Friday, October 30, 2009

Transparent Motives, Transparent Government, Transparent Expectations

Some time ago I did work for a man who was promoting a truly radical idea regarding the act of negotiation between two competing nations. Ostensibly it was an attempt to provide a kind of complete transparency that left the camera on every word, gesture, or strategic move made by both parties while each was seated around the bargaining table. Though the notion was certainly composed of the best of intentions, it was also highly unlikely to find adoption among almost every country that believes behind-the-scenes diplomacy is the surest way to achieve a country's fullest desires. While I admit it would certainly be interesting to hear every word Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks while in the process of active deliberation with other countries, it's much too soon for C-Span to worry about needing to considering adding another channel, one queued up specifically to cover diplomatic efforts in real time.

For those who push sunshine laws and greater transparency in government, the question before us is whether the government has an obligation to keep its internal matters protected from public view, even when they concern pending investigations into political corruption. I find it interesting how the existence of these laws adheres mainly to government agencies and are rarely, if ever expanded to include the private sector. The implication is that private business has some intrinsic right to lock out prying eyes (if not a sort of purity) that tax-payer funded endeavors do not. It has been my own experience that every corporation or government entity which I have worked for prefers to use internal means whenever possible to deal with public relations snafus. I am reminded of one of the arguments stated by those who advance vegetarianism, which states that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, we would all forsake eating meat. In this context, if corporations, government entities, and even school districts had glass walls, we'd all certainly be nauseated at the spectacle.

The European perspective regarding is this matter is much different than our own. Though we gripe about the abuses and excesses of our elected representatives, we still assume that they should and will adhere to a code of ethical conduct that they are sworn to uphold. In great contrast, attitudes across the ocean assert that public officials, regardless of party are uniformly corrupt, and as a result, one should never expect, nor be surprised when they are revealed to be just so. This past Presidential election saw Candidate Obama saying all the right things regarding the influence of lobbyists and lucre on the political process and I, like the rest of you, stood and applauded with great vigor. Since then, I have not changed my stance, nor my belief in the President, but I recognize that the challenges before us are much more complex than I could have ever imagined. I'm not sure I could ever become as jaded or fatalistic as our European brothers and sisters, nor do I think we as a people could ever reach that state, either. Though we deny it, we are still a romantic, idealist people at heart. If that were not so, we'd keep the same party in control forevermore, and cast our ballots more in a spirit of harm-reduction than in hope. We are much more inclined to resort to a "throw the bums out" kind of logic and eagerly toss one party out to insert the other, expecting that change alone is the correct remedy.

Regarding businesses dealings, particularly with large corporations, we can always be reliably counted on to switch to a competitor if unsatisfied for whatever reason or another. Free-market advocates cite this as being proof that capitalism works by providing choice to the consumer. That might be true at face value, but underneath the facade of sweetheart deals and offers we can't refuse are blatant monopolies, CEO pay raises in times of recession, and a litany of other objectionable practices that are quietly hushed up and "dealt with internally". I have no doubt that if by some miracle each on-going citation of illegal, unethical, or immoral dealing were magically made common knowledge and leaked to the press, we'd all end up with a collective stomach ache of epic proportions. That it takes government stimulus money funded by taxpayer money to be the deciding factor which reveals the most significant of these offenses shows us just where our skewed priorities lay. Governments cannot be corrupt even a little, but corporations can be corrupt up to a point.

Public school systems, a subject of which I am fairly familiar, are masters in sweeping problematic matters under the rug. To cite an example directly pulled from today's headlines, for every reported instance of teachers engaging in sexual relationship with their students, there are probably one hundred that never reach the attention of the media. Rules and regulations grant principals and administrators the ability to dismiss problematic employees without even needing to explain why, a practice that is designed primarily to save face for both the recently employed and those in charge of hiring said individual in the first place. It is also a long-employed means of damage control, since the very threat of a lawsuit by a disgruntled parent or group of parents is frequently substantial enough for school systems to settle out of court rather than go to trial, even if the complaint is patently bogus. That school systems cave too soon when corporations rarely have any problem proceeding directly to litigation also reveals much about what spheres of our lives we feel as though we have some degree of control and which ones we feel utterly powerless to influence one way or the other.

It is easy for us to wish for transparency when we are on the outside looking in, but those of us in authoritative roles in our own day jobs understand that every situation isn't nearly as cut-and-dried as management versus employees. Nor as it as simple as consumer versus company, parent versus superintendent, or even government servant versus constituent. This is not to say that transparency shouldn't be our ultimate goal, but if we seek it, it ought to be uniformly applied into every area of our daily lives, not merely set out in a very limited way that easily suits someone's talking point. Candidates and whole political movements have lived and died by channeling populist anger at government waste and graft, but to apply this to only one highly limited segment of American society does us all a grave disservice. We may not say this directly, but when we silently condone the unacceptable practices of any major force in our daily lives, we are implying that such behavior is fine by us. We want public government to be lily white but we rarely speak out against private enterprise until it is consumed by the foulest, blackest cancer of greed and licentiousness. We need to understand that it is a rationalization to assume that corruption in business or in any endeavor is not nearly as awful if it uses someone else's money supply up front and, above all, isn't taken out of our latest paycheck. Eventually everyone hurts but unlike tax revenue, the results cannot be easily measured and inserted into an IRS income tax form. The impact is a far more insidious one and it impacts more than just dollars and cents.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Health Care Reform: Who Will Make the Final Call?

Over one-hundred and seventy-five years ago, an obscure Louisiana senator awaited his time to speak in front of the Senate gallery. In a few short days, what originally seemed to all to be a relatively limited debate about the merits of selling public lands in the western states of a still relatively small nation had been transformed into an expended discourse about whether secession from the Union had any legal basis. The senator in question, Edward Livingston, had listened to a series of variously thrilling, erudite, and eloquent emotional addresses given by the giants of that body in those days. Each trying to outdo the other, perhaps concerned more than he would admit for his legacy than specifically to debate the cause at hand, a highly competitive chamber in the best of times had grown even more charged and partisan. Livingston had no intention of bettering what anyone had said before, rather his desire was to appeal to a sense of hopefully uniform conscience and fair play.

The best speakers had already writ their words into if not immortality, at least a place in the history books for several generations. Daniel Webster's thundering, inspiring speech imploring for national unity did much to keep together an increasingly fragile peace, but words alone would prove insufficient to prevent Civil War. Giving birth to generation of brilliant statesman after brilliant statesman would not reconcile the divisions based far more on passions than on more cerebral pursuits. From this point onward, slavery and states' rights overshadowed every issue on the agenda, and this singular focus inevitably drew debate back to a raging boil, regardless of how seemingly innocent and harmless was its basis.

Upon this context, Livingston spoke.

The post of partisanship for partisanship's sake--of seeing politics as blood sport, where the kill is the only object of the exercise--was, Livingston said, too high for a free society to pay. Differences of opinion and doctrine and personality were one thing, and such distinctions formed the natural basis of what Livingston called "the necessary and...the legitimate parties existing in all governments."

Parties were one thing; partisanship was another. "The spirit of which I speaking," Livingston said as he argued against zealotry, "...creates imaginary and magnifies real causes of complaint; arrogates to itself every virtue---denies every merit to its opponents; secretly entertains the worst designs...mounts the pulpit, and, in the name of a God of mercy and peace, preaches discord and vengeance; invokes the worst scourges of Heaven, war, pestilence, and famine, as preferable alternatives to party defeat; blind, vindictive, cruel, remorseless, unprincipled, and at last frantic, it communicates its madness to friends as well as to foes; respects nothing, fears nothing."

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham.

