Thursday, August 30, 2007

My car-less socialist utopia

For some time now, I have been trying to explain my desire to eliminate the automobile and replace it with a massive, intricate public transportation network to pretty much anyone will to listen in an effort to hone it into a legitimate and reasonable proposition. Judging by everyone's dismissive reactions, however, I am not getting very far. I think I have a good case though, one that merits at least as much exposition here as my slow death by mercury poisoning from eating too much tuna.

Basically, driving is mistakenly treated as anti-political. People act asthough their cars are extensions of their homes--house-pods on wheels--in which they are enclosed behind a protective shield of privacy. The home is the center of the private sphere, where one is free to dance around in one's underwear to Billy Joel and engage in other such behavior that would be horrific in public, and where one rightly feels violated by the uninvited intrusion of outsiders. (Seb: This neither the time nor place to argue that there is no true distinction between public and private--we're talking about common perceptions here.) When one steps into a house-pod on wheels, he assumes these same standards continue to apply, as evidenced by the number of people who pick their noses, dance while sitting down, and make out at red lights. The sense that the car is a miniature portable house is exemplified by its use in films (and I guess real life) as a mobile bedroom for sweaty teenage sex. Drivers enjoy the sense of "owning the road," that is, driving without disruptions from other vehicles, much as they enjoying the privacy of their homes.

But this is a gross misperception of the reality of driving. Feeling a false sense of security and anonymity, drivers lash out at their fellows in ways that would be completely unacceptable if both parties were not encased in a ton of plastic. Think about it: when you're walking on a crowded sidewalk and someone cuts you off, do you bang things and scream profanities at him in response? No, because that would be insane. In face-to-face encounters, you don't even complain. But when the same thing happens in a car, out comes the road rage. Does the nature of automobile traffic warrant such a shift in one's reaction? I think not. Driving still means being constantly among other people and negotiating their cooperation at all times. This requires communication and the understanding that you're not alone, in your underpants and ankle socks, with your air guitar, rocking out to "It's a Matter of Trust." But most people think only that they need to get to wherever, and they're already running late, and now they need to do as much as is in their power to undermine the social nature of driving at the expense of everyone else on the road in order to be on time.

I would like to advance the theory that, properly understood, driving is a political activity. This theory is based on no empirical research or philosophical reflection. Plato wouldn't stand behind it, or Locke, or Foucault. Well, maybe Foucault. But it nonetheless needs to be said. You can't act as though you're alone on the road, or you're the only person who matters just because everyone else is hidden in neighboring plastic pods, picking their noses. The mentality of the driver is dangerous. People on subway trains resign themselves to being late. People in cars plow into each other.

In case you have not gathered, I am afraid of cars. Every time I drive somewhere, I am convinced I will die. This is not a paralyzing phobia that prevents me from ever getting into the driver's seat or anything, but it does influence my decision-making. And need I point out that my fear is not unfounded? Tons of people die in car accidents. Way more people than those who die on various forms of public transportation. (Ok, obviously this is because more people drive than take public transpo, as Alex once called it, but even so, I'd imagine that on a per-trip basis, there are fewer bus and train accidents than car accidents.)

What is the solution to this problem? Banning personal automobile traffic and erecting gigantic public transportation systems that can take me to every corner of every town and every city from Washington to Los Angeles to Evansville, IN. And I know that I can already go to these places by plane, which is good, but I also want to go by train, and an Amtrak currently costs about as much as airfare, so that doesn't count. I want convenience, efficiency, freedom from worry, and only a small sprinkling of crazy people to keep me entertained on my vast public transportation network. I would also like it if they sold lattes and muffins onboard.

By demanding that everyone be forced to use forms of transportation which they cannot personally control for their greater safety and social health, is this proposition kind of nanny-statish? Maybe. But it's not like we can expect to drum up the demand for the public transportation network of my dreams if we keep letting people undermine the incentives with their pesky cars. Is this a socialist proposition? It doesn't have to be. We could privatize the whole thing if that works better, but preliminary attempts seem to indicate that it doesn't.

