Sunday, November 29, 2009

Post-Thanksgiving turkey talk

I’m still recovering from Thursday’s excesses. The extra four pounds I packed on has been halved, however. I hit the gym hard both Friday and again this morning, mixing in weights with an hour of cardio each time. By Tuesday morning, which is weigh-in day, I anticipate being back to my pre-Thanksgiving weight. Not too bad, and actually, if I hadn’t engaged in an evening binge of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and creamed onions, just a mere four hours after a dessert of pumpkin pie and apple crisp, I might already be back to my low ebb. I guess one food binge in 23 weeks isn’t too bad.

I spent time doing other things besides eating the past few days. One of the wonders of having time, and not being forced by work, and life in general to approximate a hamster on a wheel, is it gives us time to reflect, and even reconsider our modus operandi.

Over four days, I read, spent some time with my wife and son (home from Brown), played cards, and watched an amazing panel discussion yesterday, on C-SPAN2’s BookTV. The panel featured Chris Hedges, George Packer, and Sam Tanenhaus, taped a few weeks back, during the Miami Book Festival.

The panel, on “politics and culture” allowed all three authors to talk about their new books. Rarely are three erudite and articulate authors featured on television. In fact, television has long ago decided that it would rather trot out blow-dried talking heads and guests playing around the borders of credibility, rather than providing viewers with something more than mere sound bites, or endless harangues back and forth between so-called experts.

Chris Hedges, in describing his latest book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, a book he details by way of synopsis as a book about how Americans are “the most illusioned (sic) nation on the planet; we have become utterly disconnected from who we are, what we represent and where we are going—and replaced it with fantasy.”

Some of what Hedges discussed as part of the panel is the same ground that the late Neil Postman tilled two decades ago, when things weren't as dire. Hedges brings a critique of capitalism, however, into the mix, which I think puts his content into a more contemporary window than a mere rehash of Postman.

Packer, a longtime writer for The New Yorker, has released a book of essays called, Interesting Times: Writings From a Turbulent Decade. The essays are what Packer termed “long-form narrative journalism,” a type of journalism that is almost disappeared, outside the pages of a few print publications, one of them being The New Yorker.

Packer describes his book as being about places in the world—East and West Africa, Burma—that have fallen off the radar in the post-9-ll world we now inhabit. Packer, in unpacking one of his essays, about the civil war taking place in the Ivory Coast, described a group of 12 and 13-year-old soldiers that he met while in their country. They were all wearing t-shirts featuring the faces of either Osama Bin Laden, or George Bush.

When Packer asked these kid soldiers about their t-shirts, their thoughts and ideas were a “crazy mish mash” of images and slogans and ideas—some if it coming from hip-hop culture in the U.S. and some of it paying homage to Islamic jihadism.

After he had these conversations, Packer was able to have another discussion with an Italian doctor in the country working for a humanitarian medical organization. When Packer shared his conversation, and the images on the two t-shirts, this doctor said that this was a “perverse affect of globalization,” and called it “contagion by media.”

Today’s world is such that 24/7 media, via images that are broadcast through the web and global satellites, rather than knitting the world together, seems to be driving the citizens of that world apart, perpetuating violence and conflict.

Global media tends to frustrate, and promote alienation, according to Packer. The images that they are exposed to are selective, and provide an “intense, but very narrow view of the world.”

Americans, on the other hand, are receiving “sanitized” views of the wars taking place across the world. We’re bombarded by information and images, but rather than providing clarity and complexity to our thinking about the world, rather, most Americans hold a very simplistic, black and white view of the world.

Packer’s book of essays chronicles the world from the events on 9-11, to the rise of Barack Obama’s political star.

The third panelist featured, Sam Tanenhaus, spoke about his new book, The Death of Conservatism, a book that traces the lineage of modern conservatism, a form that Tanenhaus characterizes as “movement conservatism,” in contrast to the “traditional” form of conservatism that most right-wing gas bags, like Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck, know little about.

Tanenhaus argued points about how Republicans must moderate their focus on ideological purity if they are to return from the political wilderness and offered a historical context, talking about Edmund Burke, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon (who Tanenhaus characterized as “one of the most liberal presidents of the modern era.”

While Hedges was a bit “testy” during an exchange with Tanenhaus, the interplay, and the response to the audience members’ questions were some of the most interesting analysis I’ve listened to for quite a period about the current place we’re in here in America, with Hedges and Packer extending this out into the global sphere.

Interestingly, since joining the gym several weeks ago, I now am treated to semi-occasional glimpses at news channels, like Fox, while on the treadmill, or using the elliptical trainer. I rarely can watch more than one segment, but that brief look at what news has become—mere entertainment, with a veneer of credibility—is what Tanenhaus was talking about.

Here is the link to CSPAN’s archive of the panel.

There is an amazing sequence around the 26:00 minute mark, with Hedges answering a question, and gives a real clear delineation of what has happened to capitalism, with the shift from a “penny capitalism,” which Hedges describes by way of his experiences growing up in a farming community where farmers brought their wares to market and were paid, to the current form—described by Hedges as “corporate capitalism,” which he makes the point has radically upended American politics.

This 5-6 minute section is well worth watching for anyone that would appreciate hearing a clear understanding of where we are, and even, how we got there. It’s the kind of trenchant analysis you’ll never hear on Fox, CNN, or sadly, even NPR, which has become an apologist by-and-large for corporate benefactors.

I’m looking forward to reading all three of these books. I’d go a step beyond and say that if you are fortunate enough to have sophisticated friends, or family members that still care about narrative journalism, any of these three books would make an excellent Christmas gift.

In response to a question about Obama, Hedges refers to him as a “brand,” much like Calvin Klein, or Benetton were able to brand themselves with HIV/AIDS culture through ads trivializing the disease back in the-mid-1990s. Obama has not veered at all from the policies of the Bush administration, despite the ideological hoopla passing as journalism, as well as the antinomian tendencies of many on the right, and even on the pages of mainstream publications like the Wall Street Journal that likes to pose as an institution of "old journalism," but at least since Rupert Murdoch took over ownership reins, more and more resembles the far right's print cousin.

As Hedges accurately indicates, Obama is a mere “figurehead,” and has been “emasculated” by corporate interests, the very same interests that have orchestrated the single largest wealth transfer upwards in American history, from the working and middle classes, to the rich.

No comments: