Monday, December 14, 2009

Within a three-block radius, there are no fewer than four businesses selling ice cream, gelato, and/or frozen yogurt. The families go for ice cream, the dates/gourmets go to the gelato place, and everyone else (especially those with gym memberships) go to the frozen yogurt places to watch their weight.

Every time I come home and walk down this street, the businesses are selling new things, things I haven't always heard of, and usually things that I imagine I would never buy. This is how I can tell that this street is robustly business-savvy: not only are there businesses every few feet, but when they shut down they (usually) are replaced within weeks by another business selling something else. They are often selling esoteric things to appeal to the esoteric tastes of the strollers, things like "foot reflexology" (for which there was an information kiosk). The new smash-hit sensation, since about 2008, has been tapas, kind of the Spanish version of sushi, which I have not been able to bring myself to eat. Each tapa costs between $8 and $10, and apparently you are supposed to order several of them.

The only thing preventing this street from falling into gourmet strip mall chaos is that its "small town atmosphere," often touted, is solidifed by the ceremonial presence of certain anachronisms. A church, a cobbler, with an actual metal shoe sign, and an antique shop that supported McCain in '08.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Oh you got a man? Well, you need a richer one.

I'm listening to a mixtape today and the MC says "You know when you're really doing something? You're really doing something when you put 10 G's on fantasy football. That's when you know you made it." Something about it struck a chord with me, and I'm still trying to figure out what I think about it. My immediate reaction was laughing, because it's a ridiculous statement, a ridiculous boast, and it displays the sense of "I am who I am and I'm not apologizing for it" that is such a trademark of hip hop, and, increasingly, American culture in general, at least when it comes to lavish displays of wealth.

And of course, part of me thought, that's actually tragic that he's saying that, because even if he's joking and he didn't do that (unlikely), some father might hear that and waste money that could go to his child's education.

But then there's the part of me that understands where the MC is coming from, that understands where everyone is coming from when they find a way to make money and are proud of it, because they thought they lived in a world where, no matter what, they couldn't make it. But it made me also think of the other, less hopeful side of the American Dream. Millions of people, convinced that they can beat the odds, transcend the limitations of their environments, and "make it," which is always closely allied with making money, start acting like they've already beaten the odds, spending money on things they can't afford, whether it's a new house, a new car, or a shopping spree, when that money could have gone to better food or education or health insurance.

I know that this problem would be less dramatic if people weren't fed massive amounts of bullshit from popular entertainment which tells them that they're irrelevant, inferior, and basically worthless unless Robin Leach is narrating their lives. It's really striking when you look at Asian women having eye surgery and Black women putting deadly chemicals in their hair so they can more closely resemble that idea of beauty which is so closely allied with wealth.

A lot of the problem comes from the consumption compulsion, the basic human response to scarcity. It's the desire to obtain the object of one's desire immediately, without any delay. This is the very desire which is encouraged on a daily basis by the marketing industry: Bad credit? No credit? How can you say no to this deal? At 75% off you're basically losing money not buying it? Imagine how popular you'll be!

When the recession hit, I started thinking, 'what good can come out of this?' Because it's bound to stay with us for a little while, anyway, so we should take stock of everything and think about what the positive consequences of it might be. And I started thinking maybe it would cause people to be more conscientious, to be more resourceful. Maybe people would be more efficient with the way they spend their money, from the poorest people to (most importantly) the federal government, putting resources into education and jobs and other necessities instead of bullshit. Bullshit for rich people is war, "homeland security," a lot of things.

But there's part of me that looks at our society and thinks, well, in any other society before the United States, people would do that. They would put their resources into things that offer long term benefits, rather than short term ones. But there's something about the US of A that is so obsessed with winning, with beating the other person in every possible area just to show that we're the best, that makes me hesitate. And maybe that's a good thing-- maybe it means that we do it for a love of the game and we actually have learned to enjoy the simple things in life like flatscreen televisions and diamonds. Or maybe (and this is what I actually hope), we'll have the courage to alter the way we look at status and value in general, to be able to look at someone and not judge them immediately if they don't approximate our (store-bought) notion of success and worth.