We have had our allotment of that madness after a long hot summer of discontent, but what has recently calmed down into something like order if not decorum constantly threatens to regenerate into something much more sinister. Our own weariness and fatigue with this recession may be the only thing that keeps down the thermostat to a tolerable level. Red state governors and representatives learned that the quickest way to win short-term accolades and the war whoops of the crowd is to obliquely raise the specter of nullification and even withdrawal from the Union, a battle which is long since past us, but still immortalized in the myth of the Great Lost Cause. Indeed, as a native Southerner, even I was exposed to such a romantic, dashing ideal only present in the psyche of those who win the first half's worth of play on sheer emotion, but ultimately lose the game in the fourth quarter against fresher legs and superior depth. This is a very dangerous construct, one shared by Germans and utilized by Hitler for his own ends in advancing a narrative of historical oppression and imaginary enemies that gave unity to many but led to brutal slaughter of many others. Given half a chance, the masses will always clamor for a re-match.

Livingston at a slightly later date stated,

There is too much at stake to allow pride of passion to influence your decision. Never for a moment believe that the great body of the citizens of any State or States can deliberately intend to do wrong. They may, under influence of temporary excitement or misguided opinions, commit mistakes; they may be misled for a time by the suggestions of self-interest; but in a community so enlightened and patriotic as the people of the United States, argument will soon make them sensible of their errors, and when convinced they will be ready to repair them."


A belief in the inherent decency and rational sense of the American people often reads like empty rhetoric in this day, especially when so much ink gets spilled about how clueless and uninformed are the average citizen. However, in this instance, modern day Senators and Representatives would be wise to heed the wishes of those whose trust they are the supposed stewards. Poll after poll has shown a slow, but nonetheless undeniable upward tick in support of Public Option and other reforms. Legislators, much like we ourselves, seem to be caught in that eternal quandary, pondering whether the commoners can act in their own best interest, or whether it is the unenviable burden of the elites to superimpose their own will in its place. The paramount lesson to be learned here is that Americans are frequently slow to warm to and inherently suspicious of expansive change, no matter whether or not self-interest is keenly involved.

Speaking specifically to the months-long debate with ourselves and our government, whichever health care bill is passed may likely include a provision whereby states can opt-out of a means to establish parity among health care providers, and no matter how what blend of incentives or threats of consequences, many GOP-dominated states simply will not follow suit. The often unsatisfying compromise between centralized power and regional control known as Federalism will often materialize in these situations. Both perspectives, either for or against are under-girded by a strong sense of distrust of distant bodies and corresponding fear of corruption. Certain, usually conservative states are fearful of Washington's seemingly limitless expansive control into their own affairs and even more fearful of Capitol Hill's perceived incompetence and wasteful behavior. The destructive power of yahoo moralizing, especially when wedded to a fear of the bumbling, slothful behavior of nameless Federal Government bureaucrats remains a force, particularly in solidly red states. Those who would keep our union together have no choice but to navigate this rocky course and in so doing cobble together one unsatisfying compromise measure after another.

Even so, I do believe that much good will stem from reform, whenever it shall arrive on President Obama's desk, and though the deletion of certain particulars is not exactly to my liking, I will have to grit my teeth and live with the cards I am dealt. It is foolish to wish for failure in the hopes that dismal outcomes will produce eventual success based on public outcry and this goes for Olympic games, the success of the first African-American President, or health care reform. Instead I wish for resounding positive results and with it the recognition that there will be an inevitable need to tweak or slightly modify the existing framework with the passage of time. Perhaps a true public option will arrive with time, once states that refuse to participate recognize the great benefit other states derive from its existence. We ought to have learned by now that all or nothing thinking isn't just unfair, it goes against logic itself. The American people, after years of being talked to like children are being faced with a very adult decision, and unaccustomed to such treatment, do not quite know how to respond. My hope, as it is always, is that all Americans are invited to the table and in so doing dealt a hand, so as best able to recognize that the political process is frequently a high stakes game of chance and strategy.

Livingston concluded,

"There are legitimate and effectual means to correct any palpable infraction of our Constitution," he said, "Let the cry of Constitutional oppression be justly raised within these walls, and it will be heard abroad--it will be examined; the people are intelligent, the people are just, and in time these characteristics must have an effect on their Representatives."


May it be so.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Parallel Universes of Politics and Popular Sentiment

Politics is one part ballet, two parts theatrical performance, with the same players taking different roles as the latest situation requires. It is a shifting sort of organic arrangement, whereby that who is one's ally in the morning can be one's enemy the next. The most successful politicians know this instinctively and recognize that this degree of constant posturing and shape-shifting should be attributed to the profession itself, not to the practitioner. We, however, do not live in such a world of allegiances that shift like tectonic plates. We do not easily recognize that political pronouncements have a shelf life of roughly three hours time, upon which they are superseded by the latest changing of the wind, or, for that matter, changing of the guard.

Still, we try to apply the code of conduct and rules of the game that exist in our world of resolute, lasting convictions to that of the politician. This is what leads us to great frustration. This morning some are criticizing President Obama for not coming down more punitively on Joe Lieberman when he had the chance. A week ago, Republicans were lashing out at Olympia Snowe for her duplicitous perfidy. A week before that, Progressives were purple with rage at Senator Max Baucus. A week from now, a new target will arise, align himself or herself with something we either support or oppose, and the game will begin again. The process reminds one of nothing less than an endless round of musical chairs. Those congressional leaders involved in an active tug of war will always reposition themselves on safer ground as need be, while the ones who stand firm are often likely to find themselves without a seat.

In this eternal game of chess,

O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag -
It's so elegant

So intelligent
"What shall I do now? What shall I do?"

I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
"With my hair down, so. What shall we do to-morrow?

"What shall we ever do?"
- T.S. Eliot

Observe the ballet, though the steps may be a bit quicker, the pace may be sterner, and the tempo deliberately accelerated. As regards politics, in which there is always something tangible to gain or to lose, I only believe in the last statement made by whomever utters it. This would be considered exceptionally pessimistic in the real world, but makes complete sense within the realm of political discourse. Lament it if you will, but even a charismatic figure elected to shake up Washington and a largely underwhelming speaker could not betwixt the two of them figure out how to drain the swamp. It takes more than legislation to undo a complex, frequently befuddling system of strange allegiances and stranger bed fellows. The skillful politician is a master of both slight of hand and cerebral dexterity. He or she rarely gets caught in a lie or a half-truth, while the less skilled end up without a chair when the music ends. The results when tabulated might be half chance, like everyone's else's, but they are always composed of calculated risk, with the hope of ultimate profit and gain.

We may have a rough idea of the relative platform our Senator or Congressperson stands upon, but beyond that, one needs an actuarial table to correctly calculate where he or she might go from one moment to the next. Risk assessment doesn't just stop with insurance and rare is the incumbent who can count on an easy re-election campaign, year in and year out. If we were all more or less the same in allegiance and conviction, then politicians could be reliably counted on to talk out of only one side of their mouth. Until then, we are stuck with the system we have, which satisfies few and enrages many.

To better explain my case, I sought to divine what was the historically highest possible Congressional approval rating ever recorded. While I certainly was inundated with sources which told me what the lowest approval rating for the both chambers had been at many points in time, attaining its compliment, however, provided elusive. In the data I did find, Congress never polled above 45%, which means that if it as a collective body ran for office, it would never win and probably never even trigger a runoff. This fact also underscores what a convenient target the legislative branch is for many of us, but also proves that its overall popularity is pointedly meaningless unless it drops to single, or near single digit lows. By contrast, even the least popular Presidents in modern memory still managed to poll slightly above 20% in their lowest periods and some scored nearly 80% in their times of highest popular favor. As Americans, we favor personalities over collective bodies, perhaps because we can relate more to a individual rather than a frequently flummoxing deliberative entity whose ways are misunderstood even by the highly educated.

