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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

brick ‘n mortar ‘n toilets

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Sign in the window of a recently closed Borders bookstore somewhere in America:

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April 4, 2011 at 9:58 am

Posted in america

“imported from detroit”: superbowl ads

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I know this sort of thing has been done before… But what a conceptually tangled if viscerally stirring ad spin here. The usual American car marketing jingoism gets translated into a half-coherent riff about uneven internal development and productivist aesthetics. Check out, for instance, the strange pseudo-Ruskinism mixed with rust belt exoticism in “Because when it comes to luxury, it’s as much about where it’s from as who it’s for.” As well as, of course, the tag line of the ad as a whole, “Imported from Detroit.”

Most of the other ads from last night are banal crap. * But in ones like Chrysler’s, complete with the somnolent semi-logic of lines like the above, it is interesting to see what they dream that we are or could be dreaming.

On the other hand, quite funny that Chrysler is increasingly owned by Fiat, and so a more accurate ad would be about the politics and finance of one post-industrial city buying another via the mediation of the US government….

* All that I’ve found that was even mildly interesting is the Audi spot that seemed to position itself as the car of choice for slightly less twittish upperclass twits. And I suppose there’s something to be said about the Motorola ad, itself a winking sendup of Apple’s very famous 1984-themed ad that aired in 1984.

Of course there is an interesting difference between the two versions. If the stakes of corporate conflict translated into consumer choice once was registered in terms of the political thematics of Orwell’s novel (the subversion of IBM as the subversion of the totalitarian state), now buying a MotoPad vs. an iPad is allegorized through the minor key romantic plot of the novel. And even in doing so, diminished stakes again: instead of a righteous fuck in the woods, the best we can hope for is a Youtube video goofily edited into an electronic Valentine’s Day Card which leads this Julia not to drop her overalls but merely to take out her earbuds.

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February 7, 2011 at 9:21 am

what novels are for (according to conservative columnists)

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Slightly unfair to throw one columnist’s words from 2011 up against another’s from 1988. But this is, it seems to me, interesting to think about. Ross Douthat today in the NYT:

But chances are that Loughner’s motives will prove as irreducibly complex as those of most of his predecessors in assassination. Violence in American politics tends to bubble up from a world that’s far stranger than any Glenn Beck monologue — a murky landscape where worldviews get cobbled together from a host of baroque conspiracy theories, and where the line between ideological extremism and mental illness gets blurry fast.

This is the world that gave us Oswald and Bremer. More recently, it’s given us figures like James W. von Brunn, the neo-Nazi who opened fire at the Holocaust Museum in 2009, and James Lee, who took hostages at the Discovery Channel last summer to express his displeasure over population growth. These are figures better analyzed by novelists than pundits: as Walter Kirn put it Saturday, they’re “self-anointed knights templar of the collective shadow realm, not secular political actors in extremis.”

George Will in 1988 on Don DeLillo’s Libra, via here, and its presentation of Lee Harvey Oswald:

DeLillo says he is just filling in “some of the blank spaces in the known record.” But there is no blank space large enough to accommodate, and not a particle of evidence for, DeLillo’s lunatic conspiracy theory. In the book’s weaselly afterword, he says he has made “no attempt to furnish factual answers.” But in a New York Times interview he says, “I purposely chose the most obvious theory because I wanted to do justice to historical likelihood.”

History, says a DeLillo character, is “the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” Of course. “They.” That antecedentless pronoun hants the fevered imaginations of paranoiacs. For conspiracy addicts like DeLillo, the utter absence of evidence, after 25 years of search, proves not that there was no conspiracy but that the conspiracy was diabolically clever.

It is well to be reminded by books like this of the virulence of the loathing some intellectuals feel for American society, and of the frivolous thinking that fuels it.

Of course, neither of them are wrong about what novels generally and reflexively do when it comes to ethical questions. Contextualization and the relativism that comes of it, speculation to fill in the holes in the story where the assignment of goodness or evilness might otherwise fill the blank – all very much a part of the game, and you basically have to derange the form a bit in order to do otherwise with them.

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January 10, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Posted in america, novel, Politics

recession chic: own-brand politics

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Interestingly zeitgeisty subsumption of recession chic Walmartistic marketing * into politics, this “No Labels” campaign. Even more interesting that it seems to be either a product or an opportunistic ally of MSNBC, the no-name name of television news. While the members of this movement, as I understand it, are involved for a variety of reasons, if it’s primarily a vehicle established to support a presidential run by Michael Bloomberg in 2012, then here “store brand” = “post-ideological plutocracy.” Obviously ‘post-ideological’ needs to be in scare quotes, but that’s the idea, and really just a consolidation of a long-held (and eighty-percent perverse) American instinct about the relationship between politics and money.

* Part of Walmart’s very very tacit come-on is that such is its buying power that it could force name-brand companies to make or bake items for its store brand simply in order also to have access to its shelves for stuff under their own labels. Somehow this seems similar to what these “No Name” people are up to.

