Palm Christmas

December 24, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway . . .
But it's December the twenty-fourth . . .
A Wall Street Journal article by John Steele Gordon reminds me how deeply entrenched in my mind are the images of Christmas – all those wintry images of snowmen and skaters, pine trees with tinsel icicles, chestnuts roasting, and all the rest. Then I got down here to Florida. The decorations were the same – stockings, wreaths, Santas. But they were framed in palm trees, and I was wearing shorts.

Those Christmas lights should be reflecting off the snow, not off the water in the marina.

Gordon notes that the Christmas I’m thinking of is a fairly recent creation and has little to do with the birth of Jesus (which is O.K. with me). I’ve visited Bethlehem, and it didn’t seem like the sort of place you’d find Frosty the Snowman, even in December. (And as Gordon says, it’s likely that the actual date of Jesus’s birth was in the spring or summer, when shepherds abide in the fields, not in the winter, when the flocks are in the corral.)

Even the holiday shopping didn’t have the same feel as it does in cold weather. Here, it just seemed like a lot of people in Best Buy.

No, this is more what I had in mind (I took this one last week).


Schmucks With Powerbooks

December 19, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Americans usually think about class as money. But there are still areas where structural position and power trump income. Athletes, in strict Marxian terms, are part of the proletariat. They toil for wages, they have a union.

They aren’t the only well-paid workers of the world with a working-class consciousness. As we speak, some very well paid writers of movies and TV shows are walking the picket lines. The studios made an offer last week which they claim will pay writers an average of $230,000 a year. The Writers Guild considered it an insult. The offer and the claim were misleading, but even if they were accurate, the Marxian class division – bourgeoisie and proletariat, owners and workers – would still hold.

Nearly thirty years ago, Ben Stein wrote a book about the way Hollywood writers portrayed America (The View from Sunset Boulevard, 1979). The writers were making what by most standards was a lot of money. Stein, a conservative then and now, seemed to be especially puzzled by their demonization of business and wealth, not just in the scripts they wrote but in their private beliefs.
Even those with millions of dollars believed themselves to be part of a working class distinctly at odds with the exploiting classes – who, if the subject came up, were identified as the Rockefellers and multinational corporations. For an obscure reason, the name of Nixon was also thrown in frequently.
(Stein was a big Nixon fan and obviously sensitive to any mention of the name of his hero. He’d been a Nixon speechwriter, and some years later – I wish I could track down this quote – he said that Nixon had “the soul of a poet.”)

But a few pages later, Stein describes the structural position of the writer in classic Marxist terms:
The Hollywood TV writer . . . is actually in a business, selling his labor to brutally callous businessmen. One actually has to go through that experience of writing for money in Hollywood or anywhere else to realize just how unpleasant it is. Most of the pain comes from dealings with business people, such as agents or business affairs officers of production companies and networks.
And the current clash seems to be over surplus value (another Marxian term) in the form of residuals. It’s also about the owners’ expropriation of the workers’ product, for regardless of who actually creates the words in a script, the legal author of a movie is the studio. And I also suspect that at some level it’s about respect. I get the sense that the studios’ basic view of their employees hasn’t much changed since the days of Jack Warner, who said famously

Actors – schmucks. Writers – schmucks with Underwoods.
Except now the schmucks have Powerbooks, agents, and unions.

The LA Times has been running a good colloquy – or “dust-up” as they call it – between a writer and a media mogul discussing the strike. You can find it here.

Jocks - Wealth vs. Power

December 18, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Phil, in his comment on the previous post, says that as food for thought, he asks students “to chew on the class position of David Beckham.” How to reconcile the fabulous incomes of these sports stars with their subjugated structural position? True, Beckham and Barry Bonds are not exactly the proletariat of Dickensian London. But they do earn most of their money, whether on the field or from endorsements, by working for the owners. They have much wealth but relatively little power. Is the fault in our superstars, dear Beckham, in our Marxist theories, or in sport itself?

William Rhoden, a sports writer for the New York Times, argues that black athletes, even the very well paid, are still the exploited. They are Forty Million Dollar Slaves, and when they threaten to revolt or seize some small bit of power, the white establishment reacted strongly to retain control. We all know what happened to Ali when he challenged the Vietnam war, and if we’ve seen The Great White Hope, we know about Jack Johnson. But who knows about Rube Foster, who tried to form a baseball league with black-owned teams?

What’s interesting – and disappointing to Rhoden – is how few black athletes have used their wealth to move into positions of ownership. Successful musicians start their own record labels or even clothing lines (P. Diddy). But athletes, white or black, have not become brands, nor even noticeably entrepreneurs or owners. It’s Jay-Z, not some former athlete, who’s a co-owner of the Nets.

Driven to Distractors

December 16, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
My final exam will have some multiple-choice questions. I write my own, and it’s sometime hard to come up with good wrong choices, or “distractors” as people in the test-making biz call them. I always try to have at least a couple of questions with one amusing distractor. For example,
A janitor makes $8 an hour; Barry Bonds makes tens of millions a year playing baseball. Why might Marx classify both men as members of the same social class?
a. They are both in occupations that have uncertain career paths.
b. They are both in occupations that do not require extensive education.
c. They are both selling their labor to someone who owns the means of production.
d. They are both in occupations that have many minorities.
e. They are both in occupations that don’t have very good tests for steroids.
It's the last choice that's supposed to elicit a small smile, though I prefer a distractor that's truly silly.
In Durkheim’s view, the god or gods that a society worshiped were a representation of
a. The society itself
b. The unknowable
c. An authoritarian father
d. Chuck Berry
I stole that one from an old Monty Python page (The Hackenthorpe Book of Lies), and maybe Chuck Berry isn’t le distractor juste for students born in 1986. I’m open to suggestions for better distractors . . . and better questions.

The risk, of course, is that the distractor you thought was so ludicrous it would get a chuckle – usually at least one student chooses it. Wait, maybe that’s it – instead of Chuck Berry, Ludacris.