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The Semiotics of Sleaze

[ 26 ] March 25, 2011 |



John Calipari and Jim Tressel are two of the sleaziest coaches in sleazy business of big time college sports. “Everyone” knows this about Calipari, who has an extensive history of maintaining a conveniently comprehensive ignorance regarding the extensive shenanigans going on at the programs where he’s coached. Yet despite more than a few striking parallels with Calipari, Tressel has — or at least had until a couple of weeks ago — a “sterling reputation” as a fine Christian gentleman, a molder of young men in the tradition of Thomas Arnold, who 150 years ago first gave ideological content to the idea that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton — a pernicious bit of nonsense that Anglophile American universities have been repeating ever since.

Jon Chait ($ link) puzzles over the Legend of St. Tressel of the Wayward Recruits:

Perhaps you’ve had this experience. A fan of some other school will ask you what you think of Tressel. You say you respect his ability as a coach, but he’s kind of dirty. And they look at you like you’re some crazed partisan. Tressel? The Senator? Dirty? Come on.

We all knew it. The evidence was plain as day, right? Maurice Clarrett, spilling the beans and then recanting. Troy Smith. Youngstown State. A.J. Hawk and Nick Mangold reporting thousands of dollars in cash stolen from their apartment. (The excuse was that they come from upper-middle-class families. For those of you who have never come into contact with an upper-middle-class college student, their families tend to avail them of funds via bank accounts and credit cards, not golden handshakes. Remember seeing all those well-off guys on fraternity row, walking around with giant pimp rolls of cash? Neither do I.)

Then, of course, Terrelle Pryor, with his transparently ludicrous story of car dealerships that keep giving him loaner cars to replace his car that keeps breaking down. Either Buckeye players have been getting paid off consistently, or else there’s a massive conspiracy to create this impression.

Anyway, somehow none of this ever took hold. The national media narrative of Jim Tressel, Solid Citizen remained firmly in place. It seemed nothing short of Tressel being caught on video peddling drugs to schoolchildren would dislodge that image. And even that he could probably wriggle out of. (I could see it now: “I was there to warn them of the dangers of drug use and encourage them to stay in school.”)

My sense is that one significant factor in the different reputations the two men have acquired has to do with the cultural signaling performed by their respective self-presentations. Basically, John Calipari looks and dresses like a connected guy, while Tressel presents himself, semiotically speaking, as a cross between a stern but fair high school principal and a minister in a mainline Protestant denomination.

Clothes, as the old saying has it, make the man (the academic version of this aphorism is “Think Yiddish, dress British”).

Ordinary People

[ 18 ] March 24, 2011 |

In 1950, the white population of Detroit was by itself larger than the total population of all but four other American cities. Today it wouldn’t make the top 500.

In 2010, the white population of Detroit was smaller than the white population of Great Falls Montana. There are 40% more white people in Ann Arbor than in Detroit.

Of course African Americans who have options aren’t sticking around either.

Down at the factory,
they’re putting new windows in.
The vandals made a mess of things,
And the homeless
just walked right in.
Well, they worked here once,
and they live here now,
But they might work here again,
They’re ordinary people.
And they’re living in a nightmare.

How many wars in Islamic countries can the US fight at one time?

[ 21 ] March 19, 2011 |

Apparently, the answer is “at least three.”

The Future of an Illusion

[ 29 ] March 18, 2011 |

Jon Chait has a great new piece on the historical sources, hidden motivations, and overall incoherence of the contemporary GOP’s anti-tax dogma.

One implicit feature of Chait’s analysis is that it throws light on the extent to which “the Left” in America now means something like “people who think massive increases in wealth inequality are actually undesirable.”

Helpful oppressors

[ 395 ] March 16, 2011 |


I have some thoughts at the Daily Beast about what Casey Heynes’ response to being informed that he’s fat might tell us about Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. Casey’s shift from dissent to resistance, as they used to say in the 1960s, is of course extremely upsetting to people like Michelle, who want to “help” him overcome his “problem.”

This brings to mind parallels with various other civil rights movements. There have always been plenty of white people eager to help black people overcome their “problems” in the same way Michelle wants to help fat kids. They point out that a brother just needs to look and talk like Sidney Poitier and most people will stop hassling you about the black thing (hey it sort of worked for her husband).

Similarly, lots of men have over the years pointed out that women wouldn’t have so many problems fitting in to [male-dominated] society if they just stopped being so emotional and shit. And of course there’s a cottage industry dedicated to getting rid of oppression against gay people by turning them into straight people.

Inexplicably, at some point people start getting mad about receiving this sort of help. And then the helpful people get mad and resentful and scared in return. After all they were only trying to help!