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December 21, 2010 at 6:44 am

Posted in ads, america, Politics

a portrait of the president as a mechanized middle manager

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David Bromwich’s brilliant breakdown of the Obama presidency in the current issue of the LRB makes for depressing reading… Obama comes across in a way that makes perfect sense but which I’d never quite gotten before, or at least gotten this fully. If the Bush administration’s dominant rhetorical strain was the dark-magical realism of Orwellian double-think, Obama’s linguistic mainline is the pablum parlance of the powerpoint infected boardroom. Here’s Bromwich on Obama vis a vis Afghanistan:

If, some years hence, one were to measure when the hope for ending the wars ran out, a critical exhibit would be the ‘final orders’ Obama asked all the participants in his Afghanistan review of 2009 to approve. The text, printed by Woodward, is a strangely lawyer-like set of agreed-on directives, at once imperative and vague. The point of a contract is that it is binding: if it is not followed, there are legal grounds of redress. These final orders are a mimic contract: a list of notions expressing a ‘commitment’ to a consensus that was never wholehearted. Yet Obama thought mere verbal formulae could strengthen the agreement he had forged between Petraeus, McChrystal and Mullen, who wanted a full-scale counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and Eikenberry, Lute, Brennan and Biden, who wanted no more troops to be sent. The words are mechanised and managerial: ‘US troops in early 2010 in order to degrade the Taliban and set the conditions for accelerated transition’; ‘leveraging the potential for local security forces’; ‘working with Karzai when we can, working around him when we must’; ‘implementing a post-election compact’; ‘a prioritised comprehensive approach’; ‘begin transferring lead security responsibility’; ‘effective sub-national governance’. All here is in the highest degree uncertain, obscure, and hedged about by bureaucratic evasion and metaphor. None of the terms has the slightest real precision. Yet Obama agonised over the details of this phraseology; a whole metaphysic of war and peace hung on the difference between ‘degrade’ and ‘disrupt’; the word ‘transfer’ took on the authority of a reprieve signed by a governor.

My favorite line of all of Bromwich, though, is this one: “His eloquence finds its natural key not in explanations but in statements of purpose.” We’re supposed to hear, I’m quite sure, the academic undertone in the final phrase in that sentence. Perhaps more than anything else it’s this walking, talking CV-type status that explains more than anything else the appeal that he held for young Americans during the election. They recognized in his bullet-pointed hopes and dreams themselves in their college interviews and grad school applications, and were just as willing as admissions boards often are to reward a polished plan and sterling presentation of self with a place in the program….

 

 

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November 15, 2010 at 11:40 am

Posted in america, obama

north carolina: the blind date

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America does, however, brim with raw material. Not so much material raw material or even the processed stuff anymore, but the story stuff that they we endlessly generate. Hard to work on one’s own when surrounded by such stuff. Barnes and Noble right now, and mistaken for “Ethan” while waiting in the coffee line. “Ethan” turns out to be her blind date, some sort of eHarmony generated pick. But no, “Ethan,” I’m not.

She looks softly disappointed when he actually shows. But as it turns out the Harmony that’s been e’ed is the fact that they are both into “spirituality.” Hard to discern exactly what brand – as my American readers know, but perhaps not the Brits, we’re not talking Xtianity here. Or rather, we’re talking about what happens to Xtianity when god gets sublimated (what a thing to sublimate, huh?) into amorphous mojo or golden sunbeams or whatever, normative ethics into conventional methods of “self-actualization,” and so on.

Can’t help but listen. She picked the table next to mine as if she wanted to, as if she wanted me to listen. Perhaps she knows that I’m a spiritualist too of a very particular, and particularly self-annoying and not all that redemptive sort. Sometimes I wish I had some sort of press badge that entitled me to record stuff like this. “Would you mind if I just left this tape deck to run here on your table. Here, let me move your soy latte. Yes, here’s my pass from the International Union of Barnes and Noble Flaneurs.”

She is discussing a “presentation on vibes” that she just attended, and the “tarot group” that she was at last night. He is dying here – he’s faking the new age-ness that seems to have been requisite for this meet. He has nothing to say save for the list of schools that he attended, the boring job that he does doing “video work,” and the fact that he’s not really interested (or so he says) in watching the finals of the World Cup this afternoon.

Though he’d like to be a therapist, as he majored in psychology, he’s still “assessing his situation” he guesses. She attempts to circle the conversation back to some place. He plunges deep and backward, to a summer spent in France during high school, the friends that he left behind there. She is ia lawyer, with a prosperous job – just lonely here having moved at the wrong time.

Education, employment (over / under), travel, where one chooses to live in the nearly identical sprawl sprouts around here, the other places – themselves basically identical to this one, with only slight variations in weather and political climate – where one lived before and might well live again. You can see the structural void that amorphous esoteric “spirituality” fits in, the roles that it serves in these negotiations – those both with oneself and with others.

So the tale of the tape: under-narrativization on his part vs. over-narrativization on hers. The coffee machine rumbles at key points as if to underscore, behind all of this, something indeterminate. She checks the time on her phone, “can’t be late for my thing,” and then they start the final push toward failure and separation: the discussion of the virtues and faults of various mobile phone companies, AT&T vs. Verizon….

UPDATE: I am clearly being cruised by a guy sitting a few tables over, cattycorner. I look up from the laptop, his eyes lift to meet mine. Over and again, automatically. The coffeehouses of Barnes and Noble are clearly one of the most interesting and interestingly emblematic places in America. I’ve long thought about writing something about them – one of those publisher friendly books (bet I can think of just the publisher, at least if they did anything other than publish out of print classics in third-choice translation!) where, in the midst of personal crisis and looking to get back to my (suburban, part-autodidactical) intellectual and social roots I rent a car and spend an evening typing / reading / talking at each and every in-store coffee outlet in America. It’s a place that one goes when one wants more than what’s otherwise around place like this, but where one is unlikely to find much more than lattes and computer magazines and the company of the more interesting variety of lonely types, the lonely types just like you…. Ah, but it’s a bit too Alain de Botton to pass my rigorous muster, isn’t it?

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July 11, 2010 at 5:06 pm