The game, organized for kicks by Brent as a DVD menu, took on a life of its own as a performance art critique on US border policy. By which I mean it was a chance for me and Brent to knock the rock in the name of America! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! Want to find
out who wins? Watch the whole thing! It's short. And has some awesome
freaking saves. By me. Oh, and also worth seeing is my colorful dispatch at the time of the game for the LA Weekly:
most desolate and unknown beach is desolate and unknown for a reason.
It has no name, no facilities, no parking lot. There are no signs for
it inside Borderfield State Park. There are no signs for the park
either. To get there, you depart the 5 freeway 10 miles south of San Diego, follow the roads to where the gas stations give way to horse stables, get lost in the overgrowth and streams of the Tijuana River delta, and from there walk the dirt road two miles through coastal dunes to emerge at the Pacific.
This is a filthy beach, where the Tijuana River deposits human
waste, heavy metals, toxic poisons and other industrial effluvia from Mexico into the ocean. “CONTAMINATED WATER; DEEP HOLES; RIPTIDES; NO LIFEGUARD; NO SWIMMING!” the signs announce.
This is also a geopolitically divided beach, purposefully hidden, a DMZ in miniature where the men and women of the U.S. Border Patrol
would prefer no distractions as they monitor the fence of metal pylons
that draws a 20-foot-tall line in the sand all the way into the sea.
It is the perfect beach, in other words, for the world’s first game of international border volleyball.
This is the idea, at least, as I trek to the beach with no name to meet Brent Hoff
and three other collaborators who plan to stage the match. There, under
the noon sun, are a lone umbrella, some towels, lots of water and a
brand-new volleyball. Hoff is the editor of Wholphin, a new DVD
magazine published by McSweeney’s. For the DVD’s menu, Hoff wants to
film a game of beach volleyball using the border fence as the net.
Through the pylons we can see hundreds of people — families, kids,
ice-cream vendors and fishermen — all hanging out on Mexico’s side. The
fence itself has kind of a beach vibe here: It’s broken in parts, and
Mexican nationals wander back and forth, left alone by the
border-patrol units perched up on the hill unless they happen to wander
a bit too far.
“Why not use this no man’s land as a real beach,” Hoff adds, now
spinning the volleyball in preparation, “and see if we could strike up
a friendly pickup game? There’s no law against that.”
Or is there? Hoff suddenly wonders if hitting the ball back and
forth constitutes a violation of U.S. Customs law, since goods are
technically being transported across an international border. “Does a
nice volley amount to three strikes? Can we all get thrown in the
slammer?” One friend of Brent’s refused to come down because he thought
we’d all get shot.
We decide to take our chances. Here we are, under the perfect sun of
San Diego, where beach volleyball reigns, so why should that be any
different just a few miles south?
With Hoff’s three collaborators filming, he needs a second, and so I am volunteered to be the other half of Team USA.
By chance, we are both wearing white tank tops, beaded necklaces and
swim trunks — just the right uniforms for Team USA to show everybody
who’s boss. (U-S-A! U-S-A!) Hoff’s shades are yellow and mirrored for a
nice finishing touch. We approach the fence. Within seconds Team Mexico
is formed, and the match begins.
Beach volleyball is a much different game when played over two-story
metal pylons. Strategy and nuance go out the window. There are few sets
and certainly no spikes. Mostly, it’s tit-for-tat power bumps that send
the ball in 30- and 40- and even 50-foot arcs. The ball hangs in the
air so long that a lot of time is spent looking skyward, bracing for
another bump that hopefully goes in the right direction. As I wait for
one good knock to fall from the blue, it occurs to me that our entirely
new sport makes for some extreme, if inadvertent, political theater.
Despite the difficulty, the game is fun — and surprisingly
uninteresting to the border patrol, who zipped down at the drop of a
hat several times earlier but now seem content to observe us with
Spectators line up on the other side too. Beachgoers watch the game,
and a bunch of kids doing a college art project film us as well. We
learn that our opponents are two guys named Jerry and Larry. Jerry grew
up in El Monte. He’s in Mexico because he “made mistakes in his life” — I notice a big “EMF” for the El Monte Flores
gang on his arm. But now, he says, he’s on the right path. Larry is a
student with long, rocker hair; he’s wearing a black shirt and jeans.
Although we’re not really playing for points, it’s clear we’re
losing. Hoff makes heroic dives, and I’m (sort of) pulling my weight in
the volleys that develop, but Jerry and Larry have strength and
stamina, despite the fact that Jerry is older and wider than me and
Hoff combined, and Larry looks like he should be melting.