No matter what you may think, and no matter what your family or friends might tell you, you can't buy self-worth. And therefore, there is nobody on earth who can't afford it. Some of the poorer women I've met are actually much more beautiful than some of the richer ones I've met, because they know their beautiful and they're not threatened by that possibility. And when you love yourself, you take good care of yourself and those around you. So instead of boasting about what we have, we should boast about what we've done. Pretty soon, nobody will care about what you have because the American Dream will have evaporated before their eyes. There will be multiple American Dreams, not just the one that marketing built. "A person who never dreamed would be dead in a week."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Open Letter to the Discovery Channel

Dear Representative,

First, I would like to thank you for your program "Gang Wars: Oakland." I am writing to let you know how much it means to us Oakland residents that the longstanding problems of our city are finally being addressed. Ideally, I would like to participate in a focus group or somehow give feedback to the producers of this segment, because I really would like to have a chance to let them know my opinions.

While I am very grateful that you have chosen Oakland as the subject of a program, I was struck by the polemical tone of the production. While this is certainly an occasion for heartfelt messages, I strongly disagree with the narrator's assertion that the 8-man Police Task Force on gangs is our "only hope." The Oakland Police and municipal government have asserted since the 80's that this is in fact not at all true--it is, rather, the responsibility of citizens such as myself who have been personally affected by homicide to build relations with law enforcement and between citizens in order to tackle this problem.

I know that the producers of the show may have been aware of this--that the 8-man task force is not actually our "only hope"--but they may have figured, perhaps with a keen entrepreneurial spirit, that the mostly-suburban viewers of Discovery would respond with more excitement to the idea of a select few versus thousands. Indeed, this image conjures any number of popular action and war movies, from Rambo to Kill Bill, and is very much a part of the American popular imagination.

But, speaking as a person who has seen the intimate relationship between social policies, which destroy communities by starving them of the most basic resources like education, and homicide, I do not appreciate the metaphor of Oakland as an action movie. In order to do justice to Oakland, or any other city whose plight is similar, one would need to show that the people dying are real people, not extras with squibs, and that their families and communities are torn asunder by their premature deaths.

It is my dream that Discovery and its affiliates could produce television that gives more of a voice to the people involved in the battlezone that is the American ghetto. We must collaborate on this.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Safety Joe

In this post, the author writes,

"living in a place like Oakland forces every one of us to subconsciously deal with race every day.

Like many cities, Oakland is virtually color-coded. It’s a largely segregated city, with Black regions in the West and East of the city, Hispanic areas on down International Blvd, etc.

Anyone who looks at the statistics knows the risk of being victimized by crime is also a color-coded situation. I remember reading somewhere that, if a Black and non-Black man pass each other on the street, the Black man has 1/500 the probability of being assaulted by the non-Black as vice-versa.

Knowing facts like these, it would be irrational for a white man to ignore race when walking around Oakland."

I responded,

I am a white man who grew up in Oakland and has lived here his whole life. The problem with your article is that from the get-go it is framed as though whiteness is some kind of innocent, vulnerable quality.

I don't know where you found that 1/500 statistic, but even if it true, do you know how miniscule the chances of you getting killed by a black man are? Sure, you might get your wallet stolen if you're in the wrong place, but the chances of you getting murdered are tiny. Want some evidence? Take a look at this map:

How many white people are on this list? Exactly two, out of 114. Seeing as how there are more white people in Oakland than there are Blacks (34% versus 30%), that might allow us to recognize that it is much more dangerous to be Black in Oakland than to be white.

Here is a quote from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics:
"Blacks accounted for 13% of the U.S. population in 2005, but were victims in 15% of all nonfatal violent crimes and nearly half of all homicides."

I'm not saying this to solicit your guilt. I hope, rather, that this will alleviate some of your attachment to the thought that we can and should move "beyond race." Clearly, this is not going to happen anytime soon. A good example of this is the fact that, living in Oakland, white people are pretty much safe from murder. Yes, there are exceptions, and the possessions of white people, which are many and valuable, are certainly not safe. But you need to realize that the reason race is an issue is because it actually brings with it enormous life-and-death consequences, and not just for the white man.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Centralia, PA

This was a world where no human could live, hotter than the planet Mercury, its atmosphere as poisonous as Saturn's. At the heart of the fire, temperatures easily exceeded 1,000 degrees. Lethal clouds of carbon monoxide and other gases swirled through the rock chambers.