Look, I am a busy person, and I can't always be worrying about the practicability of my boutique political philosophy. I am not like the weak men who need their ideas validated in practice. If it works in theory, it works for me.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What Miss Self-Important would like to know is

Why do people who live double-lives insist on running for public office? Don't they realize how much more they stand to lose if they're discovered? If you're Bob the computer programmer in Wichita, and you get caught soliciting gay sex in a public restroom, maybe you will be arrested and fined, but no one is really going to notice or care, and you can probably resume your life afterwards. But if you're Bob the Congressman, your career is ruined and people will deride you wherever you go. Maybe this is just another version of UD's dictum that if you're going to fake it, don't get famous enough that anyone will bother to check.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Just passing along the information

Among the letters from lonely old people and lunatics who send their dire astrological predictions regarding upcoming great catastrophes associated with the eclipse, is an important letter informing us of an impending political crisis:

"Thus far, neither politicians nor journalists have spoken up about a major matter: Article II of the Constitution says "HE shall hold HIS office..." This does NOT include females! Some MALE candidate would have standing to file a suit, if necessary, to prevent a woman from getting the presidency. This is something which voters need to know NOW!"

I love the mail.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Projects in progress

1. Relating B. Franky to real life
2. Convincing the people at KIPP to allow me to volunteer there
3. Fighting crippling addiction to web-based Super Mario Brothers so that stupid doo-do-do-doo background music will stop playing in my head
4. Preparing revised plan for The Future to tell people since "high school principal" keeps getting mocked
5. Getting health insurance from uncooperative union people who say, "What? Who are you? You don't work here!" and transportation reimbursement from uncooperative phone recording that says, "I do not recognize that social security number. You don't work here!"
6. Deciding if it is permissible to purchase a latte a day, or if doing so will make me obese or poor or both

I have an opinion!

I just got a call from an old man in Seattle telling me that my boss should consider analyzing the possibility of using convicts as migrant labor to replace illegal immigrants even though many convicts are drug addicts and so he's not sure how mentally competent they are, but you know, it's just so unfair that there are unemployed Americans while illegal immigrants are taking jobs and have I ever picked apples for a living? No? Well, he tried it once for a summer when he had no job just to see how hard it would be, and it was hard. Have I ever been to Seattle? No? Was I planning to come? Well, I should definitely come, preferably in April, when there are "scads" of tulips, and there is a tulip festival just north of here. He didn't know about the festival when he moved up here, but now he does, and there was this photo in the local paper of the tulips, and it was just breathtaking, and where am I from originally? Oh, I had another call to take, that's ok. Well, thanks for "visiting" with him.

This behavior, in addition to the mail we receive, is causing me to seriously contemplate re-trying Herzog, this time with an eye to understanding the psychology of people who insist on constantly relaying their opinions to people in the media who are never going to respond.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The exploitation of the workers

Kay Hymowitz laments the decline of the democratic crappy summer job to the rise of the elitist summer internship.
The menial summer job, in other words, was an exercise in humbling self-discipline. It should come as no surprise, then, that this is exactly what a lot of managers complain is missing in today's interns. Business Web sites and magazines are filled with stories of kids who have no clue that their exposed navel rings or iPods are less than suitable officewear, and that overconfidence and complaining are not the best way to ingratiate yourself with a boss. "This is the largest, healthiest, most pampered generation in history," Mary Crane, a Denver-based consultant, told the New York Times recently. "They were expected to spend their spare time making the varsity team." But maybe there's something to be said for serving its members fries and shakes one summer instead.
As an former holder of several crappy summer jobs (concessions girl at a movie theater, textbook sorter at my high school, library shelver, outdoor booksale grunt, etc), as well as a couple fancypants summer internships, I can't really say that I feel the same nostalgia for the good old days of being covered in dirt and slime while serving irate customers. The basic fact of the service industry is that it sucks, and the main lesson that employment in it teaches is that one should take drastic measures to avoid making it a career. One of the more memorable moments of my summer serving popcorn at the movie theater was when I tried to chat up a customer wearing an Amherst sweatshirt by asking if his kids went there (yes) and telling him that I really liked the school and was thinking of applying there in the fall. He replied, "It is a great school, but you actually have to be smart to get in to Amherst." Evidently, the fact that I was spending the summer before my senior year serving him popcorn meant that I was automatically an illiterate high school dropout.

I can't say I acquired a stronger work ethic or a higher tolerance for unpleasant tasks because I had to haul books or get yelled at by customers who couldn't count change. And as any skimmer of this blog will know, those experiences certainly failed to defuse my natural arrogance and proclivity to complain. All I got out of those jobs was pocket change (which it is true did make me feel better about not relying on my parents), some good stories, and a strong desire to escape to college. I would have been much happier spending those summers interning in some congressional district office, or at a non-profit or publication or whatever high school kids who know the ropes now do, and I doubt my character would have suffered severely.

