Thursday, December 31, 2009

At the Beginning of a New Decade, Lessons from the Start of Another

On this day where we seek to remember the legacy of the nine years that came before the one very shortly to conclude, I recall the beginning of another decade ninety years in the past. The Presidential election of 1920 returned Republicans to control of the Executive Branch, and epitomized the weariness the American people had with foreign wars and towering idealism. When, a year or so before, Woodrow Wilson proposed the League of Nations to a skeptical American public, itself an altruistic enterprise promising world peace, the proposal was transformed by smears and lies to imply that somehow the United States would sacrifice its autonomy and be governed by foreign powers. By the time a new decade rolled around, isolationism was the word of the hour and with it came a reliance on business and a pursuit of big money. So it was that the Republican nomination for President of the United States was sold to the highest bidder, and with it came the office itself.

Lanton McCarthy's fascinating recent book, The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country deflates the notion that the past promised some degree of ethical conduct in its elected representatives and stewards of the people's trust. It would be difficult to imagine a festering cesspool of corruption, dirty deals, and hushed up scandals in more copious quantity than in the form of the gang of thieves who effectively ran the country for three years. Those who believe that the past promises some kind of respite from the sordid, the unethical, and the immoral would do well to think again. One wonders as well if the passage of time will slaughter other sacred cows and lay bear the reality of the situation in question.

A few years back, during the waning years of George W. Bush's second term, many made a comparison of the gross incompetence present in that Administration to the Harding years, which though it had some parallels, was not a wholly satisfying one. For starters, had there been no Woodrow Wilson and World War I, there would have been no established precedent to reverse, and with it no Warren G. Harding. George W. Bush won in part by tapping into a public desire to return some degree of morality to the Oval Office after the embarrassment of the Clinton Impeachment. Harding won by promising a return to good times and unregulated business wheeling and dealing. Indeed, his very election owed itself to a multitude of deep pockets who provided their support with some serious strings attached, namely high ranking cabinet positions and control of then untapped oil reserves in the Southwest and West in return for high dollar contributions and the votes of the very convention delegates by which Harding was chosen as leader of the GOP. Those who screamed "Drill, Baby, Drill!" in 2008 were merely echoing their predecessors of nearly a century before.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I was prompted to study the Teapot Dome Scandal and the Harding White House due to the fact that I am related to one of the active participants. My late Grandmother, as is true with so many, desperately wanted to prove a direct connection to someone either rich or powerful on a grand scale. This is why she took an active interest in genealogy, and in so doing unearthed the name of a close relative. The relative in question was named Jess Smith, who took the role of yes man, bribe collector, unofficial attorney general, and kick back accountant for Harding's Ohio Gang. The structure of the Harding Administration resembled an organized crime syndicate more than a government entity, and had Grandmother known this, I doubt she would have taken pride at having de facto mob ties.

Nor would she have found much to crow about had she discovered this,

According to some accounts, Smith's primary role was to quiet women, including Carrie Fulton Phillips, who claimed that Harding had affairs with them. Smith and Daugherty were members of the Ohio Gang, and they actually were both from Ohio. While Daugherty served as attorney general, Smith held no formal position in the federal government. He simply served as an unofficial assistant to Daugherty. Smith lived with Daugherty at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, DC, and it was rumored, at the time, that the two men were engaged in a homosexual relationship. Smith was single, while Daugherty was married.

As rumors spread about corrupt officials in Harding's administration, eventually Attorney General Daugherty launched various investigations. Critics, especially in the United States Congress, claimed that Daugherty did not vigorously pursue the investigations. Eventually, it was suggested that Daugherty was also working with bootleggers. Bootlegging was a direct violation of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment established Prohibition in the United States. Smith also was supposedly involved in Daugherty's illegal activities. Rather than face legal charges and a possible prison sentence, Smith committed suicide.

Smith's actions, along with those of several other of Harding's cabinet officials, caused a great deal of distrust of government officials among the American people and also solidified Harding's reputation as a poor president.

Source: Ohio Historical Society, "Jess Smith".

Harding's incautious and highly impulsive womanizing make both Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy seem tame by comparison. What complicated matters further is that Harding was a bit of a bizarre romantic, who was not inclined merely to keep to one night stands. Instead he heavily courted each of the numerous women with whom he had affairs and in so doing wrote scores of love letters to each of his paramours, providing undeniable documented proof and paper trails a mile long. The RNC, by way of slight-of-hand and creative accounting managed to find untraceable ways to pay off most of these women in exchange for their silence, though two or three did come forward, sometimes goaded on by jealous husbands or boyfriends, threatening to tell all if they were not handsomely compensated for it. This proved to be an additional headache for Harding's handlers, as they had their hands full putting out fires all over the place. The vast scope of Harding's adulterous dalliances make Tiger Woods look like a mere novice by comparison and the David Letterman matter a relatively modest affair.

This was, of course, purely the tip of the iceberg. Harding's own failings were bad enough. It would be difficult to imagine a more disturbing group of unapologetic slimeballs setting up shop in Washington, DC. Their own marital infidelity often rivaled Harding's, and they quite eagerly engaged in money laundering, bootlegging, obstruction of justice, solicitation of prostitution, covering up the death of at least one accidental homicide, and other crimes. Smith ran a love nest for Harding and his inner circle on H Street that was mere blocks from the White House and could be accessed by way of an underground tunnel. He made sure it was well-stocked with alcohol recently confiscated from rum runners and bootleggers, scantily clad chorus girls shipped down from New York City, and any number of Harding cronies who were always in the mood to play a few hands of a never-ending poker game. It was a $50,000 a year enterprise and came complete with a full time cook and full time butler. Harding's wife was well-aware of her husband's behavior, but refused to besmirch the reputation of the office by allowing such conduct in the White House, necessitating the procurement of the secret residence. This didn't, however, prevent Harding from sneaking his favorite mistress into the official home of the President and having sex on the floor of the Oval Office, to boot, confirming at two the number of Chief Executives who have engaged in sexual conduct in that room. I would not be surprised if the exact count was much higher than that.

Much of this, of course, never became public knowledge until decades after the fact. Harding died unexpectedly, towards the end of what would be his only term in office, at which point the entire organization began to unravel. Criminal investigations followed, at which point the rats began to scurry from the ship, and a shocked public recognized just how indebted its federal government had been to the whims of big business, particularly the oil industry. The American oil powers had recognized just how lucrative exporting crude could be and how it could be profitably marketed and sold to a Europe that was still rebuilding from World War I. It is for that reason that they wanted complete control over land that was under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Government, in particular designated to the Department of the Navy. Granted, this land had been wrested from Native Americans a few decades before, but these men were not particularly sympathetic to the plight of indigenous peoples or to the conservation movement, which is the immediate precursor to the environmentalism of today. That has not changed much in nearly a century.

A wealthy Oklahoma oilman named Jake Hamon contributed over a million dollars to Harding's campaign immediately prior to the convention, buying off enough delegates in the process to win him the right to name the position he wanted within the presumptive Cabinet. Hamon coveted the Secretary of the Interior slot, since it promised full control of government-owned oilfields, of which Teapot Dome was one. Once formerly installed, Hamon reckoned he'd rake in enough revenue to make him the richest man in the country, if not the world, by directing the oil profits into his own pocket, rather than that of the government coffers where it rightly belonged. He would have been richer than Rockefeller and openly bragged about it to anyone who would listen.

His plans were rather abruptly short-circuited, however, when his much younger and long-term mistress shot him, whereupon he died from his wounds five days later. It seems that Mrs. Harding would not stand for Hamon to bring his mistress to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue--only his neglected wife and their children. Hamon was then forced to inform the other woman, Clara Hamon (no relation, despite the same last name) that she could not come with him. The mistress, however, had other ideas. After mortally wounding Jake, she found a letter in his papers addressed to him from Harding, specifically spelling out the precise quid pro quo of the cabinet position. The letter was signed in the President-Elect's own hand, and Clara knew that as long as the letter was in her possession, she held a powerful trump card that would prevent her from being convicted for murder and put to death.

This kind of brazen, Wild West kind of attitude is what eventually led to the complete dissolution of the Ohio Gang. The Bush Administration, by contrast, kept a code of silence and with it a very secretive attitude that deliberately locked out all but those with the President's primary ear. It was no less incompetent and no less arrogant, but it was ultimately undone not by a kind of unrestrained permissiveness but rather by its dogged determination to stifle dissent and label those who disagreed with its narrow interpretation of pressing concerns and ideological stances as anti-American and borderline traitorous. The lessons, then, to be learned from Harding and the beginning of another decade are not so much in our rear-view mirror, but in the future that lies before us.

