PotD – 01/25/10

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Shared Experiences

I’ve been reading this evening about the development and study of shared memories (Halbwachs, Pennebaker and Weeden). I am sincerely intrigued by the notion of shared memories: that there are constraints imposed by society that shape how an individual person remembers things, and that as people tend to interact with their peers, those social norms are both reinforced and altered in subtle ways – thereby impacting the individual’s memories, since memories are always viewed through the lens of the present. Additionally, major, shared events like 9/11 or the fall of the Berlin Wall have different impacts on different generations: most notably, if the event occurred while you were between the ages of 12 and 25, you’re more likely to remember many details of it, in fact, to have a flashbulb memory – one in which you remember where you were when you heard about it. Obviously, for most Americans, the big recent events were 9/11 and Obama’s inauguration.

But I’m really interested in sub-cultures and how they develop, especially political sub-cultures. Often, these can be ethnically or regionally based, like the varying ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia or, say, the South today. Or they can be political sub-cultures, like the online left leaning communities surrounding websites like Daily Kos or those fetishizing Glenn Beck’s musings. (Was that a little biased? See, that’s why I’m not studying AP).

As these sub-cultures evolve, they develop their own cultures. According to Weeden, whose interpretation I favor, culture is just a set of practices and signs and symbols that are intelligible to the relevant group, and are thus subject to fluid reinterpretation and change. This is great when the sub-cultures are internet-based fandoms or idolation of Emile Lagasse. But when they focus on the political realm, they tend to impact how someone views the world. As the community deliberates, each individual’s memory of an event, be it the stimulus package or the attempted Christmas Day bombing, is affected by that conversation. New norms develop that are not necessarily based on what actually happened, but on the reinterpretations of those events by the community (there’s a whole other question about whether those interpretations primarily occur at the elite level and trickle down or at the grassroots level and percolate up, but I’m going to sidestep that one for now).

So what happens when political discourse is relegated to two teams that mostly only talk to themselves? Well, hmm – “death panels”? The unquestioning belief that the stimulus was more damaging than helpful? The “Cornhusker Kickback” – a term I’m sure 75% of the country, including a good chunk of those that are politically involved, have never heard. I’m sure there are a number of these on the left as well, but I don’t feel like looking them up.

The point is relatively clear, and not all that novel: polarization, combined with the new marketplace for ideas, allows people to conduct a political conversation only with those who think like they do. So while the people in the picture above are all sharing the experience of seeing the Cardinals kick some old man Favre ass, there isn’t a corollary in the political arena, because interpretations will soon branch off into partisan and polarized directions (again, the same thing happens in sports – it just doesn’t matter as much in terms of tangible effects on people’s lives).

The point of all this is that I wanted to describe a research idea. People in my line of research have seen this visualization, which succinctly shows the relationship between blogs. But it does this at a single historical moment – now – and not through history. In other words, it doesn’t show the development of those links – if left-leaning blogs slowly link more and more to left-leaning blogs and right-leaning blogs to their peers, etc.

The second part of this research project involves tracing not just the links to other websites but the actual positions taken by the blog authors themselves. (This was inspired in part by this article chronicling the fight between Little Green Footballs (LGF) and its former ideological peers in the warblogger community (incidentally, some of the websites mentioned were objects of a section of my MA thesis, and yes, some of the namecallling was pretty disturbing).

So the question, then, is as follows: do online blogging communities tend to decrease their links to ideological foes as their ideologies gain rigidness? In other words, is there a correlation between online communities converging on an ideological center and a relative increase in outbound links to other sites within the community? I suppose the ideological convergence doesn’t have to mean ideological conformity, maybe just drifting toward the mean on the part of a given blogger would count.

I think they will. (Of course, LGF’s ideological shift is actually an exception to my theory.)

Now who wants to give me time/funding to pursue this? Or point me to research that’s already been done on it?

