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Archive for the ‘america’ Category

americans in limbo

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Most Americans – me included before I moved here – have a difficult time reading British “class” through accent and its other accoutrements. Sure, there’s My Fair Lady cockneyism on the one side and chinless Royal Familyism on the other, we can detect that, but between lies just a fast undifferentiated middle. Which of course not how British people hear it, not in the least, as they sniff each other out with the subtle discernment of dogs testing each others’ asses.

But on the other hand: Americans are completely indiscernable to Brits as well. They can’t detect the subtle differences of speech and gesture that mark the well-born or earned-through from the other sorts, and all the complicating and obsfucating play that goes on in between. But whereas Americans default to “rich and polished” when they hear Brits, I think Americans are assigned a lower and more ambiguous place in the eyes of my hosts here. The best analogy I can come up with for where we are placed is the way that Dante handles the virtuous non-Christians in Inferno. Greek philosophers and the like aren’t mixed into the bottom, not quite, but they don’t quite merit the middle berthing either.

They are placed in Limbo, for lack of anywhere else to settle them – technically in the game but ultimately not really.

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October 10, 2013 at 11:01 am

neo-liberalism as american martyrdom

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Meme-expansion alert:

There’s long been a line of argument against the USA adopting a “socialized” medical system that goes something like this. “Sure, Canada and the Europeans have their cheap and equal systems. But the only way they can have those systems is because they freeload on the back of us, the unequal Americans. For instance, because we don’t have a single-payer system that forces the prices of newly developed prescription drugs down, the pharmaceutical companies have real incentives to develop new drugs. The NHSes of the world then purchase those drugs at a cut rate while Americans pay the true cost of their development.”

In other words, according to this line of thinking, Americans are actually the self-less martyrs of the medical world, paying ridiculous sums for treatment so that Brits and Canadians and Scandinavians can ride free. Were we to develop a single-payer system, the pharmaceutical industry would simply stop trying so hard to develop life-changing and life-saving drugs.

I’ve just found evidence in Ross Douthat’s column today in the New York Times that this meme is expanding its borders, moving from medical services to the global economy as a whole. Here’s the relevant passage:

The European model of social democracy has its virtues, but it has always depended on the wealth created by American laissez-faire. As a recent economic paper entitled “Can’t We All Be More Like Scandinavians?” points out, it’s easier for smaller countries to afford a more “cuddly” form of capitalism if big countries like the United States are driving global economic growth. And the price of a permanently larger government — in growth lost, private-sector jobs left uncreated, breakthroughs forgone — is much higher for a country of our size and influence than it is for a Sweden or a France.

Beyond the truthfulness and accuracy of the claims – which I’m sure is a mixed and complex matter – I am taken with what a strange argument it is when it comes, as Douthat is implicitly doing here, to using it to try to influence policy decisions / voting choices. Basically, it suggests that Americans, living inside a rapacious economic and political system fuelled by greed and inequality, are in effect trapped in a perverse and permanent mode of self-sacrifice, forced to accept their unhappy system so that (or almost “so that”) others might live better lives.

It’s neo-liberalism rebranded as a form of martyrdom, a bounded match of “survival of the fittest” that serves the corpses of the victims as free barbecue to the bystanders at the end of the game. Or, from another angle, it is the most passive-aggressive version of “combined and uneven development” imaginable. Strange.

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November 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm

“in california, one has only a first name”

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I’m sure most of you are already familiar with this, but thought I’d pass along my favourite paragraph from Marjorie Perloff’s indignant response to Mary Beard in the LRB just after 9/11.

I have been a subscriber to LRB since the journal’s inception some twenty-five years ago. But I hereby cancel my subscription and shall urge my Stanford students and colleagues to boycott the journal. Let me end, however, on an upbeat note that speaks to Beard’s ‘of course’. The man who takes care of our garden in Pacific Palisades, Ruben Vargas, was here the other day. A Latino who came to California from Mexico not all that long ago, Vargas has a daughter who is a freshman at UCLA. Some of us like to think that such upward mobility is what makes the US unique. I asked Ruben what he thought of the attack. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘at least now we’re all in it together.’ I responded: ‘But Ruben, many of my friends think it’s all America’s fault.’ He smiled and said: ‘Excuse me, Marjorie’ – yes, in California, one has only a first name – ‘but isn’t that a minuscule part of the population?’ Of course!

