Goose a few newspaper journalists these days and they're likely to exclaim something about why Americans should care about saving their industry. And it's likely to sound something like this: "Without us protecting the public as investigative watchdogs, government corruption is going to run amok!"
Which might be a compelling point, were it not for five little things:
So let's try this another way, shall we? Sure, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with newspapers conducting investigative journalism -- in fact, I hope they choose to do more of it. But let's consider for a moment the possibility that newspapers have done at least as much to encourage bad behavior by government and business as they've done to curb it.
Ultimately, the problem with cynicism is that it's not nearly as predictively accurate as cynics believe.
Despite all cynical evidence to the contrary, we do not live in the worst of all possible worlds. And as bad as our circumstances may be, we can take comfort in the fact that the great cynical tradition has always predicted far worse outcomes.
Which is largely why, at this genuinely rotten moment in American history, staring at the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, I'm more optimistic than I have a right to be. It's not that I'm counting on our political leaders to be godlike protectors, or that I think technology or some other deux ex machina will descend from the heavens and pull our sausage out of the skillet at the last possible second.
Rather, I suspect that life is a little like friction in reverse. Logic may command that our corrupt and ugly species is doomed to misery, and indeed when you examine the forces at work, it's easy to agree. But there's just something about people and civilization that quietly, almost magically, wears on that inevitability.
I can't explain it. But it's how we got here.
The cynics really hate that, too.
Lowcountry Local First came about around the time I was pitching my previous employer a "Shop Local" online/print guide to locally owned business organized by products and services. That idea went nowhere, but LLF has been growing and becoming increasingly influential ever since. Tonight I attended my first meeting at One Cool Blow for a speech by Laury Hammel.
The shtick for the Local First movement is as simple as it is profound: Spend $100 with local independent businesses and $45 stays in the community (where it's subject to the local multiplier effect). Spend that same $100 with a national chain and only $15 sticks around. The rest "leaks" right out of town.
The movement is well under way, and its next step (a change from "building awareness" to "real, concrete behavioral change") is the "Ten Percent Shift." You sign a pledge to shift -- not expand -- 10 percent of your budgeted spending from national chains to local independents.
What's that worth to Charleston? Well, a study in Grand Rapids, Mich., concluded it would mean 1,600 new jobs, $53 million in wages, and a $137 million economic impact. Our MSA is home to about 640,00 people. Grand Rapids' is about 777,000. Your mileage may vary.
Hammel quotes after the jump.
No. 1 in my series of Great Rejected Freelance Ideas.
Politely Celebrating Bad Poetry
Charleston is a deeply and pleasantly anti-intellectual city with a proud heritage of pretend cultural achievements, and despite attracting any number of great thinkers and artists "from off" over the years, it has long managed to sustain a native artistic class of singular non-distinction.
Nowhere is this heritage more overtly displayed than in the field of poetry, where Lowcountry muses, the essential Charleston social impulse and vast quantities of adult beverages have combined to create a tradition in which the befuddled sons and matronly daughters of the aristocracy hold exquisitely catered lunches and teas to celebrate the barely literate writings of their comfortably overwrought cousins. While these events remain somewhat popular here, actual poetry is generally preferred in other great cities, with the possible exception of Boca Raton.
See also: "Archibald Rutledge."
The Church of England was tremendously influential in the development of colonial America, and as many Charlestonians continue to ponder whether permanent separation from the Crown would be a wise course of action, our connection to The Church of England remains strong. Charlestonians are typically shocked -- if not violently alarmed -- when informed that the Episcopal Church is no longer the largest in the city, much less the rest of the country (where Episcopalians come in ahead of the Jews, but trail those damned Pentecostals) .
It has been said of the local denomination that "Wherever you find four Episcopalians together in Charleston, you're sure to find a fifth." This peculiar Lowcountry sect, known as "Whiskeypalianism," has its strongholds in the city's two historic churches, St. Philip's and St. Michael's. Pews and seating arrangements in these churches are subject to elaborate protocols, many of them allegedly established by the city's 18th century social registry, elements of which remain in effect to this day. The faithful now spend much of their time writing letters to the editor against the ordination of gay bishops and spiking the punch at the rectory.
