Wednesday, July 28, 2010

In Defense of Amazon

Over at TNR Ruth Franklin defends Amazon from its detractors. I love Amazon. I live in a place that has two cities about fifteen miles apart with a quarter of a million people or so combined. There is a Barnes & Noble in Midland and a Hastings (which sells books, music, dvds, video games and the like) in Odessa, and those are fine, but Barnes & Noble, even with my member card, does not exactly provide discounts on its books, and while B&N has a pretty extensive collection, nothing matches Amazon for either competitive pricing or variety.

If we had a great independent bookstore in the area I would surely provide it with my custom occasionally, but when I am working on a book or article there are times when I will need to get a number of books and will not want to use the library, especially if these are books I'll use again and again for current and future projects. Amazon is a lifesaver for those of us not surrounded by myriad bookstores that compete with one another for price and variety, and for those millions of readers who live in places much smaller than I do Amazon has surely transformed their options. Amazon is not ideal. But I'm sure glad that it exists.

Selling the Farm

For almost four centuries the Tuttles of Dover New Hampshire have been farming the same plot of land, sometimes eking by, sometimes prosperously, but continuously, and longer than any family in America has operated the same farm. But that epoch appears to be coming to an end as the farm that has been passed from generation to generation since 1632 is up for sale. As someone who grew up splitting time between my Mom's house and my Dad and grandparents' family farm not a mile down the road, these stories always resonate with me. American agriculture is dominated by giant conglomerates that nonetheless like to play up the hayseed angle in order to suckle at the government teat even as their practices make it nearly impossible for the Tuttles, never mind families with lesser pedigrees, to make a go of it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Soccer and Socialism: The Real Connection

When I think about the nature of soccer in the United States I, perhaps bizarrely, am reminded of Werner Sombart's famous question, "Why is there no socialism in America?" That was one of my advisor's favorite questions to slip into a comprehensive exam (though I never got to tackle it in that format).

And I always had an answer that I thought was at least somewhat counterintuitive. In brief: In the period when Sombart lived and posed the question, there was and is socialism in America. It's just that in a two-party system having a few hundred thousand or a handful of million supporters means that you are a virtual nonentity. Socialist candidates and their allies scored several hundred thousand votes in myriad presidential elections in the first three decades of the twentieth century. In a parliamentary system they would have had a voice, and may have joined in coalitions with the major parties, giving them some power. But ours is not a system friendly to third parties, and none, including the socialists, have yet gained traction to the point of being a viable long-term force in American politics. It might happen someday, but the system so far has been resilient enough to fend off or co-opt such challenges.

In a very broad sense, the same thing can be said for soccer in America, though soccer and socialism otherwise have nothing in common, idiot conservative critics notwithstanding. The NFL is by just about any measure the most socialist sports league on Earth. After all, who benefits from sales of a Tom Brady jersey? Does that money go to Tom Brady? Nope. To the team for which he plays? Nope. It's split up evenly among every team in the league. Do the Cowboys get more television revenue than the Lions, given how many more people tune in to watch the Cowboys? Nope. TV revenue is split up amongst the comrades of the NFL. There may be plenty of reasons to like or dislike a sport. But tying it to one's political worldview is not one of them, and doing so is inane. All team sports are, I suppose, "socialistic" inasmuch as the individual subsumes him or her self to the larger whole. And by that measure all individual sports are more capitalistic, or democratic, or free, or what have you. But would you want to watch sports with a dullard who sees the world through such a knee-jerk and politicized lens?

People are always asking when soccer is going to take off in the United States. But it already has. And not just among kids. Soccer is tremendously popular in many circles in the US. It just is not as popular as our version of football or as baseball, or as basketball. But I have no reason to believe that it cannot surpass, if it has not already surpassed, hockey as the fourth major team sport in the United States. Furthermore, part of the reason why Americans have not embraced (but nor have they rejected) the MLS to the degree MLS boosters would hope, is that increasingly we can all watch English Premier League, La Liga, and of course the Champions League -- the best soccer in the world, in other words -- live in our living rooms.

If the two-party dominance in American politics has blinded us to undercurrents of discontent beneath the surface, the dominance of a handful of team sports, with massive fragmentation beneath those sports, has led many of us to be blind about just how big soccer is in the United States. We are not waiting for soccer to blossom here. It is blossoming. It has blossomed. And it will continue to do so.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tyson on Tyson

Courtesy of Buzzfeed, the nine best quotations from Mike Tyson's interview with Details magazine.

My two favorites:

"You know, physically he was just a pussy." (On Che Guevara)

"My wife's lived with me in places I wouldn't take a shit in."

The man speaks his mind.

Theocracy, Hypocrisy, Idiocy

Charles Pierce adequately sums up the hypocrisy of jumping all over Dwyane Wade for his (generally misrepresented) reference to 9/11 the other day. People invoke 9/11 constantly. It is usually unseemly. But when it fits a political agenda no one complains even though it is no more justifiable.

