Sunday, October 30, 2005

Hallowe’en

If memory serves, I attended a Hallowe’en party at Jacob (aka "the Professor") and Kelly’s place last night. It was a wonderful evening, due in large part to the generosity and good vibes of our hosts, who rock without parallel.

The party was well-stocked with good things to eat, drink, and smoke, which softened the edges of the evening into a pleasant blur. I traded political barbs with Abraham Lincoln; I caught up on the latest gossip with a coven of sultry witches; I took turns peeing in a sumptuous bathroom with a blue-winged fairy. I may even have been tied up by a priest, but I’m not entirely sure.

After a quick nightcap at the local diner, I staggered home to await the onset of a colossal hangover. It came, surely enough, at 9:00 AM, when a sorry excuse for a man decided to idle his motorcycle directly in front of my bedroom window. Suddenly awake, I cursed the man, the motorcycle, and God, whom I imagined was punishing me for engaging in S/M with a man of the cloth. Undeterred, the motorcycle rumbled loudly on.

My temples throbbing, I pulled the covers up over my head to block out the noise and light. The cats took this as an invitation to play cat and mouse with my face, which they proceeded to do with great vigour. In desperation, I slid further under the covers and assumed the fetal position, whereupon I willed myself to lose consciousness, by suffocation if necessary.

After what seemed like an eternity, the man and the motorcycle roared away, and I fell gratefully back to sleep. In my dreams, the motorcycle man was beaten senseless by a blue-winged fairy, and officially pronounced dead by Abe Lincoln. Serves the bastard right...

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Dream: The Dinner Party

I am sitting at a large dining table in a shabbily opulent room. I am wearing a wispy silk dress and stockings, but no shoes. Seated around me are a group of historical figures, who are talking animatedly amongst themselves. No one seems to notice that I am there.

Leon Trotsky is seated immediately to my right. I am impressed by this, and by the precision of his goatee. I think, “Really, he must be very sharp.” I also think, “I wonder where he got his eyeglasses?”

Frida Kahlo sits at the head of the table, wearing a riot of colour. From all appearances, she has already had several glasses of wine. I try not to stare at her eyebrows or her cleavage, which are both, in my estimation, considerable.

Across the table from me are Sartre and de Beauvoir. She is explaining the etymology of the term “lucide” while he flirts shamelessly with Kahlo. I am struck by his unattractiveness, as is she. “You are an ugly little man!” Kahlo exclaims, thrusting her wine glass in his direction. She then grabs his crotch under the table.

To their right is Marlene Dietrich, who is resplendent in top hat and tails. She is smoking Gitanes, which strikes me as odd. “The war must have ended,” I think. “How else could she have found Gitanes?”

Seated directly to my left is Glenn Gould, who is wearing a rumpled black suit and mumbling to himself. I think I hear him say something about Expo 67. “It’s going to be all the rage,” he opines. He then turns abruptly toward me and offers me a Valium, which I politely decline.

Suddenly, Allen Ginsberg emerges from the kitchen, a bright pink apron tied around his waist. “My friends, dinner is going to be late,” he announces. “Have some more wine!” He produces a bottle of Manischewitz from under his apron and places it on the table, then retreats back into the kitchen.

By this time, Dietrich and de Beauvoir are making out, while Sartre looks on approvingly. Usurped, Kahlo rises from the table and limps petulantly to the bathroom. Gould follows her upstairs, shaking his bottle of Valium like a small maraca.

Gallantly, Trotsky pours me a glass of Manischewitz and places his hand on my knee. “What do you think of the Five Year Plan?” he inquires. I respond, “It isn’t what it used to be.” He nods and slips his hand under my dress, which I take as a gesture of solidarity.

Ginsberg takes Gould’s place at the table and leans in close to me. “You know, it’s true what they say about Trotsky...” he whispers. I say, “Yes, it must be,” although I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s talking about.

Without warning, Emma Goldman bursts into the room and strides boldly toward the dining table. “No talking!” she shouts in a thick Russian accent, “Only dancing!” Dietrich retorts, “Bitch!” and throws a dinner roll at her.