Returning to the matter of effective analysis, the most skillful strategies for determining future courses of action might be found within the brains of those who think three and four moves ahead while recognizing that events are always subject to change. This is not to imply that some method to the madness exists, either. Best intentions are often preempted by breaking news and any schedule ought to be penciled in, rather than chiseled into granite. Those public servants who are caught flat-footed or utterly unawares are always the easiest targets for ire and criticism. They also tend to not survive. That who we have in our cross-hairs today will often be our firmest unforeseen ally with time. As for the present moment, which is all we are ever granted in politics, the once and future Health Care Reform proponent assumes a temporary position in our affections and our current antagonist draws boos and jeers. The Public Option is dead, long live the Public Option. This is, of course, until the funeral is called off and the coronation resumes, once more.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The New American System is Much Like the Old

We have been recently engaged in a molasses-slow, months-long debate about the role of deficit spending, stimulus packages, and ways to maintain continued voter participation beyond one election cycle. In times such as these I frequently return to the past to see if parallels exist between other times and our own. What I find frequently are not conclusive answers but revealing similarities that at least highlight that we as a people haven't really changed all that much with the passage of years. For example, politicians still voice concern about a swelling national debt, even if it is a view taken for political advantage rather than genuine conviction. A frequently nasty debate over federal government's role in the function and policy of individual states raged this past summer. Next up are upcoming elections in key battleground states that may show some degree of indication as to whether the election of Barack Obama was a either lasting, or an ephemeral re-alignment of the electoral map.

One-hundred and eighty-one years ago, this nation was engaged in similar debate over similar issues. A recently elected Democratic president by the name of Andrew Jackson had won the office by vowing to uphold the rights of the people, not the small circle of well-connected and powerful brokers that had run Capitol Hill for close to a quarter of a century. Had there been highways then, or, for that matter, cars, one might have dubbed these new money, self-proclaimed, unapologetic aristocrats the Beltway elites. Jackson's election was nothing less than an abomination to these sorts, since they placed no faith, nor any trust in what they considered to be the under-educated, ill-informed grumblings of the partisan rabble. Government of the people, by the elites was their governing philosophy, and it had gone unchallenged since the beginning of the Republic.

Though Old Hickory sought to carry the banner of the common person, this didn't necessarily mean he supported progressive reform in all of its incarnations.

...Jackson fretted about what were drily known as internal improvements--projected roads and canals that were to be funded by the federal government. The issue was at the heart of a philosophical argument. Was Washington's role to be a limited one, leaving such matters to the states except in truly national cases, or was the federal government to be a catalyst in what was know as "the American System," in which tariffs and the sales of public land funded federally sponsored internal improvements? As President, Jackson favored the former, John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay the latter. Related, in Jackson's mind, was the issue of the national debt (the money owed by the federal government). To him, debt was dangerous, for debt put money in the hands of creditors--and if money was in the hands of creditors, it could not be in the hands of the people, where Jackson believed it belonged. (Bold mine)

-American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by John Meachum

A true son of the South, Jackson was understandably squeamish to impose too much federal authority upon state government, even if it promised desperately needed infrastructure to industrialize and modernize a country which was still largely agrarian and rural. However, his reluctance to take on debt for any purpose, no matter how worthy, is not the same sort cited by Republican politicians of our day. Perhaps the question we ought to ask ourselves now is "Who holds our debt and do they have our own best interest at heart?" Jackson did not live in an age where globalization had complicated and expanded monetary policy to the degree that foreign investors were heavily involved in the process; he did, however, hold an oversimplified point of view that saw money as belonging either to the moneychangers or the people--with no overlap in between. Today's GOP eagerly sounds the warning regarding our spiraling national debt but certainly has no credible plan, nor plausible solution that would place it firmly in the hands of their primary constituents. If such a thing were proposed by a Democrat, Republicans would surely claim that doing so would "spread the wealth around" in a radical redistribution scheme that, once enacted would destroy the country's economic structure.

Meanwhile, we have now commenced with hand-wringing in response to a less active electorate this time around. The below passage disproves the idea that fickle and transitory voter participation is unique purely to our day.

A Scottish visitor to Albany in the late 1820s noted an American love of what he called "the spirit of electioneering, which seems to enter as an essential ingredient into the composition of everything." But it was a highly personal kind of electioneering: "The Americans, as it appears to me, are infinitely more occupied about bringing in a given candidate, than they are about the advancement of those measures of which he is conceived to be the supporter." (Bold mine.)


We love the chase but then quickly lose interest with the implementation stage. Media saturation, short attention spans, rock star politics, and all the other theories currently proposed that aim to explain why voter participation and interest is down from its height of this time last year might be simply explained as Americans acting like Americans. To be sure, activists never lose their focus or their drive, but most of us are not activists. Jackson was one of the first politicians to whittle down complex issues for the easy digestion of the average citizen. Had there been television in his day, one might have called them sound bytes. This, of course, oversimplified often contentious and complicated policy decisions, but Jackson's belief was that the American worker had no time to devote from his busy day for in-depth political study and contemplation. This assertion is one that frequently frustrates activists of our times---who demand larger participation but recognize too that the time and energy commitment needed to push reform is often more than many people are willing or able to devote.

Regarding Presidential strategy, Jackson was cautious not to box himself in, even though this left him open to charges of playing politics when candor and taking a firm stand might seem to be a better strategy. An immensely popular President upon taking office, he had a knack for strategic positioning and a marked refusal to provide his enemies an easy target, likely due in part to his years as a military man. It was also a response to the well-known fact that the General had more than a few enemies in high places who coveted his office for themselves and would use any means necessary to achieve it.

[Jackson's] first inaugural...was purposely vague. Gazing out on the admirers gathered at the foot of the Capitol steps, Jackson saw that he was the object of wide affection---but he was not yet certain of the depth of that affection. The people hailed him today but might not tomorrow. Better, then, to proceed with care, to be general rather than specific, universal rather than particular---for specificity and particularity would give his foes weapons to use against him. Many leaders would have been seduced by the roar of that crowd, lulled into thinking themselves infallible, or omnipotent, or secure in the love of their followers.

But Jackson knew that politics, like emotion, is not static. There would be times where he would have to tell people what they did not want to hear, press a case they did not want to accept, point them in a direction they would prefer not to go. Best, then, to preserve capital to spend on those speeches and those battles.
(Bold mine.)


President Obama is fortunate that the relative weakness of the Republican party and the still ample approval among those in his own party do not leave him vulnerable to direct challenges to his authority as Chief Executive. Unlike Jackson, he does not relish making enemies and in so doing, challenging them to duels. Some of us would prefer a President cut from that same cloth, though I do note that nothing unifies otherwise disparate elements only tangentially related to each other more than a common enemy. This course of action does not make for theatrical governance or high drama, certainly, but perhaps the boring way is the best way. Any President is compelled to occasionally be the bearer of bad tidings, the purveyor of necessary, but unpopular policy, and the leader pointing the way against a headwind of reluctance and even stubborn refusal. The more change one pushes for, the more one must assume such mantles. Many will feel short-changed, disregarded, and under-represented in the process. Lament it, if you will, but be sure to acknowledge the substantial challenges that face those who attempt its removal. This New American System combined with a still very New American President might not require as much patience as it does a fundamental understanding of the balancing act and slight-of-hand required of any politician. Our response never changes, but what does change is how quickly we forget that these struggles are not exactly unique to our times.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Oppressed Need An Ally, Not a Parent

We in Western society frequently latch hold of the concerns of the Third World in a laudable desire to reform, enlighten, and correct the injustices which exists in countries who do not enjoy our same basic freedoms. Though this impulse is meant to bring light to the darkness, we must also be careful not to let our own biases and own paternalistic impulses overshadow the good work we seek to accomplish. When the reform we seek thinly veils our own individual internal struggles, then we are not truly working for unselfish means. However, rather than beating ourselves up when we fall short, we would be wise to forgive our shortcomings and strive to listen more and hector less. It is only with listening and absorbing the complete picture that truly effective change ever comes to be. If short-cuts guaranteed successful outcomes, we'd have colonized Mars by now, viewed a time where same-sex marriage was illegal as unspeakably barbaric and nonsensical, and learned to take for granted a single payer health care system.