See also: "Secession and Other Charleston Pastimes."
While America was founded upon egalitarian ideals, Charleston and the Lowcountry were founded by Lords Proprietors who were interested mainly in making a quick buck and remaining happily marinated throughout as much of the day as their livers would allow. We witness this entitled heritage of pickled privilege today on various civic and charitable boards, societies and commissions, but also during walks around the city, where it is not uncommon to be confronted by natives who are prevented only by federal intervention from the practice of releasing their hounds upon anyone who stops to peer through the fence at their landscaping.
Though other great eastern cities preserve remnants of an aristocratic past, Americans have generally rejected the idea that all power and status should be conferred upon an elect class, graced by god with superior wisdom, gravitas and insight via their family name and fortune. Charlestonians consider such thinking ill-bred and tacky.
See also: "Carolina Yacht Club."
Romanticizing People You Used to Own
The wealth of the Lowcountry was created by slaves kidnapped from Africa and preserved by an ante bellum system that depressed the earnings of free white farmers and tradesmen. Though eventually destroyed by Yankees and rejected by the civilized world, that system remains a wistful memory of perfection South of Broad, where the aristocracy enjoys the certain belief that their families' former slaves were beloved, simple servants, and that all the brutality of the plantation era was somehow the fault of viscous overseers from the white middle class.
Though an extremely popular view locally (witnessed in the endlessly patronizing aristocratic celebrations of Gullah culture, sweetgrass basketweaving and Philip Simmons), the bizarre arms-length embrace of local blacks by local blue-bloods has failed to permeate the rest of the American psyche, where such behavior is considered not only racist and deluded, but also extremely creepy.
See also: "Acceptable uses of the term 'Darkies.'"
The old homeless man you may have noticed shambling through the Harris Teeter is actually not homeless: He lives in one of the finest historic houses on the peninsula, serves on several charitable boards, and is worth several million dollars. And he's perfectly harmless, unless you happen to be a woman forced by unfortunate circumstance to ride with him alone on an elevator.
See also: "Charleston City Council" and "#meatwaffles."
See "Aristocracy" and "Excessive Eccentricity."
Flamboyantly Closeted Homosexuality
Charleston is a gay city where no one from the native population admits to being homosexual. This bizarre affectation gives many of the city's top social events all the farcical cheek of a Noel Coward romp. From senators to shop keepers to solicitors, dandy Charleston bachelors make life here delightfully clever and stylish.
See also: "Spoleto."
Alcoholism As Civic Virtue
Charleston's early attempts at developing an intellectual class (See also "Unitarians, Lutherans and Other Nerds") were generally drowned out by the efforts of the Whiskeypalians. Though Whiskeypalians were not well known for their accomplishments, their parties tended to be far more entertaining, or at least far better stocked.
This historic trend is explained in a popular joke: "When you meet a Yankee, he'll ask you what you do for a living. When you meet a Southerner, she'll ask you who your people are. And when you meet a Charlestonian, he'll ask you 'What'll you have to drink?'" Charlestonians think this is a real hoot.
Natives view extreme forms of sobriety with outright hostility and moderate levels of indulgence with wary suspicion. In fact, it is possible to view the totality of Charleston history as a protracted frat party gone horribly awry.
See also: "Holy City."
I wrote my last post more for me than for anyone else, because it's just godawful long. Here it is, in more considerate list form, for you, dear readers:
I owe my patriotic sentimentality to my mother, a teacher from Iowa who encouraged me to read and spent the early 1970s prowling yard sales for age-appropriate books about American history, which I promptly consumed. It is because of her that I worshiped Thomas Jefferson above all the other founding fathers, carrying his ideal of intellectual egalitarianism well into my adult life.
Last week she sent me an email titled "Thomas Jefferson's sayings in light of today." My hackles rose before I even opened it, since poor red-haired TJ has become the Patron Saint of Liberty in modern America, cited by all sides as proof of their fundamental wisdom and Americanism. And Mom joined me in ambivalence: "Don't know how I feel about a lot of these ... but it is interesting!"