Unfazed, Ginsberg rises to his feet and declares, “The soup is on!” Sartre follows him into the kitchen, and the two men return with a large cauldron of tripe. Sartre garnishes the meal with the ashes from his pipe, and proudly exclaims “Bon appétit!

Then, I wake up.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Low

K. called last night, sensing that I have been out of sorts. We talked for a long time, both of us smoking, and it occurred to me that we are truly friends.

It takes me a long time with people. I hold myself in, which you can see if you’re paying attention. D. would say that it’s my Canadian reserve. Being a Virgo doesn’t help matters.

Arit once told me, in our eighth year of friendship, that she had no idea I was such a romantic. I am, in my way. But you didn’t hear it from me.

In any case, I’ve been out of sorts lately, and I think I may be for a while. I am, I suspect, coming to terms with things. But we’ll just say it’s the weather.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Count to ten, Vila...

One...

Two...

(Inhales deeply...)

Threeeee...

(Eyes closed, fists squeezed into tight little balls...)

Oh god, I just gotta...

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUGH!!!!!

(Exhales...)

Yes, that's much better.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The anarchists have spoken!

This just arrived in my Inbox:

Pour un Québec morbide

Sorry, en français only...

The manifesto and lui: A response to Frank

Dear Frank,

I am, admittedly, less optimistic than you, in large part because I lived through Ontario's "Common Sense Revolution." Many of the same socio-economic changes were enacted by Mike Harris during the 1990s, including the deregulation of Hydro and tuition rates, and they were promoted using eerily similar, if rather less mellifluous language.

The result? The cost of living shot up, without, for most people, an attendant increase in real income. In other words, the majority of Ontarians had to spend a lot more time working just to get by, which led, predictably, to the weakening of provincial overtime legislation. For their part, students suffered enormously because of the changes—I know this from first-hand experience—and the poor were utterly abandoned, which is why the rate of homelessness skyrocketed soon afterward. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Reading the manifesto, I have a disturbing sense of déjà vu, and, frankly, I just can't buy it. I've seen where this kind of change leads, and it isn't nearly as pleasant as Bouchard and his cronies would have us believe. I am willing to concede that they have the best of intentions, but I am also quite certain that they don't understand what life is like for those of us who aren't members of the business elite—that is to say, the vast majority of Quebeckers.

To counter this, I would suggest that they explain, in concrete terms, how someone who makes $10 an hour will benefit from higher electricity rates, higher tuition fees, less "generous" social programs (e.g., health care, subsidized child care) and a more "flexible" work schedule (i.e., unpaid overtime). Until then, you will understand if I remain skeptical.

Please, find out as much as you can about these issues, from as many different perspectives as possible. That way, whatever conclusions you reach, you will know that they are truly lucid ones.

Kind regards,
Vila

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The manifesto and me, Part II

I remain unnerved. Do the labour practices of China and other “Asian Tigers” comprise an acceptable standard for this or any democratic government? Is this what we as a society should aspire to?

Some reasons to be concerned:

Last year [2004], total U.S. trade with China reached $231.4 billion. Of this, $196.7 billion consisted of imports from China. The reality of these imports is that they arrive on the backs of millions of Chinese workers. These workers labor six days per week (seven during peak season), 13 hours per day, for as little as 35 cents per hour. They do not have pensions or Social Security; they do not have unemployment or medical insurance. By the time they reach age 40, they start having difficulty keeping up with the heavy workload. Soon, they are left with nothing. [China Labor Watch]

Over three-quarters of the 12 million people worldwide who are exploited in forced labor conditions are in Asia, according to a comprehensive global report released last week by United Nations social justice and work rights agency the International Labour Organization (I.L.O.). Defining forced labor as “work extracted under threat and against a person’s will,” the report has assessed the Asia and Pacific region as heading the worldwide list with 9.5 million people. Latin America follows with 1.3 million, Sub-Saharan Africa with 660,000 and Europe and the United States with 360,000. [Worldpress.org]

The International Labor Organization (ILO) has estimated that 250 million children between the ages of five and fourteen work in developing countries--at least 120 million on a full time basis. Sixty-one percent of these are in Asia, 32 percent in Africa, and 7 percent in Latin America. Most working children in rural areas are found in agriculture; many children work as domestics; urban children work in trade and services, with fewer in manufacturing and construction. [Human Rights Watch]

These labour practices are not mentioned in Bouchard’s manifesto, which has been roundly praised in Canada’s national newspapers. If they had been, we might ask how it is possible, let alone desirable, to “compete” with workers who earn thirty-five cents per hour? More to the point, we might question why our governments have not made it an urgent priority to improve working conditions in Asia and elsewhere.