Another erudite, well-polished, academic Democratic President has promised major reforms based on idealistic notions of unity and cooperation. This same President won the Nobel Peace Prize based not so much on actual achievement as by the expansive goals he has set forth, goals that may or may not find enactment on a broad scale. Now, as then, he is far more popular in the rest of the world than he is at home. Now, as then, he was elected on the premise to, if not keep us out of war altogether, certainly minimize our commitment to it. Later both men reversed course and Obama has since taken full ownership of a foreign entanglement. Assuming he wins a second full term, the question on the glossy cover of soberly contemplative print magazines (assuming they exist then) will be, "Life after Obama?"

Indeed, it might not be such a bad thing for us to contemplate what the Democratic party, the American people, and the demands facing us will be when this soon-to-arrive decade is well over half-finished. All we need do is look back ninety years to see what happens when a supposed return to normalcy produces little more than an Restoration of the Good Old Boy network. One would hope that our role as bloggers and citizen journalist would continue to be that of the gatekeepers, since investigative journalism seems to have been utterly abandoned by the mainstream outlets. Removing coats of whitewash and pursuing subjects too sensitive to find voice otherwise is how I envision my role. Though some criticize the blogs for being too reactive, too amateurish, and too beholden to echo chamber, there are many worthy and substantial voices out there and these we must continue to lift up and to dig to discover. Everyone must take a role if we are to ensure that someone is watching the store, because history provides a multitude of tragic examples which reveal what happens when it is not being closely monitored. Though my own brush with the past is not an especially inspiring one, I can aim to redeem the sins and the mistakes of prior generations by vowing to never forget and in so doing never neglect a greater purpose beyond myself and my own blood.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Why I'm Not Blogging Today

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Reform is a Gift to Others Beyond Ourselves

With President Obama being a major disappointment in some corners, it was perhaps inevitable that Hillary Clinton loyalists would exercise their right to second-guess the inevitable nominee. Anne Kornblut's column in The Washington Post entitled, "When young women don't vote for women" is but the latest effort to chastise young feminists and young women in general for not being more supportive of the first female candidate to make a serious run for the White House. The column, regrettably, also invokes the counter-productive liberal guilt complex construct of the Oppression Olympics to make its point, which is something I thought we had recognized does nothing to unite and everything to divide. Pitting women against African-Americans in some kind of twisted priority system has been the demise of many worthy organizations and the beginning of arguments that inevitably lead to raised blood pressure.

To emphasize her point, Kornblut relates an anecdote regarding a talk that former Vice-Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro had with her own daughter. In particular, it centers around why the latter voted for Barack Obama instead of then-Candidate Clinton.

[Ferraro's] daughter struggled to explain, saying Obama just inspired her. "What does he inspire you to do, leave your husband and three kids and your practice and go work for Doctors Without Borders?" Ferraro snapped in response.

Ferraro was livid, and distraught. What more did Hillary Clinton have to do to prove herself? How could anyone -- least of all Ferraro's own daughter -- fail to grasp the historic significance of electing a woman president, in probably the only chance the country would have to do so for years to come? Ferraro hung up enraged, not so much at her daughter but at the world. Clinton was being unfairly cast aside, and, along with her, the dreams of a generation and a movement.

I often wish that we would not enshrine our heroes and our victories in concrete, granite, and bronze. I like it even less when we enshrine them in the pages of history textbooks that peddle the myth while glossing over the reality. Doing so often makes people believe that the cause is somehow fulfilled, the dream somehow firmly resolved rather than supremely deferred. The battle may be won, but the war continues. The Civil War might have concluded over a century ago, but we still deal with the consequences and the fallout. The Civil Rights Movement did not end with the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, and as we have seen recently, the establishment of Medicaid and Medicare, successful as they are, did not mean that additional reform was unnecessary. I am sure that the cause of women's rights would not draw to a neatly satisfactory coda if the Equal Rights Amendment were to be enacted, either.

Third-wave feminists in their twenties and thirties, like myself, contrary to what those who came before might think, do certainly appreciate the protests, the struggles, and the hard won concessions of our elders, but we also feel understandably slighted and devalued when our mothers (and some fathers) think that we must be ungrateful and unappreciative for their sacrifices. At times this attitude reminds me of my childhood, particularly being upbraided by my mother as an spoiled ingrate for all of the things she did for me, denying her own desires in the process. After all, my own mother was heavily indebted to Women's Liberation, though the label "Feminist" is one that she was reluctant to wear on her sleeve, though I'm sure she might identify as such if asked in conversation.

Moreover, there is a very real temptation with age to run in place rather than forward and in so doing believe that the reward for a job well done is to rest on one's haunches and bask in the glory of a fading epoch. Activism and activists ought not to expect nor be satisfied with retirement. If sexism and misogyny were present in the same fashion as in, say, 1970, the second-wave pioneers might have a point. But being that the only constant in life is change, so too is injustice and oppression. Enemies reform, evil regenerates, and new problems require new solutions. This is where we differ from our parents and this is where those of an earlier time fail to make the connection.

To younger voters, Clinton was both a relic of that era and a victim of its success. She was the wrong woman at the wrong time; she was a Clinton; she hadn't gotten there on her own; a woman could be elected another year. After all, the reasoning went, it would be easy enough next time. Look how simple it had been for her.

This is not true one iota. Younger voters didn't vote for Hillary Clinton for the same reason that voters for voters of every age cast their votes for the other guy. To be blunt, she ran an awful campaign. The prevailing strategy adopted by her inner circle was neither inspiring, nor particularly coherent. The candidate herself did nothing to dispel public perception of her worst qualities, with the exception of one unguarded moment in New Hampshire when she shed tears. The Clinton '08 bandwagon was indebted to inertia and entitlement, two qualities which almost always prove fatal in politics. Running as though she had already won left her unguarded and utterly unable to keep the Obama campaign from running circles around the Clinton machine and in so doing energizing the base of the party and the natural human inclination to support the underdog. In life, the best prepared team wins, as does the team who clearly desires victory the most.

There is, of course, a happy ending for those whose affections still lie with Hillary Clinton. Now, more than a year later, away from the constant glare of reporters and cameras, Hillary Clinton has re-invented herself as a stateswoman, and her approval rating shows it. She is now more popular than her primary opponent, which is partially due to the fact that she no longer is in the public eye on a constant basis, and also because she has shown a side of herself that was never adopted on any wholesale basis until the end of her run, at which point she trailed in pledged delegates to such a degree that she was unable to overtake her challenger. There are many lessons to be learned in this, least of which is that conventional wisdom often shows itself to be neither conventional, nor especially wise.

The generational divide would rip through families and the feminist movement, exposing a fault line that had been lurking under the surface for years. Daughters heard from mothers everywhere. When Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) decided to endorse Obama rather than Clinton, she got an earful from her mother back home. "I guess some people will do what some people have to do," her mother said in an acerbic voice mail message, adding: "but for some of us, this will be our last election." (Emphasis mine)

To me, this attitude is about as helpful to the cause as those who have vowed to defeat the Health Care Reform legislation because it doesn't contain the public option or include more Progressive measures. It is this same sense of desperation that demands that if we don't have everything on our Christmas list, then we'll never see the bill we need in our lifetime. It's understandable to think that way, but I counter this attitude is out of made of desperation and fear---reform and historical firsts of any sort ought to be indebted not just to our selves and to our own generation, but to generations to come. Those who struggled for Independence from Great Britain were not fighting merely for the right to have their own nation for themselves. They were thinking beyond the present into the future, which is, I recognize, a construct that promises nothing but speculation and no solid facts. Still, unselfishness demands that we think beyond our own head space and contemplate life not just for those we have sired and who they might sire someday. Reform is our gift to the future and it is our gift to those who are not our own kin, do not necessarily speak our own language, and do not necessarily believe exactly the way we do.

I have slightly modified a lyric from a song that seems pertinent in this context.

You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get you facts
When someone attacks your imagination

But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To just give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations

Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Ms. Jones?