Interesting and deeply bothersome is how I'd put it.
"When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe."
"The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work, and give to those who are not."
"It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle, which if acted on, would save one-half the wars of the world."
"I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them."
And so on. In short, the collection presents an American icon as Ron Paul with a pony tail, a Libertarian genius standing athwart history and shouting "Stop!" For every anxious American worried about the future of the country under Democratic leadership, this collection reads like Jefferson's j'accuse from beyond the grave.
Which brings me, this Presidents Day, to an uncomfortable duty. I come to argue not only with one of my greatest heroes, but in doing so, to argue for a new understanding of this particular moment in history. Because I believe we are in the midst of the fourth America revolution.
On my recent trip to North Carolina, I got to spend the night at my godfather's house, way back in the woods in Brown's Summit where I grew up. He was often a bachelor in those days, but for almost two decades he's been happily mated to the same wonderful woman. The youngest of their two sons is almost ready for college now, and the four of us spent a few hours around the woodburning stove last week talking about how the world has changed.
Our buddy Dave Slusher makes excellent points about why using tables (the pre-CSS structure for web design) is often more efficient than using CSS for a lot common Web tasks. Even as a CSS-purist (in theory, anyway... in my own work, I still often use tables) I found his latest post on the subject both funny and thought-provoking.
While I'll cede the point, I do want to make one case for exception: The larger and more complex your site is, the more benefits you accrue from semantic web purity. Not today, of course, but moving into the unknowable future. If you're archiving a lot of data and documents, the extra effort you put into keeping your content / presentation division pure could be the difference between profiting from your work and facing an enormous and expensive data-recovery project.
Having worked for a news website, in which previous management had used tables and frames and inline styles and -- well, just about anything that struck their fancy, apparently -- it became obvious that starting over would be easier than trying to upgrade the existing site. And, since I believe the real value of big sites in Web 3.0 will be their machine readability (not just their searchability), trying to convert non-semantic sites to Semantic Web functionality will become a big issue during the 2010s..
CSS works poorly today because some browser makers (not to mention any names, MICROSOFT) refuse to work together on compliance. Consequently, EVERYTHING about web design remains a series of hacks and compromises. But this is a temporary condition: XML functionality is going to drive the next wave of Web profit, and for that to pay off, browsers are going to have to start rewarding sites that translate code properly.
The idea of a Semantic Web begins with the notion that content and presentation are separated for a reason. We're about 10 years in, and we're still waiting for the consistent browser support that will make that effort worthwhile. Since most companies focus on the now, there's really just no reason to fret about Web standards compliance. But if you're thinking ahead to the unpredictable future, here's one thing I think we can know: Whatever that future brings, it's likely to be based on XML.
If you build around that, I suspect it will wind up being worth it. But it's an investment, and investments involve risk and suspended gratification.
Dear John Podesta:
Needless to say, I was severely disappointed when my last letter to you (on Nov. 14, my follow-up to my original correspondence titled 'GREETINGS FROM YOUR NEXT SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES') went unanswered. And yes, I was particularly hurt to learn that you'd filled my position with Tom Daschle, a.k.a. "Douchey McDouchebag."
I mean really. Was anybody in Washington surprised about that whole town car/tax thing? Puh-leez. Hell, I've done Jello Shooters off a candy-striper's smock with the man, and if that's what the President meant by "a passionate commitment to affordable health care," then have at it. What on earth were you thinking? The putz couldn't even win a senate race against John Thune, for crying out loud. John Thune!
So here's the deal, Podesta: After the past few weeks it's pretty clear you guys on the "transition" team couldn't hit water if you fell out of a boat, so I'm going to dispense with the niceties and talk plainly. You need an HHS secretary and I need a job. So let's quit dancing around this thing and do some real business.
Worried about confirmation hearings? Here are my qualifications:
I could go on, but that would be gilding the lily. So no more bullshit, John. Hire me. Otherwise, a little bird will be telling a little story to a little Washington Post reporter about a little trip to Juarez with Tippi Hedren, Max Von Sydow, the chairman of Lehman Brothers and a sweet little donkey named Pepi. Got it?