The Conquest of Cool II

Douglas Rushkoff was once an enthusiast of the revolutionary potential of cyberculture. During the ’90s the increasing conglomeration of the internet business led him to temper his enthusiasm. But I think his prophecies had more substance than he was given credit for. The internet truly came into its own with Web 2.0 technologies and from blogging to Twitter, its true democratizing potential is only now being recognized. It has already succeeded to a certain degree in holding MSM accountable, though it hasn’t quite levelled the playing field as some optimists like to imagine.

Like Neil Postman, however, an important aspect of Ruskhkoff’s work has been the effect of media and advertising on culture. Every other year I teach an undergraduate course in Globalization and Resistance in which I show students this excellent documentary which Rushkoff made for PBS’s Frontline. It illustrates the ersatz nature of alternative culture, the process of its manufacture, in a manner than leaves many of them flabbergasted. It also illustrates the feedback loop through which businesses steal from youth the fruits of their creativity, stamp it with their label, mass produce it, and then sell it to everyone else until it has lost its ‘cool’ — much as Thomas Frank argued in The Conquest of Cool. As the culture degenerates, the ideal female and male types are reduced to the ‘midriff’ and the ‘mook’. (According to the BBC, two-thirds of all teenage females in the UK aspire to be models). Youths, as Rushkoff shows in The Merchants of Cool, have become one of corporate America’s largest sources of revenue.

Members of Congress sign letter urging Obama to stop the siege of Gaza

Some good news came out of Washington yesterday that went largely unnoticed. Ha’aretz reported 54 members of Congress sent a letter to president Barack Obama urging him to pressure Israel to end the siege on Gaza.  Ha’aretz correspondent Natasha Mozgovaya writes:

The letter was the initiative of Representatives Jim McDermott from Washington and Keith Ellison from Minnesota, both of whom are Democrats. Ellison is the first American Muslim to ever win election to Congress. McDermott and Ellison wrote that they understand the threats facing Israel and the ongoing Hamas terror activities against Israeli citizens but that “this concern must be addressed without resulting in the de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip.” “We ask you to press for immediate relief for the citizens of Gaza as an urgent component of your broader Middle East peace efforts,” they wrote, adding that the siege has hampered the ability of aid agencies to do their work in Gaza. The congressmen urged Obama to pressure Israel to ease the movement of people into and out of Gaza, especially students, the sick, aid workers, journalists and those with family concerns, and also to allow the import of building materials to rebuild houses. Israel has warned that such materials would be used to rebuild Hamas infrastructure and not civilian homes.

Fifty-four members of Congress urging the president to pressure Israel to treat Gazans like human beings is a positive development, albeit a VERY small one.  Critics may content that the letter protects Israel’s image. I understand that. But I still think it’s encouraging.

Operation Cast Lead blew the lid off Israel’s rationale for the occupation and the congressional visits to Gaza have exposed to them what Gazans encounter on a day-to-day basis. More members of Congress need to do this.

Full text of the letter below.

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‘A Walk in the Park’

A worthwhile view from the BBC’s Panorama programme, apart from the predictable technique of “balance” that results in giving airtime to b/s hasbara. It’s still lights years ahead of what would air in the US and presents far more of the reality of Palestinian dispossession and israeli apartheid. In ‘A Walk in the Park’, Jane Corbin walks through the occupied streets and parks of Jerusalem (thanks Dave).

Part One

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Capital murder

First and foremost, united Jerusalem, which will include both Ma’ale Adumim and Givat Ze’ev — as the capital of Israel, under Israeli sovereignty…
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, on the vision for a “permanent solution”, 5 October 1995

Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, a city reunified so as never again to be divided
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 21 May 2009

The current consensus in the international community is that East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel since 1967, is the capital of a future Palestinian state. Israel’s unilateral annexation of territory to create expanded municipal boundaries for a ‘reunited’ Jerusalem was never recognised.

Over the last forty-three years, Israel has created so-called ‘facts on the ground’ in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), in defiance of international law. Since the Madrid/Oslo peace process, successive Israeli governments have continued to colonise Palestinian land at the same time as conducting negotiations.

The extent and scale of Israel’s illegal settlement project across the West Bank, as well as the road network, the Separation Wall, and other ways in which Israel maintains its rule over the OPT, has led some to believe that the creation of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state is impossible.

Perhaps one of the clearest indicators that there is no Palestinian state-in-waiting under Israel’s regime of control is East Jerusalem.

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The Conquest of Cool I

When is dissent hip? This is the subject of the following discussion hosted by the excellent Your Call Radio. Participants include Douglas Haddow of Adbusters, whose article, ‘Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization‘, generated one of the longest running debates in the magazines history (the article presently records more than four thousand responses on the Adbusters website). Also participating are  Dan Sinker of Punk Planet, and journalist and hip-hop historian Davey D. They discuss: What is the relationship today between pop-culture, counterculture and dissent? What is the counterculture that sells media now? And can activists reclaim the counterculture that now permeates the mainstream?

