Category Archives: Social Science

The Nine Types of Facebook Friends

Someone on Facebook recently asked, in a sweet and open-ended manner, what we had learned from using Facebook.

I was the only one who gave a dark, sarcastic answer; the other respondents reported scores of glowing side-benefits that I found a bit hard to swallow.

Really?  You’ve “never learned so much about yourself”?  Get thee to a tennis camp!

But then I started wondering how I really “knew” the people on my Facebook roster.  My conceptions of these complex human beings had been reduced to scrolling thumbnails.

I don’t want to think of people this way.  And certainly I don’t want them to think of me this way.

Maybe if I wiped the folders and categories and stereotypes from my mind by getting them out on the page, I could start to question this third-party arrangement of my brain (with which—yes!—I am complicit!).

Either that, or feel relieved when people admitted they have pretty much these exact same friends and mental friend-folders.

The Nine Types of Facebook Friends

The Rage-Addicted Radical.  For whom every microscopic twitch of reality is further evidence of another goddamned outrage sending us all straight to flame-puking hell.  Jesus do these people love social media.

I’d like to say they’ve got their hearts in the right place, but lately I’m not so sure about the heart part.  Enough righteous vitriol, and they start seeming like one more usherette in the Grand Theatre of Fist-Shaking Freakery that now stands in for a proper political culture.

The Pit Viper.  This person is just fucking angry as a sort of identity.  People are worthless assholes, life is a meaningless hell, it’s all just going down the toilet so what’s the point?

Thing is, when you meet these folks in person, they can be total sweethearts.  It’s just something about being able to instantly post and be seen by hundreds of people that pulls their worst triggers.

The Guy Who Never Quite Came Down from That Ecstasy Binge in the Nineties.  His keyboard seems to have about twelve different exclamation-points, all of which stick like the dickens.  I truly believe!!!  That if we just keep believing!!!  Then we’ll keep believing!!!  In what we believe!!!  OMG we must move forward into our vision!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The Pet Owner.  ’nuff said.  Kitty pics make the world go round, but veer off into lapdog territory and you risk becoming my Hide-bait.

The Arts Angel.  Endlessly supportive and positive arts-scene cheerleader, tirelessly cheering others on in their seemingly doomed creative endeavors.  The Arts Angel makes me feel like Satan, a hypercritical troll sneering on the margins, knowing others are basking in the glory that would be mine if I could just get my ass in gear once and for all.  Darn you all to heck, Arts Angels.

The Newly Minted Lover.  Nothing personal, but if you announce a new relationship, I’m hiding you for at least a year.  Especially if you’re a dude who fancies himself a bit of an artiste behind the lens.  You’ll understand if I have better things to do than look at 254,234 photos of your girlfriend with that same sunlight-halo effect you learned in the high school darkroom.

The “I Can’t Even Remember Who the Hell You Are” Friends.  What if there were some sort of amnesty day where you could just purge your roster of people you met once at a thing you didn’t even enjoy five years ago, and who probably don’t remember who the hell you are, either?  They could call it No Hard Feelings Day.  And brand it with kitty pics.

The “Living, Breathing Smiths Poster” Friend.  Guilty as charged.  Admit it, you’ve wanted to Hide that friend who’s always soaking deep in the bummer-tub—and you’ve been that friend, too.

Yet a free-therapy concept is at the heart of Facebook’s addictive design.  Others’ easy confessions beg you to spill the emotional beans—but go there one too many times yourself and suddenly you’ve tipped yourself off the boat.  You can be authentic, but not too authentic.

Don’t fret—eventually, between carrot and stick, you will get badgered into Facebook authenticity, which will eventually get grafted onto and overtake your entire personality.  Epic, bro!

The Modern Sages.  These are folks who seem incapable of posting anything stupid or thoughtless; who present their pop-culture obsessions with a bit of endearing self-effacement; whose cutting humor is tempered with sympathy and good sense; and who can present a strong social or political point without stridency.  They are broadly informed, honest, and eager to meet others where they are.

They are Canadians.

No, I’m just kidding.

Or am I?

Seriously, the Modern Sages on my Facebook roster are, precisely, a Midwesterner and a gay man.  I’m not sure why we give these two groups such a bad time.  Would that we had more gay man and Midwesterner within!

What seems to define the Modern Sages is a questioning attitude toward the social-media platform itself, a healthy distance allowing them to see its charms and limitations objectively.

Conversely, those who live on Facebook, posting seven or more times a day, are the ones most likely to degrade both the platform and themselves.

If I could spend more time in person with the Modern Sages, then I could probably handle a barbecue with the Pit Vipers and the Ecstasy Guys.

And if everyone spent less time on Facebook, I think I could handle just about anybody.

© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

“Talk” Ain’t Cheap

Cover of Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz. NYRB, 2015. Photo: James Dugdale.

H’m, which books to take on your summer writing retreat out in the woods?

You feel obliged to take some heavy, Teutonic hunk o’ pumpernickel like Thomas Mann—something you couldn’t possibly sink into in the City.  You need to flex all those atrophying neural muscles going to fat from too many YouTube lunch breaks and Facebook memes.

But even the most brow-knitting wordsmith needs some intellectual cotton candy to sweeten those long hours of solitary toil.  Something fun that isn’t dumb.

Which is surprisingly difficult to find.

Enter Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk, a New York Review Books reprint of a 1968 “novel” whose technological gimmick of simply transcribing tape recordings of real-life beach chat in the Hamptons would seem to predate reality TV by several decades.

The characters of Talk, two straight women and a gay man knocking about in the lower echelons of the New York art world, could be lifted straight from a current-day HBO dramedy.  Vinnie is a sculptor, Emily is an actress, and Marsha works for Sotheby’s.

But it’s summer 1965.  What sets Talk apart as a cultural artifact is the wide-ranging content and quality of the actual chat.  It’s almost poignant to ride on the roller coaster of their literate, bitchy, hilarious, sometimes contemptible banter in an age when entire books are devoted to the fact that the joys of conversation are quickly disappearing from our midst.

But that’s half the pleasure of the read.  Delving into chapters with titles like “Emily, Marsha and Vincent Discuss Orgies,” you feel as though you, too, are lying on Long Island in blinding heat, slaked with Coppertone and whining about how there was “nobody” at Sebastien’s party last night.  Topics can switch gears instantly from the impossibility of love, to why ice floats, to food, to money, to meeting God on an LSD trip.  A monologue on the nature of reality can provoke the retort, “Hey, is there any more lemonade?”

These three erstwhile children of the night are endlessly entertaining but whether or not they’re sympathetic is a tougher call.  True, they’re self-described “pioneers” of social and sexual freedom, but they’re also unhappy, self-obsessed basket cases, each in therapy and unable to find love or success.  Others in their peer group around this time were fighting against the Vietnam War or for civil rights; the biggest struggle for this lot is securing the primo spot on the beach and trying not to pop too many pills before Veruschka’s party.

