  In the clip, MSNBC political analyst Chuck Todd articulates McCain-flop numero uno:

"This goes against everything we think we know about John McCain, that he likes to surround himself with people that he's comfortable with, that are loyal to him.  And all of a sudden, this is a political calculation, and it's gimmicky, and the gimmick could wear out."

The only rational reason to select Palin, McCain's primary motive, was her rising popularity in the Republican party.  In fact, according to the New York Times, McCain had initially favored friend and supporter, (technically) independent Senator Joe Lieberman, but "the outrage from Christian conservatives over the possibility that Mr. McCain would fill out the Republican ticket with Mr. Lieberman, a supporter of abortion rights, had become too intense to be ignored."  If you haven't noticed, McCain likes to paint himself as a "maverick," a guy who stands up to his party for the things he believes in.  Here, however, he simply fell in line.

Unfortunately, it has become all too obvious that Governor Palin is entirely unqualified to be 2nd in command of the most powerful nation in the world.  Don't listen to me, listen to her: 

Ironically, the woman brought on board to stimulate the conservative base has created a bit of an uproar amongst the Republican intelligentsia.  Less than one month after Palin's nomination, Kathleen Parker, columnist for the National Review ("America's most widely read and influential magazine and web site for Republican/conservative news, commentary, and opinion"), wrote an article praising Palin's personal story, her graciousness, and her "common sense."  But ultimately, Parker pointed to Palin's indefensible "BS" as evidence that she was/is "Clearly Out Of Her League."  The article called for the VP candidate to bow out, and again, this is the magazine William F. Buckley, Jr. founded.

The next day, Fareed Zakaria, best selling author and editor for Newsweek International, a magazine with 24 million readers worldwide, published a damning review of Palin, citing her canned responses during the Couric interview.  Then, this past monday, National Review writer turned New York Times columnist David Brooks told The Atlantic that Palin is "absolutely not" ready to be VP.  "She represents a fatal cancer to the Republican Party," Brooks said.

But all this Palin talk left McCain out of the picture.  Until yesterday.

In perhaps the most shocking review of all, Buckley's son and former McCain speech writer, Christopher Buckley, not only called to question Palin's qualifications, but McCain's.  He has officially endorsed Obama because, "This campaign has changed John McCain."

Which brings this post back to its central point: John McCain doesn't deserve to be our President.

This week you will undoubtedly hear about the newest issue of Rolling Stone.  The cover story, Tim Dickinson's "Make-Believe Maverick," is already making quite a splash online.

I'd certainly recommend reading it, because it tells a very different story of McCain than the one he's been telling on national television, but I'd also recommend taking everything he says with a grain of salt.  Too much of Dickinson's article relies on hearsay, not his Senate record, to expose McCain as unqualified.  Nevertheless, Dickinson reiterates some of Buckley's primary points and brings to light a few of his own:
  1. McCain has traditionally opposed negative "attack" ads, but in a last ditch effort, has decided to use them against Obama.  These ads, coupled with Governor Palin's relentless efforts to draw a connection between Obama and "terrorist" William Ayers, have led to widespread and intentional misinformation.  Horrifically, McCain's inadequate attempts to correct this situation may actually endanger our next President.
  2. McCain has resurrected what is essentially Bush's campaign team, the same group that smeared him and his family in 2000.  At the helm is Steve Schmidt, a former protege of Karl Rove.  Remember Palin's rousing acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention?  Matthew Scully, a former Bush speech writer, wrote it.
  3. In another attempt to appease the conservative base, McCain has changed positions on the Bush tax cuts & Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling, two proposals which he ardently opposed eight years ago.  At the time, the only other Republican Senator to vote with him, Lincoln Chafee, told Rolling Stone, "Sadly, sadly, sadly--McCain has flip-flopped...McCain is putting himself first."
  4. In perhaps their most despicable move yet, the McCain campaign will now broaden its attack ads to include Michelle Obama.  The connection is decades old and flimsy at best, and McCain has repeatedly deemed spouses off limits, but it appears as though his managers have taken the reigns.

There's more, but I believe I have said just about enough.

I wish that the same John McCain who worked across the aisle with Russ Feingold, the John McCain who stood up to Bush's bogus policies, the John McCain who I would have voted for over John Kerry, was still running for office.  He's not.

