The Tyranny of the Homeowners’ Association

November 29, 2006

DENVER – A homeowners association in southwestern Colorado has threatened to fine a resident $25 a day until she removes a Christmas wreath with a peace sign that some say is an anti-Iraq war protest or a symbol of Satan.

Some residents who have complained have children serving in Iraq, said Bob Kearns, president of the Loma Linda Homeowners Association in Pagosa Springs. He said some residents have also believed it was a symbol of Satan. Three or four residents complained, he said.

“Somebody could put up signs that say drop bombs on Iraq. If you let one go up you have to let them all go up,” he said in a telephone interview Sunday.

Lisa Jensen said she wasn’t thinking of the war when she hung the wreath. She said, “Peace is way bigger than not being at war. This is a spiritual thing.”

Jensen, a past association president, calculates the fines will cost her about $1,000, and doubts they will be able to make her pay. But she said she’s not going to take it down until after Christmas.

“Now that it has come to this I feel I can’t get bullied,” she said. “What if they don’t like my Santa Claus.”

The association in this 200-home subdivision 270 miles southwest of Denver has sent a letter to her saying that residents were offended by the sign and the board “will not allow signs, flags etc. that can be considered divisive.”

The subdivision’s rules say no signs, billboards or advertising are permitted without the consent of the architectural control committee.

Kearns ordered the committee to require Jensen to remove the wreath, but members refused after concluding that it was merely a seasonal symbol that didn’t say anything. Kearns fired all five committee members.

Is it even necessary to point out that the peace symbol is a traditional Christmas icon? But what’s really going on here is revealed by a blog post out of North Dakota:

Good on her for not backing down. The people who are getting worked up over this sound like twits. Personally, I think the peace-sign-waving hippy generation is one of the worst things to ever happen to this country, but getting all up in arms over a peace sign on someone’s house is just plain un-American.

There you have it. At the same time as the commentor derides the rank idiocy of the anti-peace-symbol actions, he shows just how and why the actions took place in the first place. Peace symbols are associated with dirty hippies – dirty hippies are bad (“one of the worst things to ever happen to this country”) – ergo, peace symbols are bad. It’s actually pretty easy to understand why someone who follows this typology might conclude it’s a Satanic symbol – much like Satan, hippies are also bad (or just as likely, the impression was formed by the some members of the Loma Linda Homeowners’ Association seeing “punk kids” listening to that disrespectful rock music and wearing their disrespectful clothing with all those obviously Satanic symbols on it).

These kinds of associations are, at this point, very much like bad grammar and common misspellings: independently bad of their own accord, as well as pernicious and corrosive of the culture, but mostly, they reveal a larger cultural dysfunction. I’ve been resisting the urge to use the phrase “pigfuck ignorant” for this entire post, but there’s really no better way to describe what I’m talking about.

It’s become possible for many people who are pigfuck ignorant – who have no real experience of the broader world – and who are lacking in very basic reasoning skills – to attain a previously unimaginable level of wealth and prosperity in our country today. To the point, even, that many are members of homeowners’ associations, because many own homes. Part of this is a “rising tide lifts all boats” – part of it is our decrepit education system (especially as pertains to basic tools of civic values and citizenship) – but most of it is the rise and continuing prominence of a cultural and political discourse which mostly dispenses with notions of expertise and accuracy.

Examples are, sadly, far too numerous to detail with any exhaustivity, but when millions of Americans form their worldviews based on the bloviations of Rush Limbaugh, and a global-climate-change-denying-crank like Sen. James Inhoffe (R-OK) is allowed to have a major hand in American environmental policy, there is a deep and abiding problem. At the same time as one oughtn’t ask, “How could people possibly think a peace symbol is a Satanic symbol?” – the answer is pretty simple – one also oughtn’t write off such examples of pigfuck ignorance because some people just don’t know no better. Knowing that some things are, and some things are not, is not arrogant elitism – it is on this foundation of reason that civilization is built and perpetuated. More specifically, it is on this foundation of reason that our civilization was built, and for it to continue, we must reclaim and reaffirm those very basic notions: some things are and others are not. This is particularly important when dealing with people like the aforementioned Mr. Inhoffe: in order to achieve the changes necessary to combat the problem, we must time and again – citing the innumerable studies and examples of its very basic facts – re-state that climate change is happening, and no amount of their saying otherwise will change this.