Perversely, that’s just what makes Talk such wonderful dinner-break company when you’re slogging away on a manuscript in a lonely cabin.  Of all the historical miseries, perhaps theirs were the most enviable.  Who doesn’t want to be Emily quipping:  Look, Marshie, we’re two beautiful women and we have to start making inroads?

This voyeuristic literary experiment ranks my discerning shortlist of summer-reading gold.  With Talk lying around the cabin like an eyeliner-splashing divorcée on downers, let’s face it:  that Thomas Mann is never going to see the outside of your knapsack.

© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

This Is Japan 1965

This Is Japan 1965Every now and again, the Book Gods don’t just smile but grin upon you. This buried treasure found me at a La Selva Community Library book sale, and I snagged it for the price of an upscale chocolate bar.

If ever an oversized bookstand was made to hold something, it was made to hold This Is Japan 1965. The cover alone is a showpiece of go-go outrageousness.

Even though it weighed somewhere between 15 to 20 pounds and I had to get it home on the train, I had to have it. It was like going to the circus and suddenly realizing you need the camel as a pet.

It fits into a spectacular, blue-and-white batik slipbox constructed from what seems to be balsa wood. The producer was the Japan Chamber of Commerce; the publisher was Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s major publishing houses and still the owner of one of its major morning papers.

Clearly the objective was attractive boosterism, but what sort of heavyweight champions strolled away from conventions with these behemoths tucked under their arms? Business cards they were not!

Because the name This Is Japan is so generic, it’s hard to find any deep information on this series—there are editions aplenty on eBay, but for various years. They seem to start in the 1950s and go up to 1969.

Even the ads in this thing are incredible, exemplifying the Golden Age of Modernism, 1965—that sweet spot between elegance and attitude. Bold, simple graphics cavort on the page with minimal text and exciting colors.

More’s the charm as it all sandwiches demure listings for traditional Japanese guest- and bath-houses, thankfully lagging behind the jet-setting moment.

It was a fascinating moment for Japan. Traditional life may still have prevailed outside urban centers, but Stateside we were intimidated by their technological rise and rise.

The quality and durability of the print, binding, and casing are remarkable. Similar projects now would cost upwards of $100.

I rigged a system for strapping it to the front of my suitcase and got it safely home on the train that way.

Now I’m faced with the enviable problem of owning something so beautiful it scares the hell out of me.

Song for Europe

Budapest train

This is the train I took from Budapest to the lakeside resort of Balatonfüred last September. 

As you can see, it was a fairly bread-and-butter railway experience.  You switched on the air conditioning by pulling down the windows.  The toilet was a sort of interactive sculpture inviting the patron to lift the lid and get intimate with Mr. Trackway.  Everything about it was pleasingly non-Western, blessedly free of wi-fi and flatscreens and sound systems.  The silence was vintage and magnificent.

It was mid-week, mid-day, and the only others in my carriage were some elderfolks and a spindly student with a violin case.  It could have been 1975. 

As the capital’s suburbs fell away, the land opened up into simple farms, villages, and railway stations small as private homes.

Summer lingers through Hungary’s September, and as we rolled down into thick riverlands, the towering stands of chestnut and linden trees flying by looked still in the fierce verdure of late spring.  The slipstream stirred the humidity just enough to make it feel like an embrace.

Having just gritted my teeth through another grey, foggy, windy San Francisco summer, here at last was proper summer:  a spontaneous sense of contentment, ease, and abundance.  Out the south-facing windows, at long last the silver corner of Lake Balaton flashed into view.  It was one of those rare, exhilerating signposts of peace and contentment by which you relocate yourself after a season of wandering.

Had someone told me then that in less than a year the Hungarian rails would become the scene of such abject chaos and misery as we’ve seen this last month—that the very type of train whose simplicity I treasured would soon be dangerously, agonizingly packed with people in the most desperate of circumstances—perhaps I would have believed them, but they would have had a fair bit of explaining to do.

Then again, as Mark Twain said, history rhymes.  Hungary by nature is a gateway to the West, and these episodes have never been without their problems.

Sopron 1989 comes to mind.  At that time some 100,000 East German holiday-makers refused to repatriate and became refugees camping around the Balaton; at the same time, some 30,000 to 40,000 Romanian refugees were pouring over the country’s eastern border seeking asylum.  But Prime Minister Miklós Németh dealt with that crisis a little more creatively than Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is dealing with this one.  

In fact, the events of the last several weeks have jarred me into joining and becoming active in a human rights group for the first time since my early adulthood.

The migration crisis is admittedly a fiasco any way you slice it.  The transversed countries in this story have troubles of their own, and nobody wants to see their crops trampled or their small town overrun.  Naturally, local resources are overwhelmed, and it’s not as though the EU nations of entry are doing that great economically.

But you don’t have to be Mahatma Ghandi to see that roughing up women with children in their arms just isn’t right.

Remember that the root causes of this fiasco are even bigger fiascos.  Maybe mass migration of this kind, which after all has been part of the human experience since there have been humans, is best understood as a force of nature.  Anything alive tries to stay that way; why would hundreds of thousands of war survivors be any different?

Would you try to stop a hurricane by detaining it?  Or building a fence?

This particular force of nature is driven by unique individuals.  Hungary’s fresh imprint on my memory isn’t the only reason this crisis packs such an emotional wallop.  I now count among my friends several Balkan emigrés who went through the refugee experience in the 1990s.  Once you personally know a former refugee, you can no longer, for example, look at Syrians kept in battery-hen conditions on the Hungarian border and see an indistinguishable mass.

The media responsible for relaying these images would make no profit from taking the long view, and the long view is that these people whom they depict as unrelenting hordes of filthy wretches will—with the help of an intelligent host country and/or through their own luck and pluck—eventually stop being refugees.  They will start businesses.  They will go to school.  They will marry, begin families, and re-integrate into society.  The only difference between you and a refugee is that he or she was interrupted by history.

At this writing, the EU will meet in a few days to try to sort out, among other issues, a more coordinated response to the crisis.  As an American, I’m thinking about my connection to the refugees coming from Iraq and Afghanistan, our own refugee crisis on the Mexican border as scores of women and children flee gang violence in Latin America, and this summer’s brutality in our own cities.

We can no longer deny our residence in an epoch of upheaval, especially as we all contemplate the long-term spectre of climate migrancy.  This moment is a crucial opportunity for people everywhere to wake up.  Democracy is not a law passed but a life lived—by individuals, communities, and nations.  We can no longer cruise on cultural autopilot.  If we’re to have a future with any carryover of humanist ideals and constitutional rights it will take much more than—as plenty have suggested—simply rejecting or just wiping out those who don’t check your particular box under Religious Identification.