Centralia was incorporated as a borough in 1866. The anthracite coal industry was the principal employer in the community. Coal mining continued in Centralia until the 1960s, when most of the companies went out of business. Bootleg mining continued until 1982. Strip and open-pit mining is still active in the area, and there is an underground mine employing about 40 employees three miles to the west.

The borough was also a hotbed of Molly Maguires activity during the 1860s and 1870s. The borough's founder, Alexander Rea, was one of the victims of the secret order when he was murdered just outside of the borough on October 17, 1868. Three individuals were convicted of the crime and hanged in the county seat of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania on March 25, 1878. Several other murders and arsons also occurred during this period.

The borough was served by two railroads, the Philadelphia and Reading and the Lehigh Valley, with the Lehigh Valley being the principal carrier. Rail service ended in 1966. The borough operated its own school district with elementary schools and a high school within its precincts. There were also two Catholic parochial schools in the borough. The borough once had seven churches, five hotels, twenty-seven saloons, two theatres, a bank, post office, and fourteen general and grocery stores. During most of the borough's history, when coal mining activity was being conducted, the town had a population in excess of 2,000 residents. Another 500 to 600 residents lived in unincorporated areas immediately adjacent to Centralia.

It is not known for certain how the fire that made Centralia essentially unlivable was ignited. One theory asserts that in May 1962, Centralia Borough Council hired five members of the volunteer fire company to clean up the town landfill, located in an abandoned strip mine pit next to the Odd Fellows Cemetery. This had been done prior to Memorial Day in previous years, when the landfill was in a different location. The firefighters, as they had in the past, set the dump on fire, and let it burn for a time. Unlike in previous years, however, the fire was not extinguished.

Other evidence supports this theory, as stated in Joan Quigley's 2007 missive, such as the fact that one of two trash haulers (Curly Stasulevich or Sam Devine) dumped hot ash and/or coal discard from coal burners into the open trash pit. The borough, by law, was responsible for installing a fire-resistant clay barrier between each layer but had fallen behind. This action allowed the hot coals to penetrate the vein of coal underneath the pit and subsequent subterranean fire. Quigley cites "interviews with volunteer firemen, the former fire chief, borough officials, and several eyewitnesses, as well as contemporaneous borough council minutes" as her sources for this explanation of the fire. Another theory of note is the Bast Theory. Basically, it states that the fire was burning long before the alleged trash dump fire. However, due to overwhelmingly contrary evidence, few hold this position and give it little credibility.

The fire remained burning underground and spread through a hole in the rock pit into the abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia. Attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful and it continued to burn throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Adverse health effects were reported by several people due to the byproducts of the fire, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and lack of healthy oxygen levels.

In 1979, locals became aware of the scale of the problem when a gas-station owner and then mayor, John Coddington, inserted a stick into one of his underground tanks to check the fuel level. When he withdrew it, it seemed hot, so he lowered a thermometer down on a string and was shocked to discover that the temperature of the gasoline in the tank was 172 °F (77.8 °C). Statewide attention to the fire began to increase, culminating in 1981 when 12-year-old resident Todd Domboski fell into a subsidence four feet wide by 150 feet (46 m) deep that suddenly opened beneath his feet in a backyard.

In 1984, Congress allocated more than $42 million for relocation efforts. Most of the residents accepted buyout offers and moved to the nearby communities of Mount Carmel and Ashland. A few families opted to stay despite warnings from state officials.

In 1992, Pennsylvania claimed eminent domain on all properties in the borough, condemning all the buildings within. A subsequent legal effort by residents to have the decision reversed failed. In 2002, the United States Postal Service revoked Centralia's ZIP Code, 17927.


Only one home remains standing in Centralia although most of the abandoned buildings have been demolished by humans or nature. At a casual glance the area now appears to be a field with many paved streets running through it. Some areas are being filled with new-growth forest. Most of Centralia's roads and sidewalks are overgrown with brush, although some areas appear to be mowed.The remaining church in the borough which used to hold weekly Saturday night services remains silent in the bowels of Centralia, and the borough's four cemeteries are slowly crumbling due to the carbon monoxide of the long burning underground fire. Centralia's cemeteries now have a far greater population than the town, including one on the hilltop that has smoke rising around and out of it.

