Saturday, February 23, 2008

Public intellectuals aren’t dead; they just have a new face

Deciding what qualifies an individual as a public intellectual would be an exhaustive or merely impossible task. As USC Professor Stephen Mack put it on his website, “…our notions of the public intellectual need to focus less on who or what a public intellectual is—and by extension, the qualifications for getting and keeping the title. Instead, we need to be more concern with the work public intellectuals must do, irrespective of who happens to be doing it.”

In my opinion, most modern “public intellectuals” (I will let you decide who you believe to be a public intellectual) are of a different breed than those of the past. With a high-tech society and more room in the media for controversial topics (such as global warming, religion, sex, genetics) I believe many public intellectuals today are those that are experts in his/her field and may venture beyond their expertise but more often use what they know to create awareness and help others. As Professor Mack put it, “What is sometimes identified as anti-intellectualism is in fact intellectual—that is, a well articulated family of ideas and arguments that privilege the practical, active side of life (e.g., work) over the passive and purely reflective operations of the mind in a vacuum.”

A scholarly individual who writes extensively about a very abstract discipline may be highly respected in their field among his/her colleagues, however I believe they play less of a social role than those whose fields play into modern culture, religion, politics, etc. I think public intellectuals play a substantial role today in the way people view different topics. Now, there is a fine line, I believe, between expertise and opinion, which I will get into later. There are individuals who are very opinionated but are regarded as public intellectuals.

A lot of intellectuals today, who would be considered “public,” in my opinion, are those whose names become household in the various disciplines. Public intellectuals are brought on TV shows and news shows to comment on various topics. Other public intellectuals speak at college campuses. Others don’t leave their house or office. But I believe those who are remembered and continually referenced by the public are those that appear online, in print and on TV.

Modern public intellectuals may not carry as much influence as those in the past; it’s hard to say. I can speculate, that to a certain degree, public intellectuals today (however many you believe there to be) are as much respected and appreciated for their expertise as those from the past. I don’t believe Americans need to be led by public intellectuals, as there are other ways to stay well informed. But, public intellectuals have the ability to influence others and bring rich insight into others’ lives.

Modern day “public intellectuals”

Dr. David Drew Pinsky, better known as “Dr. Drew,” is an American board certified internist and addiction medicine specialist. He has authored three books and is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the USC Keck School of Medicine. He is the Medical Director of the Department of Chemical Dependency Services at Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena, CA and is a staff member at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, CA. But, most people that know of Dr. Drew don’t know any of this. This is just simply part of his background.

Dr. Drew has been the host and addiction medicine specialist for many years on a daily late-night radio television program called “Loveline” on 106.7 FM in Los Angeles. However, “Loveline” is broadcast throughout the majority of the country on various radio channels. The idea of this program is people, usually teens and young adults, call in to talk to Dr. Drew about their issues with adolescence, drugs, family, sex, etc. You name it, it’s been talked about. If you listen to the program, you can tell that Dr. Drew takes this job quite seriously and is genuinely interested in helping people (even though he’s getting paid to do it). This dialogue between Dr. Drew, one other host, and the various callers that call in are basically what makes up this radio program. It’s intriguing and informative to hear what callers have to say and what kind of advice Dr. Drew gives to each caller. Dr. Drew, the majority of the time, does not give his opinion, from what I can tell, but just his objective medical advice.

Dr. Drew also has a show on Discovery Health Channel called “Strictly Dr. Drew” where he addresses everyday health issues. Dr. Drew often appears on news channels such as CNN, MSNBC and shows like “Ellen” and “Oprah” where he gives his medical advice. Dr. Drew even has his own MySpace page. So, does this make him just some doctor that goes on TV and the radio? No. This is a qualified and seasoned doctor who uses his expertise to make young adults aware of modern-day issues. He speaks to a much larger audience than just his colleagues. Dr. Drew is a modern day public intellectual.

Then, we have someone like Ann Coulter. A lot of people think she is insane. Rightfully so. However, there are arguments that this woman is a “public intellectual.” As much as I don’t care to acknowledge this, it is a possibility, depending on a person’s idea of what a public intellectual is. Coulter is well educated, published and experienced in the fields of law and politics, but also, as we all know, incredibility extreme, outspoken and stubborn in her views (of which could be considered very close-minded.) But, she does play some kind of social function I suppose.

On Coulter’s website, it says in her biography that she was “named one of the top 100 Public Intellectuals by federal judge Richard Posner in 2001.” Funny. An opinion by a federal judge doesn’t mean that much. But they made sure to include that in her bio. People may dislike Ann Coulter for her radical opinions, but they still make sure to bring her on their news programs. She still speaks at college campuses. This has to mean people still want to hear what she has to say, even if what she’s saying makes them squint.

Within public intellectualism, in the case of Ann Coulter, this is where the lines of expertise and experience blur with opinion and bias. The blur is pretty apparent here. Coulter may have some sort of expertise but her viewpoint seems to out do her intelligence. It is up to the public (on an individual basis) to decide whether or not she is an intellectual. Check this out for starters.