-Bob Dylan, "Ballad of a Thin Man"

Monday, December 28, 2009

Quote of the Week

"The family is always the family but during vacations it is an extended family and that is exhausting".- Gertrude Stein

Traveling Day Video

A bit early, but today will be devoted to travel, so I don't have any time to write.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Spiritual Awakening in the Most Unlikely of Settings

A few years back my depression flared up again, and it became necessary for me to make the long-practiced, but always demoralizing trip to the hospital to regulate my medications and in so doing stabilize my illness. The hospital close to my apartment had no beds available, but the law indicates that those who require hospitalization for any reason must be taken somewhere, no matter how far away that may be. After waiting for several hours, an ambulance arrived for me and I ended at a psychiatric hospital that I eventually came to discover was very badly managed and severely understaffed. Daily existence was trying enough, particularly when in such an emotionally vulnerable state, but I reached my breaking point when it came down to separate into groups for discussion. Substance abusers headed in one direction, and psychiatric patients went in another.

Before that instant, I had no idea I was about to have a spiritual awakening. This setting would seem the least likely of all regarding spiritual insight. To be taught a lesson with application well beyond the immediate was something I recognize now I needed desperately. The most potent image that stuck with me most was that of sitting in a room with ailing people, many of whom were clothed in the barest of scrubs, some of whom did not have their own clothes to wear. The nominal leader began a rambling devotional which then moved unskillfully to a denunciation of the sins of humankind. It was not until well after it concluded that I realized the leader was not a staff member, but was a fellow patient. As this delusional prophet spread a message of hellfire and brimstone, I saw heads droop lower and lower to the ground, believing that God must be punishing them for having mental illness. There was a time, and not that long ago that those with psychiatric disorders were seen as being either possessed by demons or being cursed by the Devil.

It took an experience that viscerally jarring for me to get the point. At that precise moment I vowed that I would never stand for such a thing ever again. The God I believed in then and believe in now was a God of love and a cool healing touch. I regret to mention how uncomfortable I had been in the presence of so many souls whose poverty and crippling condition rendered them a truly pathetic sight. Now, my heart was filled with pity and concern, as well as anger at the man who had encouraged them to curse themselves for a condition which they did nothing to create themselves. The world is full of much ignorance and much misguided advice, but since that day I have vowed that those who attack the most vulnerable among us for whatever reason must be challenged and ultimately defeated. That I had allowed my own prejudice to judge unfairly and harshly these people who had taken me outside of my comfort zone I regret to this very day. They lacked the intellect and the privilege I took for granted regarding how to advocate for themselves and how to even form the words needed to aid the doctors assigned to treat their case.

The story also highlights the shortcomings of our supposedly world-class health care system. The hospital upon which I was a patient had clearly seen better days and much of its dysfunction was due to the fact that it had close to twice as many beds as it did staff to manage the load. I saw a psychiatrist for no more than five minutes per day, at which point I had barely enough time to describe my symptoms and have my medication regimen modified. Those who could afford to leave did so, and those whose insurance or lack thereof would not pay for something better were stuck there. As for me, I claimed a miraculous recovery to escape after having been there a mere three days. For many, however, three days was but a drop in the bucket. Psychiatric hospitals are often merely a way station for the severely ill to remain until the court rules whether they should be committed to a state-run institution. Once there, a patient lingers for several months, upon which he or she is turned back out into society. Yet, few only manage one tour of duty in this whole sordid process. The homeless or the desperately poor spend years in and out of hospitals with such a variance in quality of care that it is no wonder this revolving door is the rule, not the exception.

I recognize how lucky I have been, but I know also that my role is to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. Though whatever means I can manage, the indelible impression left on me by this story and others I have experienced in the course of several hospitalizations have allowed me to recognize that I have an obligation to serve those with limitations that would otherwise leave them worse for wear.

Some are fond of stating that we are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper, but what often gets obscured is the original context in which this quotation is found. It is in Genesis, shortly after the world’s first homicide. Cain intends the phrase as a childish retort full of scorn, but the phrase has often been taken literally.

Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" "I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?" The LORD said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground.

It would be just as easy then as now to refuse to look out for the vulnerable ones among us. Christmas, promising goodwill to humankind just passed us, a New Year yet to come, it is easy to forget high-minded ideals once the halls are un-decked and the time comes to roll up sleeves again and dive into work. If we are really to do the season justice, it would be for us to recommit ourselves to the process of reaching beyond our own selfish preoccupations. That it took my own direct observation to take into account the completely needless shame and fear felt by fellow patients only renders me exactly like the throngs of Doubting Thomases with whom I associate regularly. It is this gift I wish I could impart to those who have opposed reforming our broken health care system. It is this experience, horrible though it is, that opened my eyes and I feel certain it would do the same for many others.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Before I Forget

Health Care Truths, Not Health Care Myths

Having passed a long-overdue Health Care Reform Act, expect the media to dust off long-composed narratives it kept in cold storage until this point. The instant President Obama signs the bill into law in a massive ceremony full of important people, flashbulbs, and saturation coverage, there will be many who will seek to make the gravity of the event better understood by means of analysis and interpretation. Contrary to what some may write, I am not entirely convinced that Health Care saved Obama's Presidency, though it would certainly have removed the last of the luster around him had it failed. There will be many contentious fights to come, but the passage of the bill will likely limit GOP gains in next year's Mid-Congressional election. It will provide momentum to force through other reform measures and will be a face saving device to aid vulnerable incumbents. But like much of politics, the ultimate impact of it all is indebted to future understanding and events yet to come, of which none of us is privy.

Also to be found in copious quantity are the requisite gross of stories lamenting the end of good cheer among legislators of different parties. One would think that this health care bill has ushered in a golden age of distressing polarity, but it has not. Most people are terrified of change. Many will sign on to change in the abstract, but once the concrete is poured, their opposition hardens. Trusting in the known is much like betting on the favored horse, but trusting in the unknown possibility comes with it 50-1 odds. Most people are not riverboat gamblers, but if they were, they'd often reap the rewards of taking a chance for the sake of positive gain. This truism has no allegiance to party or ideological affinity. Nor is it an American institution.

While the Senate has always been structured to foster some degree of collegiality by its very makeup and its relatively small size, one mustn't let the myth obscure the facts. The Senate may be a family, but it is a strangely dysfunctional one, and the House equally so. This is, we needn't forget, the same collective body where Representative Preston Brooks savagely bludgeoned Senator Charles Sumner with a cane on the latter chamber's floor. At other crucial points in our nation's history, decorum has been replaced by nastiness and I think perhaps our latest group of elected representatives do not remember or have not studied precisely what happens when measures this large and all encompassing are further hyper-charged by massive displays of public sentiment and outcry. Regarding this subject, Senator Orrin Hatch strikes back at us in the blogosphere for daring to hold his feet to the fire as well as the feet of other legislators. We ought to take this as proof of a job well done and aim to keep it going.

I am also not particularly sympathetic to Representatives and Senators who have complained about the extended hours needed to pass this bill. If they had resolved it in a more timely fashion, then this matter would have been dealt with long ago. Republicans have used stalling tactics and obstructionist procedural measures, but as we all knew, the Democratic party itself was the real enemy at work. Attempting to pacify various factions within itself to hold together a fragile coalition is what took so long to reach resolution. Moreover, if this is what it takes to achieve true fairness and equality, I wish they'd be in session every year and even up until Christmas Eve, if needed. It is, of course, true that Senators need to spend a certain amount of time campaigning, raising funds, and observing for themselves the nuts-and-bolts of the policy issues upon which they will propose and vote. However, too often these are excuses cited for not being in session at all, especially when needed legislation is allowed to die a needless death or is tabled in committee with no re-introduction ever intended.

It is true that,

[f]or more than 30 years, the major parties — Democrats and Republicans — worked every angle to transform politics into a zero-sum numbers game. State legislatures redrew Congressional districts to take advantage of party affiliation in the local population. The two-year campaign cycle became a never-ending one.