The controversy over women who demand the right to wear the Niqāb or the burqu‘ despite laws banning it altogether has become a highly politicized issue in Western Europe and even in our own country. Feminist activists, particularly female feminist activists, have grabbed hold of the head scarf and veil issue as a clear-cut visual example that shows conclusive evidence of brutal Patriarchal oppression. When sexism and anti-feminist offenses are so often disguised and ingrained within a society, the head scarf has become an endearing image to invoke due to its unquestioned visibility. If one takes into account a purely Western point of view, nothing could be a more suitable example of the malicious intent of men harshly imposing their will upon women. In comparing their perceived interpretation of the custom to their own lives and their own hard-fought struggles as women, they have incorporated the practice into a Raison d'être of a particular school of thought. This endearing symbol pushes social justice and personalizes the lack of human rights rightly due to oppressed women through the world. The cause has been so heavily politicized and eagerly embraced that few have felt any need to examine the subtleties that sometimes contradict and frequently complicate any resounding rallying point or slam dunk. The reality, as it so often is, is full of subtle nuances that make any black and white reading much more complicated or even impossible.

For starters, the Niqāb, contrary to what many in the West assume, does not have any historical basis in Islamic law or in the Koran. While one particular passage in the Muslim holy book is often invoked to justify its use, it is worded rather vaguely.

O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the women of the faithful, to draw their wraps over them. They will thus be recognised and no harm will come to them. God is forgiving and kind. [Qur'an 33:59 (Translated by Ahmed Ali)]

The Niqāb began as a suggested means to protect women against the potential nefarious acts of unruly men or as a way to keep Muslim women from feeling self-conscious about their appearance. This originally paternalist, probably unintentionally condescending, but nonetheless well-intentioned purpose was then, much later, incorporated into the rule of law in Muslim theocracy nations like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan when it was ruled by the Taliban. Thus, only when the head scarf and veil was used as a deliberate means of enforcing social control and to perpetuate and concentrate power in the hands of men that it took on the deeply offensive meaning it holds today.

An article of clothing so visible and so emotionally charged rarely makes a dramatic impact purely on the sex of those who wear it. In Egypt, for example, much debate has centered around the wearing of the Niqāb, with one camp who believes that it is an offensive practice that ought to be scrapped altogether and another which acknowledges that it does keep women safe from unwanted sexual advances. In a country where the rights of women are not nearly as progressive as they are in this country, Egyptian women frequently have boundaries broached by overzealous men and are unfortunately privy to unwarranted conduct that in this country would be rightly deemed sexual harassment or, in more extreme circumstances, sexual assault. Despite this, the implication of the Niqāb is predicated on the assumption that men cannot control themselves and as a result they need a man-made buffer to keep their base impulses restrained. The burden of protection, then, falls not on the that-who-would-violate but that-who-might-be-violated. This is a contentious notion even in our own society, where women are routinely instructed to take self-defense classes, carry mace in their purses, told in no uncertain terms where to go or not to go, and provided a laundry list of do's and don'ts in a paternalistic desire to protect their safety.

What this does, however, is treat only the effects, not the causes, of a very complex and highly ancient problem. Shifting the burden to that of the potential rapist or attacker is much less cut-and-dried and a path through the wilderness that has only been partially cleared. Proposing solutions that take into account the variety of complicated, interlocking issues that lead men to perpetrate violence against women, whether that be sexual in nature or not, is what we need more of, that is if this matter is to ever be resolved. We insult not just women if we think otherwise. We also insult men if we imply that one sex possesses some kind of innate, unredeemable barbarism that needs a moat, a stop sign, and a blatant, omnipresent reminder at all times to that screams, "Hands Off!", else baser impulses triumph.

What we need also take into account is that if we are to use any example from other cultures to buttress our own claims, it would be best to understand the whole story before appropriating it for our own ends. Removing the context and subtext from any of our traditions and rituals means that the fullest, most complete interpretation is simply not present. Works of classic literature, for example, are products of their time and thus not best understood unless one first adequately comprehends the currents and motifs that existed then and were in the mind of its author. We would be wise to bone up, do our homework, and above all, listen to the stories and opinions of those who live and work in other countries and other regions of the world before we advance any argument based on insufficient understanding, no matter how well-meaning it might be. Though the White Man's Burden no longer reigns supreme, we still have an unfortunate tendency to push reform measures and use examples to push said reform measures that speak more about our own shortcomings, our own fears, and our own life stories than those we claim to assist. This can be avoided if we will avoid overreaching and oversimplifying, even if the result produced is not nearly as impressive. Most contentious issues, I have found, are too indebted to irony to be anyone's satisfying centerpiece. If we were honest with ourselves and each other, we'd recognize that absolutes are few in this world.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Quote of the Week

"The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil."- Hannah Arendt

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Saturday Video


In a random coincidence, today happens to be my birthday. I am now 29 and trying not to dread the approach of the long-promised thirties.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Real World Success is More Important than Legislative Wrangling

Count me among those who have listened with no small annoyance to the incessant alarmist chorus of worry and hand-wringing regarding the White House's decision to go on the offensive for once and attack Fox News. I have always known the political process to be fickle and seemingly designed for the sake of those who would split hairs and raise concerns, but I have never seen so many degrees of second-guessing from so many different corners as I have with the President's bold attack. Articles like this one prove my point. Any effective governing coalition requires placating not just the base, but also moderates, independents, and conservatives. This should be common sense, but the purveyors of news and politics easily forget it. The big tent is supposed to be big.

If any Democrat in power states a position, it will be automatically criticized for being too partisan. If one doesn't flex one's muscles, the lack of strong response will be lambasted as being spineless and wimpy. A shift to the left will be criticized as catering only to the base. A shift to the right will be criticized as forsaking liberals to appeal to a transparent sense of phony bipartisanship. Aiming for the middle will win critics on both the left and right who would much rather prefer their concerns winning precedent rather than having a foot in one side and a foot in the other. One could almost argue that a President, any President, can't manage to do much of anything right, except be a combination egalitarian punching bag and dart board. Any majority coalition is going to have natural fissures and at times conflicting interests, but the best leaders find a way to not sweat the small stuff and instead advance the common thread upon which all can agree.

Returning again to the recent condemnation of Faux News by the Obama Administration, I probably shouldn't have been surprised that some were so quick to make a Nixon analogy. I personally was surprised that the White House had the courage to take a chance by stating the unvarnished truth for once. Many of us in the netroots had been arguing similarly for years, i.e. that Fox News was not a network that aimed for any kind of objective, unbiased spin in its "news" coverage. That this was decried in some corners as a kind of Chicago-style kneecapping that utterly contradicted the President's earlier stand advancing post-partisanship is petty politics to the extreme. I doubt seriously that Obama keeps a constantly revised hate-list of enemies in the desk drawer of the Oval Office. Post-partisanship is fine but as we have seen over the months it also requires cooperation from the not-so-loyal opposition, who have wished to play by their own rules in their own sandbox thankyouverymuch. Once hopes in future that the substantive networks and news agencies no longer have to chase the narratives and outlandish pseudo-news set in motion by Fox.

Like many, I was among the ranks of the skeptics when our President continued to advance an optimistic agenda that sought to supersede political ideology in favor of cooperation. This Era of Good Feeling lasted, if memory serves, about three full months. As much as it pains me, we've still not evolved yet to the point that we can set aside our selfishness and our suspicion of the other side to truly work hand in hand. One of the open secrets of Washington legislative politics is that many Senators and Representatives do routinely reach across the aisle in formulating worthy bills and many, shockingly enough, even have friendships with those in the opposition party. They are, however, always cautious and careful to prevent this from becoming common knowledge back home among their constituents. Few wish to be accused of "palling around with Democrats" after all.