Ultimately, none of this matters.  With each passing day, it appears more and more likely that Obama will win this election.  But there's still a decision that every voting American has to make: Whether or not you agree with his policies, or disagree with Obama's, can you bring yourself to vote for John McCain?  I for one, wouldn't dream of it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Banksy's Newest "Pet Project"

By now it's almost certain your familiar with the work of graffiti artist Banksy. The anonymous British "vandal" might be the most popular social commentator of our time--and for good reason. Although he primarily uses stencils to create satirical pieces which deal with politics, ethics, and pop culture, he has also dabbled in sculpture, CD production/alteration, and video. There are plenty of places in which you can view his work, and I encourage you to browse through some of them if you have not already:

The brilliance of Banksy is a combination of the quality and creativity of his work. In an interview with Design is Kinky, Banksy shed some light on how he approaches a new piece:

"I use whatever it takes. Sometimes that just means drawing a moustache on a girls face on some billboard, sometimes that means sweating for days over an intricate drawing. The efficiency is the key."

It's not simply this willingness to play with style and method and subject and location that have resulted in his unparalleled success, but a keen understanding of what works and what doesn't. And just when you think you've got him figured out, Banksy turns the tables. Earlier this week in the West Village of New York City, "The Village Pet Store & Charcoal Grill" opened up shop at 89 7th Avenue.
The "pet store" is filled with animatronics in glass cages/displays which almost all serve to comment on the ethical treatment of animals. There is a live leopard with a swinging tail that, upon closer inspection, is actually an expensive woman's coat. There is a fish bowl complete with swimming fish sticks. There is a rabbit applying the latest cosmetics in front of a mirror. There is a rooster and his baby chicken nuggets, feeding from a BBQ dipper. There are an array of caged sausages and hotdogs in habitats which suit their needs. Check it out:

You can also view individual videos of each display (though some don't seem to work just yet) on the pet store's official website.

Banksy's newest work highlights his greatest asset as an artist: his sense of humor. So much of "modern" art is dark and alienating, or at the very least, weird. Yet it's difficult to walk away from a Bansky piece without laughing, even when it's you he's making fun of. While most animal rights activists would call Banksy's method less effective than a more in-your-face reality check, Banksy's humor makes his work accessible, and therefore fun to view.

First he was drawing on the Israeli West Bank barrier, then he was replacing Paris Hilton's new album with fakes created in conjunction with DJ Danger Mouse. He even installed a blow-up Guantanamo Bay prisoner inside the walls of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland in California. But this time he's outdone himself. For the first time, there is no risk of his artwork being painted over or removed. There is no danger of outcries for his arrest, because, well, it's his store.

If you live in New York, you can drop by to view his art in person from 10AM until midnight from now until Halloween. And even if it's closed, or too packed to get inside, the storefront windows provide 24/7 means to catch a glimpse of the work of perhaps our generation's greatest artist and social commentator.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Blending Value and the Unity of Human Life

This is a big idea post w/ off-the-cuff arguments, I would love some feedback as this is something I have just recently started thinking about...

First I explain two important ideas, then I discuss why these ideas matter in tandem-

1) Blended Value

Generally speaking, businesses operate on a single bottom-line (profit generation) which is a paradigm that ignores the environmental and social impact of their actions. The creation of economic wealth and long-term financial value are widely understood as the purposes of business. However, thinking about value in this way is not only incomplete; it is incredibly dangerous to human livelihood. We can see the outcome of this misconception of value in that some corporations have record years and huge performance bonuses despite their widespread use of sweatshops/child labor, exploitation of marginalized communities, degradation of the environment, and abuse of human rights around the world.

Jed Emerson, a prominent figure in the social entrepreneurship space, has developed and advanced the idea of blended value. Emerson argues that all organizations, whether for-profit or nonprofit, create value that consists of economic, social and environmental value components. Thus, value should be conceived as fundamentally indivisible and measured utilizing a triple-bottom line approach that accounts for economic, social, and environmental impact. In this framework, organizations would have record years and huge bonus payouts when they protect the earth, promote social equity, facilitate economic empowerment, and make a profit. Emerson’s blended value is a more whole way of thinking about how organizations should engage our world.

