Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Extinction of Culture

Why does it matter whether different cultures are protected from emerging global forces? Some would say it doesn’t, most anthropologists would argue otherwise. I guess I see both sides.

On the one hand, no humane person pines over the glory days of when we had a culture of slavery in this country. Or, for a more current example, do we really want to preserve our current American culture of excessive consumption and environmental degradation? Just because a culture exists doesn’t mean it should. Further, as Westerners, we shouldn’t deny remote cultures the vast material benefits of our system (if they desire those benefits) for the sake of being able to visit exotic peoples and discuss our neat differences.

From the anthropological perspective, it seems that all cultures ought to be equally valued by outsiders because it’s inappropriate for one group to determine the fate of another based on priorities and principles that are not shared. After all, who is to say that we got it right as Westerners?

Intuitively I believe in preserving distinct cultures because I see the beauty and concert in the thousands of unique expressions of human voice around the world. I would just like to unpack a little further what it is specifically that we ought to value about our culture and others’ to better understand how to think about things like globalization and international development both critically and constructively.

What do you think? How careful should we be about cultural imperialism when thinking about global "progress?"

Monday, January 26, 2009

Dusted's Destined

On Friday, Dusted Magazine, my favorite music e-zine, wrapped up their annual Destined feature.  The site selected 10 emerging artists to watch in 2009, including Bachelorette, Kurt Vile, and Aeroplane.  Dusted's track record is a strong indication that at least a couple of these artists are worth keeping an eye on: at various points in the last six years, Parts & Labor, Hot Chip, M.I.A., Deerhunter, and Fuck Buttons were each labeled "Destined" before their breakout releases.

If you missed the two-week feature, you can check out the in-depth articles for each artist here.

My personal favorite was Nate Knaebel's look at The Strange Boys, a Dallas-based garage rock band.

Here's an excerpt:

While the band’s musical scholarship is undeniable, one would be wise to avoid pinpointing a particular influence. “A band can make a whole career out of sounding like Radiohead, and no one says anything,” Sambol points out. “But when a band tries to go through someone that’s maybe easier to poke at – the Kinks or Dylan – people desperately want to reference it.” Touché.

While Sambol noted that he one day hopes to outgrow any influences, the band’s official debut full-length, The Strange Boys and Girls Club, already finds the band standing solidly on its own. It’s the sound of high school dances stomped out on gymnasium floors long since abandoned; cold nights and warm whiskey; bad decisions and trouble. The jangling guitars are punctuated with strategic bursts of fuzz; the drums provide a laconic shuffling rhythm that pushes the band along just so without ever rushing things. Sambol’s strained bleat sounds simultaneously desperate and elated. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Equality as Outcomes or Opportunity?

Since I can remember I have readily recited Milton Friedman’s old adage that the government should ensure that people have “equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes.” The logic here is that if everyone is afforded the same opportunities (e.g. education, health, etc.), then it’s simply a matter of individual will, luck, and choices whether one gets “ahead” in terms of social and economic outcomes (e.g. income level). This line of thought also embodies a general disregard among conservatives concerning the role of government in mitigating inequality of outcomes. As with most others, it’s time for me to revisit this proposition.

Rethinking this raises two basic questions: 1) Is equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcomes a useful distinction? and 2) Why might inequality of outcomes be a proper focus of government? In regards to the first question, I’m not convinced that equality of opportunity vs. outcomes is a practical distinction.

Theoretically I understand the logic, but we live in a world where peoples’ opportunities are directly shaped by the outcomes of their families and communities. For example, if one’s parents are too poor to live in a neighborhood with high caliber schools, then that directly impacts their opportunity to get a high quality education, thus furthering educational inequality of opportunity.

I absolutely agree that we should focus on equalizing peoples’ opportunities, not outcomes, but in order to do that we need to restructure opportunities so they are not dependent on outcomes. This is where the typical conservative line falls apart. You cannot simultaneously advocate for more equal opportunities AND smaller government.

If the funding of healthcare and education continues to be largely decentralized, as conservatives advocate, then the quality of those services will mirror the economic circumstances of communities: poor areas will have weak basic services, rich areas have robust education and health systems. If we take Friedman’s logic seriously, I think it undermines his advocacy for small government. By the way, Obama’s quote on this point was spot on: “The fundamental question of our time is not whether government is too big or two small, it will be whether it works.”