The omission may have something to do with the fact that the “total global profits earned from the exploitation of men, women and children have been calculated as being $32 billion,” and that a disproportionate percentage of these profits are realized by Western companies. Without the intervention of governments that are committed to principles of social justice, profit will always take precedence over human rights, an historical fact that Bouchard and his fellows have conveniently overlooked. As labour activist Li Qiang notes:

China's current economic system could not exist in a democratic nation. The kinds of political and economic decisions made in China do not require democratic discussion, and the government of China has put aside all other considerations in order to develop the economy. Only under such authoritarian rule is it possible for the market to be so tightly controlled and for there to be this kind of trade surplus.

So, what is to be done? Some thoughts:

There is an urgent need to rethink current institutions of global economic governance, whose rules and policies are largely shaped by powerful countries and powerful players. The unfairness of key rules of trade and finance reflect a serious "democratic deficit" at the heart of the system. The failure of policies is due to the fact that market-opening measures and financial and economic considerations have consistently predominated over social ones, including measures compatible with the prerogatives of international human rights law and the principles of international solidarity. [World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization]

Globalization demands that we begin anew the task of establishing fair and just rules that make the economy work for all. This challenge is the same as that faced by American workers at the beginning of the 20th century. Unions, minimum wages, and fair labor practices were essential to meeting that challenge, and they are essential again. But such tools are no longer sufficient when applied nationally. They must be applied globally. That means China, India and other industrializing developing countries must agree to, and enforce, core labor standards and worker rights. Trade cannot be free without worker freedom and the right to share in the wealth created. [Thomas Palley, ZNet]

In the meantime, we can refuse to be swayed by calls to increase “productivity,” “flexibility,” or “performance” at the expense of our non-working lives. Leisure time is where the rest of life happens: love, friendship, family, learning, art, and all the other things that we work for. Quebeckers understand this implicitly, and, I hope, won’t give it up without a fight.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The manifesto and me, Part I

With demographic decline and global competition threatening our future, Québec cannot allow itself to be the republic of the status quo.

Gosh, sounds serious. Go on...

What goals should Quebeckers pursue in the decades ahead? The same ones they always have: 1. Québec must continue to develop economically and socially in order to ensure the well-being of its citizens. 2. Québec must remain a distinct society, a beacon of the modern French language and culture in North America.

Sure, that works for me.

Given the new context we are facing, these two objectives will be even harder to attain in the next few decades than they were in the past century. The formulas of the past will no longer be adequate.

I get it. The formulas of the past are like acid-wash jeans. Totally last century.

Social discourse in Québec today is dominated by pressure groups of all kinds, including the big unions, which have monopolized the label “progressive” to better resist any changes imposed by the new order.

Uh-oh...

[Quebeckers] work less than other North Americans; they retire earlier, they benefit from more generous social programs; both individually and collectively, their credit cards are maxed out.

Um, your point being?

This is all only human; we all seek the best life possible.

A failing, admittedly...

But we must also be realistic.

Must we?

Since there will be fewer of us in future, we will have to be more productive.

You’re right. Think of all the time we waste sleeping.

In addition to a high-quality workforce, we will need a workplace environment that encourages performance and innovation.

So, the forty-hour work week is like acid-wash jeans...?

Global competition being what it is, it would be suicidal for us to refuse to eliminate the inflexibility that undermines our competitiveness.

Yes. The leading cause of suicide is inflexibility. Ask anyone.

[T]he Québec government could take action in an area that is essential to a prosperous future: massive investments in education and training.

Phew! For a minute there, I thought you were pushing a corporate agenda. C’mon, high five!

[A] clear-sighted vision and a sense of responsibility will lead to lifting the freeze on tuition fees, a policy that flies in the face of common sense and all studies conducted on the question.