The discussion is also joined later by Ishmael Reed and Thomas Frank, author of the splendid work The Conquest of Cool. In the book Frank (who also authored the classic What’s the Matter with Kansas? and edits The Baffler) shows that the advertising industry did not just co-opt the ’60s counterculture movement, in many respects it anticipated, indeed created, it. The instant-gratification individualism and the perpetual pursuit of uniqueness were the perfect compliments to capitalism’s manufacturing of needs to fuel the consumption on which it thrives. If capitalism had built planned obsolescence into its products,  the counterculture’s very idea of rebellion was premised on  ‘standing apart’. As soon as a new product was in the hands of more than one, it had lost its uniqueness, pushing the rebel to search for a new ticket to cool. Rebellion which seeks expression in merchandise manufactures its own needs, and the engines of capital obligingly hum along. Franks gives the example of the Volkswagen Beetle ads, which were all designed as a critique of mass culture. To own a Beetle, then, was to stand apart.  And the process continues as I’ll show in this series of three posts.

The Only Democracy in the Middle East: 22.1.2010

The biggest protest to date in Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood (350 people strong). The police riot again, 22 of our friends arrested:

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The Power and Necessity of Dissent

On Jan 21st, a group of student activists at Georgetown University provided guest speaker, General Patraeus, with an unexpected welcome, successfully interrupting his address by reading out the names and ages of those killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the process, they’ve reminded us of the power and necessity of dissent, which, in this case, was effectively achieved by less than a dozen remarkable students.

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Biden Announces U.S. Decision to Appeal Blackwater Dismissal

In a press conference from Baghdad earlier today, Vice President Joe Biden has announced that the U.S. will appeal a district court’s decision to dismiss manslaughter charges against five Blackwater guards involved in a 2007 Baghdad shooting that killed 17 people including children.

When the court’s opinion in the case involving Blackwater was issued on December 31, 2009, Judge Ricardo Urbina premised his dismissal upon the following ‘facts’: 1) that the prosecution’s case was built upon sworn statements that had been given under a promise of immunity, and 2) that this action violated the guards’ constitutional rights. Based on this argument, he concluded that the prosecution’s explanations were “contradictory, unbelievable and lacking in credibility.”

What Judge Urbina’s decision confirms for us, is that contracting companies like Blackwater (now Xe) have historically been granted a ‘get out of jail free’ card due to government assurances of immunity. The devastating result of this: companies like Blackwater have been ‘allowed’ to kill, indeed to the extent that they may even confess to killing, without fear of recourse. Consequently, we see the implications of the abuse of power that Jeremy Scahill’s longstanding critique  – of the administration’s failure to exercise greater government oversight over private contractors like Blackwater –  is based upon.

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A Country of Words

“We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere…

We have a country of words.”

A traditional Arab media operation, according to Abdel Bari Atwan, is “characterised by editorial interference from the owners, slavishness to social hierarchies, backstabbing and nepotism.” It goes without saying that all the Arab local-national press, TV and radio stations are controlled by their respective regimes. Only in the pan-Arab sphere, beyond the control of any single regime, is there a possibility of anything better. Yet of the pan-Arab newspapers, ash-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Hayat are owned by different branches of the Saud family dictatorship, while the smaller-circulation al-Arab is part of the Libyan regime’s propaganda apparatus. Even after the satellite revolution, pan-Arab TV remains tame and partial, fattened and diluted by Gulf money, often providing its viewers a contradictory diet of Islamic and American-consumerist bubble gum. The second most famous channel in the Arab world, al-Arabiyya, is yet another mouthpiece for the Sauds (during last winter’s Gaza massacre it became known amongst Arabs as al-Ibriyya, or ‘the Hebrew’). The most famous channel, al-Jazeera, is of course the model that broke the mould. Its challenging reporting and inclusion of all sides in open debate has had a revolutionary effect on the Arabs.

Al-Jazeera’s print equivalent is the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi, founded in 1989, seven years before al-Jazeera. It may not have the immediate impact or mass audience of al-Jazeera (it’s banned in most Arab countries) but with its cast of excellent writers, its fearless exposure of Arab regime corruption, its scoops (al-Qa’ida chooses to communicate with the world through its pages), its renowned culture section, and its refusal to bury news from Palestine behind the football results, al-Quds al-Arabi is indispensable. Rather than backstabbing, its staff have sometimes worked for no pay to keep the operation afloat. Its founder, editorialist and editor-in-chief Abdel Bari Atwan is as passionate and articulate in speech as on the page, and is admired by the Arabs for his call-a-spade-a-spade style on those TV channels which dare to host him, usually al-Jazeera Arabic and Hizbullah’s al-Manar. Atwan’s “The Secret History of al-Qa’ida” is a book-length account of his meeting with Osama bin Laden and of the development of the al-Qa’ida network. Now Atwan has written an autobiographical memoir titled with a line from a Mahmoud Darwish poem, “A Country of Words.”

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