Sunday, April 25, 2010

heckuva paragraph

In the midst of an otherwise unremarkable Modern Love column in today's NY Times comes this absolute gem of a paragraph:

It’s hard to say when our differences began to eclipse what we had in common. I kept thinking things would right themselves, but our marriage had become like a radio that played only static; we couldn’t find a clear frequency no matter how much we fiddled with the dial.
--Katie Brandi, Anchors Don't Come in Pretty Boxes

Saturday, April 24, 2010

link of the week

This is a topic I've touched on before.  But Ezra Klein really hits it out of the park with his interview of an anonymous Harvard graduate who went to work for Goldman Sachs in an article titled, "Why do Harvard kids head to Wall Street?"  Because really, at the end of the day it's kinda bizarre that many of Americas best and brightest go to work for these Wall Street firms that are basically mobsters with better clothes.  Money quote:

Investment banking was never something I thought I wanted to do. But the recruiting culture at Harvard is extremely powerful. In the midst of anxiety and trying to find a job at the end of college, the recruiters are really in your face, and they make it very easy. One thing is the internship program. It's your junior year, it's January or February, and you interview for internships. If all goes well, it's sort of a summer-long interview. And if that goes well, you have an offer by September of your senior year, and that's very appealing. It makes your senior year more relaxed, you can focus on your thesis, you can drink more. You just don't have to worry about getting a job.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Oh so THAT'S why Colgate Total Toothpaste causes my tongue to go numb!

A few months ago I bought a tube of Colgate Total Toothpaste at my local Target. It made my teeth look shiny but it also caused my tongue to go numb.  Not a good side effect for a toothpaste.  So I called Colgate and told them about the problem.  The customer service rep read a script that said, "We're sorry that you had that experience. It is not a problem that we expect.  But there are many ingredients in toothpaste and everyone reacts differently.  We'll send you a coupon for a free tube of toothpaste."  So I got a coupon worth $1.81 and felt pleased with myself for taking some sort of action.  And just as the lawyers (who drew up the script read by the customer service agent) hoped, that seemed like the end of the story. 

But today, buried deep within the LA Times health section was an article titled, "FDA is reviewing the use of antibacterial products containing triclosan."  It turns out that triclosan is an antibacterial chemical that is used in hand soaps and yes, Colgate Total Toothpaste.  Turns out triclosan is also an endocrine disruptor that interferes with "thyroid hormones, thereby impairing growth and brain development." It also interferes with the reproductive hormones estrogen and testosterone, leading to infertility. Money quotes from the article:

"There's no question that exposure to triclosan is widespread in the U.S. A national health survey found triclosan in the urine of 75% of the 2,517 people who gave samples. The chemical can enter the body via absorption through the skin or the lining of the mouth.

Mae Wu, a program attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group in Washington, D.C., says that even people who deliberately try to avoid antimicrobial products still end up getting exposed because the soaps are in public restrooms, offices and restaurants.

What triclosan does once it enters the body is not clear. Research in animals has found hormonal effects of triclosan, including upsetting the normal balance of thyroid hormones, thereby impairing growth and brain development, and of the reproductive hormones estrogen and testosterone, leading to infertility. These effects are similar to other so-called endocrine disruptors, such as bisphenol A, dioxins and pesticides such as DDT. The FDA says it intends to evaluate this new research."
-- LA Times, April 19, 2010

I thought it was a little creepy that they claimed that their toothpaste continued working for 12 hours!  But seriously, to put a fucking endocrine disruptor in my toothpaste!!!  WTF!? 

A few years ago I took a homeopathic treatment for a chronic ailment and it worked better than any prescription medicine I had tried.  Interestingly, the homeopath said that in order for this treatment to work I could never ever drink coffee, smoke, or use mint.  "It turns the remedy off," she said.  I don't think for a moment that the magic sugar pills actually produced the helpful result.  Rather, by religiously observing the rules about avoiding coffee I was finally able to sleep again and I believe that helped my body to repair itself. I imagine those who cut out smoking (not a problem for me since I already didn't smoke) also saw similar benefits from the subtraction of the toxic particle pollution rather than the addition of the sugar pills. But I could never figure out why mint was also prohibited.  The only real consequence of that prohibition was that I  changed toothpaste -- from Colgate to Tom's of Maine (Anise flavor).  But it now it makes sense -- by banning mint, homeopaths also get people to stop using traditional toothpaste -- and it turns out that traditional toothpastes are loaded with all sorts of nasty chemicals like saccharine, titanium dioxide, and triclosan.  And because the gums are a mucous membrane, brushing your teeth with traditional toothpaste then allows these chemicals to enter your bloodstream.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Elizabeth Gilbert on same-sex marriage

I'm a big fan of Elizabeth Gilbert.  I really enjoy her voice on the page and I benefit from watching how she works through problems -- depression in Eat, Pray, Love and her doubts about marriage in Committed. Look, I get the criticisms of her writing (that it can be self indulgent, self absorbed, unaware of the vast privileges she enjoys).  But really that criticism can be leveled against the entire memoir genre for the most part.