Update: Several people have mentioned in comments that they can’t see how a campaign whose explicit purpose is to “solve” the “childhood obesity epidemic” within a generation (i.e., a campaign whose goal is to make sure that a generation from now there’s no or as little as humanly possible “childhood obesity”) involves fat shaming. This is precisely equivalent to a first lady making an assault on the “childhood homosexuality epidemic” her main public policy issue, with the goal of eliminating childhood homosexuality in a generation, and then having a bunch of right-thinking conservatives argue that this has nothing to do with gay bashing. Since doubleplusgoodthinking liberals seem to have a whole lot of trouble grasping this analogy, I’ll spell it out a little further: “Homosexuality = “Obesity.” “Gay” = “Fat.”

If you pathologize a human characteristic and then argue for eliminating this “disease” or “syndrome” you’ve invented via pseudo-scientific framing, it’s rather bizarre to claim that your pathological and eliminationist frame isn’t pathological and eliminationist. Saying you have nothing against “homosexuals” but that it would be a good thing to get them to stop being gay makes exactly as much sense as arguing that you have nothing against “obese” people but it would be a good thing to get them to stop being fat.

Update II: [gmack writes in comments]

De-lurking for a moment: one of the main moments in the gay liberation movement was to challenge the binary of homosexual vs. heterosexual and to replace it with the binary of gay vs. straight. They did so because the homo-hetero binary medicalized the issue (they argued that the labels turned the issue into the normal vs. the deviant), and instead they preferred the gay/straight designation because it was more egalitarian and highlighted the political dimensions of the conflict (being gay is not a medical designation but a politicized identity). In any case, Campos’ main goal is to do the same thing with “fat”–to transform the discussions about obesity from a medical/health discourse into a political one. This is not to endorse Campos’ position here or his rhetoric/argumentation style (in my view, he tends to obscure the crucial issues). Rather, I’m just trying to situate what is at issue here.

Let me also add, if somewhat hopelessly, that the question of whether being “fat” can be considered a political identity is not solvable by appeals to facts alone. When a new political identity is declared or appears on the scene, it always looks absurd (or even insulting, as that appearance often is done by way of comparison to earlier emergences–such that fat activism becomes a piece of earlier liberation movements, which some find to be a wrong and insulting demeaning of those movements; but it’s worth noting that the same attitudes emerged when, for instance, when feminists or gays raised their claims). Thus, the determination of whether one should accept or deny Campos’ claims should not be made by trying to figure out whether “fat activism” is “really” like gay activism or not; in the existing order of things, the claim is false, but the whole purpose of the claim is not to describe the truth of things but to bring into being a new organization of the world in which fat people are treated differently. So in my opinion, the question of whether to support Campos’ activism turns on the question of whether the world that this activism is trying to create is something we would want to endorse or not.


[ 28 ] March 11, 2011 |

Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr just now on CNN, regarding whether the U.S. military will assist with disaster relief in Japan: “Our military doesn’t intervene in foreign countries unless they’re asked for help.”

A jury of her peers

[ 17 ] March 10, 2011 |


David Simon on the arrest of Felicia Pearson.

Tortured reasoning

[ 24 ] March 10, 2011 |

Apocalypse Now

Glenn Greenwald points out a striking editorial inconsistency on the part of the New York Times, which has an official editorial policy of refusing to call waterboarding “torture” when it’s carried out by the U.S. government, while describing the same actions as torture when they are performed by other regimes.

The Times’ justification for its treatment of the contemporary American practice of waterboarding is that, since there’s a political controversy in the United States right now about whether waterboarding is torture, it would be a form of inappropriate editorializing to call waterboarding torture in its news pages. (Apparently this controversy doesn’t cross geographical or historical borders, so according to the Times waterboarding is still torture when it’s carried out by Nazi Germany and the People’s Republic of China).

All this raises the awkward issue of whether it’s sound journalism to automatically suspend the willingness to engage in moral judgment, or indeed to employ simple common sense, as long as sufficiently powerful political actors within our society are insisting that we do so. Ignoring for the moment its inconsistent editorial practices in regard to the matter, the Times is taking the position that since that, post-9/11, the Bush administration started claiming that waterboarding wasn’t torture, and since there hasn’t been a definitive ruling on the question by the federal courts since then, the paper is precluded by the canons of “objective” journalism from calling waterboarding torture. In the words of NYT Washington Bureau Editor Douglas Jehl:

I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques. Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?