I don’t expect that one more American joining a human rights group will promptly change the world.  But I do believe in duty and responsibility.  If we treat people like animals, the whole world becomes one big nasty zoo.  We must do better, and quickly.

Let’s talk about it.

Funny, You Don’t Sound American

Really?  Seriously?  You think I’m “faking a pretentious British accent”?  I can tell you the British are never fooled. 

Europeans, on the other hand, always ask what part of England I’m from.  And the Australians think I’m Irish.

Wait, I’ve got that wrong.  What the Australians actually say is:  “Oh, your American accent’s not that bad.”

And then I drop on the floor laughing because I know exactly what they mean, which I suppose makes me some sort of self-loathing Bad American.

But my Aussie friends have a point.  Of all the castoffs of the British Empire, we Yanks are probably the unprettiest speakers.  Fellow Americans:  When was the last time somebody in your physical environs made you think:  What law do I have to break to get a voice a like yours?  More likely you’re listening around you thinking:  Stop whining.  Stop prattling.  Stop honking.  Stop wheedling like a baby.  Will you stop mumbling, for God’s sake?

Of course, I’m a little weird about it.  Being a radio volunteer will make you very, very aware of speaking voices and what they convey, and I’ve been a radio volunteer for 20 years now.

And yet it seems like there was a time when (at least on stage and screen) my countryfolk had a special gift for the spoken word.  The recent passing of Lauren Bacall is a good vantage point from which to look back at the life and death of the Great American Speaking Voice.

Here she is in To Have and Have Not (sorry about the ad at the beginning—you know the drill.  Punch Mute, then crank it way up).

Hear how she does that?  Anybody got a match?  Hardly any of us are born with Bacall’s smoky, resonant pipes, but that’s beside the point.  She’s completely in control of what she sounds like, barely speaking at all yet hitting every syllable clear as a bell.  That’s not an accident.

Actors of Bacall’s generation were trained in something called American Stage Speech, often described as “Mid-Atlantic,” and described by a lot of us now as “that funny way they talked in old movies.”  It was a style of speech taught in the East Coast theatre world, thought to be exceptionally clear and attractive and well-adapted to highbrow texts like Shakespeare.  It was also thought to be a good jumping-off point from which to learn dialects of all kinds.

But when silver-screen actors like Bacall blurted their contemporary lines with this enunciation they’d worked years to perfect, it didn’t sound pretentious.  It sounded perfectly suited to the world they were in:  the still-new, blown-up hyperworld of cinema.

American Stage Speech is still taught, but when I studied it briefly myself at American Conservatory Theatre, we students were made to understand we were lucky enough to be learning a stringent, demanding classical skill that was on a bullet train to extinction.  It involved memorizing charts of phonetic characters, diphthongs, and stop-plosives, and teachers moaning that nobody in this country could pronounce a decent “z” any longer.

But even before I took the class, before I trained for radio, I was still getting the “British accent” hassle from people.

My hairtrigger allergy to lousy speech goes back even further:  by third grade at the latest, I realized I wanted to sound nothing like my fellow schoolgirls when I spoke.  Already they were getting on my nerves, especially with the word no, which they always turned into a ten-second, high-dive, downward-spiraling dirge terminating in an endless, nasalized wail.  I can still hear it.  It still makes my skin crawl.  (Speakers of languages whose word for no ends in a consonant have no idea how good they’ve got it.)

Never, I remember thinking.  I will never sound like that.  Ne-vah!  Ne-vah!  I shall fight them on the beaches, I shall fight them on the fields and in the streets…

And there in the schoolyards of my small California town, another funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century.  Starting around the late 1970s, I started noticing that the teenagers surrounding me had inflections in their speech that differed from teenage speech in TV shows and movies made even 10 years earlier.  It was a certain broad, smiling sigh in the way they’d say all righhhhhhht! and oh my gahhhhhhhd!  They sounded cool and fun and intellectually untroubled.

Little did I know that this beachy patois would pretty much become mainstream American speech, let alone that speech scholars (mystified as to how and why it had shown up but compelled to document its importance) would eventually deem it the California Vowel Shift.  Even Frank Zappa’s skewering of it in his massive hit single “Valley Girl” (1982) couldn’t stop it; instead it moved from cultural obsession to unquestioned norm.  Suddenly an entire generation wanted to sound like spoiled rich kids in Southern California.  This was, after all, the 1980s.

If you consciously said no to the California Vowel Shift as a young Californian (which, with typical crankiness, I did), that alone would get you accused of being on permanent audition for Brideshead Revisited.

But since its canonization, the California Vowel Shift has not just become more common (especially—sadly—among women, no matter their age or career position); it’s snowballed from a bright and vaguely annoying speech style to full-blown, eardrum-assaulting baby-babble hell (“Hal!”).  About two years ago on a commuter flight, I sat through safety instructions from a young flight attendant whose “CVS” was so bad that I literally couldn’t understand what she was saying.  I felt like I was listening to a sped-up five-year-old rattle on about buckles, straps, and flotation devices.

Sure, language changes.  It’s inevitable and essential.  I’m just wondering why it had to change so that we all sound like gum-snapping tweens with bloated clothing allowances.

How do we fix this?  Maybe we shouldn’t be allowed to graduate from anywhere until we’re forced to do an audio selfie and listen to it at least ten times.  After all, visual selfies don’t bug us at all; try to stop people in a nightclub booth from doing the snap-and-gawk two-step, with accompanying looped soundtrack of “Oh my God!” for hours on end.

But ask for an audio-only selfie and watch people run away in horror:  “Nooooo!  I sound so stupid!”

Well, sure.  But listening to my own voice was part of my radio training, and it was invaluable.  It takes about three or four listens before you stop hating the sound of yourself and start taking apart how you make sound with your language.  And then you can start sounding the way you really want to.

How did I want to sound on mic?  Like Maggie Smith in a Maggie Smith role?  No, not really.  I just wanted to sound good.  Which is why I actually pronounced my t’s and d’s instead of hiccupping over them, which will make a name like Minton sound like a stifled sneeze.  I wanted to give every word full play.  I kept the habit.

Damn near anyone can sound better, but few of us are provoked to think about how we sound at all.  That’s too bad.  Speaking clearly shouldn’t be perceived as a kind of burning of your American passport.

Anybody got a match? 

 

A Book Like No Other

Every now and again, entirely by accident—amidst the blizzard of iDevices, glowing rectangles, and craning necks that define This Digital Life—you come across a real paper book that justifies the continuing existence of real paper books themselves.

If, as I did, you unearth this real paper book from the dusty, bottom-shelf stacks of a semi-private library in a redwood-shaded coastal retreat center with patchy wireless reception and no television, the experience is so much like going back in time that it feels like a grim and primitive distant future.

“should we stand for this?” reads the cool, minimal lower-case print running across the top of still-glossy white pages, oddly shaped like a tall square.  “can we tolerate this?  is anyone taking any notice?”

