August 31, 2003

That's not Hi-Cool, that's Genocide!

On the general theory that it is as well to know which tunes the devil is playing, I usually pick up a copy of the New Statesman each time I visit England. (I used to read it more often on line, but since they instituted a pay-per-view system for all on line content, I've always ended up deciding that there are better ways to spend my allowance. For the price of a single NS article, you can get half a pint of lager in London, for instance: a much better deal, if you ask me.)

Sadly, the 1 September issue is pretty much a snooze. No Pilger. No Neil Clark. Nothing from Andrew Stephen except a virtual puff piece on Arnold Schwarzenegger. No discernible flirtation with anti-Semitism, even. (Really.) There's a vague "George Bush's Global Warming Will Kill Us All" theme. We find the usual surly, but more or less half-hearted, slaps at America, Americans, liberals, "neoliberals", The Rich, globalists, et al. running through its pages, but only rarely rising to what I'd call true New Statesman Hysteria. A silly yet tepid bit of scare quote-laden hair-splitting Mugabe revisionism is probably the most New Statesmanlike piece of the bunch, the familiar, bitter, sarcastic rhetoric, in the context, almost evoking nostalgia: "Robert Mugabe-- horrid, horrid HORRID Mugabe." (The point of the article-review being, I believe, that while Mugabe may well be horrid, we need to put the horridness in the proper context and that capitals and italics go too far. There are loads of "tyrants" [punctuation sic] just as horrid: why pick on him? Now that's what I call Classic New Statesman.)

All in all, though, the New Statesmen appear to be a shadow of their former selves. It's rather sad. I was a bit surprised at all the yuppie-ish, almost Bridget Jones-flavored, "lifestyle" content, on wine, Food, Travel, ice cream, and so forth. Maybe that has always been a feature, but I'd never noticed it before. Flipping idly through the back pages while waiting around for something or other, I had the distinct impression that I'd picked up someone's discarded United Airlines in-flight magazine by mistake.

I did quite enjoy, however, the piece by Dan Rosenheck on the politics of air conditioning. Or rather, I suppose I should say, "the American cultural construct of air conditioning." In fact, Rosenheck himself adopts a reserved, wry (rather than bitter) tone attempting to limn the repugnant "culture of comfort" that makes air conditioning so inexplicably popular in America. Still, it's pretty clear that his sympathies lie with the characteristic (and in light of recent events, ominous) European "why can't they just open a window?" attitude. (I don't suppose anyone who has travelled through AC-free Europe in the summer would disagree that Europeans seem to value comfort a bit less than we do. Many of us find this charming as well as curious and inconvenient. However, last month when I was in Tuscon, where it was 114 degrees in the shade, I did try opening a window once, just for the hell of it. Let's just say I'll never do that again.)

The article itself, however, for me, is a mere framing device for a couple choice quotes from what appears to be an entire anti-air conditioning book by one Marsha Ackermann. (Cool Comfort: America's Romance with Air Conditioning.) "[Americans] don't think about when they need to use air conditioning and when they don't," she says. "They don't think about other values in their lives." Guilty as charged, I suppose. I'm all about the AC as anyone who knows me knows.

If you like your culture clash rhetoric sardonic and dripping with scorn (I do), Ackermann is your woman. Here's my fave:

"[Suburbanites] thought of the home as a refuge from all kinds of unpleasant outside forces, like racial issues and the big bad city versus the pleasant suburban countryside... Escape from heat became part of this idea that the home was safe from these nasty forces which would weaken the US and make it vulnerable to conquest by its enemies.

It takes a real pro to construe air conditioning as form of racism. If the New Statesman wants to recapture a bit of the old fire, they could do worse than hiring Ackermann as their regular air conditioning correspondent.

Posted by Dr. Frank at August 31, 2003 11:05 AM | TrackBack

I suppose one can't conclude that all limeys are nuts based on Ackerman's screed, but it does make one wonder. (Yes, I'm assuming she's British - please correct me if I'm wrong.)

Someone living in the British Isles condemning air conditioning as an unnecessary luxury of lazy, spoiled Americans is a lot like someone living in Miami condemning the Brits as spoiled wussies for heating their homes in the winter. (Yeah, OK, present summer excepted, but I doubt this book was written last week.)

