Archive for March, 2010

This article by Jeffrey Kuhner in the Washington Times is a great example of conservative commentary in response to Health Care Reform. It’s the Washington Times, so not completely mainstream (being owned by a Korean cult leader and all) but it’s only a small jump beyond what you can read in the Washington Post. Certainly it gets a lot more crazy in the right-wing blogosphere. I particularly wanted to share it with my Australian readers (hi Mum!) as it seems unique to American political culture.

Kuhner writes:

Mr. Obama has achieved what his liberal predecessors – Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clinton – could only dream of: nationalized health care. Obamacare signifies the government take-over of one-sixth of the U.S. economy. It has dealt a mortal blow to traditional America. We are now a European-style socialist welfare state. The inevitable permanent tax hikes, massive public bureaucracy and liberal ruling elites will stifle competition and initiative.

Socialism is the road to economic ruin and fiscal bankruptcy. It subverts democracy, threatening the very future of our constitutional republic. Socialist states degenerate into some form of autocracy or technocratic neo-feudalism….

The Obama revolution threatens to tear America apart. This has happened before. Slavery eventually triggered the Civil War between the industrial North and the agrarian South. Abortion is the slavery of our time – the denying of basic human rights to an entire category of people.

Conservatives will not be passive in this onslaught on all our core values. Mr. Obama’s true legacy may be that he divides us deeper than ever before – unless he abandons his revolutionary project.

These are selective excerpts. You can read the whole thing here.

There are two things I consistently find amazing about conservative commentary here. The absurd over-reaction and the lack of context.

The “revolutionary” health care bill he’s referring to is less progressive than that proposed by Republican Richard Nixon when he was President. It is very similar to the policy implemented in Massachusetts by Republican Presidential aspirant Mitt Romney and elements of it began life as a proposal by right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation. Far from nationalizing health care it contains no public option to compete with the very-much alive private sector. It’s a modest reform which moves the health care system in a progressive direction, largely by guaranteeing their access to insurance.

This is what people are losing their minds and threatening “civil war” over. This intensity of reaction has become standard to anything Obama tries to do.

Even more standard is the conservative dismissal of Europe: “It has dealt a mortal blow to traditional America. We are now a European-style socialist welfare state.” The “Europe” being referred to here is not, as you might expect, a continent on the other side of the Atlantic ocean from America. The “Europe” Kuhner is referring to exists in the conservative imagination. The idea of it has been established over decades to become a code word for government excess and economic malaise.

But Europe isn’t just an allegory! It’s a real place! And as such it collects all sorts of statistics that chart its economic progress, not to mention such curiosities as educational achievement, environmental impact and overall happiness. And while Europe has lots of problems they’re not doing too bad on many of those statistics. Indeed, even the much-derided French actually create more GDP per worker hour than the US. But they trade much of their potential GDP for several times more leave than US workers get.

You actually can learn a lot from looking at other countries, but to do so you have to treat them like real places and study what they’re actually doing rather than just use them as straw man stereotypes and symbolic code words.


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So this Saturday is Earth Hour. For the uninitiated Earth Hour is call to action that asks people to turn of their electricity for one hour in recognition of climate change. Earth Hour was started in Sydney, Australia, in 2007 and has since been taken global by WWF.

Their website says:

In 2009 hundreds of millions of people around the world showed their support by turning off their lights for one hour.

Earth Hour 2010 will continue to be a global call to action to every individual, every business and every community. A call to stand up, to show leadership and be responsible for our future.

Pledge your support here and turn off your lights for one hour, Earth Hour, 8.30pm, Saturday 27th March 2010.

Now turning off your lights is a good idea and I encourage people to take part but the framing of Earth Hour has always bothered me.