Part of what drives conservative opposition is the fear of being surrounded and outnumbered. This rally-round-the-flag response I see constantly when I am back home in Alabama. Having a long history of feeling marginalized and having its concerns discounted by the rest of the country provides a substantial ability and precedent to band together. After having fallen out of power altogether, it is a well-worn identity that can be easily embraced yet again. Not only that, at this point at least, Republicans really have everything to gain and nothing to lose. They can afford to speak with more or less one voice projected directly towards their base because, as has been exhaustively reported, moderate voices are currently few and far between. Energy does not need to be devoted to keeping everyone on board. Liberals and Democrats can be easily vilified as smug oppressors, forcing their version of ill-suited progress upon a public which would like nothing more than to be left alone to run its affairs in its own way. Still, at some point free will and laissez-faire produces more harm than good and intervention is necessary.

In the meantime, it might be best for us to embrace, for the first time in decades what being the majority party entails. We seem to have gotten out of practice over the years. It means being inclusive without papering over differences and knowing also how to engage different wings and blocs in honest conversation without degenerating into fratricide. On this point, the media seems poised and eager to pronounce a party at war with itself because doing so promises rapt attention, increased readership, and a steady stream of interesting, lurid headlines. Let's not go there, please. What I see is not exposed fault lines in stretched tautly in anticipation of a major tremor, but rather something quite different. I see the inevitable stress and strain which characterizes the democratic process at work, one which never provides a satisfying rallying cry for anyone until its conclusion, or until its effects are judged by the direct impact made upon those whom it sets out to help. At times we forget that the formulation of reform is often much less important than its role in improving the lives of others, but the former does make for good theater. The latter might not make for interesting copy, but it is upon this standard that we ought to judge success or failure. In so doing, we ought to act and choose our words accordingly.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Between Thought and Expression

The Australian actress Nicole Kidman testified yesterday before the House International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight Subcommittee on the subject of violence in film, in particular the sickening amount of onscreen violence against women. Kidman stated that many roles portray women as weak, as mere sex objects, or as both and that this permissive attitude of debasement contributes greatly to real life acts of violence perpetrated against women. The actress' intent was not merely to condemn the film industry for its excesses but also to advance the larger issue of unchecked, infrequently prosecuted violent acts committed against women across the globe.

The Oscar-winning actress said she is not interested in those kinds of demeaning roles, adding that the movie industry also has made an effort to contribute to solutions for ending the violence. Kidman testified before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that is considering legislation to address violence against women overseas through humanitarian relief efforts and grants to local organizations working on the problem.

That notable stories like these get submerged underneath the incessant back-and-forth of partisan or even inter-party bickering surprises me not one iota. Such stories are often pigeonholed as merely "women's topics" or moved to the back of the soft news queue, with the tacit assumption that celebrities are incapable of advancing much beyond their own careers or the manufactured drama designed to garnish publicity. As for this particular example in question, Kidman is notably treading cautiously here, not willing to assign full blame to Hollywood because of her stated belief that it has devoted committed and serious internal efforts towards self-regulation. Forgive me for being skeptical, because I know that few major money-making industries do an adequate job of policing themselves from within. Specifically regarding the celluloid conglomerate, it took the Hays Code and then the puritanical Production Code before Tinseltown ever strongly curtailed the content found in moving pictures.

Asked by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., if the movie industry has "played a bad role," Kidman said "probably," but quickly added that she herself doesn't.

"I can't be responsible for all of Hollywood but I can certainly be responsible for my own career," she said.

What has always concerned me is how precipitously the lines between reality and fantasy have blurred and continue to blur with every passing second. When we will refer to a patently fictional and contrived television series as "reality", then that is really saying something. Even early films were initially criticized for being fanciful time-wasters peddling a conception of reality far removed from the way things were, though audiences quickly realized they were far more real than they could had ever imagined. Visual entertainment often depends on a willingness to suspend disbelief, but these days this is often unnecessary. When whole cottage industries of film have sprung up around specialized, ultra-realistic genres wherein vulnerable, intelligence-challenged women are maimed, murdered, or otherwise butchered, then one sees the problem in all shades of Technicolor. That our combined response is usually that of a shrug is even more telling. Conservatives constantly reinforce a belief that racy sexuality undermines morality, but their critiques somehow never focus much on violent acts in media, which are far more pervasive and troubling.

In his classic monologue, "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television", George Carlin notes,

And people much wiser than I have said, "I'd rather have my son watch a film with two people making love than two people trying to kill one another." And I, of course, can agree.

One could make a strong case that part of the cultural schizophrenia that characterizes Americans is due to the dual, paradoxical forces that fetishize violence and deadly weapons but register a definite discomfort with sexuality. When the two are paired, a peculiar effect often occurs, whereby the presence of violence distracts from, or even invalidates the potentially objectionable presence of sexuality. Code-era screenwriters and directors relied frequently on symbolic puns and winking double entendres often rooted in violence to sneak sexuality past the censors. In cowboy movies, particularly, the phallic use and display of revolvers and guns flew over few heads, except, of course, those of the gatekeepers. Films which are proudly ultra-violent pass muster in ways that films which are proudly hyper-sexual do not. Where both are present in a particular cinematic work, most of the criticism focuses inevitably on the subversive sexuality, not necessarily the subversive violence.

In films which are degrading to women, screenwriters and directors often excuse much of the misogyny and sexism by labeling it pure fantasy or by rooting it in a long standing tradition of damsel in distress. In many horror films, particularly, women are portrayed as supremely gullible, highly culpable, and mere prey for men with sinister intentions. In such films, the "fun" of watching is wondering not whether the latest female victim will die, but speculating at which point and by what fashion. Combine violence with sex and one has just described a rapist and articulated rape culture. In a world where the media pumps out story after story with this same gruesome, discomforting storyline, except completely real this time, I wonder why some find such pleasure in artificial accounts of matters that are neither amusing, nor entertaining in reality. What we ought to seriously examine within ourselves is at what degree subliminal suggestions and subtlety influences our opinions and our beliefs. This is the basic premise of advertising and marketing and one born out by the relative success of a lifetime inundated with commercials, advertising jingles, and billboards. It may be a strategy more powerful than we would like to admit.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Movie Review: Miss Julie

At least one major network has recently devoted much time to advancing and promoting women's rights, and it is in that spirit that I offer this post. Gender discrimination, in particular, is complicated to the extreme by the fact that gender as a construct is so loosely and inexactly defined. What constitutes "masculine" as well as "feminine" leaves more than ample room for debate and indeed it varies considerably from person to person. Moving targets are notoriously difficult to hit. We might define gender the same way Justice Potter Stewart famously remarked about pornography: "I know it when I see it." Perhaps, but looks can be deceiving.

Recently I watched the 1951 Swedish film, Miss Julie, which was based on the play of the same name written by August Strindberg. Strindberg's tortured psyche and resulting tumultuous love life must certainly have factored in to the equation, as he sees the relationship between men and women as being a combative, loathing affair in which both sexes are driven together only by carnal lust. The two main characters, Miss Julie and her nominal lover Jean, spend the majority of the film variously exchanging insults, spilling forbidden details of each's dysfunctional childhood, while desperately striving to keep away the barely concealed desire that so strongly pulls them together. This, to Strindberg, is what characterizes every romantic pairing at its basest core. The war between the sexes is just that, war, and a particularly bombastic affair where victory quickly gives way to defeat.

While I might not agree with said statement, I do grant that the playwright does deserve some praise for being ahead of his time to some degree. Power dynamics, particularly those regarding types of privilege are explored in much detail, especially the means by which gender inequality trumps class distinction and vice versa. Miss Julie holds power over her working-class, though highly educated lover because her background is aristocratic. Jean, however, has power over Miss Julie because he is male and is not restrained by upper-class values. Ironically, the aristocracy is shown to create its own needless restrictions and its own cages, and though the working-classes might have less money or influence, they also live lives of greater freedom than their social betters. As for Jean and Julie, their flirtation is as much about control as it is about lust, and in it neither character wins the upper hand for very long. Instead, we the audience are left with a maddeningly unresolved squabble that, by the film's conclusion, is never really put aside.