(Sighs.) I had a feeling that’s where you’re were going with this...

Lifting the freeze on tuition fees and should be accompanied by the introduction of a student loan repayment plan that is proportional to income.

Cool, except you left out the part about expanding grants and bursaries, and about the loan repayment program being interest-free.

In the context of the debate we hope to launch, other avenues deserve to be explored, for example, major tax reforms.

You mean increasing taxation of corporations and the wealthy, right?

Countries that invest heavily in social programs generally prefer to tax consumption rather than income. Québec does exactly the opposite. This has the effect of making work less attractive and encourages taxpayers to focus more on their leisure time.

So, leisure time is the problem?! I thought you said it was big unions?

Québec could also consider creating a guaranteed minimum income plan.

(Blinks.) Wait, you don’t actually mean...

This plan would make direct transfers to each citizen and would replace several existing programs for redistributing income, such as low electricity rates and the freeze on tuition fees mentioned above.

...never mind.

Another element that must be eliminated is the unhealthy suspicion of private business that has developed in some sectors.

Funny, I don’t feel sick at all.

For years, people deplored the fact that the Québec economy was run by English-speaking business people; today, French-speaking business people control our economy and they are roundly criticized.

Aww...

We invite all those who realize the urgent need for a transformation to step forward.

The rest of you will be shot. Any questions?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Early

Walking to school
the sun blinds
the street crackles

Flash
(squinting
hands curled in gloves)
I am more than slightly
hungover

Late

Walking home
the sky is clear
the trains sing

Flash
(smiling
hands warm in pockets)
I am not so easily
defeated

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Suck

Water, Khansahib

More rain. It was supposed to be sunny today. It wasn't sunny. It will never be sunny again.

I have, obviously, succumbed to depression, despite my best efforts. I suppose I should at least be clever about it, but I don’t feel like being clever. I feel like curling up in someone’s lap and having my head patted. “There, there,” someone would say. “It’ll be better soon. Here, have a cookie.”

Hmm. I wonder if I have any cookies?

The worst thing about this weather is that there is no catharsis. There’s no thunder to herald change, no crackle of lightning to stand your hair on end, no torrential downpour. There is only the difference between light rain and moderate drizzle, and an interminably gray sky.

I feel cheap, using the weather as a metaphor in this way. I thought I was better than that.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Goodie!

Bob's blog is back. Well, not all the way back, but it will be soon. Bob said so, and Bob is a man of his word. Yesiree, Bob.

Yay.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Sustenance

I can’t remember the last time I saw the sun. Arit said it pierced through the cement of cloud for all of fifteen minutes yesterday. Having overslept, I missed it.

In a slightly desperate effort to keep complete despair at bay, I invited Arit and James over for dinner last night. I made roast salmon with lemon-cardamom rice, which was, for me, a major accomplishment, as I am not renowned for my cooking. If the moans of delight that greeted the meal were any indication, I didn’t do too badly.

Today, Arit returned the favour by inviting me over for chocolate cake, the precise name of which escapes me but is, I think, German. The cake was expertly baked by John, who has taken up baking as a hobby and thus secured the title best boyfriend in the known universe. So good was this cake that I asked, piggishly, for a second slice, and could easily have eaten a third.

Biking home on the rain-slicked streets, I briefly pondered the relationship between food and love. It’s such a simple enjoyment, to feed someone or be fed by them, and yet it’s one of the most intimate things you can do with another person. In this sense, it is love at its best: kindly, open-hearted, and thoroughly ordinary.

Tonight, with two pieces of German chocolate cake nestled in my belly, I am promising myself that I will cook more often. There is simply no other way to survive this season.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Belgrade: The New Montreal?

For weekend reading, an impressive New York Times piece on my other favourite city.

N.B. I have passed out in at least one of the clubs mentioned.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Blanche, with lemon

Late meeting. Period cramps. Endless rain outside the Café.

The girls talk about their bad boyfriends. I look past them out the streaky window. I have nothing much to say.

The waitress is in good spirits. The cute bartender has the night off, which is a shame.

Ada leaves to meet her bad boyfriend. Marie-Marcelle stays for another round. She is teaching her bad boyfriend patience.

