Archive for ‘Culture’

Maha Breaks the Space-Time Continuum

By , 8 December, 2009, 1 Comment

Today, from my bedroom in New York, I video-blog about the problems with the cultural/individualist left, postmodernism and the dire state of environmental reform:

Also today, from Islamabad, I opine on the role of the middle class in Pakistan’s political future:
Capitalism is the best insurer of political stability, Nasr posits, but not all capitalisms are equal. To promote peace, growth must do more than simply reduce absolute poverty by expanding the proverbial economic pie. It must also curb inequality by expanding the middle class, and tie their success explicitly to the stability of the state.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

The Muslim world’s middle classes are the ultimate stakeholders in the war on terrorism. While demanding liberal pro-growth policies that raise the incomes of those at the bottom, middle-class business leaders remain dependent on the state for core services such as education and healthcare which both facilitate their own entrepreneurship and benefit the poor.

Unlike upper-crust investors, they can’t pack up their assets and their families and leave when political turmoil hits. Because they have real wealth to lose if the state falls apart, middle classes remain engaged in the democratic process and protect democratic institutions from violence and corruption. By strengthening the state, and enriching their societies, they undermine the sales pitch of militant leaders who prey on inequalities and power vacuums to recruit followers. Even in economically troubled, war-torn Pakistan, a small middle class is beginning to play this very role. [Read the rest.]

Am I miraculous, or what?

Holiday Weekend

By , 29 November, 2009, 1 Comment

If there’s one thing I really regret about the timing of this trip, it’s that it overlaps with some of my favorite American holidays. This weekend, I found myself pining for my aunt Susan’s Thanksgiving dinner, and in particular, the hot fruit stew she serves over turkey in lieu of cranberry sauce, the crumbly buttery goodness of her stuffing and the addictive sugar high of her almond tarts. One important thing about Thanksgiving, however, I managed to salvage, even though I’m thousands of miles away from the nearest roast turkey dinner: the madness of family gatherings.

See, I’m here in Pakistan squatting at the homes of various relatives, and in a strange convergence of the Gregorian and Islamic calendars, it’s a holiday weekend here too.

I Told Ya So

By , 31 August, 2009, No Comment

Virginia Heffernan’s column in the New York Times Magazine is one of the highlights of my weekend. It might be because she writes so wittily; it might be because I read the magazine on the treadmill and her column, which appears within the first ten pages, is often the last thing I read before I become too sweaty and tired to think straight.

But I digress.

Her column this week is about the Facebook Exodus, the impending backlash of users fleeing the site because they are frustrated with its increased busy-ness and diminished privacy. On the one hand, I think she nailed the trend. On the other hand, I’m a wee bit bitter since I’ve been saying as much on this blog and elsewhere for awhile, and I’m not alone.

What do you think? Can the Facebook bubble burst?

What Michael Meant to Me

By , 26 June, 2009, 4 Comments


When I was growing up, the television sat across from the bed in my parents’ room, and they controlled what I watched. They made time for Sesame Street, Lamb Chops and Mr. Rogers, but for the most part, I just sat alongside them while they watched hour upon hour of news, broken occasionally by cooking shows. In other words, all we saw was public television. All commercial channels except Disney and CNN were strictly verboten, and MTV was the epitome of the consumerist culture from which I was sheltered.

In the summers, we often visited family friends who had a house, a pool, horses and a few acres of land in Long Island. Their daughter was exactly my age (we actually wound up together at college) but much more independent. She played tough single-shooter video games, wasn’t afraid of bees, and had her own basement to watch–I marveled–anything she wanted. It was there that I first turned on MTV.

Apocalypse 28: Lessons from the film industry

By , 18 June, 2009, No Comment

My friend and indie filmmaker Michael Morgenstern has a blog where he covers, among other things, the shakedown that is taking place in the film industry. It sounds a lot like the one we’re experiencing in journalism–to quote Mike, the challenges are as follow:

“financing its films when the distribution model is defunct, monetizing the Internet where users expect to pay nothing, and conquering the crowd logic of moviegoers and the advertising budgets of the big players.”

In a three part series that you absolutely must read, Mike has laid out how indie film landed in its current quagmire and how he believes it might emerge. Key to his vision are two ideas that have also been touted by new media activists (journalism’s equivalent of indie directors) as models for news. One is micropayments; the other is using a central web portal as the launch and landing pad for non-digital offerings of the most popular content. I have two essential bones to pick with this vision–firstly, that the central web portal for journalism, film and maybe one day music will be Google and there are serious anti-trust issues there, and secondly, that the micropayments system assumes users will set up a digital credit card account accessible at all websites and there are serious privacy issues there. While Mike gets points from this business writer for being more economically savvy than most filmmakers I know, he brushes over both of these issues.