2) Unity of Human Life

I want to briefly explore some thoughts of Alisdair MacIntyre, one of the most influential thinkers of our time, on the “unity of a human life.” MacIntyre asserts that we live in a world where our lives are wrongfully partitioned into easily digestible segments and categories, each with its own norms and modes of behavior. Understanding life in this way, there is a clear separation of work and life (work/life balance), public and private, childhood and old age, school and the real world, etc. In this fragmented system, each discrete realm is torn away from the rest of human life. MacIntyre argues that in order for our lives to be intelligible and for us to answer basic questions about how we ought to live, we must instead think about our lives as unitary and whole. We are not actors in discrete worlds, but co-authors of whole narratives.

MacIntyre goes on to argue that virtue should not be dependant on the ways we segment our lives. Instead, virtues infuse all aspects of our lives. For example, it is the same virtue of courage that is exhibited by a person’s courage as a parent, activist, friend, lover, believer, soldier, etc. However, in order for this unity of virtue to be lived out, we must also believe in the unity of life. MacIntyre writes, “I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” If I have first answered the question of what Story or stories do I find myself a part?” Our lives are whole narratives in which we live out unsegmented virtue.

3) Why might these ideas matter in tandem?

Is it possible that corporations’ widespread failure to incorporate a blended value approach stems from our failure as individuals to see our lives as whole and our virtues as unitary? Think about it, people run corporations. Compassion may be the most universally accepted virtue among human beings, but why then has it not been integrated into the way we structure and run our businesses? Greed is wrong at home, but at work it’s perfectly fine to pursue profit at the price of dignity, equity, and empowerment. We volunteer with young kids every weekend and buy from companies that exploit very similar young people across the world.

I would argue that the failure of businesses to consider themselves producers of blended value stems from our failure as workers and consumers to understand our lives and virtues as unitary. We need to consider ourselves not only as consumers and employees but as whole beings with unitary virtues creating blended value in every facet of our lives, especially the places we spend much of our adult lives. Only when we break down these partitions of modernity in our own lives can the blended value paradigm be integrated into the consciousness of mainstream business.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Where Have All the Pretty Cowboys Gone?

At the Pitchfork Music Festival this summer, something dawned on me.  A majority of the bands and musicians working hardest today to push music in new directions are leaving out an essential element of what makes the act of listening most pleasurable: beauty.

There are some goddamn phenomenal releases this year that just scream tension.  Most of them would fit into one of two broad genres, "electronic" or "noise," and in some instances both.  Examples include Fuck Buttons' Street Horrsing, Dan Friel's Ghost Town, Times New Viking's Rip It Off, or Crystal Castles' self-titled.

All of these albums have received considerable and well-deserved praise.  Mojo made Street Horrsing its "Underground Album of the Month" and Pitchfork gave it the "Best New Music" distinction.  CMG's Clayton Purdom said of Ghost Town: "This album is poised at a strange nexus of holy-fucking-shitdom...This is better than every other record you like right now."  Times New Viking received a 9/10 from Drowned in Sound for Rip It Off.  And Allmusic called Crystal Castles an "altogether striking debut."

While it's no surprise these releases are garnering strong reviews, some of the language used by the reviewers cited above is a bit confusing.  Pitchfork's Marc Masters describes the "prettier sounds" Fuck Buttons mix in with their repetitive noise.  Purdom calls Friel's Ghost Town "gorgeous" and DIS's Sam Lewis says Rip It Off is a "beautiful pop record."  And while it would be entirely unfair to paint Heather Phares' Allmusic review of Crystal Castles as inaccurate, she does manage to throw out the descriptors "serene" and "ethereal."

Look, I'm not here to argue semantics, but unless you happen to have a very deranged sense of what the word means, there simply isn't a whole lot of "beauty" in these albums.  I listen to and love each one because more than anything else, they're the badasses on the playground this year.  And again, they're pushing themselves in directions the rest of the kids are too scared to go.  Simply put, I would highly recommend these records, but for crying out loud, not because they're "pretty" or "gorgeous" or "beautiful" or "serene" or fucking "ethereal."