Much of the language around the initiative is about ‘taking responsibility’, ‘taking action’ and ‘showing leadership’ but it seems enough to demonstrate this responsibility, action and leadership for one hour, once a year. If Earth Hour were framed as an opportunity to reflect on the immense challenge facing the human race, the need to alter our relationship with the planet and pursue a more sustainable path it would make a great deal of sense to me. It could be an environmental May Day, a chance to come together and prepare for the great work ahead.

Or if it were linked to political action and clearly identifying the necessary policy steps and roadblocks to action, inspiring people to increase the pressure on their leaders for reform, that would make a lot of sense to me.

Instead Earth Hour is framed as actually doing something about climate change. This is completely false conception, and very dangerous. False action which allows us to feel we are making a difference, that we are doing our part, makes it less likely that we will make a real difference, or give up anything beyond an hour of electricity.

Earth Hour is the perfect corporate-friendly initiative: many of the businesses in the Sydney CBD and other cities turn off the lights of their office towers for the hour. On 8.30pm on a Saturday. In return they get to claim a little bit of green cred. But the real issue is why are office lights on at 8.30pm on Saturday night in order to be turned off? Why do they need to be turned on again at 9.30pm? And after this completely harmless non-threatening non-disruptive event business continues as usual.

In 2008 we spent Earth Hour at a participating restaurant. The kitchen power remained on, I assume, as meals continued to arrive in the candle-lit restaurant. It was really nice, a treat. After an hour of enjoyable and romantic dimness the lights came up again. Immediately following the completion of the Hour a fireworks display unexpectedly began, to celebrate this wonderful city-wide event. Environmental protest as dining occasion, as public celebration, as symbolic feelgood vibes, man. Well done on going an hour without electricity – let’s blow up some carbon! Woo!

Hard to reflect on our unsustainable culture, the sacrifices and adaptions we will need to make and the difficult road again when fireworks are busting overhead. Ooooh. Aaahhh.

So turn off your lights at 8.30pm this Saturday, but don’t kid yourself that you’ve made a difference when you do so. Instead sit in the dark, or in a park on a rug with friends, or in your backyard staring at the stars, and know that we have huge challenges and changes ahead, and so much work to be done to sweep away the forces that would lead us to disaster if they can make a dollar more. And think about how your actions can lead us towards a better, more sustainable tomorrow. Then act.

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Two weeks ago, relatively quietly, the world changed in DC. On Wednesday March 3 the government of the District of Columbia began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The video below is of the first same-sex wedding in DC, a week later.

DC has joined five states in allowing same-sex couples to wed: New Hampshire, Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut.

This is the civil rights issue of our time, but the change it brings is barely noticeable. It’s almost amazing how completely non-disruptive it is, even to those most opposed to it. As despicable as it was segregation was a way of life, and giving up a way of life and the set of traditions and beliefs around it is very difficult for many people.

Those opposed to gay marriage however are defending a way of life only in their minds. As the five existing states in America have shown, nothing happens when you allow same-sex marriage other than people of the same sex getting married. Heterosexual marriage continues as normal. Even for those most opposed daily life continues exactly as it did before. They are required to give up no traditions at all and it can only be a matter of time before most realize that the only belief they are giving up was a mistaken one: that gay marriage in some way threatened heterosexual marriage.

I feel fairly confident that most of those casually opposed to gay marriage will get over it pretty quickly. It will be hard to continue to make claims about the destruction of the institution of marriage when the institution continues as before, if not stronger. It’s harder to be scared of something that happens routinely around you without any negative repercussions. And as the states and jurisdictions which allow gay marriage slowly increase in America, it will become harder and harder to make a credible argument against it anywhere.

6 countries currently allow gay marriage: Belgium, Canada, Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. I suspect the institution of marriage is getting along just fine there as well.

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The moving image is the most powerful communication medium yet invented and the internet is the most powerful distribution network yet invented. Together they’re a pretty great combination. I’m constantly looking out for videos I like and am going to start sharing my favourite finds every couple of weeks, whether they are art, music, politics or marketing.

