Sunday, December 26, 2010

Santa Brought American Studies Loot!

Finals are finally over! I hope every one is having a relaxing break with family & friends!

It's the day after christmas & I'm wondering: what did Santa bring all the American Studies Majors?

I had a particularly fortuitous christmas this year: lots of cookies and lots of american pop-culture paraphernalia! Or as news-satirist-extraordinaire, Stephen Colbert tweeted this morning "I got everything for Christmas! That's right: I asked for everything!"

Here's a run-down of the best gifts I found under my tree, hoping to see yours as well!

#1. The Best American Essays of the Century (edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan)

I never thought I'd say this, but boy was I glad to find this 568-page-book Christmas morning! This hefty collection includes the finest American essayists (some of my included favorites: E.B. White, Joan Didion, James Baldwin & Mark Twain) and aims to be "more or less a chronological story of America as the century unfolded." God-willing and sans-homework, I'll be able to make a dent in it before next semester. Perhaps the reading will prepare me for my American Studies class in the Spring, "American Voice"? Who says a Christmas present can't kill two birds with one stone?

#2. DVD Box Set of The Pacific

Produced by box-office-hit makers Stephen Speilberg and Tom Hanks, The Pacific (debuted on HBO in 2001) recounts the true stories of marines who fought against the Japanese in World War II. Now, I am no history or war- buff, but as a media junkie I can attest that this miniseries is exciting, moving and most of all: addicting. So it's probably best to get started watching now, seeing as starting it during the semester may become dangerous to your G.P.A.


In my opinion, definitely one of Mel Brooks' bests! This Star Wars parody hit the screens in 1987 and made fun of just about every American stereotype under the sun: no gender, race or religion was left mercy! Regardless, it's pretty hilarious. It also pokes fun at shameless product placement and Star Wars' movie merchandising: an important shift in the American movie business. Star Wars was the first film to prove that merchandising can make just as much, if not more than box office revenue. Here, director George Lucas decided to trade in a small writer's/director's fee for 40% of the Star Wars merchandising rights. A wise move on Lucas' part, as the film made 4.2 billion worldwide, the merchandise took in double that! This was actually a test question on my Media Industries final last year: What did the American movie business learn from Star Wars? I wrote: Merchandising = $$$ (Thanks Professor Brian Rose!)

Mel Brooks as the treacherous President Skroob sniffs 'Perri-Air'

Screenshot of Spaceballs: The Toilet Paper

Evil-Villain Pizza-the-Hutt

Now that I think about it, this post itself seems a bit like one big product placement. Apologies, I assure you no company has endorsed me to blog about this! It's just that since it's the holidays, expect me to be reading less primary (scholarly) works and more pop-culture media texts!

Friday, December 3, 2010


We were talking about cabritismo at dinner the other night. Cabrito is goat in Portuguese. A goat, when tied to a post, will eat all the grass in its reach, down to the roots, denuding the ground in a sweeping circle along the radius of his line. Cabritismo is this ultimately self-defeating greed.

Mozambican friends claim that it is standard practice in business here. An employee skims away at the margins of his or her employer's business, even at the risk of threatening his or her own employment by bringing down the company. Our dinner guest told us about a rather heroic newspaper editor here who's been running an opposition paper. Among many of the daily, petty thefts he dealt with, we learned about an elaborate scheme to steal a few hundred newspapers each week as they were delivered from the printer; not much in money, but enough to make it even harder for him to run his business.

Coincidentally, the next morning over coffee, I read this passage, from a piece by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, on Adam Smith's archetypal idea, the invisible hand:

…one can't grasp the idea of the invisible hand without the balancing idea of the imaginary inner witness. All those [inner] moral judges are what let the invisible hand work….The narrow animal instinct is not to trade and exchange and invest; it is to hoard and guard and pillage. The acquired human trait is the market trait, and it depends on trust, sympathy. To see what happens in the absence of trust, one need only consider the recent history of the developing world; if there is not civic capital, a network of trust, already in place, "privatization" just produces kleptocracy.

So, here is Adam Smith in 1776 understanding perfectly the cabristismo that markets, without sympathy and trust, produce. My wariness of neoliberal American ideas about unregulated markets is rather unexpectedly confirmed by looking west from Mozambique.

Focusing my gaze here, in Maputo, I see something I understand as history in action, something known intellectually, but now felt and observed. "Market man" is nothing natural, but a being cultivated--out of cultural habits, daily practices, and regulated rules of the game. I watch this cultivation in Mozambique with perhaps the same ambivalence that Adam Smith watched the unfolding of early capitalist marketplaces. Mozambique is galloping along in its development, but will it do so in ways that spark trust more often than cabritismo?

Developing States & Developing Nations: More Comparisons

I like Kaylyn's post on developing states in the United States. Here in Mozambique, we have been talking about the release of the latest Human Development Index by the United Nations.

It's always interesting and worthwhile to look at how the United States fares. Fascinatingly the United States jumped up to number 4 on the HDI this year** (had not been in the top 10 before) because of a new way of calculating the index that takes into account the average years of schooling. (Mozambique still remains in the bottom 5 by they way--165th of 169 countries.)

But check out the Gender Inequality Index**, where the U.S. ranks only 37th. Note our much higher maternal mortality rates and adolescent fertility rates--all tied to the politics of health care and reproductive rights in the U.S. Also check out our 17% women in Congress, vs. 39% for #1 Netherlands, and 47% for #3 Sweden.

**Note: have to click through the links to download pdf for full index.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

American exceptionalism in the news

One of the more arcane of the keywords of American studies--"exceptionalism"--is currently in the news, as several Republicans have recently either denounced President Obama for not believing in American exceptionalism (despite the fact that he has publicly asserted that he does) or given speeches arguing for a restoration of a belief in American exceptionalism.

Here's a link to a front-page Washington Post story on the subject. I'd be interested in comments from readers of this blog, especially if you've read something about "exceptionalism" that you think would contribute to the discussion.