A Night to Remember

Posted on December 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Last Wednesday marked the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder. A few hundred people gathered at Strawberry Fields in Central Park, over which the stately Dakota building looms as an ever-present reminder of Lennon’s tragic end. Due to the biting cold, people huddled next to each other as an impromptu band played some songs from the Beatles and Lennon’s solo career. Everyone sang along, and not in the self-consciously camp way one does in karaoke. The event seemed like a church service, with Lennon’s words and music the liturgy.

Someone*, once remarked to me that she couldn’t understand why the public became so upset over John Lennon’s death. After all, he wasn’t a major politician like John and Robert Kennedy. He wasn’t a civil rights leader like Martin Luther King Jr. Rock stars often die young, besides. At 29, I have lived longer than a depressing number of famous musicians, including Kurt Cobain, whose self-inflicted death in 1994 rocked my thirteen year old world.

But I think Lennon’s death had such an impact because the Beatles were (and are) a source of  joy in people’s lives in a way that politicians can never be. They have been my favorite band since I was about 15, and for a long time it was difficult for me to understand why they weren’t everyone else’s favorite band, too. In my life I’ve met only a handful of people who claim to dislike the Beatles. Even then, I’d always manage to extract a confession that they liked ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ or ‘Two of Us’ or ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’.

When I looked around the crowd the other night at Central Park, something struck me as odd. It took me a minute to think of it. Finally, it came to me. Just about everyone was there was my age or younger. This fact was confirmed when a Japanese film crew standing to my left had trouble finding someone who could remember New York in the aftermath of Lennon’s death. Most of the people I saw would have, like me, been born after John Lennon’s death.

At first, I found it strange that so many of us who never saw the Beatles perform live, could not remember the day Sgt. Peppers came out, and never saw a single episode of the Ed Sullivan Show had gathered on a freezing December night to commemorate the death of the man so closely associated with those cultural milestones.

Upon reflection, it isn’t strange at all. The Beatles were part of my childhood. Their songs are the soundtrack to many of my early memories. I am certain that if I had asked everyone else my age that night in the park, they would have said the same thing. For us, John Lennon’s music- and that of the Beatles- is a gift that truly keeps on giving. And to have that gift snatched away by a single act of hatred and malice is a perpetual tragedy.

But thirty years after the fact, a few hundred people can still gather in the cold and sing songs and celebrate the life of an artist who gave us all so much. I expect that in ten years’ time, when the 40th anniversary of Lennon’s death occurs, the scene will be repeated. And if I’m still in New York then, I’ll be there too.

*This person is a Beatles fan so her comment was in no way based on a negative impression of Lennon’s music.

Elizabeth Edwards

Posted on December 11th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. No Comments

Elizabeth Edwards has died following a lengthy battle with cancer. This obituary, in the Guardian, is the best one I’ve read so far.

Edwards’ short-term legacy is likely to be her endurance of a series of personal tragedies:  the death of her teenaged son in a car accident,  her cancer diagnosis, and ultimately her husband’s affair and paternity. Her public persona through it all was very gracious and though there were rumblings that she was an uncompromising and difficult person in private, she is likely to remain a highly popular figure in the public imagination.

Elizabeth’s death likely marks the end of the public life of  her widower John Edwards, who swept onto the national scene as John Kerry’s running mate in his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2004. I will say now that I never liked Edwards- his blow-dried populism struck me as hollow, and his inexperience in foreign policy was painfully exposed during his debate with Dick Cheney in the run-up to the ’04 election. I will also admit to more than my fair share of schadenfreude when Edwards’ tomfoolery came to light as well as an overwhelming feeling of relief that Barack Obama, not he, had won the 2008 Democratic nomination.

But despite his obvious inadequacies Edwards was a forceful advocate for health care reform at a time when many Democratic politicians were still shy about embracing it, mindful of Bill Clinton’s failed push in 1993. Because both Obama and Hillary Clinton regarded Edwards as a competitive threat, both co-opted his plan to a great extent and health-care reform once again became central to the Democratic domestic agenda. As a result, Barack Obama’s successful passage of health care reform, though far from ideal, is indebted to John Edwards.