As a feminist, however, what I found most appalling is the presentation of Miss Julie's mother. She was not a part of the original play and was instead added later by Alf Sjöberg, whose screenplay also fleshed out the character of the count considerably. A woman who comes across as a sadistic parody of first-wave feminism, her character reads like a laundry list of male privilege paranoia. For starters, she broaches propriety by being unwilling to get married because she does not wish to be seen as her husband's property. Loathe to give birth or to be a mother, she nonetheless becomes pregnant, while plainly hating the child that emerges from her womb. Her daughter is forced to dress in boy's clothing, forbidden to play with dolls, or to embrace even the most modest of female gender roles. All of this is meant, as the playwright asserts, to prove that women are equal to men. However, these draconian tactics lead to much misery and confusion for the child who finds traditionally male pursuits like hunting or plowing a field either perplexing or impossible. She is therefore raised as a boy would be, learning the same chores and same societal obligations as would a male offspring, though the implication is that gender role distinctions to some degree exist for a good reason. The mother's designs even fall upon the workers of the estate. Women servants are required to perform men's work and men servants are required to perform women's work. Neither does so competently and before very long the family is nearly penniless. It is then without much surprise that Sjöberg notes how much Miss Julie's mother hates, fears, and mistrusts men and seeks to pass along this same perspective to her daughter. The mother's belief in radical feminism crosses the line from empowerment into misandry and it is this gross distortion of feminism that still finds its way into modern conservative discourse, particularly in the bluster of Rush Limbaugh's frequent rantings about so-called femi-nazis.

Returning to the film, it is at this point, unsurprisingly, that the established patriarchy attempts to re-establish control and save the day. Her husband, Miss Julie's father, is a well-meaning and kind-hearted count who patiently tolerates his wife's behavior until he takes a firm look at the balance sheet. At this point, he insists that a more traditional means of both raising a child and conducting business will be employed. He liberates his daughter from boy's clothing, dressing her in what he believes to be gender-appropriate fare. He arm-twists his wife into a marriage ceremony and exchange of vows, much to her extreme distaste. However, he fails to take into account her perfidy and bitterness, as she sets fire to the estate, forcing the family to take on more debt and leaving them without a place to live until the Count finds the means to rebuild. She then suggests that her husband should borrow money from a close personal friend, one that she happens to be having an affair with, no less. The money borrowed is secretly her own that she has hidden away, but she lies deliberately to entangle her husband into an economic arrangement that could have been otherwise avoided. The Count discovers what she has done, but due to the insidious nature of the transaction cannot file charges or seek justice.

Strindberg's own views were frequently perplexing and capricious. At times in his life he advocated for women's suffrage but also made misogynistic statements that completely negated his original position. He was, quite unsurprisingly, married three times, each of which ended in bitter, acrimonious divorce, due in large part to the fact to the fact that he was hypersensitive and highly neurotic. It is easy for us to come down harshly on those who make anti-feminist statements or who state shocking offensive opinions. Criticism is always justified, but I try to, as best I can, take into account the circumstances and the state of mind of those who make patently inappropriate public as well as private statements. Words do matter, as do statements of brazen misogyny and unrepentant sexism, but without excusing such behavior, I do seek to find its root in an effort to formulate a solution. The past several months have shown a marked uptick in what seems like a perpetual cycle of insults, retorts, charges, counter-charges, and the like. I know this sort of behavior goes along with the territory but I still wonder about the ultimate impact. Whether our dialogue is somehow coarser now than before I can't say and whether our children are more or less inclined to violence is a matter of debate, but the fact remains that so long as we fail to seek a common humanity, we'll always be at war, not just with our enemies, but also with ourselves.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Daring to Dance to No One's Funeral

Taking the time to contemplate the vast amount of right-wing smears that have been either facilitated, advanced, or concocted by conservatives over the past several months is an overwhelming task. Within each of these petty, partisan, often nonsensical parries and thrusts I am reminded again of the excesses of the Pharisees. Wishing to have everything on their own terms and in accordance with every selfish demand, modern day Pharisees are found not merely in the opposition party, but regrettably sometimes among our own ranks, particularly in the form of people who fail to neither understand nor respect the vast amount of indignation felt when crucial reform legislation is watered down or vaguely outlined due to nothing more than political expediency and self-preservation. If this sort of thing was limited to politicians, it might be more easily challenged, but one sees it everywhere. Most recently, those well-connected business types who long ago lost their souls in selling the whole world are also guilty as charged.

My mind returns to a passage in the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus speaks to the multitudes outlining the crucial difference between those devoted to advancing true unity and salvation and those instead clinging to selfish motives and baser pursuits. Immediately prior to this segment, Jesus highlights the importance of the eccentric prophet John the Baptist and puts John's life in its proper context. As the talk progresses, the Nazarene also pauses to take stock of the pervasive childishness of those who impede the spiritual and physical health, plus the general well-being of all. The below passage was meant for everyone to hear, friend and foe alike, and is as applicable now as it was then.

All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus' words, acknowledged that God's way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John. (Italics mine)

"To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children who sit in the marketplace and shout to each other, 'We played music for you, but you didn't dance! We sang a funeral song, but you didn't cry!' (Bold mine)

For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners."' But wisdom is proved right by all her children."

We have certainly come across like children recently. As though transported magically back to grade school, one group wishes to play a game, but the other group refuses because it doesn't want to play THAT game. The opposite group proposes a different game to play, but the other side doesn't want to play THAT game, either. Both factions now thoroughly exasperated, this counter-productive back and forth soon grinds to a halt because no one has ever managed to come any kind of consensus agreement. It's hard to negotiate when you can't even get started. Like children, one moment we are at play and the next we are fighting each other again. We often assume that childishness is something put away for good once adulthood is reached, but I was taught that a person can be a fool at any age, for any reason, and that childishness stubbornly persists regardless of how many wrinkles and grey hairs one acquires. If perhaps we were inclined to acknowledge that at times we are all little more than overgrown children and that indeed childishness has no age limit, we might not be so incredulous at the asinine things that routinely dribble out of mouths or the senseless decisions that many make.

Political leaders have recently made a great show of complaining that their intentions to pitch funerals (or kill Grandma, for that matter) have made no one cry, nor have their lobbyist-funded musical selections made anyone dance to their tune. What they fail to understand, of course, is that we are not indebted to them or to their bankrolls. Rather, it is they are indebted to us, and woe be unto any politician or public figure who ever forgets that. This election cycle will produce some surprises, I predict, and politicians asleep at the switch or lulled to sleep by their own complacency often find themselves out of a job. In reference to the work which must be brought to a satisfactory conclusion, I do sincerely believe in Providential authority and divine guidance. In my own life, if I tap into this awesome force and place the common good ahead of my own pursuits, I never fail. Closely linked with this belief is an unshakable conviction that that God demands that no one should die or suffer because of the amoral excesses of a system of greed. I will dance to no one's tune, nor cry on cue to anyone's funeral song until it subsides.

Doing the right thing is not supposed to be easy, lest we forget. If it were, we'd have reached some nirvana-like state of perfection years before now. Anything worth achieving requires effort and strain, though it need not require a complicated solution. The problem with our leaders and ourselves nowadays is that we never expect that anyone will ever call us out when we are clearly in the wrong. Instead, we want regulatory oversight or government programs that are blind to our true intentions and motives. We want a weak government for us and a strong government for everyone else. We want a life full of permissive attitudes to everything we do and propose, though this is hardly the attitude we expect regarding other people in similar circumstances. We believe that capricious behavior is a right, not a hindrance, though others must never be fickle or indecisive.

