Virtual Bourgeois

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Archive for the ‘American culture’ Category

I Saw Sicko

Posted by Gerald on July 18, 2007

Rather than my usual Wednesday evening at home, I joined some good friends for dinner and a movie.  The film was Sicko.  I liked the movie.  Being one of the godless, America-hating, treasonous liberal hordes I’ve enjoyed Michael Moore’s films, although I do feel that at times he lets himself get in the way of the message.  I didn’t see so much of that here.  The themes have been well-explored elsewhere – this is an examination of the problems with the American health care system.  Like Moore’s other efforts, though, there is also an examination of what America is.

Two themes really emerged.  The first, and the one that is really still echoing inside me, is disillusionment.  The people he looked at in this film were folks that worked hard, played by the rules, payed for insurance because they were told that was how you protect yourself and your family, and were well and truly screwed by HMOs and the medical industry.  It is easy to criticize these people for being naive when they talk about how they thought “insurance companies were there to help people.”  Then again, that is exactly what the companies say, and that is the only option any of us are given to deal with health crises.  The disillusionment grows as Moore compares our system with those in Canada, Britain, France, and – ultimately – Cuba.  It is true that Moore tend to gloss over some of the difficulties associated with those systems, but still one cannot but feel disappointed in our country by comparison.

The other theme is the glory and the poison of this society – individualism.  Moore keeps asking how we can have a system where people are denied life-saving treatments, where inadequate effort is given to preventing people from getting sick to begin with, and where hospitals send indigent patients in cabs to “skid row” medical clinics because they cannot pay.  The answers point at corporations and government, but ultimately they point at us.  We have swallowed the American Delusion of individual success.  We have rejected the idea that we have any duties to other people just because they are in our community.  We ask “why should I have to pay for her problems.”  The Conservatives have sold most of this country on the idea that no one should have to do anything for anyone else as a matter of duty – only of choice.  They did so by playing on the core values of Americans – individual rights, freedom, and success (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.)

Moore’s final conclusion isn’t original but it is no less true for that – we won’t solve the health care problem, or any other of our problems, until we start thinking of “us” rather than “me.”


Posted in American culture, film, Movies, opinion, politics, thoughts | 2 Comments »

I Probably Should Stop

Posted by Gerald on July 14, 2007

… watching History International.

They had a show on earlier today entitled something like “Where Does it Come From?”  The host mentioned that he was a physicist, which makes sense.  There do not seem to be any historians associated with most of what the History Channel and History International do.  The subject was apartment buildings and the theme was that they originated in Ancient Rome.

To be fair most of the show was fine.  In fact, it featured a very good demonstration of how fullers cleaned clothing in Rome – urine and all.  Two things irked me however, so here we go.

Early in the show the host mentioned the usual height of the Roman insulae and the regulations enacted by both Gaius Julius and Augustus Caesar limiting the height of these buildings to 70 feet and mandating that they have 2 feet thick walls.  Again, there were some good things here.  The host used toast to demonstrate why Roman concrete blocks did not stand up well to torsional strain.  They also went to an engineering firm to do computer models about how high you could safely build a building made of concrete blocks without a steel frame.

First there was the surprise everyone seemed to have when the computer model demonstrated that – guess what – using those building materials at those thicknesses, the maximum safe height for a building was 70 feet – as reflected in the regulations.  Surprise, surprise – people in the past weren’t idiots and had reasons for the things they did!  Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but there seems to be a contempt for our own ancestors in our popular culture.

The most extreme examples of this are the ridiculous theories that people have put forward about the megaliths in Europe, monumental construction in Egypt, temples and cities in pre-Colombian America, the monuments on Easter Island, etc…  It was aliens, time-travelers, reptiles who dwell in the center of the earth, anyone but the people who lived there.  Because we can’t figure out how they did things with the technology they had available, they must not have done it, there must be some supernatural explanation.  Maybe there is a simpler one: we are the children of some pretty smart and capable people who figured out how to do some pretty amazing things.  I don’t get the attraction so many people have for these unhistorical pieces of nonsense – don’t they WANT to be descended from these smart and capable folks?

Second, the host made a point of saying that the limitations on the height of these building could have been exceeded “if the Romans had used steel rods to reinforce the walls of the buildings” – while showing a shot of a modern skyscraper under construction.  What they never asked, or answered, was why the Romans didn’t do that?  Evidently, it is just because they weren’t clever enough to think of it.

The fact is that using steel rods to build a frame for a building was economically unfeasible.  Until the invention of the Bessemer Converter in the 19th century (itself a product of new insights into chemistry and thermodynamics) steel was produced in small batches by skilled craftsmen.  The Romans had steel – hell, the Germans and Celts had steel (in the case of the Celts, some was better than the Romans) – but it was kind of expensive.  Also, there was another demand for steel – the Roman Army.  Given the limits on supply due to existing technology, and the pressure on price due to demand from the Army, the idea of using steel as a building material was unlikely to occur to anyone.  It could be done, but you would have a very expensive building in the end.