No trembling before the pigfuck ignorant – follow Lisa Jensen’s example and refuse to obey the forces of small-minded wrongness.

UPDATE: And, indeed, it would appear that the good people of Pagosa Springs, Colo. are doing just that:

The fines have been dropped, and the three-member board of the association has resigned, according to an e-mail message sent to residents on Monday.

Two board members have disconnected their telephones, apparently to escape the waves of callers asking what the board could have been thinking, residents said. The third board member, with a working phone, did not return a call for comment.

…there are now more peace symbols in Pagosa Springs, a town of 1,700 people 200 miles southwest of Denver, than probably ever in its history.On Tuesday morning, 20 people marched through the center carrying peace signs and then stomped a giant peace sign in the snow perhaps 300 feet across on a soccer field, where it could be easily seen.

“There’s quite a few now in our subdivision in a show of support,” Mr. Trimarco said.

A former president of the Loma Linda community, where Mr. Trimarco lives, said Tuesday that he had stepped in to help form an interim homeowners’ association.

The former president, Farrell C. Trask, described himself in a telephone interview as a military veteran who would fight for anyone’s right to free speech, peace symbols included.

Town Manager Mark Garcia said Pagosa Springs was building its own peace wreath, too. Mr. Garcia said it would be finished by late Tuesday and installed on a bell tower in the center of town.

That sounds about right.


On Anonymity

November 28, 2006

At the end of an excellent interview/bio-piece in Rolling Stone (excerpts only), Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G, aka Borat) makes the following remark:

“I think that essentially I’m a private person, and to reconcile that with being famous is a hard thing. So I’ve been trying to have my cake and eat it, too – to have my characters be famous yet still live a normal life where I’m not trapped by fame and recognizability.”

This is a good jumping-off point for something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Two points are converging:

  1. Fame has long been a good way to destroy one’s privacy
  2. The last several years have seen the shrinking of the private sphere for everyone

On point 2., it actually tends at the margins to increase 1. – see Michael Richards’ racist rant of the other week, numerous celebrities’ sex tapes, etc. But there’s also the untold hours of CCTV footage, to say nothing of the information on our online lives that Google et al. are constantly gathering.

Borat is a way out – a highly visible, totally outrageous self that aspires to a lack of privacy, and takes (often unwilling, as the hotel clerk who unwittingly appeared in the film) others along for the ride. It’s a way of hiding in plain sight – and for someone who’s famous, that’s often the only way to do it.

But what about the rest of us? How can we hide in plain sight?

On the Internet, if you’re clever and diligent enough, you can surf more or less totally anonymously – but really, most of us aren’t doing that. Out in public, though, it’s becoming harder and harder: ATM records are linked to security footage; cell phone GPS data (i.e., your physical location) is tracked and recorded, as is your car’s location if you’ve got OnStar or its bretheren. It’s not practical for most of us to detatch from the system entirely, and playing a character constantly isn’t really an option, either – for one thing, we don’t all have a Hollywood studio and PAs to pay for everything.

We all leave traces, everywhere, and there are a lot of people (and not-people) watching. I don’t have an answer to the problem of privacy, exactly, but I do have a solution: stop viewing it as a problem. Accept that, at least for right now, there are massive amounts of information about you that are out there, and that lots of people can, if they want, find out lots of things about you. In exceedingly rare cases, they might even try to defraud you (though most of the time, you can get your money back).

But ya know what? This has always been true. People could go to the public records office, or follow you around, look in your windows with binoculars, ask your friends about you, or even mug you. In fact, all of these things happen still. They’re not great, but mostly people do not live in existential fear of unknown others finding out about their home purchases – nor should they do the same about their clickstream data.

What we should do, however, is begin to form sensibilities about just what people ought to do. Peeping-Tom-ism is generally accepted as Not Cool and is, in some cases, potentially illegal. But we got there without mandating that all windows be one-way or that binoculars have a sensor that blurs human forms to counteract potential acts of perversion. We got there through common sense

Similarly, rather than accepting our fate as constantly-trackable name-numbers in a surveillance society, we ought to apply common sense measures for those things that people, non-people (computers), corporations and governments ought to watch us doing. Is my life and liberty threatened by Amazon.com tracking everything I click on in their site and giving me recommendations? No, not really. Do I care particularly about the fact that, when I’m in a city, I’m on camera? Not particularly, no; if I were so paranoid to believe that They were out to get me, I’d hope that I’d also be smart enough to realize that They would probably be able to find me easily even without CCTV. But should corporations be able to buy and collate massive amounts of personal information from governments, and sell the information you give them in, say, warranty registrations, for profit? I’d say probably not.