Posted by: Barbara Skolaut at August 31, 2003 02:56 PM

At the time of the book (last year), and apparently up until February of this year, Ackermann was a lecturer at Eastern Michigan University. Her name is no longer listed on the department's page, and I couldn't find where she might be now. I admit I didn't try very hard.

I was looking for an indication that she had not been raised in a cold climate. I reject the authority of any damn Michigander to lecture me on air conditioning.

Posted by: Angie Schultz at August 31, 2003 07:10 PM

"[Americans] don't think about when they need to use air conditioning and when they don't," she says. "They don't think about other values in their lives."

I can't tell what's going on here. If she's just lauding asceticism for its own sake, then it does seem pretty odd to leave this "other values" stuff totally unspecified. But it's certainly true that CFCs (like Freon) that have been used in air conditioning contribute to ozone depletion etc. and in that circumstance using AC does constitute a choice between competing values. Even if one doesn't feel very strongly about global warming and so on, it seems silly not to recognize the tradeoff itself. Anyway, one would think that to the extent that there's a sociological argument here, it would be really an adjunct of an environmental argument. Puzzling stuff.

Posted by: spacetoast at August 31, 2003 07:33 PM

why continue with the racism theory and get to the real issue, which is economics? i like the concept of her air conditioning book but if her theory goes racial, she's a racist like all the others and failed to rise above. sorta a step on the path though so, hopefully she'll take the next one and others will see through.

Posted by: athena at September 1, 2003 12:17 AM

Americans don't need air conditioning. Ackermann's cold air oughta do the trick.

For an opposing viewpoint (registration required):

Posted by: JB at September 1, 2003 12:44 AM

I guess air-conditioning is racist -- it seems to hate the French race. Whazzit now, 12,000 dead people because it got a little hot out? Jesus ...

(I know, a terrible thing to say, but somebody was going to say it so it might as well be me, since I actually *like* France ... but not in goddamned August!)

Posted by: Ken Layne at September 1, 2003 12:45 AM

Actually, France & the rest of Europe can be fab in August (I was married there in late July, and it were purty), but this year has been an un-airconditioned nightmare, obviously.

Maybe I've been around the freedom-lovers of Reason magazine for too long, but doesn't air conditioning rank as one of the great unheralded contributors to 20th century liberty? For one, Layne's parents were in the air conditioning business. Also, no freon = no Las Vegas....

Posted by: Matt Welch at September 1, 2003 01:11 AM

I was in the south of France last August and it was gorgeous -- warm, sunny but almost totally devoid of humidity. Returning to England was miserable.

Ackerman is a nut. I can see why her views would get some play in the UK, though; if people here didn't have the goddamned weather to whinge about, they just might shrivel up and die.

Posted by: Jackie D at September 1, 2003 11:50 AM

"[Americans] don't think about when they need to use air conditioning and when they don't," she says.

This makes me laugh good and hard. As an American, I can say that I use air conditioning when the temperature is high. So, yes, I would hazard a guess that every American thinks about when it is or is not proper to turn on the ac. Christ. This quote is so loony it sounds like she thinks we may turn on the ac during a blizzard for the decandence of it all.

Posted by: infamouse at September 1, 2003 10:56 PM

Heh. Good point, linden. My father has a whole system of rules about when the central air can be turned out (I've never figured them out, but I know it DEFINITELY never comes on before May).

What struck me during the recent, brief heatwave in the UK was the total absence of ceiling fans in this country. I was describing them to a friend, who made a face and said, "It sounds like a big health and safety hazard to me." Well, not if you're shorter than 8 feet tall and don't walk into the centre of a room with small children on your shoulders.

Posted by: Jackie D at September 1, 2003 11:16 PM

There are no ceiling fans?!?! Are there huge windows to compensate for the stagnant air? Dear lord. Although I suppose the huge windows would not be good during the winter...

Has the author of that book ever traveled to the US? I dare her to visit the US and live here during the spring and the summer without any air conditioning! She has to live in the South. Alabama? Georgia? Even Virginia will do.

You've not felt what hell must be like until you've lived with 98 degrees and 98% humidity. It's like a sauna in half the country during the summer.

Posted by: infamouse at September 2, 2003 12:36 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?