The real problem is not that teenagers are rightfully opting for more interesting internships over sucky summer jobs when they have the chance, but that these internships are unpaid. While it's pretty obvious that unpaid internships favor the wealthy who can afford to pay for a summer's worth of room, board, transportation, and entertainment (happy hour being essential to networking success, apparently), universities are increasingly trying to level the field by funding unpaid internships for their students. Chicago, for example, has made an effort to add traditionally unpaid humanities and political internships to the Metcalf program, and it started a new fund to pay for journalism internships this year while maintaining the Richter Fund, which helped pay for my first (lonely, poor, happy hour-less) summer in Washington. While this seems like great news for the students who can't otherwise afford this stuff, and in many ways it is, the universities are ultimately just subsidizing the unfair labor practices of places that offer unpaid internships and feeding the problem.

What seems to me to be the real issue here is that a 9-5 job, whether you're the CEO of a major firm or the guy who sends faxes and gets the CEO his coffee, is a form of labor, and it needs to be monetarily compensated. Interns work--even if they don't know what they're doing, even if they're bad at what they do, even if they aren't allowed to do anything substantial. I understand there is no law against volunteering, and interns freely accept to work for free, but that doesn't change the fact that they're being, well, exploited. If a firm can "hire" a bunch of eager employees--nay, orchestrate a competition among potential employees to accept only the best and brightest--without having to pay them, they will. They will "hire" as many of these strivers as possible, even if they don't have anything for them to do. Because why not? You're not investing anything, and you could always use an extra coffee-fetcher around, right? The result is my internship last summer: 70-odd interns to serve about 20 full-time staff, several of whom had no interns. No work, no office space, no "mentoring" or whatever other non-monetary compensation one might hope for. The lucky ones might be asked to organize the kitchen. And if universities and other sources are willing to fund these gigs, then the only thing that will change is that competition for these "coveted" spots will increase, while the incentives to make them substantial will decrease.

Certainly not every unpaid internship is like this (my first one wasn't at all), and I am not denying that internships are useful for finding a job (even if you skip the networking and the happy hours). But as more people get financial support to allow them to take one, it seems unlikely that the trend on the part of employers will be towards creating more substantial, involved, and useful positions. It's much more probable that intern will increasingly become code for "I clean the office kitchen for free." In which case, serving popcorn at the movie theater for minimum wage might seem like a pretty desirable alternative.

EDIT: Phoebe has come to a similar conclusion about this question. She also argues that one reason for the increasing appeal of the internship is the decreasing availability of the sucky service job for kids who look like they're going to quit in two months to go off to college. It's true that employers are suspicious of that possibility, but at least in Chicago and its suburbs, if you need a summer job, it's not too hard to lie your way into one by claiming that, come autumn, you'll be living at home and commuting to school so you'd love to stay on for the year. Then, in August, you fabricate some story about your magical last-minute acceptance to an out-of-town school, whose semester just happens to begin in two weeks.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Feel my partisan wrath, but only when other people are watching

Will asks (at 4 am last night), is the American party system and partisanship good for America? I went to a discussion of Bush's Second Inaugural yesterday in which all the 15 or so participants were Republicans--politically involved Republicans, moreover--and only about one and a half people were willing to defend the speech. I think (though I have no evidence of this) that, given one committed Democrat in the room, the number of the speech's defenders would jump to about 15.

This is no highly original insight into the nature of political discourse, obviously. Everyone knows that this happens. When I was involved in Israel activism in my first two years of college, I played the same game. Among the fundamentally like-minded, the discussion was honest and serious and often critical of Israel for being both too merciful and not merciless enough. I was self-righteously disgusted by the unabashed propaganda shilled by the programs that I attended in Israel. "When they say X, you respond with Y." They say occupation, you say they rejected the partition and initiated the wars. They say apartheid, you say terrorism. They say human rights violations, you say rule of law. And so forth. What was the point of such "dialogue"? Surely we should strive for the kind of unarmed discussion between allies? But at any public event, in the face of an unflinching bloc of hostile opposition rehashing the same prepared diatribe about imperialism and racism without regard to what or who they were rebutting, I reflexively returned to my own prepared lines. When they said that Israel's denial of legal status to Palestinians in the territories was wrong, you said it was warranted. When you said that suicide bombing is wrong, they justified it. I assume that, in their private conversations, they likely questioned whether suicide bombing was actually a reasonable and just response to Palestinian mistreatment. They were, after all, American college students like me, not Arab terrorists or Israeli settlers dreaming from river to sea. But debates with the opposition were not the place to express their misgivings, just as they were not the place for us to express ours.