Furthermore, there is a problem in journalism that film doesn’t have–while news consumers will surely benefit from the new opportunities given to small players, news consumers will also lose if the old players are allowed to go under. Serious film aficionados aren’t really worried that there’s a social cost to seeing fewer summer blockbusters from big studios, while they are understandably bullish about the growing capacity of small producers to do high quality storytelling. Not only do the “big boys” in the news industry have good content to offer, the particular kind of good content they have to offer–expensive, investigative reporting–isn’t being replaced by the small producers as the distribution costs drop. That’s because the cost of that reporting isn’t on the distribution side; it’s on the production side, in the form of reporters’ beat expertise, time and travel. Micropayments won’t cover that.

I don’t know enough about film to know if Mike’s vision will work for them. But I know enough about journalism to know it won’t work for us.

Changing of the Guard

By , 3 June, 2009, No Comment

I have watched the first two episodes of the new Conan-hosted Tonight Show. I always liked Late Night, and this felt more like watching that show at a new time than watching the Tonight Show with a new host. The pilot’s opening montage–of Conan running across the country to reach his new studio in LA–was classic Late Night, and Late Night regular Andy Richter was there to greet him when he arrived. I loved it.

But I was talking to some older co-workers and they were unimpressed. They were born in the ’70s, they graduated college in the 1990s, and Leno’s is the only Tonight Show they were ever really old enough to enjoy. Does anyone at NBC expect them to become Conan-o-philes? Of course not. Instead, NBC is betting that Conan’s core Millenial audience has grown up and mellowed out enough that we’re climbing into bed for our last laugh before midnight rather than at 1 am.

That demographic transition matters because NBC isn’t the only place we see the shift. As a Gen-Xer who appeals to Millenials; Conan lines up perfectly with President Obama. A conversation between Gen X-ers (Conan, the Pres) and Millenials (Conan’s viewers, Obama’s voters) is the new mainstream. The conversation between Boomers (Leno) and X-ers (Leno’s audience) plays second fiddle as a 10 pm lead-in, while the conversation amongst Boomers (Letterman and his audience) faded into oblivion ages ago.

If nothing else, the changing of the Tonight Show guard marks the passage of the Boomers from the center to the sidelines of American life. It’s an odd passage, since the Boomers still make up a third of the population and have two or three decades ahead of them. How could the generation that promised to reinvent politics and culture get such short shelf life on the political and cultural stage? And what are the Boomers to do for the next three decades now that no one is listening?

The lame ones will continue to chant old chants to limited success. Jim Jarmusch’s new movie, The Limits of Control, falls flat in part because its “villain” is “the nameless corporation,” a 1960s motif that doesn’t resonate with Millenial audiences. Though Boomer women (Second Wave Feminists) and X-er women (Third Wave Feminists) continue to do battle on websites like Slate’s new Double X, most Millenials have accepted a middle ground and moved on. And of course, there’s the political collapse of John McCain and Gordon Brown at the hands of X-ers Obama and Cameron.

What’s a Boomer to do when faced with this? The ones with staying power learn to make fun of themselves:

On a Roll

By , 31 May, 2009, No Comment

I am feeling very smug about my predictive track record when it comes to the “revolution in culture” that is this blog’s subtitle.

Exhibit A: After recommending that news organizations negotiate an ad-share with Google, I was thrilled to discover that the New York Times was exploring it, and amused to find, yesterday, that Jeff Jarvis is now touting the idea as though he came up with it AND apparently without knowledge that the Times is already doing it. Since I have many bones to pick with Jarvis, this pleases me.

Exhibit B: After cautioning against the takeover of politics, media, etc by individualists over institutionalists, I am overjoyed to see the Fast Talker–a citizen-media enthusiast and individualist liberal-tarian at times–taking my side. What woke him up? A glimpse at the individualist Right in David Cameron, and the damage the Tory bashing of MP’s expenses has done to his party–Labour–in the lead-up to this week’s local elections. Here is the thing: To turn the tide for Labour, British lefties have to develop a defense of institutions, and that includes many institutions that the individualist Left likes to rail against. Liberal-tarians whining about corporate bonuses sets up a conservative critique of big government. Both kinds of whining need to be given up, but the cultural tide towards individualism in both left- and right- leaning circles makes that unlikely.

Another option, it seems to me, is for institutionalists of both left- and right- flavors to band together against both kinds of individualism. The question for the Fast Talker is whether he is willing to defend the corporation and the Church to protect the National Health System. If he’s not, I think he should prepare for bad news in Thursday’s polls.

China’s Strategy

By , 26 May, 2009, 1 Comment

Despite being a business writer, a sports fan and a devotee of Michael Lewis, I have yet to blend sports and business on this blog, until now. This article on Chinese investments in U.S. sports franchises got me thinking:

One of the patterns of history is that empires usually extend their culture and values along with their political/military/economic might. Rome, according to Vergil, spread “peace and war.” Spain spread Christianity. Britain spread the English language. America spread McDonald’s. But even as policy wonks and strategists come to terms with the reality of China’s impending dominance, there’s skepticism about a world in which we all speak Mandarin; Beijing doesn’t seem to care about that either.