The most obnoxious example is this whole ginned up controversy over building a Mosque and cultural center a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. There is no legitimate case to be made for banning the construction except the very sort of theocratic religious intolerance that is supposed to make the bad guys the bad guys. So I suppose it's a real controversy borne of either crass political grandstanding or overt religious bigotry and perhaps a little of both.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

So Can I Root For Duke Now? (Self-Indulgence Alert)

Looks like I'll be spending a bit of time at Duke's John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture. In the mid-90s I went to Duke a few times to visit the Thunderstick, and before that Duke was the biggest name school athletically to recruit me for track, so I've always had a soft spot for what might be America's most loathed university (college basketball edition.)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Back in Texas: In Search of Plan B

More than 70 hours of plane travel later and a five-plus hour drive to get me home I'm finally back from my great World Cup adventure. I hope you'll appreciate some scarce posting while I readjust to life back in the States and make sense of it all. But two quick points/anecdotes:

First, are there any sweeter words on the planet when you are about to board a 22+ hour flight than "Sir, we're going to need to upgrade you first class."? I'd say the answer to that is: No. No there are not. It was delightful, although I suspect that the Ethiopian Airways stewardesses were trying to fatten me up Hansel and Gretel style, because the food just kept coming. Bonus points for the option of actual Ethiopian food (or to Ethiopians: "food") on top of the regular meal service.

Second: I have heard roughly six years and especially five weeks of westerners wringing their hands over whether or not South Africa (or simply "Africa") could handle hosting the World Cup. So perhaps some comparison is in order.

Upon arrival at Dulles (hardly an obscure, small, or disadvantaged airport) all went smoothly as I went from passport control to baggage claim to customs. But because I had booked the domestic legs of my long journey separately, I had to go through check in all over again. I must note that I took at least ten round trip flights in the last six weeks outside of the US and never was a charged for luggage. Never. Get to the US and immediately I spend $60 just to get my bags home, and that required me to push the limit with my two carry-ons. Apparently what is essential to American Airways' survival is not essential to that of Botswana Airways, South African Airways, Kulula, British Airways, or Ethiopian Airlines. I guess the Africans just have a better business model. In any case, then I get to security. At Dulles these days there are at least 15 possible security lines with the full complement of machines and scanners and inexplicably smug workers. We arrived on a weekday morning at a little after 8:00, meaning that I was going through security at about 9:30 in the morning on a weekday in Washington, DC. The Nation's Capital. People might just be traveling at that time. And yet they had two lines open of the fifteen or so, with at least ten people just standing around while the queue just got longer and longer. They were checking the boarding passes and id's of people and then yelling at them for thinking it was ok to move to one of the two open security lines (again, of fifteen). It took 45 minutes to get through a line that should have taken five. And it was all due to poor planning, lousy service, terrible communication, general incompetence, and not a little idiocy.

But finally I get up to my gate. It had been six weeks or so since I had gotten Starbucks, and I wanted to grab a handful of US newspapers -- the Times, the Post, and the good old USA Today. So I find a news agent that also has a Starbucks in it. Score! But the first sign of trouble is that the two are in the same space, yet one cannot buy the newspapers and the Starbucks at the same place. So that's two transactions, and I have not yet gotten cash yet. I trudge off to an ATM. Grab my papers to do that transaction first, and . . . the computers freeze. For both Starbucks and the shop. In a month in South Africa I dealt with one power outage, and that was the result of some work being done at the University of Pretoria (during the Q&A of my paper) and not of Eskom service delivery issues.

Perhaps, then, FIFA should think twice about considering the United States for hosting duties for the 2018 or 2022 World Cups. America has put its hat in the ring for both, but can a country with such clear service issues, infrastructural problems, delivery issues, and of course such high crime rates possibly host such a significant global event? But at least if we take a chance on the Americans and their myriad problems we know that South Africa can serve as a really good Plan B.

[Crossposted at the FPA Africa Blog.]

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Thinking LBJ in RSA

I'm beginning to have one foot in both of my worlds now. Obviously I'm still physically here in South Africa and will be for another week. At the same time, for UTPB's second summer session I am teaching a graduate seminar, "LBJ's America," that started last night. For this first week I am conducting the class via email, and they have a host of assignments that they need to be responsible for, including getting going on their final projects. I also have a proxy conducting class for me, so all of my bases are covered.

While my obsessions for the past month have been almost exclusively tied to the World Cup and larger questions about sports and politics and the history of soccer in South Africa I am now also thinking about LBJ, both as a symbol for the culture wars but also in terms of his place in modern American history. The first book we are reading is Robert Dallek's one-volume biography of LBJ, a truncated version of his two-volume masterpiece. The title of his second volume, "Flawed Giant," which covers the period from when the big Texan became Vice President through his death pretty accurately sums up Johnson both as a man and as a politician. We will be exploring the 1960s, and especially the period from 1963, through the lens of one of the era's dominant figures.

In the meantime, the semi-finals of the World Cup commence today. As the rate of games slows, South Africa is slightly less World Cup besotted. As usual you can read more here.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Bots to Durbs

I flew from Gabarone to Durban via Joburg on Saturday. With several days between leaving Bots and needing to be up in Pretoria to give my paper at a special session of the Historical Association of South Africa's Biennial meeting I realized I could freeze my tail on the highveld or I could enjoy a few more days on the beachfront in KwaZulu-Natal. KZN won out. As always, you can follow me at the FPA Africa Blog.