Modern day public intellectualism, with the rapid growth of technology, appears to make it even more difficult to decide who qualifies as a “public intellectual,” as more individuals’ perspectives and ideas are exposed into the public. Not all public intellectuals may be a special class of academics anymore, as public intellectuals penetrate the realm of more realistic, rational and everyday life issues. These type of public intellectuals, like Dr. Drew Pinksy, are the types of intellectuals that benefit the public and don’t just serve as abstract figures that write abstract essays to collect dust. They make a difference in people’s lives.


Saturday, February 9, 2008

Beyond the cotton

One Los Angeles-based clothing manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer isn’t just interested in selling t-shirts. American Apparel Inc. is also interested in sex, immigration issues and paying their employees higher wages. CEO, creative director and founder Dov Charney has created a new, controversial face for basic clothing around the world and the consumer appears to approve.

American Apparel Inc.’s work environment, sexy ad campaigns and comfortable wares make them appeal to both the employee and the consumer. But there’s more to it than what meets the eye and the sewing needle.

The company, which manufactures mostly solid-color clothing, for the purpose of wholesaling, silkscreening and their own retail, was first founded in Canada by Charney, a Montreal native, and moved to Los Angeles in 1997. American Apparel is a vertically-integrated company, which means Charney controls all phases of production. In 2004, Charney told the Los Angeles Business Journal, “I want to create a new platform for the future. It’s less about sweatshop-free because that sounds like charity. It’s more about a program of efficiency that dwarfs full capitalism and creates the new form of capitalism.”

American Apparel’s racy advertisements, which usually feature young women wearing no more than a little fabric in positions not designed for yoga, turn heads. The ads feature women who Charney says he often approaches on the street who are not professional models. The women wear either little or not makeup and no retouching is applied to the photo, giving off a raw sexual vibe. On the American Apparel website, there is a link devoted solely to “provocative ads.” ( Charney told the New York Times (reported by ABC News) that his advertisements, which he often photographs himself, are his way of recognizing “contemporary adult and sexual freedom.” American Apparel can prove that sex sells. In 2006, the company made over $300 million in sales. The retail chain has stores in 14 countries around the world including the U.S., Israel, Japan, France, Canada, Mexico, Germany, U.K. and more.

Not only has American Apparel’s sexually charged advertisements gathered media attention, but Charney’s eccentric and sexual behavior as well. Charney claims to have slept with employees. He has also photographed himself nearly naked for advertisement purposes, however the ads never ran. It is also reported that he masturbated several times while being interviewed by a reporter from Jane magazine. (Los Angeles Times) Charney acknowledges that he has appeared in his underwear in front of employees. (Los Angeles Times)

In 2005, 3 women filed sexual harassment suits against him, 2 of which were dismissed and one settled. Another case was just recently filed against Charney by a former employee and is being processed. Mary Nelson, 36, claims Charney conducted business dressed only in his underwear and used words such as “sluts” to refer to women. Nelson claims that she was fired when she consulted a lawyer. Charney’s lawyers said in court documents that “American Apparel is a sexually charged workplace where employees of both genders deal with sexual conduct, speech and images as part of their jobs.” (Los Angeles Times)

Charney has made a voice for American Apparel on immigration issues. In late 2007, American Apparel placed an ad in the New York Times that supports the integration of undocumented workers. It says, “At what point are we going to recognize that status quo amounts to an apartheid system? At what point will America stop living in a state of denial?...At American Apparel we support out workers. We support out community. We support Los Angeles. We support the pride of America and the American Dream…Enough is enough. It’s time to Legalize LA, and Legalize the USA.”A large banner with “Legalize LA” hangs from the Los Angeles factory.

American Apparel Inc. owns the largest garment factory in the U.S. at 800,000 square feet. The company employs more than 7,000 people worldwide. Their average hourly wage for employees in 2007 was $12. Charney told the Los Angeles Business Journal because he pays his employees a higher hourly wage than most places he gets better workers.

Charney may be supportive of immigrant workers and relatively good pay and other benefits, however, in the past, he has squashed the opportunity for his employees to unionize. In September of 2003, workers at the Los Angeles factory tried to organize a union with UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees). Charney, who is known to see unions as obstacles, launched an anti-union campaign, although he had told the media in the past he would never interfere with the organization of employees. Charney even threatened to shut down the plant if the workers organized. The move never materialized after fear and intimidation tactics. ( Charney told the Los Angeles Business Journal that “his ability to oversee nearly every aspect of his operation allows for rapid changes in design and order volume.”

Charney told the Journal, “Either I’m delusional or we’re going to change America.”

Some think Charney is a revolutionary for his sweatshop-free company and business approach, while others view him simply as a pervert for his uber-sexual advertisements (which he often photographs) and his provocative demeanor.

Whether Charney is changing America is up for further discussion; however, for now, he is at least turning heads, proving that sex does sell.

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