Not everyone will agree on all these counts, and that’s fine – it’s to be expected. We all make different judgments about a wide range of issues about public and private conduct of people, corporations and government. What we ought to realize is that while there’s no realistic way to hit the “off” switch entirely as concerns availability of personal information, the total-surveillance society is also not a foregone conclusion. We can have opinions and make decisions about these things, and ought to do so.

UPDATE: Apparently there’s something in the miasma around SILS today, because Fred just checked in with remarkably similar thoughts, pertaining specifically to Google’s role in all of this.


Consumer Electronics Break

November 26, 2006

Failure as profound as that of the Microsoft Zune deserves recognition. Via BoingBoing, Andy Ihnatko in the Chicago Sun-Times savages Microsoft’s awful new media device:

Yes, Microsoft’s new Zune digital music player is just plain dreadful. I’ve spent a week setting this thing up and using it, and the overall experience is about as pleasant as having an airbag deploy in your face.

“Avoid,” is my general message. The Zune is a square wheel, a product that’s so absurd and so obviously immune to success that it evokes something akin to a sense of pity.

The setup process stands among the very worst experiences I’ve ever had with digital music players.

“These devices are just repositories for stolen music, and they all know it,” said Doug Morris, CEO of Universal Music Group. “So it’s time to get paid for it.”

Well, Morris is just a big, clueless idiot, of course. Do you honestly want morons like him to have power over your music player?Then go ahead and buy a Zune. You’ll find that the Zune Planet orbits the music industry’s Bizarro World, where users aren’t allowed to do anything that isn’t in the industry’s direct interests.

Take the Zune’s one unique and potentially ginchy feature: Wi-Fi. You see this printed on the box and you immediately think “Cool. So I can sync files from my desktop library without having to plug in a USB cable, right? Maybe even download new content directly to the device from the Internet?”

Typical, selfish user: How does your convenience help make money for Universal? No wonder Doug despises you.

…The Zune is a complete, humiliating failure. Toshiba’s Gigabeat player, for example, is far more versatile, it has none of the Zune’s limitations, and Amazon sells the 30-gig model for 40 bucks less.

Throw in the Zune’s tail-wagging relationship with music publishers, and it almost becomes important that you encourage people not to buy one.

The iPod owns 85 percent of the market because it deserves to. Apple consistently makes decisions that benefit the company, the users and the media publishers — and they continue to innovatively expand the device’s capabilities without sacrificing its simplicity.

Companies such as Toshiba and Sandisk (with its wonderful Nano-like Sansa e200 series) compete effectively with the iPod by asking themselves, “What are the things that users want and Apple refuses to provide?”

Microsoft’s colossal blunder was to knock the user out of that question and put the music industry in its place.

Before returning to the important issues Ihnatko raises there, let’s rub salt in the wound and see just how big and how humiliating the failure is. Currently on Amazon.com, the black Zune is #78 in electronics; the white Zune is #344; the brown (seriously? brown?) Zune is #503.

For purposes of comparison, before the top-selling Zune there are

  • 12 iPods
  • six iPod accessories
  • four other MP3 players

Because I have better things to do (hitting refresh at ESPN.com counts in this instance), I won’t even bother checking how many keychain MP3 players beat out the white Zune, but ya get the idea.

All gloating aside, however, what Ihnatko is talking about is actually pretty much the same thing that Bill Simmons was talking about. Consumers now have a wide range of choice in their media-consumables, and so when existing players like NBC and Microsoft roll out new products designed not around consumers’ needs or desires but primarily to appease their corporate partners/masters, consumers quite un-shockingly say, “No thanks.”

Politicians might want to take a few notes on this count, too.

UPDATE: I’ll note that I was way ahead of Marketwatch on this particular diss.