These words are from someone you’ve probably never heard of.  I’d certainly never heard of Donald McCullin, though since the printing of Is Anyone Taking Any Notice? by MIT press in 1971, a thing or two has happened to the onetime anonymous evacuee of the Second World War, the East Ender street kid who described his young adulthood thus: “Where I was, no one was encouraged to do well for themselves. You were much more acclaimed for getting your collar felt by the police or battering someone. It was full of bigotry and it was like quicksand pulling me down to oblivion.”

In 1977 he’d been made a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society; in 1993 he was granted the CBE (Commander of the British Empire), the first photojournalist to receive the honor; and throughout all these years he continued to rack up an impressive array of honorary degrees from colleges and universities throughout Britain.  He would continue to cover conflict in Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq.

But all this had yet to happen when Is Anyone Taking Any Notice? rolled off the presses to a public that needed no further evidence supporting their disillusionment with governments, ideas of progress, or the human race in general.

Open the cover of this book, if you are lucky enough to find a print (the San Francisco Public Library has one copy, and it is kept under lock and key), and view the darkest possible side of life through eyes that are now horrified, now compassionate, now grasping for beauty in the rubble.

McCullin’s unflinching black-and-white photos speak for themselves, but the book’s real psychological impact starts with its disorienting architecture: there are no informative captions for the photos—no locations, no dates, no chronological listing of photos anywhere in the book.

The introduction explains that the book is divided into “eleven segments which are geographical but not chronological.”  So we turn pages through Biafra, Vietnam, the Congo, Bangladesh, the coal fields of Britain, the streets of Londonderry in the thick of the Troubles, never exactly sure where we are, never quite able to quench our knee-jerk need to contextualize the human faces we see into nationalities, events, or known situations.

The wall between photojournalist and reader is broken down; these people cannot be framed into sets of exact information, so we have no choice but to see them simply as people, to look into their eyes as we would someone across from us on the bus or in the café.  Is Anyone delivers a harrowing, grim, and deeply affecting gutpunch after which you may never be the same.

Images:

Somewhere in Northern Ireland, a suited man carrying a neatly wrapped package steps over a soldier coiled on the pavement with a machine gun.

Children pelt tanks with rubble amidst burned-out buildings.

A girl with tragic eyes caked in wild makeup stands in the middle of a wet cobblestone street.

A teenage boy with long, unruly hair is caught in mid-jump—to avoid gunfire or just for the hell of it? We’re not told.

Tanks navigate down narrow streets.  Swarthy elders in traditional hats sit under naked light bulbs in near-destroyed houses.  On hills of rubble near the shells of incinerated cars, headscarfed women in peasant clothing embrace each other in grief.

There are pictures of corpses in this book, and some of them belong to children.  They lie along African roads in unidentified countries.

It takes not just talent but the courage of empathy to deliver these images without layering on a passive sheen of sensationalism and exploitation.  McCullin is clearly honed in on some frequency of pain most of us don’t wish to access; his hardscrabble childhood seems never to have abandoned him.  Some of his most apocalyptic images are not of conflict at all—just lousy life continuing in its lousy way, close to home.

Elderly men with grim, determined faces tow their burdens amid a flat, puddled, denuded hell every bit as cold and featureless as a nuclear winter.  For this shot, McCullin treats us to a rare explanatory caption: “These guys are carrying sacks of coal which they’ve spent hours sorting from a slag heap.”

Then a few pages later, a huge squashed rat with its entrails splayed across some East End street.

Probably even in countercultural 1971 this book was pushing the envelope; its gritty aesthetics either hearken back to the air-raid-siren decades of McCullin’s youth, or presage the punk movement with its naked abandonment of idealism.

Is Anyone is almost the bastard twin of an earlier classic of photography that aimed to show us the world as it was: Family of Man.  In 1955, American photographer and curator Edward Steichen culled human-interest photojournalism from all over the world and arranged it under broad themes: birth, death, childhood, work, play, old age, love, grief, joy.  Locations were freely given, and white space was decorated with words from philosophers, literature, and the great wisdom traditions.  Dark subject matters were frankly addressed, yet the book’s editorial hand steered with gentle optimism, and envisioned a resilient brotherhood of man defying the threats of the atomic age.

The moral urgency of Is Anyone, on the other hand, seems to explode forth from a near-total forsaking of hope.  This is it, the images seem to say.  If this species doesn’t get it together now, it’s curtains for all of us.

So where are we now, some 40 years later?  Would a book like this even be produced now?  What has changed in the years since is not just a swing towards apathy and disengagement but a commercialization of the news itself (which then feeds into that apathy and disengagement).  In the 1980s, a new editor at the Observer sacked McCullin because his photos were “too depressing.”

Fellow war photographer James Nachtwey has also had problems getting his photos into news magazines because of the increasing sway that advertisers have over editorial content.  Nobody wants their candy bar ad across from a photo of body bags, and advertisers have no problem letting editorial staff know their wishes.  (View the documentary War Photographer for more on this.)

Over decades this palliative approach weakens the tolerance of the news-consuming public for images that might teach us things we need to know:  War is hell.  People in other countries hurt just like we do.  Civil society and sensible options are dependent on intricate, fragile systems that take decades and centuries to build; they can disappear nearly overnight with one detonation or stroke of the pen.

Couple this consumer distaste for bitter medicine with the Internet’s undermining of newspaper and journalism infrastructure altogether, and you have what would seem to be a dead end for photojournalism’s power to provoke, engage, and connect with a mass audience.

But in spite of this, and in spite of being 77, McCullin continues to work.  After a stint photographing the ruins of antiquity in the Middle East (which, after a career dodging bullets, could be interpreted as semi-retirement), he is back in the thick of it—this time in Syria.

“What we really need,” he told the BBC, “is the human interest side of this story.”

And that he delivers.  While the evening news paints Syria for us with shouting reporters and blurry footage of gunfire, explosions, and street chaos, McCullin gives us a silent quest for survival: children hunting for drinkable water, shiftless crowds in front of bombed-out stores, entire neighborhoods gutted and abandoned, families with young children sitting in buildings without utilities.

Can a life itself stand as a symbol of hope?  Nobody told this elderly photographer to go work under fire in Aleppo but, as he told The Times in London, “I got curious about this war.”

Is it honest curiosity that blocks us from pity, from objectifying those suffering in ways we can’t understand, and leads us to connection?

Is anyone taking any notice?  The Syria shoot is billed as McCullin’s “final trip,” but who knows.  Like the photographs he takes, he can’t stop asking all the right questions.

A Culture of Poverty—or Depression?