If I had a bad boyfriend, I’d have something to talk about. But then, I’d also have a bad boyfriend.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Kernel Theory

The Smoking Section is one year old today. Has it really been that long?

A few weeks after its inception, my friend Esther asked me why I wanted to write “all that stuff.” It was a fair question, although I didn’t have an answer for her at the time. I knew that I had embarked upon a kind of experiment, but I couldn’t begin to explain why or to what end, and certainly not why anyone else should care.

One year, 213 posts, and 8,508 page views later, I’m still not sure what to make of it all. Why do I do this? Why do any of us do this? Are we all exhibitionists? Raconteurs? Assholes? Is blogging a cheap form of therapy, in the worst sense of both words? Or is it, as some commentators have proclaimed, “the new literature”? I’ll be damned if I know.

What I do know is this: my mother wanted to be a writer. Somewhere in the crooked rowhouse I grew up in, there are boxes that are filled to overflowing with the poems and short stories she has written, all in longhand and nearly all in her second language. They were never published, but she’d show them to me sometimes, like they were a part of her she needed me to know.

For a brief time, I wanted to be a writer too. But then, I also wanted to be a musician and a philosopher and a young revolutionary, and somewhere along the way, writing disappeared. Is that how it happened? Or, as I slowly realized that my mother was crazy, did I infer that writing is something that crazy people do, and as such, that it was an activity best avoided?

When my brother had his first schizophrenic break, he began to write obsessively. He had never shown any interest in literature before, but all of a sudden, he was burning through meticulously constructed stories about experiences far removed from his own. As his disease progressed, the stories broke down into repetitive, almost mechanical abstracts of his delusions, which he occasionally sends to me by email.

Psychiatrists refer to this manifestation of schizophrenia and certain other illnesses as hypergraphia: “the unstoppable drive to write.” In one account, the condition is said to “compel someone to keep a voluminous journal, to jot off frequent letters to the editor, to write on toilet paper if nothing else is available, and perhaps even to compile a dictionary.” In other words, hypergraphia bears more than a passing resemblance to blogging.

Which brings me back to Esther’s question, and to what will have to suffice for an answer: it is possible that I write all this stuff simply because I’m not afraid to anymore. It isn’t a slippery slope. Blogging is, admittedly, a strange compulsion, but it is one that feels good and right to me and surprisingly necessary. Besides, it’s a relief to let myself be just a little bit crazy every once in a while.

In any case, thanks for reading, and for writing back. I might start to worry if you didn’t.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Weekend

I went to a Polish Thanksgiving party last night. Vodka was served in lieu of turkey, and no one gave thanks for anything.

I talked to D. today. We agreed that grad school makes people neurotic, and that internet dating only exacerbates the problem. She says her therapy is going well.

My brother called tonight. He asked me if the messages he records at Speaker’s Corner are interfering with my studies. I told him that my cable package doesn’t have CityTV, so it wasn’t a problem.

I spoke with my mother briefly. She has not had surgery for her kidney infection. I wished her a happy Thanksgiving and hung up.

I still haven’t had a massage.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

To the curb

In a fit of self-assertion, I have ditched my old web counter and taken up with a new one. Honestly, I should have done it a long time ago.

I was quite fond of Nedstat, my former counter, and was reasonably content with our year-long relationship. Admittedly, it wasn’t much to look at, nor was it especially bright, but it was always there when I needed it and that was good enough for me.

Several weeks ago, Nedstat started hanging out with a new crowd. Suddenly, it had a different haircut and flashy clothes, and it was even calling itself by a new name: Webstats4U. I was troubled by these changes, but said nothing.

Meanwhile, the situation worsened. Webstats4U began to stay out late without calling; on one or two occasions, it didn’t come home at all. The rumour-mill swirled, and I wondered if I was being taken for a fool.

Then, it happened. The lying son-of-a-bitch came down with a nasty case of pop-up ads and I decided that enough was enough. It was time to move on.

I confess, I had been quietly cruising other counters, and one in particular caught my fancy. I was intrigued, but having been so badly burned, I was reluctant to commit to another counter too quickly. Clearly, I needed time.