That is because they are planning to achieve their might by profiting from the spread of American influence, by investing enough in both the dollar and Cleveland Cavaliers that the popularity of McDonald’s, basketball, or McDonalds-eaten-at-basketball-games is more their gain than ours. In other words, they’re trying to transition the world from America’s empire to China’s without anyone noticing.

Letting the growth of the opposing system lay the groundwork for yours? How perfectly Marxist.

Pop Quiz: How is Postmodernism like the Web?

By , 13 May, 2009, 2 Comments

They’re both subjects I blog about.


No, but seriously. My previous complaints about postmodernism have centered on the impact that the ideology has over the social and civic use-value of the humanities. Basically, postmodernist scholars say they should teach young people to question the whole notion of usefulness. The idea probably has some internal coherence that is above my pay grade, but to an average eighteen year old in English 101 at an average school, it’s an education in apathy.


When making this critique, I have been accused of being eerily nostalgic for the distant past when humanities teaching was about using the great books to impart immutable moral mantras to a leadership class of white young men. But what seems to rile my critics most is the idea that education should be socially or civic-ly useful at all. In other words, what’s with my institutionalism?


In my posts about media, I frequently express skepticism about the contemporary shift away from professionalism,  factual rigor, and respect for intellectual property. I do so because I believe professional reporting (which must be financed on the basis of intellectual property) is better for the functioning of the political and social system than the citizen-driven alternatives.


The counter-argument from new media evangelists is deeply postmodernist: just like the postmodernists discourage attempts to decipher meaning because the words on the page CAN mean any number of things to any number of people, the web evangelists discourage a focus on objectivity because links CAN be made to show any connections we’d like. Just like the postmodernists discourage attempts to link authors to their work, the web evangelists discourage respect for intellectual property. When a critic of their views expresses a desire to make academia and journalism socially and civically useful, the web evangelists join the postmodernists in asking “what’s with that institutionalism?”


It gets worse. As Susan Blum shows in her new book, young web evangelists are now using postmodern arguments–authorship is socially constructed and should be ignored, the words belong to whomever is interpreting them at that moment–to justify plagiarizing from the web as “pastiche.” If I had any lingering doubts about the educational use-value of postmodernism, they are gone now.

The institutionalist triumph

By , 23 April, 2009, 1 Comment

The last few weeks have seen an explosion of positive activity on the issue of gay marriage. To sum up, after a really nasty set back in the form of Proposition 8 last fall, we’ve seen gay marriage legalized in Iowa, Vermont and Connecticut, and a powerful move from Governor David Paterson to do the same in New York.

Here is what stands out about these decisions: Iowa is a longtime “red” state, Vermont was too until the 1990s, and NY and Connecticut, though they vote “blue” in national elections have rather conservative rural populations who play meaningful roles in state policy. Therefore, some changing of minds on the right is at play in the tidal wave of decisions this month.

Now, there are two ways to make the case for gay marriage and they reflect the ideological dichotomy I have been describing on this site, between institutionalism and individualism. The individualist case, the one that dominated the gay marriage movement until this year, is about railing against the oppressive social norms of a heterocentric definition of marriage, defending the rights of all of us to love as we please, and including marriage as one form of love we should all have access to. This is a mostly left-wing argument that is related in its tone and its values to 1960s feminism and “free love.” It made it very easy for the right-wing to counter that same-sex marriage would undermine heterosexual families, in much the same way they critiqued the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

The institutionalist argument for same-sex marriages is different: it claims that all marriages are better than all non-marriages, that society should actively privilege people (of all orientations) who make monogamous commitments over those (of all orientations) who don’t. So, by this line of argument, all marriages are and should be equal, but married love is morally superior to unmarried love and should be a. legalized and b. socially encouraged.

By arguing against free love, the institutionalists take away the right-wing’s main argument against marriage equality: their fear that it dilutes heterosexual marriage. I have a hunch that what made the tide turn in Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut and New York is that conservatives are beginning to think of gay marriage in these institutionalist terms. David Brooks has been saying it for ages, but no one has listened. Steve Schmidt (McCain’s campaign aide) said it this week and his comments were repeated all over the news.

As Schmidt pointed out in his speech, what has changed since Brooks first voiced this idea is the opinions of young people and the increased interaction between young people of different political ideologies and sexual identities permitted by social media. People who may never interact in the physical world are increasingly finding each other online. Young social conservatives, who may spend their physical lives in communities where homosexuality is  derided and policed, are interacting online with young gay Americans–liberal and conservative–and finding out that the interaction doesn’t dilute their value system after all. Schmidt urged his partisans to accept and embrace this fact if they want to be electorally viable in the future.

This blog is subtitled “Reflections on the Revolution in Culture.” This shift on the right, the change in ideals and, slowly, in policy, driven by the coffeehouse-like minglings of the digital age, is precisely the revolution I had in mind.