This kind of thing was not about understanding and resolution, it was about recruiting the uncommitted bystanders to your side. No matter the speaker or topic of an event, it always boiled down to another opportunity to raise the basic question of blame (and therefore of responsibility for concession) and assign it to the other side. We did it, then the pro-Palestinian groups did it, and so on in an unending effort to recruit more sympathizers, or better yet, to recruit the other side's sympathizers. Eventually, the pointlessness of the process dawned on me and I left to work on a magazine instead. At least in print, the opportunity to express ambiguity, ambivalence, and subtlety still exists.

So nothing about this kind of behavior is news, but Will wonders about the implications of limiting all the serious political discussion to private contexts and turning public discourse into a meaningless propaganda war? Aren't politics the most fundamentally public thing we know? It might seem comforting to think that, despite all the spite and malice of public partisanship, deep down, most people are much more reasonable and don't believe the propaganda they spout. Maybe. But what happens to public life if even politics is too private for it?

So that is Will's concern. Mine is, when everyone I know in real life is reading my blog, what is there left to blog about that won't offend someone whose opinion I value?

Monday, August 06, 2007

Argentinian soccer vs. Greek wrestling, a consideration

Seb is a borderline soccer fanatic, particularly of Argentinian soccer, and while I have several other friends who share this proclivity (Julia, Will--hello), I obviously could not care less about professional soccer and barely even understand the game's objective. However, because Seb insists on earnestly discussing soccer with me ("Did you see the Argentina-Brazil game last night?") while knowing full well that I don't know what he's talking about, I have arbitrarily selected a team to root for (Mexico), and now express my completely uninformed and manufactured passion for Mexican soccer at all opportunities, and insist that they are not, as Seb claims, a "second-tier team."

Last week, Seb announced that soccer is superior to all other sports because it is the only one that doesn't rely on technology (specifically, complex equipment and statistics) to determine a player's skill. This was not a useful opportunity for me to promote Mexico, so I instead took the opportunity to promote ancient Greece and pointed out that Greek athletics pre-dates soccer by at least a millenium, and it is rooted in sports that require even less equipment and score-keeping than soccer. Most of them didn't even require clothes. Seb then went on to claim that soccer players put "heroic" effort into their games, although the context of such heroism is beneath its nobility, and so they are reduced to venting their frustration on the refs by violently contesting every call. I countered that Greek athletics were actually noble because they were imitative of the modes of archaic Greek warfare (throw, run, fight; although the hand-to-hand fighting apparently diminished with the inception of the phalanx) and served as both training for real military service and a means of attaining a kind of military honor in a peaceful setting. Soccer, in contrast, is aggressive for no reason and has no truly heroic applications, since no one could actually fight a war by kicking their enemies, and certainly not by rolling around on the field and faking injury.

It was a slightly narrow conception of the social usefulness and symbolism of sports, I admit, but I think the Greeks took home the laurels in that argument. Then conveniently, a related thought appeared at Athens and Jerusalem, a blog I discovered via UD and am now enjoying very much. There, it is pointed out that Greek sports did not even rely on time as a basic measure of victory and defeat. All Greek victories could be fully judged by the audience without recourse to any external measures of success, technological or historical. Athletes were held to have won or lost not by the judgments of clocks and records, but by the immediate sensory experience of spectators.
There was no worthwhile way of timing a runner, and it would have been otiose to measure the actual distance a discus or javelin had flown; the crowds at Olympia were only concerned with relative distances, relative times -- with knowing who had won the olive wreath that day.
Does this make Greek sports--racing, wrestling, boxing, jumping, throwing things--the most genuine or the merely the most primitive forms of competition?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Dream more chikin

I once read that it is easier to remember your dreams if you wake up naturally instead of by an alarm, and since I am waking up quite naturally at noon these days, I have been remembering all kinds of bizarre dreams that I would probably be better off forgetting. Last night, for example, I dreamt that Seb and I went to Chick-Fil-A late at night and ordered a chicken sandwich. We waited for a long time until someone finally told us that they couldn't make the sandwich that night because they were closing and had already turned off the chicken sandwich making machine. Instead, we should pay now and come pick up the chicken sandwich tomorrow. I protested that it would be ridiculous to pay now and pick up a sandwich tomorrow, and they got angry at me. Finally the manager came out and sat us down and told us that he was a good man, and he always paid his taxes, except for that one time he didn't pay his electricity bill, and he hadn't even graduated from high school, so he was really grateful to be managing a Chick-Fil-A, and he really hoped we weren't trying to ruin his life. Then I woke up.

I have only actually been to a Chick-Fil-A once in my life, last week, and I was totally unimpressed.

What does this mean, aside from the obvious fact that I need to start doing something with my life and stop waking up at noon?