In short, many really don't really want God, or a higher power, or any kind of driving moral force regardless of what one calls it. Instead, they want an idol of their own creation and in their own image, one which does little but preserve the sort of ethical flabbiness and spiritual shallowness which is what created the variety of mounting messes in which we find ourselves. Unlike some, I do not believe that there is an disproportionate share of such regrettable, destructive behavior in our current age. One of the reasons that the teachings of Jesus have remained so devastatingly relevant across the centuries is that human nature remains so consistent. Human imperfection might be the one constant in a world forever changing and breaking new ground. The greatest lesson to be learned from an examination of our flaws is that we ought not to assume that any criticism is bent on destruction. Indeed, none of this invitation to self-reflection is meant to attack or point fingers. Though I am often frustrated at the incorrect behavior of individuals and institutions in the world around me, I always try to keep in mind that we have the ability, if we should choose to take it, to reform our behavior for better. We are granted many rights we take for granted and one of these is the ability to be either our own destruction or our own redemption. In between both of these roads are some gray areas, certainly, but once we've made the decision to turn onto the highway of our choice, we never once forget its name.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Meritocracy Myth

I've recently relocated to the Washington, D.C. area. In so doing, I've recognized the vast amount of good that can be accomplished with a combination of concentration of wealth and an educated populace situated in one precise location. The all-important achievement of critical mass proves itself essential yet again. Still, I have to say that I won't ever be inclined to take these gifts for granted, like so many in this town seem inclined to do. Growing up where I did, even in the suburban South, I was raised without certain benefits and expectations upon which residents in this city would pitch a fit in protest if they were ever not provided. For example, I did not have the ability to utilize adequate public transportation. Nor was I inundated with places to purchase organic produce or earth-conscious consumer goods. I was never reminded to bring my own reusable grocery bags to the supermarket. Walmarts were never banned, instead they were embraced. Republicans were the people one lawn over, not someone miles away far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. Likely some family in the neighborhood refused to celebrate Halloween, leaving two bowls full of untouched religious literature instead of candy, thoroughly disappointing trick o'treaters in the process.

Every day on my way back and forth to do daily errands, I wade through a stream of college students whose parents must overwhelmingly well-off. I know the parents must be, because these students never seem to have to work and I doubt they could afford the things they have on a waiter or waitresses' salary. Their privilege shows plainly, down to their expensive clothing, high-priced accessories, and nonchalant, dismissive attitudes. Despite my best intentions, I admit with no small discomfort that I find it hard not to resent them. In my own college days, admittedly still not that far in the rearview mirror, I recognize some slight similarities between them as they are now and the person I was a few years back, though the differences are far more glaring. In seeking to avoid building my own personal mythology upon a foundation of smug superiority or paternalistic moralizing, I instead share my own story.

Though I was a scholarship student, my full college tuition was awarded on the basis of my being disabled. Though there had been ominous rumblings ever since my birth, namely that I was a frequently sick child, the proper onset of my illness did not arrive until midway through high school. After frequent, lengthy hospitalizations and other disease-related distractions, my grade point average plummeted. Until then, I had been on track to go to more than a few schools whose very names themselves connoted mystical respect and unquestioned prestige. However, by the time college appeared on the horizon and emerged from my latest pleasant hospital stay, I only qualified for in-state offers. As such, I made my final decision purely on the sensible basis that I ought to stay close to my doctors, since it was highly likely I'd need extensive treatment in the near future. In hindsight, it was a wise decision, and one that proved to be correct, but to this day I have a hard time choking back my bitterness. How I would have loved attending a prestigious school in a solidly blue city!

At the time, I didn't realize that often the quality of instruction and educational merit of colleges and individuals isn't vast, especially since college success is directly proportional to what one puts into it, but what cannot be discounted in the least are the networking opportunities that arise from attending a well-connected school. What has made my recent job search difficult is that I simply did not have the opportunity to attend a noteworthy college or university. I do recognize that this fact is due to external factors upon which I had absolutely no control and, as such, it's not like my own laziness or academic underachievement are to blame. Still, in this abysmal job climate, who you know, or who you know who knows someone who will go to bat for you is much more important than achievement or merit. This is especially true in politics and probably has always been.

For example, my tenth grade English teacher became Laura Bush's press secretary based on having been in a sorority with someone's daughter, whose father happened to be a well-connected Republican. On the Democratic side of the ball, I note that this past weekend I attended a huge house party held not far from Capitol Hill. Most of those who attended were Hill staffers, and though it would be a vast oversimplification to state that most of them clearly had not gotten their jobs based on their intellectual prowess alone, they did give every impression of being of the former frat boy persuasion. One could also safely wager that they had achieved their positions in much the same fashion as my former teacher. I need to point out here that those of us who believe in government's inherent capability to skillfully, and competently solve a multitude of problems might have emerged somewhat less certain of it after spending a few hours uneasily rubbing shoulders and listening to conversations.

Andrew Jackson was the first President to advance the spoils system without any apology for the procedure, but I doubt he was the first to utilize it to reward supporters and well-connected constituents. A rather large and glaring discrepancy exists between the system as it is and the one upon which we place our full trust. Over the years, a multitude of reforms have been passed to level the playing field, which include everything from Affirmative Action to campaign finance reform, but regardless of intent, interpersonal connections or the lack thereof circumvent our best intentions. To some degree, it's understandable that we function in such a way. Anyone in a management position will feel more comfortable hiring someone whom he or she knows he or she can trust or whose good name can be reliably vouched for by someone he or she knows personally. Even so, it's people like me who never had the ability to make those sorts of connections in the first place who end up shortchanged. Nor is this a system that leaves out purely the disabled.

Many highly-qualified candidates get shuffled to the bottom of the deck automatically. If they do not have an in to the established network, then they are much less likely to make it past the very first step. Nor is this regrettable situation solely applicable to job seekers. It wasn't until I moved here that I realized how overwhelmingly the Northeast corridor shapes so much of our national discourse and our national identity. I have observed that those in the news business at times express a justified consternation at the kind of unilateral narratives that are advanced by the Washington-to-New York pipeline at the expense of the rest of the country's news agencies. Sometimes these mini-narratives hold water but often they prove themselves to be not quite as notable, nor as important as they'd like to believe. Even as a child, I recognized how even the stories and historical anecdotes found in the textbooks I read in elementary school focused heavily upon the cities of the East Coast, as though by implication they themselves were all of America. If the South, by contrast, was ever mentioned, one either read of a romanticized notion of chivalry and gallantry nearly a century out of date or as an invocation to hear again of the shameful history of a racist past---a past never allowed to be forgotten. At times I feel a sort of kinship with modern day Germans, since I imagine they are never allowed to forget about the Holocaust, either.

As for the problem between the favoritism we have and the meritocracy we believe we have, this is a disconnect that will not change so long as the existing power structure does not recognize the problem and does not make the needed internal reforms. Much like the entitled rich kids I file past every day, I doubt most even contemplate their own complicity in a system that, if they ever were questioned about it, they would wholly justify by saying that they were merely the latest to inherit it. Like so many institutionalized and enmeshed inequalities, few feel any compulsion whatsoever towards reform because few give it serious contemplation. If you'd like my unvarnished opinion, I think that until we get this particularly unfortunate discriminatory practice under control, we'll run into complication after complication in every other reform measure we push. It has been my experience that the most virulent ills are not the ones we can plainly see, but the overarching underpinnings and framework that are common to everyone, regardless of identity group or leaning. The basic premise of preferential treatment is not necessarily unjustified, but when we assume that brand name, family name, or college name trump everything else, then we run into massive problems. The clothes do not make the emperor.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Quote of the Week

"It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than 'try to be a little kinder.'"- Aldous Huxley

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Saturday Video II

Welcome to the camp,
I guess you all know why we're here

My name is Tommy, and I became aware this year
If you want to follow me, you've got to play pinball

And put in your ear plugs, put on your eye shades
You know where to put the cork

Hey you gettin' drunk, so sorry, I got you sussed
Hey you smokin' mother nature, this is a bust