After an hour or so, we call it quits. Our wrists
are red and raw as we go to the fence to shake hands. A crowd gathers
for this moment of cultural exchange, which turns into a photo
opportunity. Like China’s
pandas, Hoff and I are goodwill ambassadors. See how furry and friendly
we really are? We’re not all saber rattlers up here! We take pictures
with Jerry and Larry, with the art-school kids, with some tourists from
Canada who are marveling at the whole thing.
All this activity finally brings down the hammer of the border
patrol, and a jeep shows up to separate us. The officer is friendly but
firm. He’s just come on shift and has no idea we’ve been playing
volleyball over the fence for the past hour.
He tells us that a daredevil launched himself across the border in a
cannon a while back, but that ours was, in fact, the first-ever game of
international border volleyball.
“And it worked over that tall fence?”
“Yup,” we say. “We’re up for one more round if you want to play.”
A giant sculpture of the shoe thrown at George Bush's head was erected in an orphanage and already removed by authorities. My question: how do we know this giant shoe was in fact a replica of those thrown at Bush? Weren't those confistacted, or taken into evidence or something? I'm guessing they would not have been made available to the head of an orphanage in Tikrit to commemorate the occasion. So, the sculpture was a fraud to begin with. Could be anybody's shoe! In which case, they should have billed it as A Sculpture of a Giant Shoe That May Or May Not Be Like The Shoes Thrown at Bush's Head, So Really Just a Giant Shoe. In which case they would have had no problemse!
And they are totally awesome, as I'm sure most of you already know. I mean: Joshuah Bearman Blames It On The Rain?!?!? Come on, how cool is that, right?
Well, like me, you may be surprised to discover that there are other uses for the internet. Have you heard about online shopping? And apparently, political foment is an online activity. Heard about that one too? Well, this big piece in the NY Times magazine from yesterday takes a new look at how Facebook has formed a political vent and organizing tool in the middle east, particularly in Egypt, where there are nearly a million members. And once you get past the Lets Kill The Jews Causes stuff, the article moves on to the more novel role of online organizing in domestic political unrest and party-forming. What's interesting is that the ease of Facebook has provided Egyptian twenty-year-olds not just with a political voice but with an alternate to the accepted, or tolerated, or at least established, political opposition of the Muslim brotherhood:
When I spoke to Wael Nawara, a 47-year-old Ghad activist who is a
co-founder of the party, he explained why, for him, getting on Facebook
was such a big eye-opener. If you look at Egyptian politics on the
surface, he said, you might think that the Muslim Brotherhood is the
only alternative to the Mubarak regime. But “Facebook revealed a
liberal undercurrent in Egyptian society,” Nawara said. “In general,
there’s this kind of apathy, a sense that there is nothing we can do to
change the situation. But with Facebook you realize there are others
who think alike and share the same ideals. You can find Islamists
there, but it is really dominated by liberal voices.”
Shortly thereafter, the State Department optimists appear to voice their hope that these groups can be the seeds for civil society organizations. I like the sound of that, although I'm not so sure about the State Department's own Facebook group called “Alliance of Youth Movements.” Dare to Keep Kids Off Extremism!
By the way, can I just make the interesting observation that in open societies, the internet's aggressive contrarians are 4chan types -- people who want to test the boundaries of freedom -- whereas it's the closed societies who see it as a medium of liberalism and political moderation. OK, so, universal human freedom established, I have some growing gifts to give and a game of Word Twist going and I haven't posted to I Flip My Pillow To Get To The Cold Side in awhile, so GTG!!!!
Normally I'm fairly skeptical of those who talk about centrism in the pejorative sense. Mostly because the people arguing against moderation in any form are doing so from their own, very high and imaginary horses. As my grandpa always said, "if someone tells you they have all the answers, they don't." '
This is one of the reasons I liked Obama before I knew that much about his positions; I'd read that his approach to politics was not to stake out the best position politically, but the best one for solving the problem. That sure sounded nice after eight years of politics absolutely blinded by (and indeed, derived entirely from) ideology. I don't want ideology; I want shit to work right.
So I wasn't surprised when Obama's goverment philosophy started resolving not into the socialism the republicans tried ot make it out to be but a kind of pragmatic idealism. Sure -- it's a touch heavy on the pragmatic part, and his vote on FISA was entirely political. But we got over that real quick when we got a look at Sarah Palin. But now the bugaboos are gone, and we are getting a look at Obama alone. And the purists are getting antsy. Obama's keeping Gates and invited Rick Warren to the inauguration and gave Interior to Salazar and his ties to mining and energy interests. Predictably, there's a hew and cry among the left/netroots/activists/etc. Predictably, the right points to all that as evidence of radical left and their imminent take over. But of course, it's the right that has been the most consistently radical for 30 years, relentlessly ideological, which is how they created a political atmosphere where Obama thinks he needs to propritiate the angry gods of the GOP and in the process annoy his base.