Politics, however, has always been a game of knees to the groin and leaps to the jugular. When contentious matters and contentious times existed, collegiality was the first thing to be discarded and shed. In times of plenty with few especially pressing matters, then party lines could sometimes seem obscured or unimportant. The so-called "Culture Wars" are a partial explanation for that which we have been facing. In truth, the Republican party began to take a sharp right turn beginning with the Contract with America in 1994 and then culminating in the election of George W. Bush. When Bush played directly to the Republican base at the expense of the middle, this caused a correspondingly swift and sharp reaction in the left wing of the Democratic party, which the Progressive blogosphere correctly considers a call to arms. Returning to the idea of truth versus saccharine sugarcoating, yet again, it is tempting for all of us to invent our own mythology, particularly when it suits our cause, but this is a compulsion we must never adopt for whatever reason may be. The truth will set us free, but freedom is often pricey, especially when we remove it from circulation.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

True Reform is Found Beyond the Beltway

Eleven months after President Obama took office, many Progressives are feeling understandably shortchanged. We were led to believe that finally a candidate with authentic liberal credentials had a legitimate shot at the White House, and so we embraced pragmatism when the most liberal candidates dropped out of the race. To be sure, there were several voices screaming out that Obama, if elected, would be far more indebted to the center then he ever would be to the left. These were loudest in the blogosphere, by far, and a few of them have recently exercised the cathartic, but ultimately hollow right to say I-told-you-so. This song and dance has historical antecedents that stretch back decades, but it would be best if there were no need to repeat the process once more.

I think we may have put the cart before the horse. I think we might have assumed that reform could be accomplished purely by political means, instead of reform being reached by grassroots mobilization that forced government's hand. Recently we have become aware, once more, that the American political system is not designed for sweeping change. The rules of the Senate were instituted to ensure that those with sober contemplation, not rash passion, ultimately won in the end. We can lament this fact and rightly decry it as anti-democratic and elitist, but the truth of the matter is that this is how the system works. I don't think that the President failed us nearly as much as the system did. In mentioning this, I'd much rather focus on going forward than licking our wounds.

I understand why we placed our trust in Barack Obama. We recognized the destruction wrought by eight years of neoconservative rule and with it the disconcerting notion that government predicated on evil can level its opponents and eviscerate easily. That it is much more difficult to build up rather than ruin is perhaps the toughest lesson of all. But with it comes the realization that established precedent is nearly impossible to reverse when passed. We may be unhappy with the scope of the bill, but we would be wise to celebrate that if someday Republican rule returns, it will be difficult for them to dismantle that which will be signed into law shortly. We should not accept this as any final word on the matter, but neither should we refuse to note how an eighteen-round fisticuff with the American mentality ultimately turned out in the end. This country was forced to confront some of the most massive fault lines that lie deceptively harmless most of the time, until seismic tremors threaten to shake us apart.

Any worthy social movement promising transformative change begins among an oft-quoted small group of thoughtful, committed citizens. The Civil Rights Movement, Women's Rights, and our latest struggle for LGBT marriage equality fomented and were codified from well outside the Beltway. Though ultimately legislation was proposed and passed by means of the Legislative branch, the energy and forward momentum swept up a million unsung heroes whose names may be lost to history or relegated to obscure footnotes, but whose bravery and achievements cannot be understated.

While it is touching that during the Presidential Election we temporarily shelved our skepticism as a result of being star-struck, we should not have failed to recognize that leadership comes from everywhere and every corner, not just the occupant of the White House. We focused our entire attention and hung our hopes upon the success or failure of one person, and while it is true that one person can change the world, his or her leadership ability must be augmented by other leaders. These inspirational individuals are frequently not pulled from the ranks of public service. Their occupations vary, just as those who desire change pull from all walks of life and all vocations. It is more leaders and more passion that we need.

Dr. King may have been the towering giant of the Civil Rights Movement, but Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Fred Shuttlesworth, and many others less well-known filled out the inner circle that produced progress on a scale that is still difficult to fully comprehend. Along with the notable names are a million others who are the pride of their city or town, but little more than strangers in other places. I hardly need note that none of the public figures I have outlined were members of the House or the Senate. Reformers are rarely beholden to the political game because it requires a kind of willingness to bend to the prevailing will and howling winds of popular sentiment, else one find oneself out of power. So long as this is the case, real reform measures will be stymied or watered down during the process of deliberation.

I almost need not mention that Congress is meant to work for us, but that it only pays attention to our concerns when we articulate them with force, clarity, and with united purpose. When we are united behind a cause, not a personality, and especially not a party, then the sky is the limit. Making our dreams a reality requires more than one election cycle and we ought to really contemplate why it took a once-in-a-generation candidate to patch up the variety of competing interests and disconnected factions of the Democratic party to achieve a sweeping victory.

Instead of cursing our fate and gnashing our teeth out of betrayal, we should re-organize, but this time around the issues that our elected representatives either will not touch, or will whittle away to ineffectual mush. We have before us a fantastic opportunity to change our priorities and establish successful strategies. Legend has it that right before they put the rope around his neck, the labor leader Joe Hill stated, "Don't Mourn! Organize!" Liberalism is alive and well and if we learn from this experiment we will not have failed. The new birth of freedom long promised is ours for the taking, provided we grasp hold of it. We will live to fight another day.

Traveling Day Music

In a few hours, I leave for the obligatory family Christmas gathering. In my absence, I offer this song, which is one of my favorites.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Feeding the Poor: A Tangible Kind of Stimulus

A few weeks back, I wrote about my trials, travails, and tribulations achieving food stamps. I am pleased to report that due to my own persistence and the fantastic support of an advocacy agency, I was granted an EBT card. Earlier today I trudged through areas of town which have not seen much in the way of a plow or a shovel. I literally did have to walk a half a mile uphill in the snow both ways to arrive at the proper place, though I'll save that lecture for another time. Since I have joined the ranks of the unemployed, I've had to swallow quite a bit of pride, which isn't always a bad thing, all told. The complications that went into obtaining food stamps were easily explained, once I met with the proper person, and with resolution I have no further griping to share on that matter.

A well-designed website imploring those wishing to apply for food stamps to submit their claim by mail, after, of course, entering pertinent information and printing out several pages of a lengthy form sounds attractive enough. However, I learned that while the mechanism may exist, budget shortfalls prevented the DC government from being able to hire the workers needed to process internet-based claims. It would not be much of a stretch to deem this situation an glaring example of an unfunded mandate. Reform cannot proceed without the allocation of funds and while we often are curtly dismissive of throwing money at a problem, granting low income citizens the ability to feed themselves somehow doesn't seem to be on par with all of these anti-underclass talking points that find their way into the mouths of Republicans and Republican politicians.

If one considers Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs, then food falls right down there at the bottom of the pyramid. Without the literal requirements for human survival, it's tough to be a Welfare Queen or milker of the system. According to Maslow, it's only after our base needs for survival are met that anyone could ever even entertain the notion to willfully freeload.

With their physical needs relatively satisfied, the individual's safety needs take precedence and dominate behavior. These needs have to do with people's yearning for a predictable, orderly world in which injustice and inconsistency are under control, the familiar frequent and the unfamiliar rare. In the world of work, these safety needs manifest themselves in such things as a preference for job security, grievance procedures for protecting the individual from unilateral authority, savings accounts, insurance policies, and the like.

But until one has the security of knowing he or she will be fed on a daily basis without having to worry about potential financial famine, safety is not a concern.

As for my own situation, my packet of information sat on a desk for over a month, unprocessed. Because a meeting with a claims associate regarding whether or not food stamps will be granted or denied must, by rule, be granted and scheduled within 30 days, once I was approved I was given a month and one week's worth of groceries I should have received earlier had everything proceeded in a timely fashion. Though I received only $200 a month in food stamps, which is approximately half of what my grocery bill is for the same period, I am not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. In all fairness to the DC Food Stamp program, it has won awards for how promptly and effectively it processes claims and while my situation is uncommon, it is hardly unusual when one considers the food stamp programs in other states. In a fairer society, I would have had my entire food budget subsidized, saving me from having to rob Peter to pay Paul as so many of us have to do these days, but perhaps someday we will learn that though we have a tremendous amount of financial resources in this country to go round, even in times of recession, we spread them around unequally and in so doing shortchange the least among us.

Part of the problem is the stigma and the misinformation that still persists regarding accepting government aid of any kind, food stamps being merely one example. One would think that welfare cheats salivate at the very idea of eating from the public trough, if you'd believe the stereotype. DC Hunger Solutions, the advocacy agency who so kindly went to bat for me and got my situation resolved, corrects many of the myths and stigmas surrounding food stamps.

Only 83% of eligible District residents, and 36% of eligible low-income working families, receive food stamps. Every $1 of food stamps spent in the community generates $1.85 in local economic activity. D.C. would gain millions in federal funds by signing up eligible households - funds that would stimulate the local economy. People who work sometimes assume they are not eligible for food stamps, or that time-off from work is required to apply. This is not true. A family of 3 with a minimum wage earner could be eligible for over $3,000 annually in benefits, and working families can complete phone interviews rather than go to the food stamp office in-person.