PotD – 01/20/10 – 01/23/10

Obamas
One year on

So I started writing this on the 20th, but then I was too sick and busy to finish. The same thing occurred on the 21st, and the 22nd, which then stopped me from writing anything on those days (or really having any time to think about it). But today is my do nothing day, which I have commemorated with a string of viewings – movies, Conan’s last show, lots of eels videos and Lost montages. Basically a day getting lost in youtube to get over a killer sinus infection.

So, back to the picture. I scrapped what I’d previously written because it was filled with lamentations over the end of health care, the general cowardliness of Democrats in Washington, and how everything was going to come crashing down – that the system was obviously going to fail, because if there aren’t 60 votes to fix a problem as drastic as health care, then how is anything going to being done?

But you know – that’s just defeatist. Of course I’d be happer if the Democratic candidate hadn’t disdained things like campaigning or knowing that Curt Shilling was a Red Sox pitcher and not a Yankee. But that doesn’t change what has occurred in the past year: a rush to bailout banks and automakers to try to stabilize the economy, a stimulus package that was smaller than what experts believed was necessary, SCHIP, Copenhagen, the Cairo speech, Guantanamo’s slow closure, Afghanistan surge, etc. And 4th and an inch on healthcare on the goal line.

Normally, such grave times would be met with calls for unity, for working together toward a moderate approach – or at least putting faith in your leaders. But there’s been so little of this, from either party, or from the Tea Party morons, or the press. And that’s what I think is hopeful: that Obama was able to get that much done without a very stable working environment. And as the economy gets better – because it must, eventually, get better, right? – that will ease, and the real issues will get tackled. At least that’s what I have to be hopeful for.

And just for that, to make up for the last few days:

Crazy Guy
Crazy Guy at Inauguration

Attack of the Pigeons
Attack of the Pigeons

The sickness cometh

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It used to be rats.  Then the birds came for us.  Now the pigs, with their murderous flu germs.  Or something.  What’s next?  The cat meow pandemic?

Of course, this gives me the opportunity to showcase a new Thermals song, called, naturally enough, We Were Sick (off of their excellent new record, Now We Can See). For someone suffering from illness, it’s got a whole lot of energy. But that’s ok; maybe it’s that point when you feel like you’re better, so you celebrate your recovery. And maybe we’re heading that way with the whole swine flu mess.

On the other hand, I don’t really get the big deal with H1N1, since regular influenza kills about 36,000 Americans each year. Maybe this is more easily transmitted, and a bit more violent, which would warrant some “helpful tips” segments on the local evening news – but not the feeding frenzy CNN, et al, are engaging in. Though I have to admit – it’s pretty hilarious that we apparently need lectures on hygiene to keep us healthy.

I don’t know. Maybe we’re just sick in the head. Like Fiona.

Bow to the Middle

I figure tonight, of all nights, as the Presidential candidates conclude their 3rd snoozeslugfest, is the best time to introduce this catchy little song from The Rosebuds:

The Rosebuds – Bow to the Middle: The Religion of Politics

This is a dance song, but not in the traditional sense: it’s not meant to get the listener on their feet (though it’s certainly catchy) but to describe the Chaplin shuffle politicians perform every couple years – the one the candidates are both dancing right now.  I’m not going to get too far into the actual politics of our two candidates, or the substance of their arguments (though my roommate has a great dissection of one question in the last debate that I’ve been meaning to commend him for), but rather in the meta-aspect of it.  The point is summed in the chorus:

Hey yeah, walk to the middle and bow to the middle
Hey yeah, walk to the left and bow to the middle
Hey yeah, walk to the right and bow to the middle
Hey yeah, walk all around and bow to the middle

It’s what candidates in our system are required to do:bow to the incessant demands of the inattentive swing voter, the person who still thinks Obama doesn’t give any policy details and McCain just wants to be like any other Republican, but doesn’t really get why.  It’s the continual groveling before the altar of the low information constituency that really undermines everyone interested in furthering the country’s policies – including that very same swing voter.  See, when you spend all your time tempering your statements with an eye toward the middle, with covering your beliefs up just enough that those in the middle will miss your appeals to your base, they end up seeing you as insincere – and that’s when they start doubting.  You, as a politician, carry on your shoulders the mantle of the inadequacies of the system and all the old politicans you evoke in people, and it’s your job to move the discussion past it to the issues you want to discuss.