And so -- ahem! -- I hereby join the chorus. (Since I know everyone was waiting to hear from Bearman on this issue!) Obama, should, as Thomas Frank advises, act like he won the goddamn thing. I am a centrist in many ways, but what this election made clear is that the center to which I adhere is the one from twenty years ago. In September, when all signs pointed to deregulation and lack of oversight as the cause of a near economic meltdown, Republicans loved to point out that some of that laissez-faire free-for-all was signed into law by Clinton, or Democrats in the Clinton era. As if this whole mess was, well, just everyone's fault, you know? We were all asleep at the wheel, gosh darn it!
But of course what happened in the 90s was that the New Democrats triangulated the "mainstream" of the party in line with republican ideology. The new Washington neo-liberal consensus was that free trade and deregulation was the only path to prosperity. It was a sign of how far the goal posts had moved that no one could say, "Hey maybe government should regulate these complicated markets worth trillions that could take down the system" with out being outside the realm of polite political discussion. So, if the problem lies with both parties, its because both parties had it hormoniously wrong.
And by the way, conformity may just be human nature, an artifact of the neurological mechanisms that allow enforcement learning. So it's time to unlearn the past 30-years and move the goal posts back. And that's not going to happen by bending over backwards to be nice to the poor downtrodden red states. They weren't nice to us when Bush lost the election by 0.5%. Or when he barely won four years later. Why should Obama accomodate Republicans after leading the charge to a solid victory on all fronts? It's not just about being nice or etiquette or Washington protocol. Obama has to set the terms of a new political era. Or else it won't be a new political era. He will have squandered his miracle. The permanent republican majority never came to be, and a Democratic majority is in place for the foreseeable future. If Obama makes the case for it. And that may mean more idealism than pragmatism at times. As Frank says: let them triangulate for once.
So we made the NY Times op-ed page! And by "we," I mean 826, the group of non-profit tutoring centers for whose Los Angeles chapter I have been luck enough to serve as a board member. And by that "we," I really mean the kids who come to those centers every day, many of whom wrote letters to Obama with their advice and hopes and well wishes and questions about Area 51. Those letters have been collected into a volume called “Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country: A Collection of Kids’ Letters
to President Obama.” What better way to properly celebrate Jan 20 than to get the book?
David Cay Johnston, a former NY Times reporter, certainly deserves his pulitzer -- not just for his diligent reporting, but also for making his beat the tax code for more than a decade. Talk about about committment. What did he find by digging into tax minutiae for all those years? Subsidies, loopholes, hidden breaks -- rigged for the rich, what he and others call with rhetorical flourish (and tragic accuracy) "corporate socialism." Which is what led to his book, Free Lunch.
In the new Mother Jones, Johnston has a piece called Fiscal Therapy, which suggests how to fix the economy by fixing the tax code so that its not fixed for the fancy pants cheaters. It opens like so:
For years now, whenever I've been
invited to lecture students on how our tax system works, I have asked a
simple question: What is the purpose of the United States of America?
The most common answer, be it at prestigious universities, elite prep
schools, rural community colleges, or crowded urban high schools, is
this: To make people rich.
This should come as no great surprise. For anyone born after, say,
1970, the world has been shaped by Ronald Reagan's remaking of
government's relationship with private interests—a vision of lower
taxes, less regulation, and maximum economic leeway for those at the
top. In this view, the pursuit of wealth is the warp and weft of
America; everything else will follow.
By contrast, the preamble to the Constitution tells us the nation's
reason for being in 52 words that can be reduced to six principles:
society, justice, peace, security, commonwealth, and freedom.
Individual riches don't make the list. They are a product of American
society, not its guiding purpose. Progress, then, must begin with a
return to the best of the values that created this Second American
Republic—one born, it's worth remembering, from the failure of the
Articles of Confederation, whose principles (weak government,
unfettered capitalism) found their resurrection in the economic
policies of the past three decades.
Then he goes on to list how to stop the givaways. Among the more egregious outrages: Wal Mart charges us sales tax but then gets concessions so they don't have to turn the money over to the state. This, he points out, makes us pay twice: at the register, and later, when the taxpayers have to make up the state budget shortfalls.