“…poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw. Poverty is a  shortage of money.”  —Barbara Ehrenreich, “What ‘other America’?” in Salon.com, March 15, 2012

The other week Ms. Ehrenreich attempted to dismantle the “Culture of Poverty” theme that recurs in American political language from both the left and the right, framing the poor as inherently “other”; they “[think] differently, and [pursue] lifestyles characterized by shortsightedness and intemperance.” (Here Ehrenreich is paraphrasing the idea as expressed by democratic socialist Michael Harrington, whose 1962 book “The Other America” influenced the Great Society policies of the 1960s.  According to the essay, Harrington was the coiner of the phrase and the idea.) The essay ends with the blunt conclusion quoted above.

For the record: I am a fan of Ehrenreich. Who else would revive the grand tradition of gonzo journalism by trying to survive on a string of minimum wage jobs, then telling the tale in a book like Nickel and Dimed?

I know what she’s getting at.  Too many voices in the media and political arena feel obliged to cleanse themselves by blaming poverty on what would seem to the casual observer to be the unruly lifestyles of the poor.

But, to paraphrase my friend and associate, a psychotherapist for San Francisco’s public health system whose patients are mostly very poor people: there’s a difference between saying that there is something about the poor themselves that makes them poor—and pointing out that the poor respond to their situation with particular codes of behavior and values that allow them to help each other survive.

If we reject the former but ignore the latter, we undercut Ehrenreich’s essential argument.  There’s a danger in taking a strictly materialist view of the experience of having no money.  The cumulative psychological, emotional, and social effects of long-term unemployment/underemployment are very, very real.  For those of us who know firsthand what it takes to get through Day Without a Job #451, the “Culture of Poverty” meme, even coming from someone clearly out to hurt us, can have the persuasiveness of a grey lie.

I’m certain it wasn’t Ehrenreich’s intention to imply that poverty has no emotional fallout.  But let’s take a moment to acknowledge the landscape of the financially constricted psyche as it rolled out for yours truly.

Changes I observed in myself during a long spell of underemployment: depression, alienation, lack of motivation, anger.

It was the early part of this century, in what we San Franciscans groaningly call the Dot-Bomb. The combination of a failed mono-economy, the psychic aftershocks of 9/11, and the mega-scandals of Enron et al. sent us hurling downward into an abyss from the heights of a skyscraper made of cards. The future seemed worse than uncertain; it seemed over.

Just yesterday we’d all been Tomorrow’s Wonder Kids—web designers, online copywriters, nouveau journalists, glamour-industry denizens on the edge of a new cyberfrontier. Suddenly we were on the scrap heap of the Great Unwashed.

If only we’d known what we were in for, and how long!  The economy would never truly recover; it would stagger somewhat upright in the mid-2000s only to fall eight feet under in 2008.

And the media jobs were gone for good.

For the first half of 2002, there was simply no work.  The office-temp jobs I finally found involved security-related data entry, then packing boxes for a dying company.

This after a corporate media gig that had thought nothing of flying me to New York and giving me my own room in a chic Madison Avenue hotel for a schmooze-fest on the Hudson River.  This isn’t the way the story is supposed to go! I whined inwardly, brushing the cardboard dust off my sweatshirt and jeans.

Probably most of us college-educated New Economy refugees were thinking the same thing. We’d all heard that, statistically, we were supposed to end up financially worse off than our parents’ generation, but obviously we were the exceptions, right? (. . . right?)

Imagine the armor of our arrogance slowly rusting and dropping away. Years dragged on.  How else can I put this?  Nothing happened.  You’d get a temp gig here, a little freelance assignment there.  You’d check Craig’s List and there were a couple of things—temp and freelance things.  Sometimes it was even someone expecting you to work for free.  You applied.   You never heard back.

We all knew the rules.  The Real Jobs weren’t advertised; you had to have an inside line.

But all of our inside lines were unemployed, too.  Our hot contacts were also watching Oprah with mom and dad and a carton of Ben & Jerry’s, hitting “refresh” on Craig’s List every few minutes, wondering what had happened to their lives.

There’s a particular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.  This, of course, is the essence of the modern job search.  If it goes on long enough, you will have at least a few “close but no cigar” interview rounds, which seem specifically designed to deliver exquisite emotional torture.  Getting very close to a job achieves nothing but greater disappointment than you would have had otherwise, and it’s at this point “Why bother?” starts seeming like an intelligent question.

Pundits may debate the existence of a Culture of Poverty, but they cannot debate that a Culture of Employment lives and breathes inside the increasingly guarded silos of privilege.  This culture smells of freshly brewed cappuccino, hustles purposefully down hallways, blurts its own inside jargon and private jokes, and is hip to the latest version of Windows because naturally IT has outfitted everyone’s machine with it.  Everything in the Culture of Employment is freshly updated and dynamic by nature.

Once the Culture of Employment leaves you behind for six months or more, it’s very difficult to make it recognize you again, for reasons large and small.

Your hair grows shaggy.  You need a cut.  What are you going to do?  If you’re lucky you can cut your own hair.  If not then a friend or family may donate a haircut.  But the humiliation of it piles on top of you like the shirts you can’t dry clean, the shoes you can’t get polished, the shoddy laptop bag you can’t get repaired.  You can’t support your own upkeep, and it’s not long before you feel that everybody plainly sees this.

“I never realized,” I told a bartender one night in the thick of the Dot-Bomb detonation, who asked why he hadn’t seen me in awhile, “that when I walk out my door, I present a certain face to the world.  Usually I don’t have to work at it or think about it.  The face says, ‘I’m all right, Jack.  I can take care of myself.  No problems here.  And furthermore, you’d better not fuck with me.’  When you’re unemployed for a long time, putting on that face gets to be harder and harder, and soon you feel you just can’t do it anymore.”

The personal appearance front is painful enough to prop up.  But what about all the pragmatic details, like your technology?  It was easy enough to stay on top of the latest applications when the company tech team made it all a no-brainer and a no-coster.  But when you have to be your own IT department, it gets time-consuming, stressful, and expensive.  Soon it makes sense to drop out of that race, too.

(Aside: the cost of being unemployed has skyrocketed in the last 20 years.  It used to be that all you were expected to have was a landline [for which you could get low-income Lifeline service] and an answering machine.  Now you’re expected to have an iPhone and 4G wireless Internet access.  Pay for those rates on top of staggering COBRA payments and all the costs of living, amidst little or no income, and it’s a one-way ticket to Debt City.)

So you stay in.  Which makes sense.  Staying in doesn’t cost any money.  And you can take comfort.  Some in alcohol, some in Internet chat rooms, some in the daydreamy half-sleep of long-term, low-grade depression and disappointment.

It’s amazing what starts to seem logical as the months drag on.  Looking at pure probability, simply lying in bed seems like a good choice.  Chances of your getting hired despite your best efforts?  Pretty slim.  Chances of your finding some shitty, shallow, desperately needed comfort by pulling the covers over your head?  Pretty good.  Add to that the probability of feeling ten times worse after yet another “close but no cigar” rejection, and spending life in your pyjamas looks like a reasonable, adult option.