It seems to me that in regard to this issue, the Times’s methods have become unsound. First of all, the notion that there’s an actual legal controversy as to whether waterboarding is torture is spurious. Torture isn’t a legal term of art: the legal meaning of torture is in no significant way different from the ordinary understanding of the term. Completely immobilizing a man and then beginning to drown him, thereby subjecting him to extreme anguish and overwhelming panic, is obviously torture in the ordinary meaning of the term. Indeed I’m fairly certain waterboarding remains torture even in the minds of of John Yoo and Jay Bybee, as long as they’re not being paid to render an opinion that it’s not when it’s being carried out by their employer of the moment. The fact is that until the Bush administration found a few lawyers who were willing to commit some unnatural intellectual acts, it really hadn’t occurred to anyone in the U.S. legal system to question whether waterboarding was torture, since it so obviously is in both legal and lay parlance.

But beyond this, what difference should it make if the Supreme Court ends up harboring five John Yoos and Jay Bybees? Would that somehow stop waterboarding from being torture? This would be true only for people prone to the sort of legalistic authoritarianism that causes them to suspend their own powers of moral and political judgment, as long as a sufficiently powerful person is uttering the words “It is so ordered.” And such people shouldn’t be editing the New York Times.

NY Times: Dangerous, expensive diet fraud has fans and skeptics

[ 66 ] March 8, 2011 |

“Some” (researchers who have tested the proposition) have found that injecting yourself with a hormone derived from the urine of pregnant women while eating a starvation diet of 500 calories a day doesn’t actually cause any weight loss that wouldn’t be caused by a starvation diet alone. “Others” (crooked doctors charging their desperate patients $1000+ a month) claim otherwise:

But unlike other popular diet supplements, hCG, which is derived from the urine of pregnant women, has acquired an aura of respectability because the injections are available only by prescription.

Ms. Brown’s physician, Lionel Bissoon, a well-known society doctor with an office off Central Park West, charges $1,150 for his hCG program, which covers an examination, injection training, a month’s supply of the hormone and syringes, and blood work to monitor for possible trouble.

“From an anecdotal point of view,” Dr. Bissoon said, “physicians all around the country have seen people losing a tremendous amount of weight with this stuff, and you cannot afford to ignore that.”

Indeed! Who is to say what the truth of the matter is? And what is “truth” anyway, in this crazy mixed up postmodern world of ours?

Not to mention the whole “eating 500 calories a day is exactly what anorexics do” thing.

Then there are the nutritional concerns about a diet that some say mimics anorexia. “The average person is going to eat 1,800 to 3,000 calories,” said Kristen Smith, a bariatric surgery dietitian at Montefiore Medical Center.

“I don’t think it promotes healthy long-term eating habits,” she added.

Limiting yourself to 500 calories a day “mimics” anorexia in the same way that injecting heroin every day “mimics” heroin addiction.

Clarence Thomas thinks the law doesn’t apply to him

[ 9 ] March 4, 2011 |

And of course he’s right.

Tellingly, Thomas was the only justice in the Citizens United case who was willing to declare even the law’s financial disclosure requirements unconstitutional.

Thomas’s psychology in this matter (as well as others) is of some interest. It’s an unappetizing combination of immense social privilege masquerading as perpetual victimhood.

The Politics of Nostalgia

[ 105 ] February 28, 2011 |

For obvious reasons, nostalgia is one of the two most important emotions fueling conservative politics. A wise man once observed that the past “was long ago and it was far away, and it was so much better than it is today” — and this almost universal human sentiment remains ripe for commercial and political manipulation. Still, the strategic use of nostalgia faces a practical problem whenever a society is much wealthier than it was a generation ago. One way of dealing with this awkward fact is to extol the virtues of a simpler time, in contrast to the decadent excesses of the present. This strategy has its limits however (As Jorge Luis Borges notes somewhere, “while it is true that money cannot buy happiness, the advantages of poverty have been greatly exaggerated.”).

Another approach is to make sure that as much as possible of the society’s increased wealth goes to a tiny fraction of its people. From the perspective of the right-wing ideologue, such a maneuver has two equally delightful aspects. First, it rewards society’s most virtuous citizens, that is, those who are already rich. Second, it encourages an inchoate longing for the past — always so useful for conservative political projects of every stripe –among the great bulk of the citizenry, since they will not be misled by the consideration that their own economic station in life has actually improved. Of course this latter strategy requires a deft touch among the powers that be, lest the ever-greedy masses notice that one particularly compelling reason to prefer the past to the present is that the gap between themselves and their social superiors has increased very much to their disadvantage. Read more…

Blackest and whitest names in America

[ 15 ] February 21, 2011 |


Photo: The improbably named Cherokee Parks.

Blackest names: DeShawn and Imani Washington

Whitest names: Jake and Molly Yoder.

What a long strange trip it’s been.

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