Rupert Murdoch’s Kingdom of Kitsch

November 23, 2006

In a column that takes the latest lowpoint in American life and letters – O.J. Simpson’s now not-to-be-published “hypothetical” confessional, “If I Did It” – as its jumping-off point, Sidney Blumenthal offers the following observation on Rupert Murdoch:

Murdoch’s media empire is a kingdom of kitsch. Whether as entertainment or news, talk shows or song contests, the aesthetic is consistent. (The ironic social commentary of “The Simpsons,” not to be confused with O.J. Simpson, is the exception that proves that rule.) Murdoch’s programming almost invariably traffics in faux-populist identities of the privileged and powerful battling phantom (liberal) elites. Murdoch-ism aims to unmask the great and the good as charlatans, frauds and crooks, proving that even as they masquerade as worthy they are really as cynical as he is. The programs delight in bullying and humiliating little people to provide vicarious drama for viewers similar in social background to those being embarrassed but who feel bigger and stronger and identify with the cranks posing as domineering father figures. This sadomasochistic exchange appeals to the authoritarian conservative personality. The hip Simon Cowell, host of “American Idol,” is just a variation on the theme of Bill O’Reilly, with the notable difference that he has an actual talent as a music producer. [emphasis added]

This is a key aspect of any authoritarian political project – the recruitment and inclusion of a segment of those to be ruled over as being “in on it.” Murdoch, as usual, is a few steps ahead of the game here – his media empire promotes all the attitudes necessary for an authoritarian culture: deference to authority above all else; mockery of outsiders/minorities; creation and fuelling of moral panics, real and imagined (see the endless coverage of “Amber Alerts,” missing white women and the “War on Christmas”).

What’s both most depressing and most hopeful about the column and a study of Murdoch’s career is just how quickly he has effected many of these changes, especially in American media culture – Fox News is only a decade old. There’s no silver bullet to create a more responsible discourse, but Murdoch’s success shows that a determined effort (and, yes, lots and lots of money) can move the ball pretty far, very quickly.


The Changing Media Landscape

November 22, 2006

Bill Simmons is doing some of the best current American writing right now – and it’s for ESPN.com. He ostensibly has a sports column, but really it’s free-form cultural commentary with sports as the jumping-off point – he frequently (more or less constantly) uses pop-culture analogies to explain sports happenings, and then will turn right around and use sports analogies to explain pop-culture events. This is high cultural-literacy stuff, so it’s not surprising that he provides one of the more cogent analyses of the current state of play in television content that I’ve seen, anywhere, in a recent Friday mail-bag column:

Q: “Friday Night Lights,” the show — your thoughts? I figure it might be up your alley given your love for the “90210,” “O.C.” and such. I’m hooked and I’m not even into those kind of shows. Guilty pleasure.
–Jon Smith, Seattle

SG: I’m sure you’re right. Here’s the problem: I bailed after one episode because the ratings were so low that I assumed the show was getting canceled. After the Sports Gal’s experiences with “Reunion” and “Love Monkey” last year, I didn’t want to get sucked into a show, get attached to the characters, then have it get yanked after seven episodes. So I bailed. Naturally, NBC decided to stick with the show because it built a small but rabid fan base, and now there’s no way to catch up on old episodes because it would be too logical for them to either rerun them two at a time on Saturday nights or on the USA Network so latecomers could catch up (or people like me who gave up because they thought they show would get axed). Now I have to wait to spend $30 on the Season 1 DVD to come out next summer, which is ridiculous because I never wanted to stop watching the show in the first place.

The larger issue: TV networks spend so many time/money/energy pushing their new shows (look at the “Day Break” commercials over the past few weeks), lack the patience to stick with those same shows once they’re on … and then they wonder why we aren’t watching as much TV anymore. I mean, why would I start watching a serial show like “Kidnapped” or “The Nine” when I know there’s a 90 percent chance it’s going to be gone within four weeks, or even within a year? Would you buy a book in the store if you could only read one chapter a week and knew there was a chance the last 20 chapters would disintegrate within six weeks if there weren’t enough people that bought the book? These stupid TV networks blame DVDs, video games, Internet, iPod downloads and everything else for declining ratings, but the real reason more people aren’t watching them is because nobody trusts free networks to keep their shows on the air. At least with HBO, if they’re launching a season of “The Wire” or “Rome,” I know that I’m getting every episode from that season if I start watching. Like with “Friday Night Lights” — if that was an HBO show, I never would have stopped watching after one episode. Since it was an NBC show, I bailed. What does that tell you? [emphasis added]

That’s exactly right, and it’s also exactly the feelings shared by many, many people (something that Simmons is excellent at doing). The broadcast networks have to know this at some level but, because of entrenched procedures and their ad-supported funding structure – and the fact that they almost all use sports as a loss leader, essentially a guaranteed chunk of audience with which to hawk the rest of their (crappy) products – they’re starting from a deficit they fear will grow larger, while the cable networks have their guaranteed pot of money (from subscriptions) and can budget and build from there.