Before we move forward, let's take a tour through time! Fittingly, for historical symmetry, the first President to lay out a plan of policy attack in his first hundred days was FDR. What did that bum get done anyhow? Well, on the second day, after creating the firmament in the midst of the waters and calling it Heaven, Roosevelt created Emergency Banking Act. It passed in 40 minutes! Between the 27th and 85th days, Roosevelt went on to create Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Truman got a mop up first hundred days; he got to announce V-E Day, sign the UN Charter, and go to Potsdam to divide the world into ideological poles that would last a half century! Kennedy balanced out with the Peace Corps :) and the Bay of Pigs : 7 (. LBJ took a stand for the Civil Rights Bill. Nixon bombed Cambodia and called it breakfast. Carter pardoned the draft dodgers, and, in a favorable portent, met with both Yitzhak Rabin and Anwar Sadat. Reagan got shot, and did some other stuff -- something about a $41.4 billion budget cut and 30% tax cut. Bush I did nothing. Well, he did creat the National Space Council, an excercise as pointless as it sounds, and which was un-created by Clinton, who also signed the Family Medical Leave Act and lifted the Gag Rule. As for Bush II, who cares what he did anyhow. Onward!
"Take one of these. You'll love it," the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.
The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned
four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief
offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes -- followed by a request for more pills.
Among the noteworthy historical details is that during the height of the cold war, Americans traditionally used economic incentives to lure spies, while the Soviets figured out that sex was a better sell. Thus: foxy double agents were real. And, apparently, they were called "honey traps." So I guess we're finally catching up to 1960! Then again, that means going back to 1960, or much further really, to exploit the gender politics of Afghanistan tribal culture:
Afghan tribal leaders often had four wives -- the maximum number
allowed by the Koran -- and aging village patriarchs were easily sold
on the utility of a pill that could "put them back in an authoritative
position," the official said.
Apparently, what I like to at 10:30 pm on Wednesday evenings is peruse old magazines looking for lengthy policy-oriented articles from last summer. Here's a sweet find from the NY Times Magazine in August, a sort of profile of the economic aspect of Obama. This was before the financial crisis cast policy nuances into much deeper relief.
Summary: Obama is not a New Democrat. But he's not an Old Democrat either. Can the guy have it both ways? Yes! And not just because he's Obama and he gets it all. The world today is both ways. The 1990s battle between the two Bobs -- Reich and Rubin -- is no longer relevant. Each Bob, Obama says, was partly right. I love it when he synthesizes. Seriously. I do. That's the reason I liked him long before he ran. On economics, the Obama synthesis comes, according to the article, from his time at University of Chicago, physical and intellectual home of Milton Friedman. Inevitable Friedman osmosis, along with the usual liberal intellectualism that just runs rampant amongst learned people, provided Obama's foundational economic outlook.
So: Obama fundamentally trusts markets, but believes that they make grievous errors (I'll say!), and that those errors must at times be aggressively corrected. Is that a new idea? If so, then no wonder our economic shit's all fucked up. OK, so Obama's thought is more nuanced than that. In his words:
"...Reagan ushered in an era that reasserted the marketplace and freedom. He made
people aware of the cost involved of government regulation or at least
a command-and-control-style regulation regime. Bill Clinton to some
extent continued that pattern, although he may have smoothed out the
edges of it. And George Bush took Ronald Reagan’s insight and ran it
over a cliff. And so I think the simple way of telling the story is
that when Bill Clinton said the era of big government is over, he
wasn’t arguing for an era of no government. So what we need to bring
about is the end of the era of unresponsive and inefficient government
and short-term thinking in government, so that the government is laying
the groundwork, the framework, the foundation for the market to operate
effectively and for every single individual to be able to be connected
with that market and to succeed in that market."
, See? Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. Oops! I guess maybe he is a Marxist.
Over the past week, the symbolic and substantive enormity of Obama's
election has been slowly settling in to the nation's collective
consciousness. Commentators, including myself, have reached for the
history books to lay down words about "what it means." (I settled on
the triumph of good over evil.) The most obvious is marking a new
chapter in America's checkered racial history. Some have observed that
Tuesday was the final shot in the war that began on April 12, 1861 at
Fort Sumter. (That would be the civil war in case those details don't
ring a bell.) My friend Marc Cooper, in his LA Weekly column,
quoted a friend saying "the hands that picked the cotton were the hands
that are picking the next President," which sounded a little heavy, uh,
handed -- until I saw this:
The Civil War might be over, but the War Between the States lives on.
The good news is that the lingering resentments of that time might have
finally lost their political power. Enough of the rest of the country
has moved on, as is noted in this New York Times article,
that the South is becoming politically irrelevant. And with it the GOP,
which has staked its fortunes on exploiting the region's resentments.