If you’re not careful, you won’t observe these changes happening in yourself.  You’re likely, for budget reasons if nothing else, to hang out with other underemployed friends who are going through the same thing.  They can provide a certain degree of comfort, but also unwittingly affirm a place of helplessness, a maze of insecurity with no exits.  Your collective personality changes can create an unquestioned consensus reality, just at the time you need to be pinpointing those changes as symptoms of an abnormal situation.

So if a college-educated white chick who once had a totally hot job can feel this level of degradation and resentment towards the world, how much more so if my birth certificate said South Bronx?  South Detroit?  What if nobody I knew had ever had a job?  What if the Culture of Employment didn’t just seem like a long walk across town from me, but like another planet viewable only on TV?

The contrast between the entitlement and confidence I’d always felt without knowing it—and the realization that some people spent their entire lives with this exact sense of futility I was now feeling, only multiplied a gazillion times into a wraparound reality that defined your vocabulary, your social interactions, your cultural opportunities, your ability to conceive of options for your life . . . well, let’s just say some small sliver of new understanding dawned forth.  Hopefully it continues to dawn forth.

After long years of temping and underpaid jobs, underpaid jobs and temping, during which I often felt I was just expensively subsidizing a fragile, synthetic dignity I could use to get through the next day—I got hired on to a Real Job with benefits.

My first big-ticket purchase with the disposable income was a heavy winter coat.  This was February.  My family had offered to buy me one back in November, which was kind, but if I’d taken their offer I would have felt obliged to choose the bog-standard, utilitarian coat they’d approve of.  I held out and saved to buy my kind of coat with my own money.

I walked out of the North Beach boutique bundled up in it (a cape-cut black wool vintage I. Magnin “swing coat” from the early 1960s, since you asked), all warm and cozy in the chill, damp night.  And I wondered: how in the hell have I lived so long without this?

I wasn’t just thinking about the coat.

[The illustration photo: Ocean Beach, San Francisco, March 2012.  To give you some idea of the extreme sandstorm conditions: there were piles of sand in my pockets after 10 minutes of walking on the promenade.]

Prague Rock: A Velvet Revolution

 

Note: I wrote this essay 10 years ago but never found a published home for it. In honor of Vaclav Havel, and because this is kind of a Christmas story, I’m giving it a home as the inaugural post of Civilization Party’s re-launch. Enjoy and Happy Holidays.

I was sitting on the pavement in Malostranske square trying to reckon why I had let tram 22 pass me by. The tip of my nose was numbing up, I had a sprained left ankle, and my right ankle was about to go on strike. A light snow flurried down over Prague, and a cozy room off of the Ujezd awaited me down the tram line. So why had I just sat there, ass on the ice-cold concrete, as the apple-red tram hissed its doors shut and clacked away? My eyelids rolled shut and the long, dark, Bohemian day re-played itself like a jerking Jan Svankmajer cartoon. Was I cracking up from the cold, the strain of limping without a crutch, the overwhelming beauty of this medieval town? From being alone during the holidays? What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I even move enough to carry myself home?

Then the music stopped.

That was it! I wasn’t moving because there was live rock n’ roll thundering out from that building across the street. Cut-rate Sabbath sludge. Cut-rate Sabbath sludge that had just ended.

But hearing rock n’ roll, no matter how lousy, coming from the inside of any building never fails to make me feel I’m sorely missing out. The kickdrums and fuzzboxes were now silent, but they’d already worked their sleazy magic on me. Suddenly bone-deep exhaustion didn’t matter anymore. Enchanted, I headed for the club entrance.

Obvious efforts had been made to draw a tourist crowd into the Malostranska beseda; signs pointing up the stairs in German and English announced: Live Music! Every Night! Jazz n’ Pop! But a cloud of Czech voices enveloped me as I climbed a scarred plaster stairway and emerged into a small, smoke-choked lobby tended by white-haired men and women in somber Sunday suits. They enthusiastically sold me a fifty-cent ticket and offered to take my coat and scarf.

The two adjoined main halls roared with people bathed in thick curtains of smoke. The vaulted plaster ceilings were chipped, oily and tired, the lace curtains the color of used cigrarette filters. Bright, greasy chandeliers glared down on the little tables covered in checkered cheesecloth, empty Pilsner bottles and overflowing ashtrays.

I imagined the space being used as some sort of Worker’s Edification Facility in Soviet times, where young Czechs could whoop it up Saturday nights with a lecture on tractor repair or schoolchildren’s concert of folk songs. Tonight it looked and felt more like an oversized Knights of Columbus hall in Cleveland or Cincinatti—but with just as many young people as chain-smoking, baggy-eyed adults. And with a ravenous energy in the air.

I took a seat with my bottle of orange Fanta and elevated my injured ankle in the opposite seat. The lights dimmed.

Seven paunchy middle-aged men shuffled out onto the stage in sweats and sacky sweaters, with a dredlock here, a Bob Marley T-shirt there, and a bright Guatemalan scarf there. It looked like a PTA work day in Berkeley.

Amid healthy applause, they struck up a toothless reggae number with Czech lyrics. Two girls dressed in oversized T-shirts and ripped jeans raced out to the dancefloor and flopped around frantically. Then came a Czech salsa number, also received lovingly by the audience. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t stop picturing this band as the first, noontime act at a Potato Festival or Onion Festival in some Midwestern town. Nobody would be listening to these guys, nobody. This was the most inoffensive, wallpapery quasi-world music I’d ever heard. But in the filmy darkness of the hall, audience members were inching towards the edges of their seats.

At this point I chidingly reminded myself these people were no longer culturally isolated rubes. Pop radio in Prague now offers the uniform Western European top of the pops fare, which, bland as it is, updates this developing democracy with what the music industry is firehosing at the rest of us. Czech teenyboppers know whether they can take J-Lo or leave her.

The ones in the Malostranska beseda were obviously leaving her. More bodies invaded the dancefloor during the 20-minute “salsa acid jazz” jam. Females, regardless of age, wore their hair in moussed mullets or Aqua-Netted Fawcett flips, and dressed overwhelmingly in miniskirts, high heels and 1980s-style jerseys (with no detectable air of ironic retro-cool). Boys were professor’s aide types in spectacles and reindeer sweaters.

After waiting through a burst of extended applause, the band decided to stop fucking around. The keyboardist grinned and whipped out a set of Peruvian pan pipes.

I winced. Jesus, not pan pipes! Were people really going to stand for this?!

But surprised, youthful squeals of recognition rang out from every corner of the hall when the song kicked in. There was a universal scraping-back of chairs and a stampede to the dancefloor. I was looking at a whipping, crazed fury of flip-curls and reindeer sweaters. They were dancing like it was their last night on earth. A 40ish woman who looked like Amy Sedaris in Strangers With Candy pogo’d up and down by herself in front of the amplifier.