Still, a girl can only go so long without stats, and today I took the plunge. After a few nervous preliminaries, I made a move on StatCounter, and it was everything I hoped it would be. No lies, no strings, and, if you’ll permit the indiscretion, the log size is incredible!

So, goodbye Nedstat/Webstats4U, and good riddance. I deserve far better than you.

Kurt Vonnegut on NOW

Vonnegut: After two World Wars and the Holocaust and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and after the Roman games and after the Spanish Inquisition and after burning witches... shouldn't we call it off? I mean, we are a disease and should be ashamed of ourselves.

Interviewer: Mr. Vonnegut, how does a man stay funny when, like you, he thinks the world stinks?

Vonnegut: He smokes. It helps a lot.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Mars in retrograde

Yes, that was James. I suspected as much, but received final confirmation last night. As I told him when I saw him, I’ve been itching to yell at someone for weeks, and, grand contrarian that he is, he provided me with an excellent opportunity to do so.

(Incidentally, James is no more a postmodernist than I am a ballerina. I mean, the man still believes in aesthetic value, for chrissake. And you should see the way he dresses...)

In other news, I have decided to treat myself to a massage this week, which is, I suppose, the female version of treating oneself to a prostitute. There is one notable difference, however: I have absolutely no intention of engaging in conversation with my masseuse.

I’ve asked sex trade workers about this phenomenon, and they’ve all said the same thing: the johns always want to talk afterwards. I find this revealing, since it flies in the face of the standard line: i.e., that men want sex and women want intimacy. Such utter nonsense, and yet people persist in believing it, even when presented with clear evidence to the contrary.

Whenever we argue about this, which is surprisingly often, James insists that I am an exceptional case. I have suggested to him that he needs to get out more, and perhaps also to keep better company. Having done neither, he remains unconvinced.

In any case, I will have a massage this week, which will have nothing whatsoever to do with intimacy. I trust that my masseuse will understand.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Dear James,

That Emma Goldman should be delcared Queen of the Universe is, I think, self-evident. Nevertheless, I take issue with your argument.

The term leadership is, as you imply, a product of discourse. It is also, therefore, deeply ideological, in that it is bound up with assumptions about liberal democracy, capitalism, and, as I wrote yesterday, gender difference. For these reasons, it merits analysis, critique, and, possibly, deconstruction, and we can thank postmodern theorists for undertaking precisely this task.

However, to propose that we jettison the term entirely, even with great subversive élan, is unproductive and, I believe, hopelessly naive. I say this because, at the end of the day, there is a sphere called politics which trundles on with or without our theoretical approval, and which affects large numbers of human beings in real and vitally important ways.

Take, for example, the case of Katrina. The complete inability of federal, state, and local officials to command themselves and the institutions they preside over led directly to the needless deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of people. The "chattering classes" call this a failure of leadership, and, in my view, they are entirely correct to do so.

Whether we consent to being governed by them or not, political officials have access to resources and modes of power that we, as mere citizens, do not. They can declare states of emergency; they can marshal the armed forces or the police; they can approve requests for economic assistance and direct them accordingly. We cannot do these things, and so we have little choice but to rely upon government to make such decisions on our behalf. Perhaps it will be different after the revolution, but I’m not holding my breath.

In the days and weeks after Katrina, the American government failed to meet its most basic responsibilities to its citizens. As Bush and Brownie dithered, people died. Worse, they died knowing that they had been abandoned by their government, which was, it seems, otherwise occupied.

As Bush’s later photo ops demonstrated, the spectacle of leadership is not the same thing as leadership. It is, to be Baudrillardian for just a minute, the signifier wrested away from the signified. This is, I think, what you mean when you call the television images of Giuliani on September 11 meaningless, which, in a certain sense, they were.

However, to give credit to Giuliani--who is, as you well know, a political figure I generally revile--the signifier was not merely a stand-in for the signified. He was, by all accounts, acutely aware of what was happening in his city, and very much involved in the coordination of his administration’s response, not days or weeks after the fact, but immediately. He was, in common parlance, on top of things.