I’m not sure why I felt the need to pontificate so (well, I am a bit of a blow-hard…).  Maybe I’m just in “lecturing withdrawal” since I’m only teaching on-line this summer.  Still, I would like it if the history shows on TV would dig a little deeper and check a little more.

Posted in American culture, History, rant, Roman History, Teaching, Television, thoughts | 2 Comments »

Mission: Impossible

Posted by Gerald on July 12, 2007

Because I’ve read my eyes out today grading many essays, I’m indulging in a TV evening (… and, of course, blogging – because it is like crack and I CAN’T HELP MYSELF!!!)

I’m watching a DVD of episodes from the second season of Mission: Impossible.  I loved this show when I was a kid and unlike some other shows I’ve watched as an adult, I still love this.  Yes, it is dated.  Yes, it is unapologetic-ally pro-American.  Yes, it is sexist as hell.  Yes, the whole idea of the government doing things they won’t own up to in public is one of the biggest problems we have today (George, it was just a TV show!)


Those cool, intricate plans, the nifty disguises, the cool gizmos,  I just love it!  Everybody smoking and drinking cocktails.  All the guys are always wearing really cool suits (have you noticed that men’s suits right now kind of look like they did in the mid 1960s?)  Also, for 1967 it had to be a big deal that the tech guy and general science whiz on the team was black.

You gotta take joy in the little things. 

Posted in American culture, Personal, Television, thoughts | 3 Comments »

Civil Rights and Individual Rights

Posted by Gerald on June 29, 2007

Several people have been discussing the two decisions by the Supreme Court striking down the voluntary desegregation programs in Louisville and Seattle.  You can read some details here and you can see some of the discussion on my friend Bridgett’s blog at My Beautiful Wickedness


I believe that the Supreme Court’s decision today reflects long-standing issues in the law – what are civil rights laws meant to do – and one of the biggest questions confronting the American experiment – are individual liberties always more important than public needs?  It isn’t like these questions are new.  Figures like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau (among many others) have put forward answers.  It is a sign of how difficult this is in practice, as opposed to theory, that none of these brilliant people have come up with an answer that works all the time.  Today’s decision reflects a vision of American society as being essentially atomic.  Each individual is isolated and separate.  The preservation of their separate rights is the paramount duty of the law.  What this leaves out is any idea of America as a community.  It says we are always a group of individuals, we are never one nation.  As such, the decision is not surprising.  Isn’t this exactly the view we see reflected throughout our culture?  It is the double-edged sword of individual rights.

It is simplistic to try to define today’s decision as a racist view versus a non-racist view, which supporters of both sides are already doing.  Each side is using a different definition of what the idea of “rights” means and a different idea of how those rights are to be protected.  There is a big question at the root of the division of the court.

Do civil rights laws exist to protect the individual civil liberties of each American or do these laws exist in order to affect a set of social changes concerning how this society deals with race?

To date, the existing laws have tended to use the first of these goals as a justification for policies aimed at the second of these goals.  Each American is supposed to be guaranteed certain rights; therefore we must build a society which will overcome the racial divisions of our past.  In the beginning, the issue was ending a system of state-mandated racial segregation.  Over time, school desegregation became a tool to try to end the de facto segregation of American society.  In education, this has led to the idea that it is of vital importance that students be brought together in multi-racial educational institutions so that most people will be starting from the same place.  This vision says that integrated schools will create an integrated, and equal, America. 

This idea has been questioned, and not just by avowed racists.  African-American parents have questioned the “assimilation” of their children.  Parents of all races have deplored the relocation of children to other neighborhoods.  Also, in order to do this, some students have found themselves denied access to schools they wanted or found themselves forcibly reassigned to schools they didn’t want on the basis of their race.  Certain individuals had their liberties infringed upon in the name of a certain vision of the common good – but what about the rights they were guaranteed?  Thus we had legal challenges to existing programs intended to promote racial diversity in schools, all of which leads to today’s decisions by the Supreme Court.

The position taken by the Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas portion of this decision is that the whole attempt to use schools to fix American society is misguided.  The only important issue is the individual liberties of each student.  The government must be racially blind when dealing with these students.  The government cannot force them out of a school due to their race; the government cannot assign them to a school due to their race.  The government must pretend that race doesn’t exist.  If it does, this reasoning goes, there will be no racial discrimination in law and that is the only thing that government or the courts should concern themselves with.  This argument says that we are a nation of individuals and individual rights are all that matter.  Government must not infringe on the rights of the individual for any reason.

Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Souter, and Stevens dissented in the name of the traditional vision of civil rights law.  Breyer’s dissent argued that there is a difference between race-based programs of exclusion and race-based programs of inclusion.  This is the idea that the ultimate goal of equality in America is an important enough public goal that the abridgement of some individual’s liberties is justified.  This is an argument that a communal good occasionally outweighs private needs.  This argument says we are sometimes a group of individuals, but we are also one nation.  Sometimes what is good for the group must take precedence.

Justice Kennedy’s concurrence shows the tilting point.  He agreed that the way race was used in these school systems – as an individual sorting method – was illegal, but he allowed that the goal of social change was something the schools, and hence the government, could legitimately pursue.  This is a significant difference in philosophy from the Roberts group.  I think there is an argument to be made that the divisions of the court, like the divisions in Congress, simply represent a much divided public mind.

