Upper-Middle Brow

I’ve been a little obsessed with the ideas in this article by William Deresiewicz this week: Upper Middle Brow: The Culture of the Creative Class {american scholar; via andrew sullivan}.

He begins by positioning the term “upper middle brow” in our cultural caste system. There’s mainstream (“masscult”), middle brow (“midcult”), highbrow, and now something inbetween:

It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that should have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies).

As a devotee of at least three of the aforementioned shows/publications, my defenses were up. Happily, that wasn’t the crux of his argument:

The upper middle brow possesses excellence, intelligence, and integrity. It is genuinely good work (as well as being most of what I read or look at myself). The problem is it always lets us off the hook. Like Midcult, it is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices. It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb—the definition of a true avant-garde—our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world.

It’s that last part that gets me: art that seeks not to disturb. Yes, I’m delighted and provoked to think deeper about politics, the environment, and the world-at-large when I listen to NPR and read things in The New Yorker. But are my pre-concieved views challenged when they post a letter imploring readers to vote for Obama? Was there a possibility that they’d suggest anyone else? There’s no mention of the Patriot Act in the endorsement, which is intact in virtually the same form as it was when George W. Bush signed it into law in 2001, and a host of other issues like the ones brought up in Glenn Greenwald’s segment on On the Media this week:

…and we didn’t even talk about one of the worst ones, which is the incredible  and unprecedented persecution of whistleblowers, prosecuting whistleblowers under the Espionage Act of 1917, more than double the number of all prior administrations combined…

No, The New Yorker knows I’ve already made up my mind, else I likely wouldn’t be reading The New Yorker.

And the issue of self-congratulation could be resolved by exposing myself to opposing  points of views, something the self-congratulation bubble often promotes; but that’s still an activity occurring outside of the bubble, by definition. And that advice is usually relegated to the realm of politics—Deresiewicz is talking about something bigger than that.

I’ll leave you with a video from a person who I think is aware of this, and exploits it in his comedy (in a way not altogether different from Portlandia). It’s Bill Burr, talking about Steve Jobs and how he doesn’t get what the guy actually invented.

And go here for his longer riff on Jobs {youtube}.

Rachel Maddow on Agreeing with Those You Disagree With

I’m not a Rachel Maddow fan per sé. I’m aware of her as a political presence, one whose views I likely agree with on most issues. But I get the impression that I agree with her too much, which always makes me leery.

She’s making the rounds to promote her new book, “Drift” {amazon}, about the dependence of the U.S. on war, and the lack of sacrifice we as Americans make to support those wars. She was on Fresh Air last Tuesday, and had this to say about the personal similarities between those who disagree on political issues:

I don’t believe that people who disagree in American politics are all that different from one another as humans. I mean, for the one thing, something that brings us together, no matter how much we disagree on a political issue, is that we both care about a political issue. And that’s not of every American. I mean, a lot of Americans don’t care about politics much at all. And so for those of us who are engaged in the political dialogue in the country, we already have something in common if we care enough to disagree with each other.

I think I’ll give her a show a chance.

Life in a Day

Life in a Day {official site}:

A documentary shot by filmmakers all over the world [192 countries] that serves as a time capsule to show future generations what it was like to be alive on the 24th of July, 2010.

They took 80,000 submissions and 4,500 hours of footage, and turned it into a ninety minute film. I could’ve done without the symphonic soundtrack, but it was interesting to see.

Here’s the trailer:

Riding on the Sidewalk

I had an encounter with a local journalist today, a man who is notorious in Philly for his articles bashing bike lanes that give over precious streets for just 2% of road users. He did not introduce himself as the person I later deduced it likely was; so I’m leaving his identity and his publicly held beliefs out of this.

I learned two things from the impromptu discussion we had.

1) If you politely brush over areas on which you will never agree, you can find a real middle ground that I think is helpful for moving the larger discussion forward. When you steer the conversation away from ideology and stop talking in terms of preëxisting political narratives and stereotypes, you can communicate like two human beings.

2) I’m always right and anyone who thinks bicycling in cities is a bad thing is an idiot.

OK, so here’s how the conversation started. I ride my bike west on Arch street from Old City coffee on 2nd & Church to my internship at WHYY on 6th. As you can see from the map below, 6th runs south, so I’d need to go three blocks out of the way to get to my destination. Yes, this calculation makes me lazy.

Yesterday, I decided that I could ride on the sidewalk on 6th for half a block, on a huge sidewalk that I’ve literally never seen anybody walking on before. This was my second day doing this. I almost always walk, not ride, my bike on the sidewalk. I get pissed at people riding on the sidewalk while I’m walking too.

So this guy stopped me as I was locking up, in a totally cool manner, and asked if I ride on the sidewalk often, and what I think about it. I said no, that I normally walk. But I noticed yesterday that this particular stretch is never used. He went out of his way to ensure that he wasn’t busting me or calling me out or any tough guy bravado like that. I still had my u-lock in my hands: “what if this guy was a nut?” I was less-than-subconsciously thinking.

He asked me if I thought a higher fine for getting pulled over for riding on the sidewalk would help deter people (it’s now $50; there have been proposals to hike the ticket price up to $300). I said no, we need equal enforcement for all vehicles; targeting bikes for moving violations while drivers get off doing the same in a 2 ton speeding hunk of metal is ridiculous. He seemed to agree, sort of, and the conversation waned off.

I get the sense that this guy has started off with every argument against biking he could fathom (they slow down traffic!; hipsters suck!; only socialists ride bikes!) , and the only one that has stuck is the sidewalk thing. Which is a pretty pathetic concern, in the grand scheme of things.

We exchanged simple pleasantries and went on our ways. After I got to a computer and checked out the guy’s picture online, I was sort of kicking myself for not being more in his face about stuff, and for not calling him out on his past anti-bike rhetoric. But at the end of the day, two complete strangers had an educated and civil conversation about bikes, police enforcement, the roles of government and non-profits, which is a good thing. We can yell at each other some other day.

The Weekday Vegetarian

I consider myself a vegetarian in spirit. I don’t crave the taste of meat, and I’m far more likely to grab a bag of baby carrots over a pack of salami while shopping at Trader Joe’s. But I do eat white meat pretty regularly, even though I’m cognizant of the detrimental environmental effects of our industrial meat production system, and appreciate the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. Maybe I’m just lazy: but I need the calories and the vitamins, and getting them from the diet of a vegetarian never really worked out for me.

Graham Hill (founder of treehugger) has a proposal: let’s all be vegetarians from Monday to Friday. It starts with “Meatless Mondays;” a sort of gateway to meat-free eating for the rest of the week. It’s also the subject of his excellent TED talk {video below}. The weekday vegetarian plan is a great compromise; after all, if half of the world’s population ate half as much meat, it’d be like half of us were vegetarian.