Thus, the photo ops were not just photo ops, but a symbolic representation of Giuliani’s command of the situation. That is why they were ultimately successful, and why Bush’s later efforts were not. In times of crisis, people want to be reassured by their political officials—witness, for example, the footage of Katrina survivors at the Convention Centre screaming at the news cameras, over and over again, “Where is Nagin? Where is Blanco? Where the fuck is the President?” As citizens of a democracy, they have every right to want this.

However, people are not stupid, as some theorists persist in believing, and when push comes to shove they will not meekly accept the signifier in place of the signified. Studies have shown that media strategies are only effective in the absence of lived experience: that is, when there is no other reference point. As Katrina proved, if you are suddenly starving and homeless in a throng of other starving and homeless people, a photo op means nothing at all.

In the case of September 11, New Yorkers were legitimately reassured by Giuliani. Hell, as I braced for World War Three and wondered where the fuck America’s president was, I was reassured by Giuliani. Was I suffering from false consciousness? Do I therefore deserve derision and contempt?

More to the point, how would a postmodern theorist have handled the situation? By sneering at it? By deconstructing it? By writing still another book about the impossibility of politics? As a philosophy professor I admire greatly once said, “philosophers can’t even fix their own toilets”; God help us if it is them to whom we turn when the shit hits the fan.

Worse, the postmodernists have had a hand in relinquishing the sphere of politics to the lawyers and robber-barons that presently comprise the political class, and who should be held criminally responsible for their chronic malfeasance. By thinking ourselves above the political fray and retreating into our own otherworld of floating signifiers, we renege upon our basic responsibility as democratic citizens to police the conduct of those who lead us, and, ultimately, to effect change. As we do, the people we claim to theorize for—minorities, the disabled, the poor—die like dogs in their streets. Bravo. Have another research grant.

In closing, I will concede that leadership is a difficult and potentially dangerous term, but until the revolution comes, I will continue to expect something like it from those who govern me. You are free to do otherwise.

With love,
Vila

On the couch

The temperature being suddenly very low, I am hibernating. On this Friday night, I made myself dinner, brushed the cats, and watched Charlie Rose, which is, incidentally, excellent hibernation television.

Charlie’s guest tonight was Alan Alda, who was talking up his new memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, and Other Things I’ve Learned. This was quite a treat, because I adore Alan Alda. Adore him. Seriously, just looking at the man makes me happy.

Alda was, I confess, my first love--or, more accurately, Hawkeye was. Mind you, the character I fell in love with wasn’t the Hawkeye of the later M*A*S*H* episodes, who was sensitive and good and almost unbearably earnest. No, the Hawkeye I loved beyond words was the early Hawkeye: the one who drank too much and slept with all the nurses and laughed like a hyena at the slightest provocation. You know, the bad Hawkeye. Hawkeye when he was a still a manwhore.

In any case, I settled in for the interview with a bag of potato chips and listened as Alda told lively stories about growing up in the burlesque houses his father worked for, his early training in improv, and his many years in the theatre, all the while thinking that he’s still quite handsome for a man of almost seventy.

Then, Rose asked him about his mother.

It turns out that Alda’s mother was a paranoid schizophrenic, and that she figures prominently in his memoir. As he spoke about her, I leaned forward on the couch, hanging on his every word. I recognized them all: no one in the family talked about it... she suffered, we all suffered... I didn’t tell my friends for years...

Finally, he said this: “I remember trying to figure out what was reality—real reality—and what was her reality.” I thought, instantly: he knows. I may have even said it out loud. “He knows”. He knows what it’s like to grow up with a crazy mother. Not a little bit crazy, as he put it. As I’ve put it. “Psychotic.”

Hawkeye Pierce knows what it means to tell people that your mother is psychotic.

When the interview ended, I went searching for reviews of Alda’s book online and came across a write-up in the San Francisco Chronicle. From the article:

"For many years, frustrated with his mother's delusions and outbursts, Alda avoided contact with her. 'I did try to take care of her as much as I could, and in her later life I really took on that responsibility in a personal way,' he says. He doesn't feel remorse over those distances, because 'I don't think I caused her any pain by that and anyway, that was the only response I could have had.'"

So, it’s okay. I mean, if Alan-fucking-Alda couldn’t figure out how to remain close to his schizophrenic mother, then it must truly be impossible. Right?