I actually think Gilbert is a much better writer than most folks (even her fans) give her credit for.  Gilbert's ability to synthesize and summarize massive amounts of research into just a paragraph or two to set up a scene or a chapter is really quite amazing.  In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert gives the entire history of a town or a particular Buddhist meditation practice in just a few paragraphs to set up the narrative about her experience. Some of those paragraphs must have taken months of research just to get those 10 sentences right -- but she makes it look effortless. Her research into the history of marriage in Committed is equally skillful.

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage is a different book than Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert is older, a better writer, and wrestling with a different set of issues this time.  But the book stands on its own quite well and provides an insightful history of marriage and a compelling memoir of a woman wrestling with her doubts about getting married for the second time.

But today I want to quote from a section in chapter 3 of Committed to share her thoughts on same-sex marriage.  I think she makes a compelling, conservative case for gay marriage:

     Anyhow, to be perfectly honest, I find it a bit crazy that social conservatives are fighting so hard against this at all, considering that it's quite a positive thing for society in general when as many intact families as possible live under the estate of matrimony.  And I say this as someone who is -- I think we can all agree by now -- admittedly suspicious of marriage.  Yet it's true.  Legal marriage, because it restrains sexual promiscuity and yokes people to their social obligations, is an essential building block of any orderly community.  I'm not convinced that marriage is always so terrific for every individual within the relationship but that's another question altogether.  There is no doubt -- not even within my rebellious mind -- that in general, matrimony stabilizes the larger social order and is often exceedingly good for children.
     If I were a social conservative then -- that is to say, if I were somebody who cared deeply about social stability, economic prosperity, and sexual monogamy -- I would want as many gay couples as possible to get married.  I would want as many of every kind of couple as possible to get married.  I recognize that conservatives are worried that homosexuals will destroy and corrupt the institution of marriage, but perhaps they should consider the distinct possibility that gay couples are actually poised at this moment in history to save marriage.  Think of it!  Marriage is on the decline everywhere, all across the Western world.  People are getting married later in life, if they're getting married at all, or they are producing children willy-nilly out of wedlock, or (like me) they are approaching the whole institution with ambivalence or even hostility.  We don't trust marriage anymore, many of us straight folk.  We don't get it.  We're not at all convinced that we need it.  We feel as though we can take it or leave it behind forever.  All of which leaves poor old matrimony twisting in the winds of cold modernity.
     But just when it seems like maybe all is lost for marriage, just when matrimony is about to become as evolutionarily expendable as pinkie toes and appendixes, just when it appears that the institutions will wither slowly into obscurity due to a general lack of social interest, in come the gay couples, asking to be included!  Indeed, pleading to be included!  Indeed, fighting with all their might to be included in a custom which may be terrifically beneficial for society as a whole but which many -- like me -- find only suffocating and old-fashioned and irrelevant.
     It might seem ironic that homosexuals -- who have, other the centuries, made an art form out of leading bohemian lives on the outer fringes of society -- want so desperately now to be part of such a mainstream tradition.  Certainly not everyone understands this urge to assimilate, not even within the gay community.  The filmmaker John Waters, for one, says that he always thought the only advantages of being gay were that he didn't have to join the military and he didn't have to get married.  Still, it is true that many same-sex couples want nothing more than to join society as full integrated, socially responsible, family-centered, taxpaying, Little League-coaching, nation-serving, respectably married citizens.  So why not welcome them in? Why not recruit them by the vanload to sweep in on heroic wings and save the flagging and battered old institution of matrimony from a bunch of apathetic, ne'er-do-well, heterosexual deadbeats like me?  --Elizabeth Gilbert, pages 74 to 76, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

a theory on relationships

Okay I've got a new theory on relationships:

The key to any relationship -- romantic, workplace, relationships between citizens, etc. -- is that both parties share the same platonic ideal of what that relationship should look like.

If you think the platonic ideal of a romantic relationship is a white picket fence with two kids and a dog -- and your partner thinks the platonic ideal of a romantic relationship is a life of vagabond travel with occassional bursts of polyamory -- that relationship just ain't ever gonna work.

By the same token, if your platonic ideal workplace is a vision of collaboration, communication, and democratic decision making -- and your boss's platonic ideal is a workplace where employees know their place and speak when spoken to -- it ain't gonna work.