Something, it would seem, has to give. Will the broadcast networks just stop producing original scripted content? It could happen – in fact, NBC has already announced that they will no longer produce scripted content themselves. NBC News President Steve Capus said upon that announcement, “We’ve been a TV business that dabbles in digital. Now, we’re positioning as a news content-production center going forward that happens to do television.”

That seems to be a pretty broad admission that amounts to – yup, we got beat. So now, only a few years removed from total content dominance (“Seinfeld,” “Frasier,” “Friends,” etc.), NBC is giving up the ghost to focus on its more profitable properties – the evening news and its cable news channels, supplemented by reality TV and gameshows. Except – the evening news continues to hemhorrage viewers, and the number of viewers of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC combined is a fraction of any of the old broadcast networks’ audience. In other words – in its retreat to safe territory, NBC (and the other broadcast networks) might find the territory no longer so safe.

Viewers – rightly – no longer have any particular loyalty to any particular media channel. If it’s not delivering, there’s always another place to look, and the cost of changing is, more or less, zero. The networks, or any other media outlet, are only as good as their latest content, and if they stop even trying to differentiate their content – to take risks and be different – what good are they?


Climate Change and Authority

November 22, 2006

At some point I’m going to get back to writing about Facebook and crap like that. But these things just keep popping up, or maybe my radar’s tuned into a particular frequency right now. Andrew Leonard writes in “How the World Works” at Salon about the accident that is human civilization:

Some 6,000 years ago, vast streteches of the globe where large numbers of humans lived entered a period of increasing aridity. Around the same time, the first great civilizations of the world — in North Africa, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and Northern China — began to emerge.

The two developments are not coincidental, argues Nick Brooks, a professor at the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research and School of Environmental Sciences in the U.K., in a paper published in 2005 that is considerably more fascinating than its title: “Cultural Responses to Aridity in the Middle Holocene and Increased Social Complexity.” His thesis is that this great desiccation forced then existing societies to change drastically in order to survive, setting in motion processes of social stratification and urbanization.


Biopact reports:

[Brooks] stressed that for many, if not most people, the development of civilization meant a harder life, less freedom, and more inequality. The transition to urban living meant that most people had to work harder in order to survive, and suffered increased exposure to communicable diseases. Health and nutrition are likely to have deteriorated rather than improved for many.

“Having been forced into civilized communities as a last resort, people found themselves faced with increased social inequality, greater violence in the form of organised conflict, and at the mercy of self-appointed elites who used religious authority and political ideology to bolster their position. These models of government are still with us today, and we may understand them better by understanding how civilization arose by accident as a result of the last great global climatic upheaval.”

Civilization: a horrible accident forced upon us by climate change. We can only shudder at the prospects of further accidents, waiting to happen.

The implications here are fairly obvious – if the (not actually existential, at least for residents of the global North) threat of terrorism isn’t entirely successful as a device for ushering in a new authoritarian politics, then you can be sure that the actually existential threat of global climate change will be used in that capacity. Most mainstream politicians in the United States – save for the ones currently occupying the White House and Naval Observatory – are more or less convinced that climate change is a serious problem requiring serious action. That’s good, but it’s also worth noting what, exactly, will come to fall under the rubric of “serious” action.


More on the Identity of Authority; UCLA; Tasers

November 17, 2006
  • Digby has an important commentary on the incident and the history of taser over-use, here and links to a disturbing “In These Times” report, here.
  • The “wall posts” at the Facebook group, “UCLA’s UCPD Brutality” follow the same pattern as the earlier YouTube thread, if slightly less vile.
  • BoingBoing has more on the incident and response by UCLA’s Chancellor, “essentially blaming the student for going to the library without his student card in his pocket.”
  • The messageboard at TuckerMax.com has just about the kind of thread you’d expect where the proprietor describes police tasering a student as “really funny”

It’s worth noting that this moment contains the possibility for genuine political debate in this country. Most political conversations are extraordinarily contrived affairs, responding not to actual events but to the months-planned PR strategies of interested parties, but every once in a while there are events that are genuinely interesting or shocking enough that people respond to them with their genuine thoughts and feelings. As we see in this case, that’s not always the most pleasant thing. But it is honest – and that’s a start.