The true impact of the Economic Stimulus Package has become a political football of sorts, in part because what it promised could not be easily measured or highlighted in concrete detail. If, however, we shifted at least some of the focus towards fully funding both the programs that provide food to the poor and the monies necessary to provide more assistance, then these would be highly visible symbols of what good government is capable of if it puts its mind to it and does not get distracted with superficial squabbling or red tape disasters. When close to two dollars worth of gain comes as a result of every one dollar spent, one cannot overlook the overall benefit. We often believe that reform of any sort ought to be an awe inspiring and highly complicated matter, when sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

A Quick One (While He's Away)

A bit cliche by now, but nonetheless...

"You are not your bank account. You are not the clothes you wear. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not your bowel cancer. You are not your grande latte. You are not the car you drive. You are not your f**king khakis... I say, let me never be complete. I say, may I never be content.

I say, deliver me from Swedish furniture. I say, deliver me from clever art. I say, deliver me from clear skin and perfect teeth... I say, evolve, and let the chips fall where they may."

- Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Simple Joys of a Reduced Christmas Season

While I and millions of DC residents are cleaning up after a huge snow storm, I look out my window this morning and notice strangers giving aid and assistance to drivers of cars stuck out in the wintry mix. Stodgy, suspicious, ponderous Washington has momentarily set aside its default setting to lend a hand. It is only when events this big and massive disrupt the status quo that this city shrinks in size and shared humanity begins to creep into the proceedings. DC is a city full of cross-currents and diversity, so it is rare that anyone is truly on the same page with another for very long. A Type A city ruled by Type A people means that often everyone is in a hurry going nowhere for no good reason, utterly consumed with their work to the detriment of every other facet of their lives. Though retailers will undoubtedly even lose money here in these crucial days leading up to Christmas, I can't say that I am entirely saddened by the development.

Had this been any average year, the media would have run half a dozen stories (or more) gently chiding us for again, yet another year, completely destroying the meaning of the Christmas season. Many of us would assume our time-honored roles, mournfully nodding our heads up in down to signify that we agreed, but could find no solution to stop the orgiastic aspects of capitalism from overrunning the most important of holidays. A recession ought not only provide purely negative consequences. If we can learn from it, then all is not lost. If we are to face discomfort and pain, my hope is that we can understand that simplicity is a virtue, not a hindrance, and that accumulating possessions is a bit like accumulating inches of snow. In the beginning, it's fun, but after a while, it begin to pose a serious problem. Not only that, others who believe in the grass is greener principle have a tendency to envy accumulation without understanding its notable drawbacks.

I personally am enjoying fewer crowds, less traffic, and less panicked looks. That it took a weakened economy and with it the loss of buying power surprises me not a bit. If the free market promised freedom from producing more problems than it fixes, I would be wholeheartedly in its corner. Some of the strongest people I ever met were those of my grandparents' generation, who had faced a Great Depression and a World War, and whose iron resolve and stoic attitude showed the results of having gone fifteen rounds with hardship and tragedy and emerged stronger than steel. No shrinking violets were they.

As for these times, the only time I saw anything remotely similar to the traditional Christmas insanity was Friday of this past week, shortly before the snow fell, when thousands upon thousands of residents in our nation's capital rushed madly to scoop up enough provisions and finish up their seasonal shopping. Everyone seems to be cutting back this year and I certainly am as well. Some have mentioned that the tinsel and electric excitement that requires a robust pocketbook is lacking, making this a bummer of a Season's Greetings, at which point I suppose I have to note that I have grown so cynical about Christmas reality that I have embraced a kind of deliberately sparse rendering. All that twinkles is not gold. Some might assume that less money in the bank is the true War on Christmas™, though I believe that to be the overwhelming opinion of bankers.

The generation of my parents' parents have been romanticized as "The Greatest Generation" but while the moniker is fitting, I saw nothing particularly superhuman about them. They were indebted to the same flaws as humanity has displayed ever since humans began to walk upright. If we faced the same challenges and abject perils as they, I am firmly convinced that we too would respond the identical way they did. The human body and the human mind have a way of being incredibly adaptive to adversity. It is fashionable in some circles to take pot shots at Baby Boomers or their children out of some desire to shame us all into acting properly or that we might better appreciate that which has fallen into our lap, but I will refrain from that line here. We have been incredibly fortunate, certainly, but neither do I think beating us over the head with our privilege is much of a solution. My hope is that we will retain the memory of what it felt like to not revel in excess and that we will apply those examples to our own lives and to the lives of those who we directly influence.

If this were truly some pitched battle against all that is sacred and holy against Christmas, then the true enemies would not be a secular society gone wildly astray, having embraced the confusion of political correctness. Instead, the enemies would be those people and things which fool us into thinking that we are the center of the universe and that there is no need to take into account the lives and struggles of our fellow beings. As I said before, 364 days out of the year, this city runs on the twin forces of preoccupation and workaholicism, but it has only been now when the roads are still largely impassible, many businesses and places are still unreachable or closed, and public transportation is barely functional that we recognize the folly of our ways. Still, I imagine a thousand nervous fingers madly punching keys on their Blackberries, expecting a fresh batch of places to go, people to see, and things to do.

I know personally of many people who believe that bringing their work home with them aids and assists those in need. Worthy causes exist, of course, and the belief among many is working themselves to death provides help to those who would otherwise not have it. I know others who have built their entire self-esteem, self-image, and self in their vocation, at the expense of any other facet in their life. This is tragedy to the extreme. We lose our humanity when we become robotic and monolithic. DC needs a snow day like this to re-think its priorities and my hope is that it doesn't take a series of blizzards, both literal and figurative, to change the conventional wisdom.

Quote of the Week

"Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, "By jove! I'm being humble", and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear."- C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Unselfish Solutions, Selfish Complications

I have recently been musing over a particular passage of scripture. The frustration I and many have felt regarding the health care legislation that has stalled in the Congress has led me to wonder if perhaps a solution exists that has never been attempted prior to now. The power of the blogosphere has provided me a sense of solace and inspiration that comes from rational explanation and insightful commentary, and I cannot overstate my confidence in the visionary souls among us. It is a temptation to lament and understate our own capacity to bring about change, but quite another one to solicit answers from the passionate, knowing that through collective action, much good can be brought to pass. It is in the spirit of facilitating dialogue that I write this post, my prayer being that it will find an audience and give rise to subsequent discussion.

As a bit of needed exposition, St. Paul wrote an epistle to the church in Corinth, a city which had fallen into division and disorder. The Corinthian church, mirroring the makeup of the city where it existed, had been fraught by immorality and spiritual immaturity. In a letter whose endearing images and passages are still in wide use today, an age where strict devotion to organized religion is increasingly on the wane, our own skepticism cannot yet overtake the power and thrust of the text itself. Shortly after outlining a beautiful definition of the concept of selfless love, Paul spends several subsequent chapter, talking about incorporating this degree of unconditional devotion into practice in one's daily life.

Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially the gift of speaking what God has revealed. When a person speaks in another language, he doesn't speak to people but to God. No one understands him. His spirit is speaking mysteries.

But when a person speaks what God has revealed, he speaks to people to help them grow, to encourage them, and to comfort them. When a person speaks in another language, he helps himself grow. But when a person speaks what God has revealed, he helps the church grow.

Now I wish that all of you could speak in other languages, but especially that you could prophesy. The person who prophesies is more important than the person who speaks in another language, unless he interprets it so that the church may be built up.

Language is a construct of humanity. To someone who does not speak a particular tongue, the sounds themselves appear mysterious, impenetrable, and indecipherable. Moreover, there would be no point to a system of language at all if only one person spoke it. Language, and indeed, the richness of language depends on the number of people who speak it and whether or not they share their own spiritual gifts with everyone else. At times, we seem to believe that talking one-on-one with God or with our muse of inspiration is sufficient to undertaking the vast number of challenges which face each and every one of us. Injustice is rarely ever consigned to one singular person, nor can one individual begin to turn the tide without help from others.

Our earthly existence is a basically selfish, self-centered one. What drives our economy and feeds our desire for riches is a sense of private ownership. We would go so far as to copyright our own thoughts if we thought others might use them without permission or if there was money to be made in selling them to others. I, me, and mine are the search engine keywords that drives capitalism, but they are utterly incompatible with one's spiritual life. Imagine if we all believed that our own innovations were to be used for the benefit of all, rather than for the benefit of a privileged few. Indeed, if we spoke what God has revealed to us and translated it into the common vernacular rather than insisting it be phrased in a different language that locks out others from understanding, how many problems could be solved!