A frizzy-haired boy in a cardigan jogged up to my table and offered his hand. I could only point to my elevated ankle and make a “breaking in half” gesture. He understood, waved his departure, and made haste for the dancefloor again.

The youngsters mopped themselves off and headed to the bar while the moms and dads stuck around for a slow jam. The singer howled out a pop ballad Julio Iglesias-style while the couples mingled flab, slumping back and forth on each other like pairs of hot gingerbread cookies.

I was worried. Would this attack of the Quiet Storm kill the pace of the show?

No chance, comrade! Czech Salsa-reggae-acid-jazz struck again and then all ages were on the floor. Call-and-response shook the dancehall. I thought the building was going to collapse. Big clapping, then half the audience started clapping on the off-beat, polka-style. Or was it American Gospel style? I couldn’t tell. Everything was all over the place and it didn’t matter. Young dance partners made up their own improvised salsa steps and swung each other around madly in some improvised Slavic jitterbug.

Everyone knew every word to every song. Did these guys get radio play? It seemed unlikely. They’d be laughed at in the States, laughed at! They were skilled musicians, wedding-reception perfect. Just…cheesy. Predictable.

After two encores the band finally took leave from the shouting, stamping audience. The chandeliers blinked on, pelting us all with hard, tired light. I didn’t want to leave the Malostranska beseda, but my ankle was in pain. I gimped back out to the lobby, collected my anorak from the doting septegenarians, and descended to the snow-covered tram stop.

The band’s keyboardist was on tram 22 that evening, hauling his gear back out to the cement Soviet-era tenement blocks on the edge of town where American and German expatriates hadn’t jacked up the cost of living. Outside, snow-frosted church spires and arching cupolas sailed by, preserved by poverty and the attendant lack of development.

What exactly had I just witnessed in there? Was it condescending for me to think that the normal measures of music critique didn’t really apply here? Rolling Stone wouldn’t have a single star to spare for these guys and the British music press would have disemboweled them before proceeding to ignore them.

There were unique factors to take into account. Sure, the Czech Republic was quickly Westernizing, but how much of the middle-aged musicians’ lives had been spent under the Soviets, and what had they been exposed to since the Velvet Revolution in the late 1960s? Czechoslovakia had had a sort of pop music; there was a entire museum dedicated to it around the corner from my rooms, and Milan Kundera had bitched about it in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, saying it represented the infantilism of the modern world. Since I’d never heard any Czech pop I couldn’t deduct how, or how much, Western standards had informed them.

But I’d seen something I hadn’t seen, perhaps couldn’t see, in the West: the long-obscured function of music—not so much to entertain us as to make us all musicians, to make instruments of the audience. But this can only happen if the audience is willing.

“Performers,” writes punk rock historian Jon Savage in his 1992 book England’s Dreaming, “are only as interesting as the emotions they generate, or the situations that they catalyze: the audience gives them their power.”

The Sex Pistols’ accountant, Andy Czezowski, said of that band: “Whether they were good or not was irrelevant. I wanted to be excited and they filled a spot.”

As a teenager I attended four years of religious boarding school where dancing and rock music were strictly forbidden. At my Christian college, popular music was allowed, but for some reason dancing was not. I was obsessed with dancing at every single show I managed to escape to.

But I soon learned that in the rock n’ roll Cool-ocracy, exuberance was not done. I didn’t understand but, desperate to appear as beautifully miserable as everyone else, I taught myself to spend shows standing stock still with arms folded suspiciously across my chest, like the clinically depressed adults who regulated my existence.

My liberated peers turned wary eyes on rock n’ roll, expecting to be disappointed, gypped, ripped, lied to, told what they believed in a dead language of hipster clichés. There was no need for tear gas or truncheons or rubber bullets with them; cynicism had conveniently installed a de facto Big Brother right into their spinal cords.

Kill the urge to dance, and you have essentially killed the right to dance. Kill the urge to dance and you have denied to large groups of people something essential, the right to speak out from the core of your physical being. In that sense, perhaps, this former Eastern Bloc society was far more advanced than ours. The show at the Malostranska beseda was not about the band. It was about the audience, and nobody could have understood it any other way. The ironic curtain of Cool had not yet descended here.

The doors of tram 22 slid open and I left the keyboardist behind to hobble through the snow and find my rooms along the banks of the Vltava. Maybe, I thought, the original Bohemia could export a new Velvet Revolution to us Westerners, smuggling it out via Pilsner bottles. God knows we could use it now.

The Drift

Picked up the latest copy of GRANTA (Vol. 117) this week; the theme is “Horror.” There’s a short story by the lavishly praised young British writer Sarah Hall called “She Murdered Mortal He,” which, about two pages into it, had me wondering: what’s wrong with this story? Why don’t I love this? Why isn’t this great?

Technically it’s magnificent. A young, troubled couple from London vacation at an idyllic coastal village in Africa to re-spark their relationship; there’s a fight; she walks out in anger and confusion at twilight and finds herself pursued by a mysterious creature. Hall’s got everything: descriptive powers, the right dispensation of conflict to carry us along, believable dialogue, ambiguous and pregnant details.

What was wrong with it? The answer’s a bit metaphysical. What’s wrong with it is the whole culture that produced it. Like most fiction now, this story doesn’t give a damn, to the point where you wondered why the author bothered. The characters don’t really care about anything; they’re ambivalent about their jobs, their relationships, their friends, each other, the villagers whose world they’re in.

This isn’t an intentional exploration of modern alienation (which it could have been if Hall had taken that head-on); it’s just the metallic product of an alienated mind that probably doesn’t notice that it’s any different from the alienated minds surrounding it, and in fact wins awards and accolades for continuing to crank out its alienated product. (Hall’s new story collection is called The Beautiful Indifference – hot damn, sign me up!)

You don’t get the feeling anything is really at stake in this story. Yes, the relationship, strictly speaking; but you glean eventually that the female character doesn’t really care about that, either.

As I read “She Murdered Mortal He,” I felt (against my will) this ghost response I was supposed to be having: “Oh yes, this is it, I don’t really give a damn this way either, she’s really nailed it.” Though I didn’t want to keep reading, I’m the type who has to finish what she starts, and I got to the bloody, creepy, wrap-up that left me as cold as I knew it would.

Am I stupid to want some sort of warmth from my art? I was trying to characterize this weird quality that weaves the fabric of so much creative output now and the phrase The Drift popped to mind. People in financially declining Western societies are drifting. Nobody owes anything to anyone else. You’re supposed to kind of hate everyone, and everyone is duly hate-able. Rules are stupid, commitments and sacrifices are stupid. If you clearly state a value or belief, it’s because you’re naïve or a crazy fundamentalist.