From what I’ve read Elizabeth’s impassioned support for health care reform served as a major inspiration for her husband, as she was regarded as the more intellectual and policy-fluent of the two. It seems logical to say that without Elizabeth Edwards, we would not have health care reform at all in this country. That, I hope, will serve as her ultimate legacy.…

Quote of the Day

Posted on December 6th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Technology & Society. 1 Comment

From the Twitter feed of Blake Hounshell:

‘(Julian) Assange: ‘I believe that history will be separated into pre and post-cablegate phases’.

Hmmm. Hounshell’s hashtag- #delusionsofgrandeur- pretty much sums it up.…

Wikileaks and Me

Posted on December 4th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Me, Technology & Society, US Politics. No Comments

A few days ago students in my Masters program- at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University- received the following e-mail from administrators:

Hi students,

We received a call today from a SIPA alumnus who is working at the State Department. He asked us to pass along the following information to anyone who will be applying for jobs in the federal government, since all would require a background investigation and in some instances a security clearance.

The documents released during the past few months through Wikileaks are still considered classified documents. He recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter. Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.

Office of Career Services

This writer from the Morningside Post found the insinuation that we’ll damage our careers by commenting on the Wikileaks scandal offensive. Even Democracy Now! picked up the story.  I do find the story a little ridiculous. I wonder if in five years someone will get this e-mail:

Dear so and so,

We’ve reviewed your application to work for the Department of State and have decided we can’t offer you the position you seek. Although you’re eminently qualified and talented and we’d love to have you under ordinary circumstances, the fact that you referred to Julian Assange as a ‘douchebag’ in a Facebook post dated December 1, 2010 and wrote three pithy paragraphs evincing skepticism of the ultimate significance of Wikileaks means that you’ll never get a security clearance and you’ll never work for Uncle Sam. Don’t even think about the Peace Corps, loser!


Foggy Bottom

Who knows? I could be wrong. But it seems ridiculous to me that it’s damaging to write about a current event that is on the front page of the newspaper every day. It isn’t as if Private Bradley Manning leaked the cables to SIPA students!

UPDATE: Here’s The Huffington Post with more, including this quote from one of my classmates:

“They seem to be unable to make the distinction between having an opinion and having a contractual obligation to keep a secret,” said Hugh Sansom, a masters student from New York.

Students were taken aback by the email, said Sansom, who described his non-American classmates — nearly half of this year’s incoming class at Columbia speaks a native language other than English — as “amused and surprised.”


Wikileaks and You

Posted on December 4th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Technology & Society, US Politics. No Comments

Since the Wikileaks release of some of the over quarter million diplomatic cables from the US Department of State, I’ve struggled to sort out my thoughts on the issue. My initial response was condemnation- how could an organization be so irresponsible to place people’s lives in danger? Another response was ridicule- why did Julian Assange risk his life and that of others in order to release what basically amounts to embarrassing, but non-revelatory, bits of diplomatic communication?  What did he think he was going to accomplish?

At the same time, the cable leak raises some uncomfortable questions. Would I be more supportive if the leaks occurred under a Bush, rather than Obama, Administration? What if Bradley Manning had leaked the information to accredited journalists rather than Assange?

To be honest, I don’t know the answer to these questions. One of my criticisms of recent US foreign policy was its lack of transparency, dating from the Bush era lies about Iraq and the unlawful detention practices associated with the bogus ‘war on terror’. Obama’s reluctance to reform these trappings of a security-industrial state have been inadequate and disappointing.

Then again it seems perverse to expect all diplomatic activity to be conducted in the open. None of the revelations thus far have been more than just embarrassing- did anyone think the US would have a more positive appraisal of Russian democracy?- but the need for diplomats to speak candidly with their governments is obvious.