Far too many people are covetous of what has been granted them by God and in so doing, they fail to understand that spiritual gifts are given to benefit all of us. If one's spiritual gift is that of forming a new language of a new social movement, how much richer would that language of reform be if everyone spoke the same tongue, not just the inner circle. Ego has no part in the metaphorical church of which each of us is a part. I have seen far too many movements and far too many groups established for altruistic means collapse under the weight of division caused by elitism or by covetousness. If one is blessed by the gift of far-sighted analysis, don't lock it away from sight! Explain it to us, since which that which was granted you may have come from your brain, but it is God who gave you the ability to think it.

The members of the Corinthian church were using the gift of language for their own benefit, to make themselves feel better about themselves. Clearly, the problem stemmed from the fact that there were too many foreign language speakers in the gathering and not enough translators. This runs contrary to the health and growth of any established group. Our greatest aim is to treat others in the same way we wish they would treat us and if we are granted talent in other areas, well and good. But our talents are worthless if they merely lift us up and lock others out. Humility isn't merely a virtue we are to follow for its own sake for some sort of aesthetic rationale---it is a moral guidepost that points us towards a healthy society. Lest we forget, it isn't all about us. It was never all about us. It never will be all about us.

In this circumstance, we have the answer. We have always had the answer. The answer, of course, is complicated by a day to day existence which runs contrary to that which we need for health and peace of mind. Isolating ourselves from the madcap pace and twisted expectations of the world is no solution. Any worthy challenge seems daunting at face value. I have said this before and I will say it once more. We must get our own selves and our own house in order before we can ever expect to reverse course. One cannot begin to love anyone else until he or she loves himself or herself. By this I do not mean romantic love or narcissistic obsession, but rather a genuine point at which we make peace with our own failings, our own shortcomings, and our own flaws. Until we do this, ego will drive us and with it a lust for individual achievement will follow close behind. Those two things give rise to the inevitable hierarchies and unfair systems which are the antithesis of equality and social evolution. The only requirement in life is love. Everything else, as the saying goes, is just commentary.

Saturday Video

Friday, December 18, 2009

Why I'm Late in Posting Today

Tonight: Snow, mainly after midnight. Low around 28. Northeast wind 6 to 9 mph increasing to between 14 and 17 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%. New snow accumulation of 1 to 3 inches possible.

Saturday: Snow. The snow could be heavy at times. High near 30. North wind around 18 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%. New snow accumulation of 8 to 12 inches possible.

Saturday Night: Snow, mainly before 4am. Low around 28. North wind between 14 and 16 mph. Chance of precipitation is 80%.

Sunday: A chance of snow showers before 1pm. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 34. Northwest wind around 15 mph. Chance of precipitation is 40%.

The wintry precipitation track gives a stripe of heavy snowfall from western North Carolina to New York City, impacting major cities including Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia with potentially a foot or more of snow.


Christ, now they're saying close to TWO FEET. It really makes me nervous when the media throws around words like "historic" and "major".

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Adult Behavior is the Best Antidote to Moral Panic

A recently released survey stated what many of us had long suspected, namely that the sexting hysteria is vastly exaggerated. Sexting is merely the latest in a series of overwrought histrionics to consume and articulate the fears of parents. Before that it was rainbow parties. Before that it was sex bracelets. Nothing inflames passions more than the mortal fear that children are being led astray by a culture of evil that is growing more corrupt by the microsecond. This degree of hysteria never stops at those we deem most vulnerable, which is a big part of the problem. In a massive rush to judgment, we impose our will without understanding the context.

To provide a bit of needed contrast, here are a couple examples of past moral panics, which at least to these eyes seem as though they could easily make their way onto today's cable news cycle.

In Victorian Britain, campaigning journalist William Thomas Stead, (editor of the Pall Mall Gazette) procured a 13 year-old girl for £5, an amount then equal to a labourer's monthly wage (see the Eliza Armstrong case). Panic over the "traffic in women" rose to a peak in England in the 1880s. At the time, white slavery was a natural target for defenders of public morality and crusading journalists. The ensuing outcry led to the passage of antislavery legislation in Parliament.

However, it has been reported that the most extreme claims "were almost certainly exaggerated". Investigations of alleged abductions in Victorian England often found that the purported "victims" had participated voluntarily. Still, the "climate of prudery" prevalent in the late Victorian era made for easy scandalization of almost anything sexual, and various prohibitions were enacted. (emphasis mine) Parliament passed the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, raising the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen in that year.

This is, of course, not to say that the fervor over the sex trafficking which continues today has no basis in reality or fact, but rather that once something this patently inflammatory comes to light, for every genuine instance worthy of outrage, someone jumps on board the train to make a profit or to grab the attention of a ravenous public. (See Woods, Tiger, et al.) Nor is this meant to somehow negate the hard work or passion of activists in our age who do us all a great service by voicing and reporting upon the human trafficking of women that occurs on a far too frequent basis. What I am saying is that the real instances of oppression are damaging enough and shocking enough without the need of clearly fabricated cases that effectively bring the matter to a raging boil. When even one eventually disproved example enters the picture, many people have a tendency to lose interest or to discount the entire movement as a whole. All of that hard work for nothing. This may not be fair, but it is the reality any group clamoring for reform must entertain.

Not only that, laws that are enacted to pacify massive societal outcry often find themselves being used for nefarious purposes that their original intent never implied, nor intended.

In our country, a similar panic broke out around the same time as that of the UK.

A subsequent scare occurred in the United States in the early twentieth century, peaking in 1910, when Chicago's U.S. attorney announced (without giving details) that an international crime ring was abducting young girls in Europe, importing them, and forcing them to work in Chicago brothels. These claims, and the panic they inflamed, led to the passage of the United States White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910. It also banned the interstate transport of females for immoral purposes. Its primary intent was to address prostitution and immorality. The act is better known as the Mann Act, after James Robert Mann, an American lawmaker.

The Mann Act was frequently used as a blanket piece of legislation to deliberately ensnare those who happened to defy existing social mores or who spoke out publicly against the status quo. Though usually used to prosecute men involved with loose women or who pursued relationships with underage girls, prosecutors rarely stopped there. Jack Johnson, the World Heavyweight Champion of his age and first Black sports superhero, was unfairly prosecuted under the Mann Act because of his fondness for white women, particularly prostitutes. Though Johnson's dalliances were consensual and not adulterous, he never made any attempt to conceal them, which many a conservative figure found odorous and deplorable. As an aside,

In September, 2008, sixty-two years after Johnson's death, the United States Congress passed a resolution to recommend that the President grant a pardon for his 1913 conviction, in acknowledgment of its racist overtones, and in order to exonerate Johnson and recognize his contribution to boxing. In April 2009, Senator John McCain of Arizona joined Representative Peter T. King of New York in a call for a posthumous pardon for the boxing legend by President Barack Obama.

Charlie Chaplin's unashamed leftist views led him to be indicted under the auspices of the Mann Act, damaging his reputation and leading him to leave the United States to live in exile in Switzerland for the rest of his life. The Mann Act seems to be an equal opportunity offender of sorts, since even women found themselves on the wrong side of the law, as Canadian author Elizabeth Smart found out in the 1940's. One would have thought by now that we would have learned that legislating morality is both a very bad idea and quite impossible. Still, some persist in pushing it, even though the end result almost always backfires.

Going back to the idea of protecting children and teenagers by way of communal panicked cry, gallons of ink, and legion of self-proclaimed experts in the field, I think at times many of us believe that while we might not be able to control our own impulses or desires or even control the forces which push us in directions we do not wish to go, we can at least assert our force of will upon our children or, for that matter, someone else's children. However, that is a very dangerous and deeply unfair assertion upon which to base any act, because it completely removes free will from the equation. The Mann Act might have been crafted to protect women at face value, but it ended up being applied in the same ways and to the same extent that keep women from having control over their own bodies or from being able to make their own decisions for themselves. This condescendingly Paternalist point of view persists into our day and the sexting nontroversy is part and parcel of it. If only we could, in all seriousness, claim that we know better.

