February 12, 2007

New Populism?

A few days ago I picked up a bundle of recent New York Times out of the garbage. Not that I couldn't have just bought them, but most of the time I don't bother. I admit I kind of like the New York Times. It's intelligently written, but, especially when you have a chance to browse through a couple weeks' worth in one sitting, there's no escaping that it's another big media apologist and obfuscator, and not only on the obvious topics like the Iraq war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the old chestnut that there is a meaningful distinction between Democrats and Republicans. I was on the lookout specifically for any articles on poverty and inequality, domestic or international, and I essentially found none.

There was one about a fast-food employer who was considered a newsworthy exemplar for not treating his employees like garbage. He still only pays them $7 an hour, but he claims he couldn't possibly afford more. No mention of benefits like health insurance. Should I stand up and clap? Another article argues bizarrely that the middle class can't be counted on to feel economically insecure -- by liberal politicians who may wish to tap into that feeling as a platform to attract votes -- because the economy is good and has been improving slightly. How well "the economy" is doing matters mostly to people who own a lot of stocks. To the average person, it can mean, at best, an anemic increase in wages, which the article itself reports as having been 1.6% in 2006. That should offset the fear of being on the brink of disaster when one is mired in debt and has little job security and no or inadequate health insurance?

Unexpectedly, there was an article in New York magazine, a magazine that was tucked away in the bundle of newspapers, that billed itself as "A call to arms for populism, before it's too late." Not that it hits the nail on the head (mentioning Lou Dobbs, twice, as an example of populism!), and it seems to have been inspired by "populism" as a new buzzword, but that the article is there at all is better than nothing I guess. "Populism has gotten a bad odor, and not just among plutocrats..... But I think that's about to change: When economic hope shrivels and the rich become cartoons of swinish privilege, why shouldn't the middle class become populists?" Well, they should, I suppose, but they probably won't, because socialism and populism have been so successfully demonized, because believing that you can make it even if you can't is more optimistic and hopeful than admitting how screwed you really are, because soothing your anxiety with the goods produced by capitalism, even if bought on credit, is more comforting than marching in the streets demanding justice, which would involve admitting that yes, you are one of the huddled masses, and not a soon-to-be rich fat cat whose ship just hasn't come in yet.

The US has been turned into a casino economy, the author argues, where a few winners inspire a frenzy of optimism in all the losers, thinking they too can hit the next big jackpot, but, like in all casinos, the odds are stacked mightily against the average player. Gambling should not be a model for living one's life, of course. "Risk taking is fabulous... -- but not when it's involuntary." And yet, here we are.

February 03, 2007

Crafts and Other Stuff

Math-inspired crafts:
Crocheted hyperbolic models and coral reefs
Paper sculptural works

Engineering-inspired crafts:
V-twin engine and V8 engine made entirely out of paper, with moving parts

Architecture-inspired crafts:
Origami architecture

Nature's crafts:
Shell-collecting shells
Close-ups of sand

Straight-ahead crafts:
Best of craftster (details)

Other random goodness:
Mini organs (play the mini organs)

More goodness than you can shake a stick at, always:
Mixin Jam

Comic strip I like:
Basic Instructions

February 01, 2007

Casual Sex

I'm reading a book called Belle de Jour: Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl. It's a seemingly honest and unflinching account -- though it's written by "Anonymous," so how honest is that, right off the bat? -- not only of working in the sex trade but of the author's sex life outside of work, both of which are presented with a kind of detached wit and irony. I don't buy it. I think sex is far too intimate and emotionally charged to coexist breezily with casualness and dry wit. Or I could be a fuddy duddy. (The more compassionate interpretation would probably be that finding oneself in the position of having to have sex for money is in all likelihood quite upsetting, so to write about it one could go the route of oh god why does my life have to suck so bad, which wouldn't make for a very fun read, or use one's wit and sophistication to create an entertaining book, which Anonymous has skillfully done.)

Here's an example: "In love: a momentary instance of being almost as interested in someone else as in oneself. Loving: capable of untold amounts of suffocation. Lovable: cuddly. In the pejorative sense (similar to the concept of 'shapely legs,' which is code for chubby)." Are we bitter? In need of a suffocating hug?

Public statements made by individuals about their own sex life are necessarily suspect because, first of all, why would you talk about it at all? Sex is inherently intimate, and when it loses its intimacy it becomes crass, or disturbingly raw. (Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of crude jokes about sex, but when you're joking you're not pretending to be seriously laying yourself bare, so to speak.) So unless someone wants to expose their most private self to a public audience, and give up the intimacy, all that's left is insincere bravado and boasting. Which is why, it seems to me, Anonymous wrote about how much fun it was to be a call girl, and how sophisticated and urbane her sexual experiences were. The alternative would be to tell millions of strangers how saddened she may have felt at times, or how cheapened and used. And who would want to boast about that?

Then, while I was muttering to myself about this, I came across an article (via Arts and Letters Daily) called "Casual sex is a con: women just aren't like men," by Dawn Eden. First off, I suspect that men aren't like men either. The ones I've known personally and well are not eager for casual sex (I was going to qualify this, but I honestly can't think of a single one), nor do real-life men seem to be these kind of iron-clad automatons that have emotions bounce off them without leaving so much as a scuff, like popular culture would seem to have you believe.

Popular culture is just a very bad source of notions or prescriptions about something so personal as sex. Societal trends and attitudes don't translate well into individual choices, and it's usually a mistake to think that they could or should. Eden writes: "Whatever Greer and her ilk might say I’ve tried their philosophy — that a woman can shag like a man — and it doesn’t work. We’re not built like that." I don't know what Germaine Greer said because I've never read her, but whatever was written by her or any others who wrote about the sexual revolution is a philosophy -- ideas! -- not a prescription for how to live, and especially not for how to make excruciatingly private choices.

I'm not discounting the importance of the sexual revolution and the liberation that came out of learning that there are other ways to think about sex besides those preached by the church, the patriarchy, or other self appointed guardians of morality. But ideas that are bandied about publicly about such a personal subject are necessarily broad and generalized, and are not literally or individually applicable to one's private life.

But Eden, and probably many others, took in the public attitudes of her era about sex and sexuality and instead of filing them away as food for thought actually applied them to her own life. And, no surprise, found them unsuitable: "Count me among the dissatisfied daughters of the sexual revolution, a new counterculture of women who are realising that casual sex is a con and are choosing to remain chaste instead."

When I first read that, I didn't take the "chaste" comment literally, until I got to the end of the article, where Eden says she has adopted Christian values. Which are just another con. The choice is not between accepting one public assumption about sex over another. You're not either a whore or a nun. Your sexuality is whatever you choose to share between yourself and your partner(s). Leave the public and its attitudes out of it: what do the strangers who write treatises or magazine copy, create advertising campaigns, or preach from a pulpit know? They don't know you.