What effect will these leaks have? I doubt Assange would be happy to hear this, but the likeliest effect of the info dump is increased secrecy. Diplomats will now be aware that their missives are potential targets for dissemination and will take steps to conceal them further. This will raise the costs of communication but will ultimately have little effect on how the US conducts its business around the world.

One wonders if Assange believes that the crux of American power- something he is reported to view as malevolent- is its moral authority, and that the release of sensitive materials will undermine this authority and thus American power. The source of American power is actually pretty simple- money and guns- and no amount of leaking will change that.…

Debating John Lennon’s Legacy

Posted on December 4th, by matt_schiavenza in Music. No Comments

Years ending in ‘0 are always big ones for John Lennon fans, as they mark both the anniversary of his birth and that of his death. Two months ago Lennon would have turned 70, and next week it will have been 30 years since his untimely murder in New York. This Newsweek piece talks about why Lennon still matters, and for an odd few paragraphs links him to contemporary reality TV stars:

Lennon was hardly the Paris Hilton of his era, but by showing that stars could mine their fame for inspiration and bend it to their will, he may have helped, in some small way, to make Paris Hilton possible. When he and Yoko posed nude on the cover of Two Virgins, or released Film No. 5, a 52-minute slow-motion shot of Lennon’s face, or held a press conference in Vienna concealed inside a large bag, they were basically doing what Hilton did on The Simple Life: co-opting their renown as both a promotional tool and a topic of their work. Their savviest stunt—inviting a bunch of salivating reporters into their honeymoon suites in Amsterdam and Montreal, where they did nothing but talk about peace for two weeks—instantly set the standard for celebrity activism in the mass-media age. “We knew our honeymoon was going to be public anyway, so we decided to use it to make a statement,” Lennon said in 1980. When Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt lured the paparazzi to Namibia for the birth of their daughter Shiloh, then donated the proceeds from the sale of her baby pictures to a local charity, they were pulling a John and Yoko.

The author’s point is that Lennon’s celebrity entwined with his musical output- he was the first person to use his celebrity consciously rather than simply embrace or evade it. The comparison between Lennon and Jolie/Pitt is somewhat apt, but I don’t buy the connection to Paris Hilton or to the stars of The Hills (whom the author alludes to earlier). The latter category have fame without any commensurate accomplishment- they are simply famous because somebody decided to make them famous. Paris Hilton is famous because at some point a television executive thought people would be amused to follow around a ditzy rich girl who partied a lot and occasionally did something naughty. Fifty years from now, nobody will be listening to her music or watch her movies and she will essentially disappear like trinkets in a time capsule.

I think critics often exaggerate the extent of Lennon’s activist celebrity era- this period really only lasted a few years, from say the bed-ins with Yoko to the release of Imagine. As the Newsweek piece notes Lennon retreated to an extraordinary degree in the mid to late 70s, living an almost mundane, ordinary life in New York. Lennon’s accessibility during this time unfortunately enabled his assassination.

There’s a tendency for people to judge the Beatles by their iconography rather than their musical and cultural output- every sentient creature in the Western world is familiar with their smiling early appearances on TV even if they aren’t familiar with most of the Beatles’ music. Yet the Beatles were such a good band due to the years they toiled in obscurity, playing all-night saloons in Hamburg’s red-light district or in musty little clubs in Liverpool. The real cousin to Hilton and the rest would be the Monkees, not the Beatles.

Lennon’s actual legacy is his music. When I listen to the White Album on my Ipod, sitting in my apartment in New York and reading the newspaper, it feels as fresh and timeless as any great work of art. To me, listening to the Beatles is akin to reading great literature or gazing at a great painting- it is an endlessly enriching experience. To others, the Beatles doesn’t do it for them, but to argue that the key legacy of Lennon is his relationship to fame misses the point.…

Implications of Hukou Reform

Posted on December 1st, by matt_schiavenza in Useful Links. No Comments

The Asia Times has an interesting article arguing that contrary to popular perception, many Chinese migrant workers are unwilling to give up their rural registration status for fear of  losing their land in the country. Any meaningful hukou reform, thus, will have to address this point. The whole article is worth reading.…