The New Dork:

I always say that it’s mostly random what goes viral and what doesn’t online, but this video really does have the perfect set of elements to give it the best possible shot at stardom: satire, music, pop-cultural hooks and sub-culture-specific in-jokes. It’s made by the pantless knights for Grasshopper.com, a company big on promoting entrepreneurship (and social entrepreneurship), and is a spoof of Empire State of Mind by Alicia Keys and Jay-Z. This was released three days ago and has racked up 269,000 views already.

NZ Book Council – Going West:

Here’s a much less obvious viral success, an animated excerpt from a book to promote the New Zealand Book Council. Consider that New Zealand has a popular only a little over 4 million and 721,000 views since mid-November for a video from a local non-profit is pretty extraordinary. Amazingly it’s the only video they’ve ever uploaded. They’re going to have really unrealistic expectations from now on. But this video deserves it – it’s beautiful, unique and, importantly, doesn’t feel like marketing collateral. It promotes the organization by promoting something bigger than them: a love of reading.

The Sandpit:

A really different perspective on New York City: familiar but strange; ordinary but beautiful; removed but somehow intimate. I love this.

Glen Beck Attacks Tom Dawkins

I don’t seem to be able to embed this but check it out here. This is a brilliant and creative use of Facebook’s API, creating an interactive video featuring… me! (Or you – create your own here). And of course I have shared this on Facebook and numerous people have reacted to it there. Because it’s got an element of game and a strong dose of fun about it many probably made their own, and posted on on Facebook, and on it goes. This interactivity allows virality to be designed in, not just hoped-for. And once again it isn’t a fundraising pitch or blatant advertisement, it’s about the issue.

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So there was this little sporting contest on last week in Vancouver. They called it the “Winter Olympics”. It’s just like the Summer Olympics except it’s all rich white people from the Northern Hemisphere.

I guess it’s my general lack of experience with snow and ice but I can’t get enormously excited by the Winter Olympics. It all seems kinda contrived, increasingly made-up, as compared to the ancient and almost-elemental human skills which form the core of the Summer Olympics: running, jumping, throwing, lifting, swimming, wrestling.

I mean, how did the luge even get invented? Let alone curling. Winter sports are leisure sports, things people with money can afford to do. They represent not only far less geographic diversity than the Summer games but less class diversity as well. And way less teams sports. Only ice hockey is a “big (ie. more than four members) team sport, and the only others I can  think of off the top of my head are curling, speed skating relays, a couple of cross-country team variants, various forms of sledding and figure skating/ice dancing, if you count two as a “team”. While I’m here, ice dancing so clearly isn’t a sport. I mean, just unpack the name. “Dancing”. I rest my case.

Some of the recent additions to the Winter Olympics like snowboarding and aerials are undoubtedly pretty cool, but what I’d really like to see is some combining of the disciplines. Why are cross-country skiing and shooting, of all things, along with super-combined in downhill, the only combined disciplines? Why not a triathlon involving downhill skiing, cross-country skiing and speed-skating? You could even throw a jump in for good measure. That would be a really amazing set of combined athletic skills and a good winter analog for the summer triathlon. A downhill relay would be pretty amazing too.

Speaking of downhill, I love that they have events called the Slalom, Super Slalom and Super-Giant Slalom. Who was in charge of naming these, a seven year-old? I can’t wait for them to add the Mega Enormous Super Giant Slalom at future Olympics.

It did make me happy to see Canada defeat the US for gold in ice hockey. It’s “their” sport (although in Canada it’s just “hockey”, the ice goes without saying) and it’s always lovely to see a country go deliriously happy for a little while. Kinda like how I can never begrudge New Zealand their victories over Australia in rugby. I always think, let them have this one, it means so much to them. Canada kinda rocked out in general, winning more gold medals than any nation had in a single games previously. The US team was also happy, winning the most medals overall, also the most ever. And Australia had our best winter games ever, with two gold and a silver, so that’s nice. Yay us.

But really, I just couldn’t get all that excited.

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