The only indications of the fire, which underlies some 400 acres (1.6 km²), spreading along four fronts, are low round metal steam vents in the south of the borough, and several signs warning of underground fire, unstable ground, and carbon monoxide. Additional smoke and steam can be seen coming from an abandoned portion of Pennsylvania Route 61, the area just behind the hilltop cemetery, and other cracks in the ground scattered about the area. Route 61 was repaired several times until its final closing. The current route was a detour around the damaged portion during the repairs and became a permanent route in the mid-1990s; mounds of dirt were placed at both ends of the former route, effectively blocking the road. Pedestrian traffic is still possible due to a small opening about two feet wide at the north side of the road, but this is muddy and not accessible to the disabled. The underground fire is still burning and will continue to do so for a predicted 250 more years.

Prior to its demolition in September of 2007, the last remaining house was notable for the five chimney-like support buttresses along each of two opposite sides of the house, where the house was previously supported by a row of adjacent buildings before it was demolished. Another house with similar buttresses is visible from the northern side of the cemetery, just north of the burning, partially subsumed hillside.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania did not renew the relocation contract at the end of 2005, and the fate of the remaining residents is uncertain.

It is expected that many former residents will return in 2016 to open a time capsule buried in 1966 next to the veterans' memorial.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The pastor said, 'People come to me all the time and say they're at rock bottom. I can't get no lower. This is the worst it could be. They are wrong. It could always get worse, because even if you're crawling on your hands and knees, you're still above ground. Praise Jesus. And some people think that I just say that because I've never been to jail. That may be, but I've done things that could send me to jail. Yes I have. I've just never been caught. But I'd much rather have a clean conscience. Because when you're drivin' and you're dirty, and the police come up behind you, ain't nothin worse than that because guilt is on your shoulder. And when you hear a car backfire you duck because you're convinced that's a gunshot. But when you get clean, then you hope the police will stop you cause ain't nothin there to find. I hope the police see us right here, right now, with nothing to hide. Praise the lord, Amen.'

Thursday, July 30, 2009

12:04 AM
The groom, Michael, was a hulking man, at least 350 pounds heavy, but his soft features made him look approachable, even friendly. His fade was neatly trimmed for the occasion, and he wore a sharp yellow tie along with his male peers. The cook had told me that Michael was a graduate. Michael’s wife was a tall, robust, but not obese white woman, who looked average-sized only next to her husband. I approached Michael as he left the dance floor, heaving and sweating, removing his tie.

“Congratulations, man.”

“Thanks, thank you.”

“I heard you graduated from here.”

“I did, class of 2000. And you?”

I told him I graduated this year, 2009. He immediately began to give me a life talk, which I hadn’t expected. He spoke exactly like a sports coach, trying to boost my morale.

“Hey, look, man, I know it’s tough right now, but give it a few years—just give it three, four years and you’ll realize that it was worth it. Your education here is just gonna put you ahead and you’re gonna be successful. I mean myself, all my friends who are here with me, they all went here too, and they’re all successful.”

He paused and seemed to lose his thought for a moment, then added. “and not just economically successful, you know, they’re….in other ways, too.”

The girl standing to my right, holding a large tray of dirty dishes, from the central CA suburbs with acne like I used to have, asked him, “what do you do?”

“I’m a corporate lawyer—I represent investment firms in New York.”

3:03 PM
Despite her frantic gestures, it took me a few minutes to figure out that we needed seventeen tables, eight chairs per table. That was what she seemed to say, but the language barrier, as usual, made it tough. I thought I could learn Punjabi, but that would take a long time.