Maybe I got the phrase from composer/singer Scott Walker, who named his mournful 2006 album “The Drift,” containing the lyric, “A moving aria for a vanishing style of mind.” I’ll listen to him before Hall.

Because so much music, too, seems devoid of human presence or passion these days, even if it’s performed with what would appear to be great feeling. Again, I think the problem is that we’re hearing it all within a culture where “content” is everywhere; everyone produces it so it’s no longer even a crass commodity. It’s just one more thing that overwhelms you. Your nerve endings are already so shot from all the other input you get all day – texts, instant messages, Twitter, Facebook, email, phone calls, news feeds – you don’t have the bandwidth to connect to music the way you used to.

Even if the music itself is heartfelt and genuine, the world you’re hearing it in now, and the person you have to be just to survive in it, somehow sucks all of the meaning and human context away so that the best thing music can possibly be to you is cute or likeable or pretty good. It bounces off you like one more ping. Hit “skip,” move on to the next song – doing so is now more important than songs themselves. The shuffle trumps the cards, and we all get dealt a losing hand.

KUSF: Radio Whose Door You Could Knock On

“No family or family traditions, no religion, no community, no vocational calling, no passions, and no ‘being comfortable in your own skin’ or ‘knowing who you are.’ They lack the nourishment they need to gain existential weight. How can people like this view the external world as anything but inhospitable, not worthy of trust, and phony? There is no way they can’t hate it much of the time.”
–Dick Meyer, “Why We Hate Us” (Three Rivers Press, 2008)

This quote is from a book I started reading a year ago, and which I’ve been alternatively enlightened by, pissed off by, and obsessed by ever since. Meyer, an old-school journalist who advanced through the ranks of CBS and NPR in Washington, is talking about unhappy Americans. Though we have numerous reasons to be happy – affluence, mobility, political freedom – we’re existentially exhausted, says Meyer, by too many choices and a general culture of phoniness we just can’t trust.

By now, all of my friends in San Francisco are fighting the hostile takeover and castration of KUSF 90.3fm, once the independent college radio bedrock of our town. My friend Jennifer Waits of KFJC 89.7fm has been doing some excellent reporting on the story. The terrestrial signal has been taken over by Classical Public Radio Network, 90% of which is owned by the University of Southern California. KUSF as we knew and loved it literally had its plug pulled mid-song on the morning of January 18. Some DJs tried to get answers, to no avail.

Yet the “student radio” format, we’re told, will continue broadcasting in an online-only format with the call letters KUSF.

So the question becomes: what’s the big deal then? If everything’s online nowadays anyway, can’t we just be happy with the same content delivered via a different and perhaps more current medium?

Myer’s “Why We Hate Us,” with its emphasis on commitment to one’s community, keeps coming to mind. I cannot, and will not, have the same emotional and cultural relationship to a digital stream that I have to a broadcast signal licensed and by definition rooted in an educational institution founded in 1855 and located 20 blocks up the road from me.

And I enjoy Internet-only radio. I ransack every iTunes radio folder like a tourist. Yet there’s only so much it can really do for me.

Why?

About a month ago I was listening to some silly music stream from Italy, just to check it out. Most of it was crap, then suddenly there’s this incredible song I need to know the name of.

Good luck, sister. The stream was “powered” by some faceless entity whose website told you nothing. Googling the stream name just gave you an Italian supermarket chain that uses the stream for their happy shopper music.

In my experience this is fairly typical of net “radio.” We chose to take the human connection out of presenting music a long time ago. Nobody back-announces, if you get the song’s metadata it’s often inaccurate, and anyway who the hell ARE you playing me this? Sure, you may be just an algorithm but did someone set you in motion? Where are you geographically located? Do you have a heartbeat or a name? If you don’t care that much about me, don’t expect me to care that much about you.

And that, says Meyer, is so much of Why We Hate Us. The Internet makes many things possible, but more often than not it enables a sort of “screw you, find it yourself” attitude on the part of culture-makers, like music programmers, who assume you’ve got the time, inclination, and technology to go poking around for something. What if I’m too poor to have a computer, and I’m hearing this song in a cafe? What if looking it up for myself feels lonely, boring, and alienating? Having that information provided to me, even electronically, feels as though someone somewhere has been polite.

And an actual back-announce – even an annoying one? Too much to ask for. The next generation will not know how to process that degree of human intimacy.

The technology itself may be morally neutral. But combine it with the malaise of rootlessness that defines our culture, and it’s like pouring gasoline on fire.

I don’t want an Internet-only KUSF. I don’t need one more meaningless piece of culture that could come from anywhere, be created by anyone, whose door I cannot knock on and whose eyes I cannot look into. I, and my community members and fellow music freaks, are after connection that’s accountable, human, and real.

Another friend, Irwin Swirnoff, known and loved as KUSF’s DJ Irwin, has been a key figure in protesting the station’s sale. Swirnoff’s Sleeves on Hearts show was a jewel in San Francisco’s broadcast crown, an edgily romantic tsunami wave of singer-songwriters, melodic pop, and local sounds, all presented with a uniquely sweet, made-for-radio enthusiasm that fairly hugged you through the microphone.

Swirnoff has his own beef with Internet-only broadcasting: “The internet is NOT free. Not everyone has access to it. We are mindful of the wide range of the community we were serving.”

Jennifer Waits also cites free access as a chief gift of real radio: “…it’s much more democratic than online. It’s magical and it’s FREE. When the power goes out and the earthquakes, riots and hurricanes come, we’ll still be able to tune in to terrestrial radio (take a look at Haiti – radio was a savior after their devastating earthquake) on our hand-crank radios.”

Then there’s the wee matter of broadening your musical horizons: “I think the difference between [terrestrial radio] and algorithms/search engines/iPods/etc. is that when exploring music online most people are looking for something in particular….By narrowing the search, they are missing out on difficult to categorize, unexpected gems that might not even exist in digital form. These are the types of sounds that a live DJ might offer up on a college or community radio show featuring hand-picked music. Think: vinyl thrift store finds, hand-made cassettes, and obscure international sounds.”

When I named this blog Civilization Party, I was serious. I’m for civilization. I’m for people committing to one other and creating good, enjoyable things that make us better people. I’m not an arms-folded hipster. I believe in strong public institutions and I’ll gladly shout “Rah! Rah!” with the crowd if there is something genuinely worth cheering. The old KUSF, though it was not perfect and like everyone else I aired my grievances among friends the way I would about a cranky but beloved relative, was something genuinely worth cheering.

Visit http://www.savekusf.org/. Read up, join them on Facebook, make a donation. WFMU’s “KUSF in Exile” simulcast, live from Amoeba Records on Haight Street, was shared by college radio stations all over this country in solidarity. It’s starting to feel like a revolution out there.

Who knows? If we get our station back we may even stop hating us.