LOLZ. God bless America, a land where we hardly ever beat our gardeners for addressing us by the first name! You can find both the Beard and the whole Perloff here. What is interesting to me now, looking back at this piece after so many years, is the way that Perloff, in constructing her trumping concluding paragraph, so perfectly takes up the Clintonian * trope that goes something like “I met an ordinary woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she shared her story with me, I hugged her, and I felt her pain.” You know, the old argumentum ex I know ordinary folks, this sort of thing (wish I had time to find a better example). These are sorts of performative utterances: they signify by being said or being able to be said as much as by what they actually say. It’s funny that Perloff, in the heights of anger, decided to construct her argument according to this extremely liberal “I might not be of the people, but I’ve met some of them… especially those in my employ” structure.

Anyway, was quite a moment. If I recall correctly, both Beard and Perloff had visiting appointments at Princeton in 2002 – people were anxious / excited at the prospect of seeing them take it off the letters pages and onto the quad.

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September 11, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Posted in america

shakespeare on broadway

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Herman Melville to Evert Duyckinck:

I would to God Shakespeare had lived later, & promenaded in Broadway. Not that I might have had the pleasure of leaving my card for him at the Astor, or made merry with him over a bowl of fine Duyckinck punch; but that the muzzle which all men wore on their souls in the Elizabethan day, might not have intercepted Shakespeare’s full articulations. For I hold it a verity, that even Shakespeare was not a frank man to the universe. And, indeed, who in this intolerant Universe is, or can be? But the Declaration of Independence makes a difference.

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May 26, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Posted in america

meek’s cutoff

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Saw Meek’s Cutoff the other night – absolutely brilliant. Not sure how to put any of this without giving the game away, but it’s an incredibly artful piece and one that is in large part about what we can and can’t read / hear / comprehend / understand though it’s right there in front of our eyes / ears / heads. It’s a complicated film that fucks with the audience in all sorts of ways. (I’m usually ready for this sort of thing, as a modernist by trade, but I was actually complaining about the sound being too low in the cinema until the person I was with clue me in to the fact that it was probably intentional that we couldn’t hear what the characters were saying through large chunks of the film…)

And it’s a film that that vividly – and incredibly patiently – resists the probing, teleological impulse genetically resident in the Western genre that it’s subverting. Plus it plays all of this out in a way that makes the “American story” into at once a sort of impossible “back into the garden” narrative that’s biblically damned to fail and a haunting performance of the situation that I’ve always believed makes up the lion’s share of the American political unconscious. (Let’s put it this way: this is a settler and Indians story in which, well, there aren’t many Indians but the landscape is strewn with evidence that they once were here…. Just as the landscape is now, still…)

You should see it if you get a chance. Reminded me a lot of Lars Von Trier’s stuff, actually. Weird trees and all…

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May 18, 2011 at 10:38 am

Posted in america, movies

they suck your blood

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For anyone still unaware of how bad things can be and generally are in the US with health care, SEK nails it here.

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May 5, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Posted in america

words and politics

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From Krugman’s column today:

But something else struck me as I looked at Republican arguments against the board, which hinge on the notion that what we really need to do, as the House budget proposal put it, is to “make government health care programs more responsive to consumer choice.”

Here’s my question: How did it become normal, or for that matter even acceptable, to refer to medical patients as “consumers”? The relationship between patient and doctor used to be considered something special, almost sacred. Now politicians and supposed reformers talk about the act of receiving care as if it were no different from a commercial transaction, like buying a car — and their only complaint is that it isn’t commercial enough.

Sounds like the work of Luntz to me… (Actually, here’s a summary of his 2009 memo on health care). See how this works? You preemptively and subtly rework the terms of the debate simply by changing the words that are used.

Both the facilitating situation and ultimate effect of this sort of rhetorical gamesmanship can be found in another article from the NYT today on a new national poll:

[S]lightly more Americans approve than disapprove of a proposal by Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin to change Medicare from a program that pays doctors and hospitals directly for treating older people to one in which the government helps such patients pay for private plans, though that support derived more from Republicans and independents. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll that found 65 percent opposed Mr. Ryan’s plan, suggesting results can vary based on how the question is asked.

Twice as many respondents said they would prefer cuts in spending on federal programs that benefit people like them as said they would favor a rise in taxes to pay for such programs.

Yet more than 6 in 10 of those surveyed said they believed Medicare was worth the costs. And when asked specifically about Medicare, respondents said they would rather see higher taxes than see a reduction in its available medical services if they had to choose between the two.

Arggh! Replace Medicare with vouchers, because it costs to much, but Medicare is also worth the costs. Cut spending on programs like Medicare rather than raising taxes, but also raise them to keep Medicare…. Obviously there’s, as always in America, sharp ideological polarization at play, but at least some – or actually probably a large percentage of respondents, when you think about it – who are answering questions in diametrically contradictory ways….

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April 22, 2011 at 10:00 am

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