When half your congressional delegation is from the South, and the
Southern Strategy is no longer working, you need a new idea. Let's see
if Newt Gingrich or Bobby Jindal or -- gulp! -- Sarah Palin can come up with one.
The Zombie Zeitgeist A full scale movement is on the lurch. But why the best zombie movie ever made a video game?
Believer interview with Mark Allen Digital artist and awesome gallerist Mark Allen talks about Tekken Torture Tournament and other projects where people were wired to machines and did strange things in public.
Believer interview with Marjane Satrapi Enlightening Q & A with the Persian cartoonist, memoirist, quick conversationalist in which she declares: “THE WORLD IS NOT ABOUT BATMAN AND ROBIN FIGHTING THE JOKER; THINGS ARE MORE COMPLICATED THAN THAT.”
Yeti Researcher Yet another 100-page issue of the world's top academic journal devoted scholarship about the Yeti, Bigfoot, Sasqatch, and other mystery primates worldwide. For researchers and lay audiences alike, the latest YR features a history of Sasquatch sightings in southern California, an update on the wily orang pendek of Sumatra, and a new look into Teddy Roosevelt's obsession with bagging a Bigfoot. As Editor-in-Chief, I promise you won't be disappointed.
Panda PowerPoint! I guess I don't mind being "the entertainment" when it's at Mark Allen's second annual Holiday Fry-B-Que. Presented: preliminary findings from my ongoing research into the most charismatic megafauna of all: Giant Pandas.
McSweeny's Presents: The World, Explained | Dec 9, 2006 For those who missed it, there will be more. World, Explained is going strong! Money was raised, laughs were had, and for those paying attention, small amounts of useful information about things like the aurora borealis were transmitted. Plus: Michael Cera = lovably funny. And Nick Diamonds' renditions of Dumb Dog and Hanging Tough are still in my head. As is that horribly catchy Fresh Step jam.
Jest Fest at Skylight Books Somehow I wound up hosting the 10th anniversary jubilee for Infinite Jest at Skylight Books. Because who doesn't love a jubilee, right? Despite being delirious with Hepatitis A (that's the mild, non-lethal kind; I'm not at risk for Hep B since I always go the needle share and choose clean-looking prostitutes), I managed to not mis-pronounce anyone's name and make an erudite joke and poke gentle fun at Michael Silverblatt.
McSweeny's Presents: The World, Explained | June 10, 2006 Number Three! Last one was sold out so we moved to a slightly larger theater. Andy Richter hosted, and his opening exegesis of CSI: Miami warmed the people up right. Evany Thomas presented her very scientific findings on the Secret Language of Sleep; Starlee Kine bared her neuroses to the world (or at least the 300 people in the audience); Josh Davis showed video of his 135-lb self sumo wrestling a 550-lb opera singer from San Bernardino; and Davy Rothbart closed it out with some Found Magazine magic. Grant Lee Phillips, Sam Shelton and Zooey Deschanel provided the music punctuation! I can still hear their rendition of We Are the Champions.
McSweeny's Presents: The World, Explained | Feb 11, 2006 The second in our series of precision comedy and fact-based entertainment extravaganzas benefiting 826LA. Patton Oswalt was kind enough to host, and Jon Brion joined in on the piano and guitar as thematic accompaniment. Presenters included: David Rees, Michael Colton, John Hodgman (along with his hirsuit troubadour, Jonathan Coulton), and me. Plus: a fashion show of exciting multi-user garmentry.
Little Gray Book Lecture at Galapagos How to Observe President's Day. Jonathan Coulton's technical wizardry has made this entire show available online. The summary from PRX: Sarah Vowell, John Hodgman and Joshuah Bearman on Presidents' Day, along with a fifteen-piece marching band and a new song about all forty-three presidents. My contribution? Yes, from Yeti Researcher. Again. Actually that was the first one. So I have only five stories!
July 25: TJ to LA -- A Night McSweeney's Readings I was honored to be part of a strange triptych along with Salvador Plascencia and Josh Kun. Sponsored, somehow, by La Ciudad magazine, we all packed into Beyond Baroque with no air conditions. 150 people showed at 7 o'clock on a Friday evening, which we took as a good sign of something. Sal held up and anxiously discussed drawings from his novel, Josh delivered an essay on the Dr. Moreau of Tijuana, and my shtick (again) was Pac Man and metaphysics, this time with fun slides.
October 8th: Skylight Books w/Stephen Elliott Fun times were had by all. Someone in the audience actually mistook me for an expert on the psychology human character. We ate shrimp cocktail and drank cheap wine and laughed at Bush and celebrated the certainty of right besting wrong in American democracy. A lot of good that did.