9:55 PM
Leaving my second break and my second meal—the most decadent food I had eaten in a long time, part of the spread in the room off the patio that included beef flank, spinach mozzarella salad, mashed potatoes, grilled vegetables, and rolls—I returned to the room where the buffet had been, looking to see if anyone was still getting food. There was enough food left to feed another wedding reception, but all the guests had left for the dance floor except for one man, who I recognized from the afternoon when he had eaten probably 30 coconut shrimp with orange sauce that I had brought him on a plate. Every time I offered them to him he made a joke like “don’t you go nowhere now, you and I are gonna be good friends,” “I got my eye on you, brother.” There was another man, who introduced himself to me as Jason, who said similar things and took a similar number of shrimp, but the first man gradually distinguished himself to me as less respected in the family, kind of a loner, a strange guy. He seemed to be using me and the shrimp as a distraction from the others around him who didn’t really care about what he had to say, whereas Jason was a family man and was constantly talking to the other guests.

So this more awkward guy was sitting on the couch behind the buffet table, eating a big plate of beef and gravy. He looked happy to see me. “Have a seat, my man. Have something to eat.”

I sat down and lay back on the couch, touching my full stomach. “No room. I just ate so much.”

“So you went to school here?” he asked.

“Yeah, I just graduated.” I told him about my major.

He stopped eating for a second, and looked at me with an intense, serious look. “Did that have anything to do with law?”

“Yeah, actually, a lot of people from my major applied to law school, and one of my professors—“

“Now, what do you know about law?”

“Not too much…I have some interest in it but I don’t think I’ll go to law school.”

“Alright, here’s what we’re gonna do. You’re gonna help me with a situation I got.”

I listened closely, for a few reasons. I could tell that he actually did need help, although I wasn’t sure what kind. I was avoiding work. And there was another reason, which I couldn’t figure out at the moment.

“My mother just died a couple of weeks ago.”

I started to express sympathy, but he just kept talking, looking at his plate.

“She had a lot of property, and my brothers and sisters are taking it. Look at me, and you can tell I ain’t the smartest guy. I got a mental problem. But I know what’s mine is mine. And they tryin’ to fuck me. And they been tryin’ to fuck me ever since we was kids.”

“So the property belongs to you?”

“Yeah! Look, they been callin me and telling me im so intelligent recently. They been telling me I’m smart now. Aint never told me that before, but now that they tryin to fuck me, they lyin to me.” He looked at me with an intense stare and started talking as though I was his brother or sister. “motherfucker how are you gonna tell me I’m smart now? And you always knew I had a problem.”

I just nodded and agreed, even though I had no real idea what he was talking about. I was becoming less sure if I could help.

“Basically, they just don’t respect me and they never have. And they tryin to fuck me. They think I’m too stupid to handle my business. So ima have to fuck them first.”

He smiled for the first time, a big smile. He was looking at me without looking at me. Looking in my direction but off in the distance past me. “And that’s where you come in,” he said, as though solving an elaborate puzzle. “I need to get me some smart fuckin’ honkies with degrees to deal with this shit. Only a honky can do this type of shit.”

“well, you know, I don’t have a law degree or anything…”

“that shit don’t matter. I just need some cold-blooded, educated, white motherfuckers to put the fear of God into them. You need to get me some of them.”

“I try to avoid cold-blooded lawyers.”

“Yeah, but you know them.” He was right. “See,” he added, “they won’t listen to a black man, but they’ll listen to a white man.”

“That’s sad…”

“This aint about sad! It’s about money.”

Many emotions are opposites, like sadness and happiness. But anger has no opposite.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Does philosophy matter?

"There are philosophies that we're living by even though we don't know it. That's what ideology is. Like the emphasis right now on being in a post-ideological era is ideological." - Astra Taylor

It's not hard, at first, to claim that philosophy is dead, irrelevant, lacks pragmatic application, is ineffectual, etc. This is because you can't touch any one thing made by philosophy. You can pick up a cell phone or walk on a suspension bridge and say "this is made by physics and engineering." You can take your Prozac or Benedryl and say "this is made by biology and chemistry." You could receive your stimulus check and say "this is made by public policy." But there is no single item that you can easily link back to philosophy as a discipline, and this is why people are so hard on it.

This approach in general is strange, because it relies on commodities, but let's pretend that it's important. Philosophy appears nowhere because it appears everywhere, or because it grounds the possibility of everything. It will not show its face in our small lives, but it looms in the background the whole time like Kaonashi AKA No Face:

By that I mean that it persists, with an eerie silence, behind our everyday lives and their frivolities. Every so often one remembers that our cell phones are manufactured in sweatshops by laborers who work for less than minimum wage not just because, but because many of their governments tried to become self-governing and end their colonial rule and they are still being punished for this. And these efforts at self-government were nearly always associated with the thought of one Karl Marx, who was a philosopher in the Continental tradition, the side of philosophy which is generally snubbed nowadays.