Incidentally, it’s the Democrats who have traditionally had the biggest problem with this.  Even Bill Clinton, the master of connecting to the white working class, suffered from this.  Republicans, like Bush, were able to wink in both directions by using coded language (see: the Dred Scott decision as a dog whistle to pro-lifers or Reagan, Philadelphia, MS and race).  In this race, it seems that this dynamic has shifted a bit, with McCain being seen more and more as the insincere one, particularly in regards to the economy.

I spend a lot of my off time thinking about political movements – how they are formed, grow, communicate, and, eventually stagnate.  Bowing to the middle on the election trail has been the premier requirement in American politics for at least a generation (right up there with kissing babies), and in that generation, one party has shown itself better practiced at this performance.  I’m curious how much longer this will last, and the form this dance will take in years to come.

***

I haven’t written much lately; in part, my free time has been focused on the election and less on music (though I have picked up a lot of great stuff lately), but also because of the demands of end of the year performance metrics coupled with my knack for finding more side projects for myself.  No clue when this will end, but the end of the year looks like a nice cutoff point.

Oh, and the Rosebuds are really great.  Everyone should check them out.

On Holidays

High school Honors English often seemed at times like an endless stream of pointless, difficult, and hated books (ugh, Wuthering Heights) interspersed with a few that glowed with genius, originality and talent.  Those are the ones that stick with you: Gatsby’s empty opulence informs your perception of the rich you encounter everyday; the swinging lightbulb in Wright’s Native Son reminds you of the beacon of hope you have to find in the darkest moments.

But no text stimulated me quite as much as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  Sinclair’s description of the everyday horrors of the meat processing plant, and the efforts to unionize them, sparked the first inklings of political awareness – the first concrete idea that people can be exploited and abused.  I can’t even recall much of the second half of the book except that the main character was adrift, trying to deal with the station of his life.

I bring this up because today is Labor Day, and like Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day, we as a society have forgotten the reason we celebrate it.  Instead of merely a day of barbeques, beaches, and baseball, and lamentations about the crisis of having to return to work the following day, those are supposed to be a means of actively celebrating the value of the American workforce, and the sacrifices that generations before us made in order to protect an honest day’s work.  It’s a time to recognize the power of people-powered movements – to exploit an already overused phrase – to solicit change.

The strikes and beatings of the late 19th and early 20th century taught people that they didn’t have to be exploited; that, working together they could change the system.  This, of course, culminated in events like the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention, where protestors and police went to war with each other.  Now, though, mass grassroots political events seem to barely elicit notice; only in something like a speech given to 75,000 people can we see glimmers of something similar – though of course it’s directed from the top-down.  And just a week later, as police raid the homes of protesters and arrest journalists on the streets of St. Paul surrounding the Republican convention, scant attention is paid in the media as a whole – just as their counterparts were ignored last week in Denver (note: I’m not endorsing any of them or their actions, just noting the lack of oxygen in stories about them).

So protests do almost nothing anymore, but they once did; and people bled and died to force better working conditions, shorter work weeks, and health and safety protections.  That we live in a country where that could ever happen is reason enough to celebrate.

The Jungle opens with a traditional wedding – a night of dancing, of a community celebrating.  The air carries hope and optimism, the sound of chattering fiddles and the warm aroma of ovens of food.  It’s a truly ordinary event, replicated countless times any given weekend, but for the people involved, it’s momentous, connecting their future with the storied past of their families.

DeVotchKa evokes much of this spirit, bridging the past and the future with the exuberance of a classic wedding band.  Their live shows, according to their bio, can feature sousaphone, accordion, piano, violin, bouzouki, trumpets, and theremin in addition to the standard rock instruments.  The drummer was raised by Lithuanian polka musicians; the violinist is classically trained.  Their most recent album, A Mad and Faithful Telling, which was released earlier this year, dips its toe into several classical styles.

The song below, Transliterator, is available for free on rcrdlbl.com.