Unfortunately, there simply hasn't been a whole lot of worthwhile music released this year that I would describe as such.  There are, however, a handful of exceptions worth exploring:

Sam Amidon - All is Well

A simple-is-better Vermont singer/songwriter reinterprets public domain Appalachian compositions with impressive results.  Nico Muhly's string and brass arrangements add invaluable support without ever overpowering or masking the beauty of the songs themselves.  Look no further than "Saro," in which Amidon painfully recalls the love he left for a new country.  

Check out "Saro":

Kathleen Edwards - Asking for Flowers

Another solid release from the Canadian alt-country vet.  As usual, a bit of a mixed bag of upbeat numbers and downtempo heartbreakers.  It's in that second group where "Sure as Shit" lies, a quiet love song with sharp words, as gorgeous as anything you'll hear this year.

Check out "Sure as Shit" here.

Shearwater - Rook

Recalling the work of post-rock giants Talk Talk, Shearwater's newest album is, more than anything else, dramatic.  That's not to imply that they just do the slow-build crescendo rock thing (à la Explosions in the Sky).  But the well timed moments of serenity, such as album closer "The Hunter's Star," allow lead singer Jonathan Meiburg's vocals to lift Rook to places this young group has only begun to explore.

Check out "The Hunter's Star" here.

TV on the Radio - Dear Science,

The big exception.  The only band I've found this year that's truly pushing music to new heights without forgetting the limitless power of a beautiful track.  The album's fulcrum, "Family Tree," is unlike anything the band has ever produced before.  Soaring strings and an echoing piano accompany an utterly gorgeous vocal melody; it's easily their most accessible track to date.  Now this is what I call pretty.

Check out "Family Tree":

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Building Civic Engagement

Education in this country is failing and it's not because we are falling behind China or India in math and science

A colleague of mine recently asserted that there should be a mandatory service requirement for young people in the United States. She said that before the age of 23, all capable young people should perform a mandatory year of service through a program such as Peace Corps, Americorps, City Year, etc., in order to build a more socially conscious, service-oriented, and civically engaged citizenry.

After my typical visceral reaction based on fear of government encroachment, inefficiency, and incompetence, I decided that this was an idea worth thinking about.

The intentions and goals behind the idea of mandatory service are solid. There is a dearth of civic engagement and volunteerism in our society. One study found that in 2007 about 74% of the adult population spent zero time volunteering. While increased volunteering is not a silver bullet to the social problems in our country, it is difficult to ignore this widespread complacency toward serving others.

While the intentions and goals of mandatory service are reasonable enough, I struggle with whether a mandate is the right strategy for building civic engagement. Often, people interested in social and environmental justice latch on to government mandates as a way of changing public behaviors and attitudes. In reality, there are four major social control mechanisms that governments use to affect public behavior:

1) Physical coercion: Police power (imprisonment if fail to abide by law)

2) Negative reinforcement: “Sin taxes” (i.e. SUV, alcohol, and cigarette taxes)

3) Positive reinforcement: Providing tax-breaks (i.e. for married couples, charitable giving)

4) What Joseph Nye calls soft power: Getting people to want what you want

As you may be able to tell from my prior post, I do believe that incentives matter and that both positive and negative reinforcement are, generally speaking, legitimate options. However, service to others is an expression of our common humanity, it’s a recognition of the crap shoot that decides who has and who needs, it is supposed to be selfless and independent of government punishment or tax-breaks. Positively or negatively incentivizing service is somewhat of an internal contradiction. Assuming we all agree that physical coercion is not an option, we are left with the fourth option listed above; getting the American public to civically engage themselves, to want to be actively serving those in need in their communities.

In order to build civic engagement in this fourth way, we need to think differently about how we are developing young people. We consistently obsess over how we are falling behind China in math and science, but why aren’t we also talking about our failure to cultivate an ethic of compassion, empathy, and service in young people? I grew up in a supposedly top-notch public school system in the Western suburbs of Chicago and not once did I have an opportunity to serve people in need through any of my classes. Never did I engage in service-learning nor was I significantly exposed to other peoples’ reality. Human rights, social justice, and an ethic of service are only tacitly (and mostly dispassionately) dealt with through videos and worksheets about the civil rights movement.

Building a society that is centered on “equal dignity and mutual loyalty” depends on a shift in norms, which requires a shift in the way we learn to engage in our world and therefore a deeper incorporation of social action into our education.