On the second question, as usual, I think Amartya Sen says it best in this tour de force of an interview:


I believe that virtually all the problems in the world come from inequality of one kind or another [...] There are some people who say that they're concerned only with poverty but not inequality. I find that very difficult for the reason that Adam Smith discussed a long time ago in The Wealth of Nations. He pointed out that the same thing that everyone likes doing, talking with others, appearing in public without shame, taking part in the life of the community, if you live in a community that's relatively rich, you need a much bigger income to be able to do these elementary things.

If you are a villager in rural Bangladesh or Uganda, you might be able to meet with people very easily even if you're not schooled or if you don't have a car or if you're not clothed in a way that's regarded as obligatory in some cultures. But in, say, America, if you don't have a television at home your kids might find it hard to converse with each other in school. The income that we need in order not to be poor is much higher in a richer society. So that relative poverty, which is really a matter of inequality, in terms of income can be the cause of absolute poverty, the inability to do the basic things which Adam Smith noted we all like doing.

The idea that we can be interested only in poverty but not in inequality I don't think is a sustainable thought. A lot of poverty is in fact inequality because of this connection between income and capability. The same capability to take part in the life of the community requires a much bigger basket of commodities and therefore a much bigger income in a rich society. So you have to be interested in inequality. And since we live in a global village, events in different parts of the world influence each other. The Internet begins to penetrate in my country. Indians begin to find out how other people live in the rest of the world. Given these circumstances, the issues of inequality and the issue of poverty are not separable even globally.

They're very closely linked, both in terms of the need to ask the moral question, Is it right that I should enjoy my privileges, and not feel I owe anything to others? As well as the other level, do I have a right to be content living in a world with so much poverty and inequality? Both these questions motivate us to take these issues to be central to human living. Ultimately, the old Socratic question, How should I live? has to include a very strong component of awareness and response to inequality.”


My apologies for the length of this interview segment, but Sen makes sense of why inequality matters in a way that I have never been able to articulate. In short, I still agree with Friedman’s basic proposition, but I would argue that taking it seriously undermines the libertarian solution he ends up coming to. Further, I think Sen's argument forces us to reconsider the real difficulties surrounding inequality of outcomes, which may be good reason to believe that it is a proper thing for the government to focus on.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dear Science

The following is a quick write-up I did some time ago for my favorite record of 2008, TV on the Radio's Dear Science.  I had planned (and still plan) on writing a bit about some of the records I thought went under-appreciated, but I've been sitting on this for about three weeks and have finally decided to just post it.  Hopefully, I'll get my shit together and provide a bit more later on.  For now...

TV on the Radio formed within the space and culture of New York, New York, a metropolis aptly portrayed one year ago in a review for The National's Boxer as "catastrophically wounded but still humming like a generator." Isolated as New York may be, Americans from sea to shining sea can no doubt relate to such desolation and persistence: our youth still enlist despite an endless parade of flag-draped caskets; our alarm clocks are still set each night despite continued layoffs; and our united voice still chose "hope" despite eight years of spoon-fed bullshit. Ours is a nation founded on the principle that discontent can always be overcome by equal portions grit and Gatsby-style optimism.

This same balance is reflected throughout TV on the Radio’s third studio album, Dear Science. These are gloomy days, and singers Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone know it. The two split songwriting duties nearly 50/50, yet coalesce around themes familiar to the coarse American political landscape: war, religion, environmentalism, corruption, materialism, racism, and technology. Malone questions the morality of Israeli military action on "Crying" and wonders "What's this dying for?" on "Stork & Owl." Adebimpe chastises an overtly disingenuous effort towards air quality on "DLZ" and, humorously, those vain enough to dress their Weimaraners in sweaters on "Dancing Choose." Elsewhere, shadows and gallows populate the chorus of "Family Tree," a timeworn interracial love story hindered by "an old idea" whose "roots of evil" are as firm and foundational as ever.