Simply because adolescents aren't legal adults yet doesn't mean that they can't make informed, healthy choices for themselves. Teens are probably much more inclined to use their sexuality in responsible ways then we give them credit for, but instead we are consumed with the ones who don't. This would be like believing all citizens of a country are exactly like its law-breakers. Furthermore, it's a myth that adults are somehow supremely evolved enough that they don't end up exhibiting childish behavior on a frequent basis. We like to believe otherwise, of course, but all one needs to do is read the first ten comments on any web forum and that assertion flies right out the window. No troll I have ever met could ever be confused as mature and rational. Many of them are likely older than I am, and I'm merely pushing 30. The superficial facade we display to the world outside of the internet apparently stops the instant we log on and start typing madly away.

A quote from the movie American Beauty has stuck with me over the years. In it, Lester Burnham, Kevin Spacey's character, describes the struggles of his rebellious daughter, Jane.

Janie's a pretty typical teenager. Angry, insecure, confused. I wish I could tell her that's all going to pass, but I don't want to lie to her.

True. But it doesn't mean we have to linger in a state of arrested development, either. Immediately after I reflect upon this quote, a very familiar refrain comes to mind, one that has grown truer and truer with every passing year.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I no longer used childish ways. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

Trust, love, respect, hope, faith, empathy, and compassion. These are adult traits and these are virtues which promise not just the assumption of the mantle of adulthood, but bring us into greater community with our fellow person. Once having adopted these things, there is no need for moral panic. Upon living them, there is understanding in the place of fear, love in the place of hate, shared purpose in the place of division, trust in the place of suspicion, and compassion in the place of anger. I would hope that we would wish to negate the charges of hypocrisy slung back and forth like some unceasing war with no end game ever even proposed. The boldest example we give to our children and to other peoples' children is our own conduct and our own behavior. We lead by example in ways we cannot even begin to fathom.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Often Disturbing Reality of Social Media

Julia Angwin's column entitled How Facebook is Making Friending Obsolete provides a revealing look into the ways that supposedly free services like Facebook and Twitter are mining the data of unsuspecting users for profit. The tactic is unethical at best, but it highlights just how desperate some companies are to turn a profit. The idea of monthly or yearly subscriptions, which were the bread and butter of old media cannot be relied on in this medium because online users refuse to pay them and then gravitate to the latest platform that can be used for free™. As for my own personal leanings, any technology that subverts the established system and forces it out of its comfort zone is worthy of praise in my book, but I suppose this degree of perfidy and with it monetary gain ought to be expected under the circumstances. The basic idea of capitalism is built on the idea of change and the next big thing, but this, of course, threatens the establishment that doesn't like having to think outside of its cozy comfort zone.

Angwin sets up her column by saying,

Friending wasn't used as a verb until about five years ago, when social networks such as Friendster, MySpace and Facebook burst onto the scene.

Suddenly, our friends were something even better - an audience. If blogging felt like shouting into the void, posting updates on a social network felt more like an intimate conversation among friends at a pub.

That degree of false intimacy, however, proved to have consequences. It lulled many into an imagined sense of security that could be broached by ten mouse clicks or less. Potentially embarrassing personal details could be accessed easily by complete strangers, and when these users complained and very publicly cried foul, the media picked up on it by running stories and op-eds that adopted the tone of a finger-waggling parent. Apparently it deemed that the best way to keep from oversharing personal details online was a good hearty dose of stern lecturing and abject moralizing. To be sure, irresponsible behavior led to the establishment of a thousand or so online-based drama queens and flame wars. That which had been an interesting concept in drawing people together began to show some serious flaws.

Or, as Benjamin Franklin put it,

Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

I never recognized how repressive a culture of which we are all a part until I incorporated the internet into my daily routine. The guise of anonymity that cyberspace provides gives people the opportunity for people to come clean with a million different, but highly related fears, phobias, neuroses, and insecurities as though we were all members of a giant support group. Unlike some, I don't get much pleasure out of observing the scars of other people, no matter how selfishly rendered they may be. I pity those who feel that the only way they can truly be honest with themselves and in so doing brave vulnerability and sincerity is when among those who they cannot see, hear, or speak to face to face. And yet, each of us is like that to some degree.

Regarding keeping ourselves in check a bit, I don't mean it in a kind of Puritanical repressive sense, but rather that the immediate gratification and instant attention the internet provides us caters to a sense of narcissism and me-centered discourse. If intimacy with friends is what we were seeking, the Wild West freedom provided by the technology makes a true circle of trust and discretion nearly impossible. One can only work within the limitations of the medium itself. Whatever ends up being broadcast online usually can be discovered with enough searching.

When I was younger, I volunteered information in cyberspace that hindsight allows me to recognize that I probably should have been a bit more discerning. But again, I was a teenager then, and every adolescent is half child, half adult, and all insecure. I am fortunate I had the internet at that formative time in my life because I met other people my own age going through the same things I was and I had a shared sense of solace there. Had I been born even five years earlier, I would not have had that outlet and would have suffered mightily in its absence.

Returning to the larger point, the true lesson here is that major sectors of our capitalist wilderness are desperately trying to find ways to make money and are doing so by methods that openly violate our trust and our sense of security. I suppose I could jump up and down, screaming about constitutional statutes and right to privacy being broached, shortly after contacting the ACLU, but I doubt it would do much in the way of good. The recession merely exacerbated trends that had been slowly, steadily progressing of their own accord.

That certain companies would have the testicular fortitude to so sneakily use our own information and thoughts for their gain is damning enough, but provided we remain complicit and enabling in it, more companies will attempt similar tactics. Any system based on profit will be adaptive and find a way to use our humanity against us. In an age where we are lonely, desirous of companionship, isolated by distance, and hoping to find a means to be a part of something larger than ourselves, Facebook arrived to fill the void. It captured the Zeitgeist, for better or for worse, and now it is merely the latest manipulator for profit. I am decidedly not a purist in this regard and though I will certainly take care to make sure I don't resort to blarf on the page, neither will I take stock that someday social networking will replace what face-to-face personal contact ought to provide.

It is a testament to the fact that judge not, lest ye be judged is probably the moral teaching we disregard the most in this day. That we judge ourselves more harshly than any troll or disapproving person ever could gets down to the root cause of the matter. These are "guilty before proven innocent" times. These are Nancy Grace days. If we wish to change them, learning to forgive ourselves for being imperfect might be a good place to begin. Embracing this unfair, didactic standard forces us to feel as though jumping through hoops and adhering to an obstacle course of needlessly complex, self-appointed guidelines is the key to living a satisfying life. Micromanaging every aspect of who we are is the quickest road to misery I've ever seen. We have unfortunately adopted a belief in the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law.

Intentionally following the letter of the law but not the spirit may be accomplished through exploiting technicalities, loopholes, and ambiguous language. Following the letter of the law but not the spirit is also a tactic used by oppressive governments.

This is something, quite predictably, with which we have been struggling for a very long time.

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, "Why does he eat with such scum?" When Jesus heard that, he said to them, "Healthy people don't need a doctor; those who are sick do. I've come to call sinners, not people who think they have God's approval."

But neither do we need to appear self-righteous in talking about self-righteous, egocentric behavior. That is deepest irony and part of this same judge-addicted culture.

Twitter's updates were also easily searchable on the Web, forcing users to be somewhat thoughtful about their posts. The intimate conversation became a talent show, a challenge to prove your intellectual prowess in 140 characters or less.

People are competitive in nature. I take it Angwin finds this sort of conduct distasteful. I myself have used my Twitter posts to underscore the larger points I was mulling over at the time, often while in the process of constructing my posts, but the point was never to be adored or to win a fan base. Often I felt a compulsion to put down something substantive to counterbalance the vast amount of trite banter that makes its way onto status updates. Along these same lines, I notice that many people seem to make it a challenge to see how many friends they can achieve on Facebook, no matter whether they actually have ever met in person or not. Life may be a talent show, but no one forces one to sign up for a space, either.

Angwin concludes her column, vowing,

...I will also remove the vestiges of my private life from Facebook and make sure I never post anything that I wouldn't want my parents, employer, next-door neighbor or future employer to see. You'd be smart to do the same.

We'll need to treat this increasingly public version of Facebook with the same hard-headedness that we treat Twitter: as a place to broadcast, but not a place for vulnerability. A place to carefully calibrate, sanitize and bowdlerize our words for every possible audience, now and forever. Not a place for intimacy with friends.

While I agree with the author's conclusion, I also add that being careful about that what we post in a public forum might not be a bad habit to get into, after all. Her frustration with Facebook is quite palpable, but I'm not sure cutting off our nose to spite our face is a good solution. Nor am I completely certain that there was ever some golden age where vulnerability on any online platform could be safely protected and manipulation of intimacy did not exist. Secrets have a way of spilling out, even among friends, and even in real life.