I cannot agree with the Roberts group.  I think that the view of an atomic society that they and other neo-Conservatives put forward will create a Republic that cannot stand.  This legal reasoning is dangerous to us as a nation because it denies that there is any “us” at all.

But is the law the real problem here?  Isn’t there another set of questions we need to ask?  The reason for the Louisville and Seattle programs is the continuing geographical, economic, and social segregation of America.  Why, five decades after Brown are we still living in an America with “black” neighborhoods and “white” neighborhoods?  I tend to favor the position of the dissenters on the court, but there is still a valid question to ask about why school desegregation hasn’t produced the America its promoters envisioned.  If we are going to come back at the supporters of this decision, and the thinking behind it, we are going to need answers more compelling than “if we just give it more time it will work.”  I think I’ve been hearing someone use that as an argument for “staying the course” in another area, and I don’t buy it there so why should they buy it here?

We’ve got work to do people – and only a small part of it is about voting and law.


Posted in America, American culture, American history, desegregation, individualism, inequality, John J. Roberts, law, news, opinion, politics, Samuel Alito, Supreme Court, U.S. Constitution, United States | 14 Comments »

Celine Dion?

Posted by Gerald on June 19, 2007

Pink Flamingo just posted news and a link about the winner of Hillary Clinton’s theme song contest.  It is “You and I” by Celine Dion.

You know, until this moment I was seriously considering her, but Celine Dion?

I guess it won’t matter after the coup when Cheney is installed as Lord Protector of American Holiness and Defender of the Gospel of Wealth For Life, but still…

Celine Dion!?!

Read it here.

Posted in American culture, news, politics | 2 Comments »

I Saw Oceans Thirteen

Posted by Gerald on June 18, 2007

Some friends and I went to see Oceans Thirteen yesterday afternoon.  I really enjoyed it.  It wasn’t quite as good as the first film, but it was a definite improvement on the second.  Like the first film, this one has a single caper at the core of it, it has the same “crooks-with-a-code” get payback against a worse crook at the center of the story.  Al Pacino quickly establishes himself as a guy you really want to see lose.  The film is full of the moments of humor that made the first one a treat (the scene where Danny (George Clooney) and Rusty (Brad Pitt) are watching “Oprah” was a thing of beauty.)  I didn’t think the big caper was quite up to the one in Oceans Eleven, but it was still engaging and fun.

As I was driving home, I was thinking about why this film worked where Oceans Twelve didn’t.  There were many well-founded criticisms leveled at that film, particularly it seeming lazy and self-indulgent.  I agree, but I also think there was something else missing that was back in this film.

Las Vegas.

Outside of being the natural environment for these guys, Las Vegas was another character in these movies; and one that was missed in the second film.  Las Vegas provides a proper place and a community for these stories to exist in.  It also provides a history for them to be part of – the story of the crooks, con-men, gamblers, and larger-than-life figures that come with the city.  These films fit with that, and they also evoke the original film and the original “Rat Pack” that was, and is, such a part of both the city and of American pop culture.

One of the things that attracts me to certain movies, TV shows, books, music, and even food is juxtaposition that creates contrast.  I like some comedy with my drama, some drama with my comedy, some dissonance with my melody, and some sweet with my sour.  In both Oceans Eleven and Oceans Thirteen there are healthy doses of the hip, the pretty, the funny, and the witty.  But I also felt in Eleven, and even more in Thirteen, a bittersweet nostalgia for the “Old Vegas”.  In each film, there is one scene that summed this up for me.

In Oceans Eleven there is a scene after the caper has been pulled when the guys are standing watching the dancing fountains as Claire de Lune (I think) plays.  Then, one-by-one, they walk away.  There is a lot happening there.  This is the moment of really feeling the success of the evening. There is also a strong sense of the remaining bond between these men even as they go their separate ways.  It is a quiet and an emotional scene.  At the end, we are left with Carl Reiner standing alone with a look on his face that has moved me every time I’ve watched the film.  Here is someone who knew the original “Rat Pack”, who was part of that “Old Vegas”, and who was a link between that tradition and this new film.  Watching that scene, I’ve always felt this sense of bittersweet nostalgia for that time and place – and for that whole part of American culture that has really passed away.

In Oceans Thirteen there is another quiet and emotional scene that is more on point.  Danny and Rusty are standing on the Strip talking about their past with Reuben (Elliot Gould), which then leads to them remembering and pointing to where the old casinos were.  Danny says something to the effect of “They build them bigger, these days” to which Rusty replies “They seemed plenty big at the time.”  Again, it is a little scene, but we can feel here the same sense of nostalgia for the Las Vegas that used to be, for the stars that used to be, maybe even for the country that used to be.

I think it is those moments and that sense of loss and memory that gave an excellent counterpoint to the fun of these two films.  All of that is so well established in Las Vegas, where the history of so much of American popular culture meets the ongoing American drive to develop and grow and advance, while plowing under what went before; where our memories meet the impermanence of our culture. 

Posted in American culture, film, Movies, opinion, Personal | 2 Comments »