It's not that philosophy doesn't matter: it's that the impact of philosophy is something which we would like to forget, because it gets in the way of our innocent obliviousness. Philosophy is dead which allows it to live on in a multiple fashion.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bad Philosophy - Harris and Singer

The question of perspective is one of the most important in philosophy today, and the way in which actions change depending on the alignment of objects is crucial to contemporary research into ethics.

Sam Harris and Peter Singer would appear to be at opposite ends of a spectrum. Singer is an ethical vegetarian and human-rights activist, a man who dedicates himself to philosophically grounding these beliefs. Harris is a staunch atheist, part of the Dawkins-Dennett Atheists Alliance, fond of arguing that Islam is "innately violent." But there is something about their method of argumentation that is deeply linked.

In his The End of Faith, which engages readers by discussing "religion, terror, and the future of reason" as if they were characters on Friends, Harris refers to the "moon illusion," or the mistaken belief held by some ancient societies that the moon was actually small, because it appears small from earth. He uses the moon illusion as an analogy to describe what he calls the "ethical illusion" of opposing torture as a institutional practice. It is much easier for us to endorse mass bombings than to endorse the torture of one person, which, according to Harris, could prevent the necessity of mass bombings and deaths. Therefore, he concludes, we should lift the veil and recognize the necessity of torture and the childishness of our bias against it.

In Astra Taylor's excellent documentary Examined Life, Peter Singer explains a thought experiment which he considers central to his theory. Suppose you are walking by a shallow pond in which a child appears to be drowning, and there are no other adults in sight. You are wearing nice shoes, and saving the child, although it would pose no bodily harm to you, would ruin the shoes. Would it not be reasonable to save the child anyway? Singer says that almost everyone he talks to responds that they would save the child despite ruining their shoes, so then Singer delivers the coup de grace: why would you not donate money to OxFam or UNICEF, which could just as easily save the lives of children, instead of spending your money on other things?

These analogies are like cotton candy: they are compelling, easy to manufacture, and ultimately unsatisfying and unhealthy. They each contain a kernel of truth: in Sam Harris' argument the fact that people fail to comprehend the enormity of actions such as mass bombings which require little exertion on behalf of the attacker, and in Peter Singer's argument the fact that people in late capitalism spend their money on useless drivel and that relief organizations could use the money. But their bogusness lies in collapsing these truths into cheap political sloganeering-- laypeople who agree with Harris can simply support waterboarding and Guantanamo as well as mass bombings, and laypeople who agree with Singer can simply donate a few bucks per paycheck to UNICEF while consuming all of the same products. These are not political solutions because they are responding to bad philosophy.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


Look at the man in the in the middle of the picture. He is Jack Kemp, but he could be anybody, with luck and hard work. He is providing a public image of himself to the media. He looks cool and composed, but his eyebrows are furrowed to show his genuine concern about a particular issue. Around him are buzzing lots of supplements to his public identity, and lots of signs of his prominence. His name adorns his surroundings.

Look at the faces of the people surrounding him. The fat man with the sunglasses, the wiry confused-looking man behind him. The only person who looks bored is the police officer (or security guard?) behind Jack Kemp. That's because his presence is symbolic: it keeps order through its non-intrusiveness, through his absolute refusal to call attention to himself, to act only if someone else acted incorrectly. Almost every large social occasion has many employed workers whose job it is to be invisible, to be nonintrusive. This is especially apparent when, at a club or concert where everyone in the crowd is dancing and moving, the security guards maintain an absolute stone-cold stoicism, and create an expression on their faces which is harsher than usual, to remind themselves that they are not meant to be enjoying the music.

The only moment of visibility is when something goes wrong.

'The speed of the train and the uneventful trip of the passenger are entirely dependent on the complete obedience of the places that are traversed -and also of course on the smooth functioning of the train companies' organization, running, as the saying goes, "like clockwork".' - Bruno Latour, "Trains of Thought"