As with the 2008 presidential election, however, these disenchanted overtones only tell half the story. In an interview with The Onion's AV Club, Adebimpe likened the recording of 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain to "the Ren & Stimpy episode where they get space madness, and they're orbiting the planet, ready to kill each other for a bar of soap." Weary of their childish artistic clashes, TV on the Radio reconvened as a more sensible pop group bent on crafting a percussive, clean, and—according to Adebimpe—more "regular" album.

The result, which marries the band's usual status quo dissatisfaction with a less familiar brand of romanticism, is a far warmer sound than TV on the Radio has ever experimented with before. Horns and strings are noticeably brighter than on the aggressive and brooding Cookie Mountain, particularly in aid of the crescendoing "Family Tree" and "Lover's Day." Meanwhile, “Crying” and “Golden Age” are downright danceable, if not fit for pop radio. Adebimpe and Malone play a large role in the band’s sunnier tone; the power of love is a theme reiterated in nearly all of Dear Science’s eleven perfectly sequenced tracks.

The only problem? Five years ago, no band in America sounded like TV on the Radio. Now, TV on the Radio sound like TV on the Radio, and there's no telling how far this tank of gas will take them. Yet this band still seems awfully avant-garde compared to the bulk of their peers. Capturing both the despair and optimism that has defined the last year, Dear Science is TV on the Radio's most commercial-friendly album to date, but also their most sure-stepped, consistent, and best.

Watch the video for "Golden Age":

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Rethinking Youth Engagement in Israel Palestine

This post was originally published on the Newsweek/Washington Post “Faith Divide” blog.

This past summer in Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to meet two young Israelis who were backpacking across America. They had just completed their mandatory military service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), a three year (two years for women) requirement for all Israeli citizens over the age of 18, and had decided to delay their studies to see the world. After sharing travel stories and talking about the future of electronic music, I posed a question very near to my heart: “Do either of you have any Muslim or Arab friends back home?” The lively spirit that had colored our conversation vanished and, after an awkward pause, one of them stated, “No, it doesn’t really work like that. We’ve just spent three years fighting Arabs; do you really think we could all go to the clubs together at night?”

This encounter and recent events in Gaza have forced me to think seriously about the consequences of militarizing, year after year, entire generations of young people in Israel and Palestine. Young peoples’ identities and worldviews are deeply shaped by the experiences they have and the institutions of which they are a part. What, then, happens when the vast majority of youth in Israel and Palestine are asked to serve in military roles that further embed an “us vs. them” mentality? Is it possible that the institution of compulsory military service cements an oppositional identity between the very people on which peace in the Middle East depends?

What if there were an alternative institution shaping how young Israelis and Palestinians perceive one another? Given the serious security threats to the people involved, I am not arguing for an elimination of mandatory military service. Instead, the respective governments should create a parallel opportunity where young Palestinians and Israelis could legitimately fulfill part or all of their civic duty by serving in a joint Israeli-Palestinian interfaith “Peace Corps.” This initiative would facilitate interfaith peace exchanges, cooperative service immersion experiences, and constructive dialogue among thousands of young Israelis and Palestinians each year. Instead of pitting Israeli and Palestinian young people against one another during their most formative years, this initiative would help them form constructive relationships based on positive interactions, shared values, and common goals.

This initiative would be effective in fostering peace for two main reasons. First, it would bring adversarial groups together to work toward common goals (e.g. regional peace, quality of life for refugees, access to health and education) that could not be reached without the cooperation of both groups. In his classic “Robbers Cave” experiment on conflict and cooperation, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif forcefully shows that social tensions are significantly reduced when groups in conflict jointly pursue and achieve shared goals; the same lesson applies to peace in Israeli-Palestine.

Second, this initiative would teach and train future foreign ministers, faith leaders, and policymakers to partake in constructive dialogue, be empathetic toward the circumstances of others, and utilize nonviolent and cooperative strategies for building a more stable and peaceful region. This model is the same one used by Teach for America (TFA) in their efforts to reform the education system in America. TFA is effectively equipping future leaders in all fields to be lifelong advocates for educational change. For evidence of the effectiveness of this model, check out the impact of TFA Alumni.

Young people will make an impact in the world. If we want them to leave a legacy of peace in Israel-Palestine, then they must be shaped and empowered by nonviolent leadership opportunities. Peace in Israel and Palestine depends on whether both governments can find a more constructive way to engage their youth.