Nothing can be covered up forever and the paradoxical reality about success and increased exposure is that the larger a profile a person has, the more public is his or her life. When I was growing up, my mother frequently invoked the old saying that just because you have dirty laundry doesn't mean you ought to put it out on the front porch for all to see. I've always disagreed with the statement and what it implies, because I think being vulnerable need not be purely irresponsible. It's a matter of degree and it's a matter of balance.

The internet has catered to a fickle side of who we are. MySpace was once the end-all, be-all of social networking sites, and now it has given way to Facebook. Twitter, not to be forgotten, has muscled its way into the public consciousness. Anyone designing a social media network should keep in mind that success is ephemeral in the internet age and that one needs only look back roughly a decade to see all of the companies, platforms, programs and their ilk that have fallen out of public favor. We are no longer beholden to brand loyalty, which is probably what separates Baby Boomers from their children regarding the strongest sense of disconnect.

Today Facebook, tomorrow something else. Whatever comes afterward will probably have to be monitored, too, but my belief in our economic system was that so long as we cling to Adam Smith's invention, we will have to be our own regulators, but neither does this mean that all of our efforts should be devoted to plugging the dam. I have no doubt that if we adopted socialism wholesale we'd need to be mindful of its shortcomings as well, but neither should we be utterly consumed with finding fault. Life is too short.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Old Media's Awkward Embrace

The awkward embrace by which the established media figures are halfheartedly wrapping their arms around their heir apparent reminds me of the uncomfortable John McCain/George W. Bush man hug used so effectively by Barack Obama's campaign. That any mainstream outlet would seek to collar the internet and with it the multitude of online-based means of information exchange, forcing them to march to its own tune in the process surprises me not really all that much. Power plays like these are why the blogsophere has often been contemptuous of the big names. A drowning person reaching desperately for a way to stay afloat would have to be awfully sadistic if he or she, out of pure spite, sought to drag down the very means by which he or she might survive. But then again, no one ever confused the media as being strictly and patently rational. A crisis mentality permeates the thought process of many in these trying times and catastrophe is rarely graced by sensible or conscionable decision making.

The Washington Post, also known as the walking dead, pulled a fast one on just about everybody quite recently. Its Next Great Pundit Contest™ started out with a stated desire to lift some obscure member of the Proletariat blogging class into a temporary, but nonetheless visible role as a Beltway heavy hitter, but was shiftily transformed from beginning to end to showcase an "average" member of society who happened to have a substantial publication history and at least one book in print. The winner was highly competent but also the safest choice the company could have ever made. And not only that, this contest, as in much of new media, though over 50% of bloggers are women, the opinion sections at some of America's most respected online publications continue to be dominated by men. Between August and October of this year, only 20% of the Huffington Post's front page opinion columns were written by women, a proportion that dwarfs the corresponding number at Salon, which was a mere 12%.* The primary consumers of new media are young people, a Twitter-crazed generation raised in the post-feminist era, many of us too young to remember Katie Couric as anything other than a serious prime time anchor. So why, when it comes to pundits, does new media look so much like old media?

My response, in part, is this. Any industry in turmoil is going to aim for the lowest common denominator, because it is averse to take a risk. In better days, struggling companies might have taken the opportunity to invest into something off the beaten path that conventional wisdom might question or that didn't have a history of a guaranteed rate of return. Those days, lamentably, no longer exist. One sees this in the newspaper business and one sees this also in the music industry. One of the more gaping flaws with capitalism is that there is always a temptation to view everything, no matter of its quality, in terms of a commodity or in terms of turning a guaranteed profit; I also know that social progress will always be impeded by the pursuit of the bottom line.

Any historically marginalized group, provided they speak with enough of a unified voice and demand their right to be heard is often thrown a cheap concession in the form of a specific platform upon which to be heard as a way to get activists and reformers to stop applying pressure and in effect, to shut up. Traditionally the addition of a token member promoted to a high level from within has been an easy way to satisfy protesters, and so also has been the creation of a specific publication to best serve the interests of those who have historically been denied a voice. As a noted intellectual put it, what has been set in motion up to this point could well be described as The Triumph of Tokenism. This could never be confused as true equality, but it is often embraced as "at least a start."

In 1966, the scholar whom I reference above, historian C. Vann Woodward, wrote a provocative essay entitled "What Happened to the Civil Rights Movement?" The opening two paragraphs have an eerie resonance to the present day. Woodward was specifically writing about the struggle for African-American rights, but they fit this context neatly.

As if adopting the techniques of the cinema director, history has obligingly thrown in a few flashbacks or replays of hauntingly familiar lines, encounters, whole episodes from the past. It would seem at times, in fact, that contemporary history has been plagiarizing an old scenario and helping with the script.

With all due resistance to superficial parallels, we have been unable to to avoid comparisons between past history and lived experience. For we have witnessed in our own time a rising tide of indignation against an ancient wrong, the slow crumbling of stubborn resistance, the sudden rush and elation of victory, and then the onset of reaction and fading of high hopes.

So it would seem then that demands for equality must be measured against the course of events as established by some sort of equilibrium we can sense but have a difficult time observing viscerally. But neither, of course, does this mean that revolutions of all sorts are unnecessary or need not even be attempted. Even if the ultimate end is that of discouragement and disillusion, this does not mean we ought not to start the process over again. Perhaps we should assume that the life cycle of movements and issue activism is beholden to ebbs and flows by its very intrinsic nature and thus we ought to prepare ourselves for the nascent battle charge in the same breath as we acknowledge our retreats and the re-entrenchments of our opponents.

Woodward continues,

Historians have their arm chair consolations, of course, their after-dinner ironies with brandy. We knew all along, or so we inform the young and ill-tutored, that all revolutionary upheavals have their life cycle: rise, climax, decline, reaction...We knew all too well--and the knowledge always embarrassed encounters with true believers--that high fevers of idealism and soaring moods of self-sacrifice cannot be sustained indefinitely, that they lag and burn themselves out, that disenchantment and self-doubt inevitably set in. And one could expect from past experience that extremists from both ends would take over and make common cause against the rational means.

This passage has parallels to our day that go well beyond gender inequality. I think what is most crucial is the understanding that revolution as strictly defined doesn't necessarily mean armed revolt and establishment of a brand new way of conducting one's affairs. Sometimes the most subtle revolutions are the most influential and the revolutionary power of the internet is one of these. The internet reveals both the best and the worst of humanity and I choose to observe the best while taking care not to be dragged down by the latter.

I prefaced this piece by quoting the Huffington Post article written by Chloe Angyal, who concedes that even though the deck may be stacked against female contributors to media, a certain amount of persistence is necessary to overcome it.

...[W]e -- young people, and especially young women -- can do better. New media, despite its distinctly old-fashioned start, still represents an enormous opportunity to shape for ourselves the kind of public discourse we want to have. It is from our ranks that America's next great pundits should come, and it is our responsibility to support them when they do. Furthermore, new media represents our chance to genuinely participate in changing the face of our nation's public discourse. The men to women ratio of submissions to the Washington Post contest was eighty-twenty, a distinctly old media proportion. Young women can and must do better than eighty-twenty. It's time for us to change the conversation. It's time for us to sit down, log on and be the change we so desperately need to see in the world.

Reform of any kind is a two-way street upon which seeking a scapegoat isn't nearly as effective or necessary as positive action. Far too often our cynicism gives way to a self-fulfilling prophecy of ultimate defeat. Ultimately we will have hard times, but we will also have times of inspiration and great success as well. One of my favorite sayings is that life never promises us that it will be fair, but it does promise us that it will often be good. Finding that which is uplifting and satisfying is our role and ultimately our decision. Businesses rarely make decisions based on faith or on intangibles. In the cold, hard world of numbers, graphs, charts, and raw data, nothing is left to chance and nothing exists without some undeniable proof to back it up.

Yet, some of the most innovative reforms and products required leaps of faith to set into place, even when the safety net below might not have been several reassuring glances downward. Irrationality in any form is foolish, but rationality and trusting in the unknown and even the unknowable are not mutually exclusive concepts. If none of us were willing to risk potential loss and relied exclusively on the status quo, slavery would still be legal in at least half the country, women would not be welcomed into the workplace, LGBTs would be treated with scorn and contempt by most Americans, and we would dwell in a world exclusively of the white males, by the white males, and for the white males.