And nationally, when one political party's vision of the platonic ideal of the nation-state is a European-style multicultural democracy with a vibrant public sector and a sturdy safety net, and the other party dreams of a Milton Friedman/Ayn Rand inspired White Somalia with no regulations governed by theocratic misogynistic Old Testament (Christian Sharia) law -- well, needless to say, the political debates are gonna be difficult. 

This post is really just the flip side of the coin to the argument I made in my earlier post on mutuality. It just seems to me that before any two parties (in ANY relationship -- romantic, workplace, citizen to citizen, etc.) get into a conversation about any specific area of disagreement, we should first have a conversation about what our platonic ideal is of how we think things ought to look (and why).  And furthermore, only through a  continual dialogue regarding the platonic ideal (the form, process, and goal -- the telos of the relationship) can we ever hope to see any sort of shift in our platonic ideals so that we might eventually come to some sort of consensus about how things ought to be.  

Friday, April 16, 2010

abaissement du niveau mental

Heckuva paragraph today by Olga Tokarczuk in an Op Ed in the NY Times about the plane crash that claimed the lives of the Polish President and many of the members of the Polish elite.  She writes:

I am reminded that when a major trauma occurs, the kind that is both individual and collective, something happens that Jungian psychology calls an “abaissement du niveau mental” — a lowering of the level of consciousness. Intellect gives way to the gloom of the collective psyche. The horrified mind tries to find meaning, but lets itself be seduced by old myths. -- Olga Tokarczuk, April 15, 2010

Yep, that is EXACTLY what happened in the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks.  The U.S. regressed in its collective consciousness back to a prior stage of development.  That's the reason that Dennis Miller and Victoria Jackson went from being smart edgy comedians to becoming paranoid delusional spokespeople for radical conservatism.  That's the reason that we were able to elect appoint Bush, a guy with the intelligence of an average high school kid who likes to party, to two terms.  That's the reason that otherwise decent people quickly embraced violations of international law including torture and pre-emptive war. 

I'm just happy to have a term for it now. 

corporatist domination exists because it's an immortality project

As frequent readers of this blog will know, I'm keen to better understand the ways that domination shows up in the economy.  It's my contention that domination and its twin, violence, play a large role in our economy (even in "white collar" jobs); that domination/violence has been at the core of wealth creation for thousands of years; and that the goal of any sort of progressive movement is to move society away from systems of domination and towards systems based on love.  With that in mind...

I stumbled across this quote in Erich Fromm's, "On Disobedience and Other Essays" and thought it relevant to this discussion:

"Man can attempt to become one with the world by submission to a person, to a group, to an institution, to God.  In this way he transcends the separateness of his individual existence by becoming part of somebody or something bigger than himself and experiences his identity in connection with the power to which he has submitted.  Another possibility of overcoming separatness lies in the opposite direction: man can try to unite himself with the world by having power over it, by making others a part of himself, and thus transcending his individual existence by domination."  Erich Fromm, On Disobedience, page 2.

I think Fromm is really on to something quite profound.

I would argue that no one is a corporatist by nature.  No one comes out of the womb desiring to serve the interests of capital.  Babies want to be in union with others (primarily the mom, but also with dad, brothers, sisters, grandparents, the dog, other kids).  Thus, by definition, all babies are communists. If you want to base your politics on natural law, the only choice is communism because in nature, capital doesn't exist.

But later, as a child hits 7 or 8 years old, and becomes conscious of him/herself and becomes aware of the fact that he/she is finite, perishable, vulnerable, and mortal, he/she begins to search around for immortality projects. And capital, or rather, the pursuit of capital through the control and domination of others (either through slavery or wage slavery or off-shoring of production) becomes a popular immortality project.  Which explains then why corporatists fight against any attempts to regulate or restrict their actions -- as if their lives depended on it. If they ever stopped to think about it, common sense would tell them that their actions are immoral, that paying someone 80 cents an hour violates basic norms of human decency.  But corporatists can't stop -- because the domination of others -- whether it is people within their own household or factory workers 5,000 miles away is their immortality project, the means by which they transcend their individual existence and their fear of death. 

Update #1: Honestly, the more I think about the quote above, the more it seems to me the perfect description for the dynamics within the Republican party.  Namely, the Republican party consists of two blocks -- a handful of overclass corporatists who thrive on domination + large numbers of undereducated white males who submit to the corporatists -- and feel united with them through their acts of submission.  It's a perfect closed loop, an immortality project for both the dominators and the dominated.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Link of the week, April 11

Ian Welsh is one of the finest progressive thinkers in the world.  Largely self taught, his writing breaks through the myths and distortions that too often clutter our political debate.  So when Welsh writes a post called, "Books which influenced me the most" it's definitely worth a look.  As for me, I'm going to click over to to buy Jane Jacobs', “The Economy of Cities”, “Cities and the Wealth of Nations”, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”