Hey hung up old Mr. Normal
don't try to gain my trust

'Cause you ain't gonna follow me any of those ways
although you think you must

We're not gonna take it
We're not gonna take it
We're not gonna take it
We're not gonna take it
We're not gonna take it, never did and never will
We're not gonna take it,

gonna break it, gonna shake it, let's forget it better still

Now you can't hear me, your ears are truly sealed
You can't speak either, your mouth is filled
You can't hear nothing, and pinball completes the scene
Here comes Uncle Ernie to guide you to your very own machine

We're not gonna take it
We're not gonna take it
We're not gonna take it
We're not gonna take it
We're not gonna take it, never did and never will

Don't want no religion, not as far as we can tell
We ain't gonna take you never did and never will
We forsake you, gonna rape you, let's forget you better still
We forsake you, gonna rape you, let's forget you better still

See me, feel me, touch me, heal me
See me, feel me, touch me, heal me
See me, feel me, touch me, heal me
See me, feel me, touch me, heal me

Listening to you I get the music
Gazing at you, I get the heat
Following you I climb the mountain

I get excitement at your feet
Right behind you I see the millions
On you I see the glory

From you I get opinions
From you I get the story

Saturday Video

Friday, October 16, 2009

Human Interest Story? Sorry, Not Interested

I admit that I have always been skeptical and unaffected by the majority of human interest stories. It's not that these efforts to tug at America's heart strings leave me cold and uncaring, but rather I rightly see them as an attempt to tug at our purse strings as well. Every so often a story, such as the brave pilot who quite incredibly landed a commercial aircraft in the Hudson river will come to light; situations like those deserve every mention and every laudatory bit of praise. However, for every one genuine story of high drama and unselfish heroism, there are four which are cynically lept upon and patently designed to hook in viewers. These are then given the hard sell by the excited, tension-building cadences of television anchors, compelling us, if not begging us to watch the story develop in front of our faces.

Though the Media (and certain members of the Obama Administration, if the story is to be believed) will chide us for our irresponsibility in jumping to conclusions or not taking into account the whole picture, in situations like the recent story regarding the six-year-old little boy who was said to be dangerously being carried by a runaway balloon when he was in fact hiding in his family's attic, the media looks more foolish than the most clueless blogger. Attempting to save face, the media is now questioning whether the entire matter was a cheap stunt. Whether it was or not is largely immaterial. News reporters rapaciously jumped aboard this story when only the most basic of facts had been confirmed, and the most glaring offenders were the twenty-four hour cable news networks. Child + perilous situation + novelty + human interest + potentially heroic rescue = media catnip.

Teachable moments™ like these can be directed at a variety of offenders. I might start with a few news outlets whose desperation to use this non-event for their own ends led them to play a bit fast and loose with journalistic restraint. Everyone stands to gain from a particularly juicy story, of course. Still, pardon my skepticism, what would have been accomplished if the matter had turned out to be true? What if there had been a stirring rescue followed by at least an hour's worth of self-congratulatory talk from the active participants in the rescue effort? A three-day-dialogue on bad parenting skills? A picture of the young boy on the cover of People? A satellite interview with the family and the child himself on the morning pseudo-news/variety hour of one's choosing? An eventual appearance on Oprah™? Aside from a nice distraction from our lives of not-quite-desperation, how does this help?

It did not, of course, turn out this way. As it stands, the media does not like to be punk'd, yet the irony in this instance is that the mainstream players unintentionally punk'd themselves. It is for reasons like these that the phrase "human interest" elicits yawns rather than heightened curiosity within me. I suppose maybe I see news purely in terms of substantive critique and a presentation of important information. My life is boringly normal enough and I don't need validation of mutual humanity in the form of the latest person who has bravely faced some challenge or distinguished himself or herself from the rest of the pack. Most of my personal heroes never faced a television camera in their whole of their lives and, if they ever exist in the public consciousness at all, they are often mere footnotes and shadowy phantoms in someone's forthcoming book or dissertation.

Fame is ephemeral enough, but soft news fame is its own kind of ephemeral cotton candy---here now, gone quickly, likely never to return. Those who court it know that the quickest way to maintain attention is to resort to sensation and to devise their own means of achieving it. When I was in undergrad, the Mass Communications 101 class I took taught us each of the ways which could be employed to grab the attention of the media. Those whose stated internal agenda is to achieve the spotlight would be well to memorize them, since they are truer now than ever, especially in a time of great transition. In a different time, this whole child in balloon facing great danger story would not have been instantly transformed into an established motif of vulnerable child fighting against a harsh environment. Facts would have been checked more judiciously. With three main cable networks fighting for the attention of an audience, each seeks to outdo the other. Competition can be good for everyone involved, but while each has carved out its own particular niche, one can still plainly observe squabbling over the coveted title of number one. A media with egg on its face again would be wise to not invest in eggs, since they have a way of boomeranging back to their thrower.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Educated Guesses, Past Lessons, and Brave New Worlds

I admit I have been reluctant to write about the War in Afghanistan for each and every one of the reasons and reservations shared by most Progressives. For starters, this is an inherited, hand-me-down conflict that is not Mr. Obama's War and I am not motivated to hang an undeserved albatross around his neck. While I understand the reasons why the President has committed troops, precious resources, and money we really don't have to win this fight, I wonder if this is the best way to refute the long-held conservative myth that Democrats are unwilling to take up arms to defend our country. Republicans love to invoke President Carter and in so doing, never let us forget the depressing sight of a downed helicopter, destroyed by impact---the final resting place of Marines deployed on a hastily conceived and poorly planned rescue mission to Iran to liberate hostages. Obama should be given credit for seeking to counteract that conception, but Afghanistan might not be the best means to accomplish said objective.

Some have tried to make a tentative contrast between this war and Vietnam, which is neither an accurate, nor a congruent comparison. Many leftists, myself included, were understandably quick to draw parallels between the Iraq War and that horribly divisive protracted conflict, and indeed, some of those characterizations did hold water. It also helped that the war was being waged quite incompetently and by our political opposition. However, this struggle easily resembles nothing we have dealt with before and if I were forced to make any contrast with other wars in our nation's history I might concede that it is more closely akin to the Korean conflict. Both are sloppy, inexact, confusing, and contradictory affairs that are as confusing to those who lived, fought, and died as they are to scholars and pundits attempting to make sense of them. When our Afghan struggle draws to a close, whenever that shall be, few concrete conclusions will be drawn and those attempting to point at evidence to support their assertions will have their work cut out for them.

Afghanistan nor Korea have many clearly defined objectives, satisfying victories, nor demoralizing defeats, but what they do have are perplexing stalemates reluctantly adopted to avoid the very real fear of expanding the fight to nearby hostile regions or adjacent unfriendly nations. The Korean War might very well have been the first instance in American history where we realized superior military force does not necessarily translate to resolute and inevitable victory because, in part, acting too aggressively threatens to draw in neighboring countries and, in so doing, transform proxy war into hot war. Creating a wholesale conflagration between major players is as much bad policy and potentially catastrophic outcome then as it is now. Nearly sixty years ago, the United States could not afford to start a declared war between itself and the Red Chinese, specifically since a war with the Communist Chinese always ran the risk of a shooting war with the Soviet Union. Nowadays, particularly when one contemplates how much of our debt China holds, I can't help but be grateful that cooler heads prevailed. Though China may own us, their own developing economy is dependent upon our recovery, and if we fall, so do they.

In Afghanistan, we are utilizing a strategy honed in Iraq which believes that the best way to combat terrorist groups and in so doing eliminate them is to use small, precise skirmishes in a highly strategic fashion. The gloriously sweeping open field battles of yore may forever be a thing of the past. What we are trying to avoid, of course, is expanding the fight into Pakistan in means other than the occasional specifically targeted bombing raid. Even so, resentments have been created when we act in that fashion, particularly because Pakistan's leaders believe we are threatening their sovereignty in launching raids, though it must also be added that they themselves have never firmly committed to eliminate Al-Qaeda from within their own borders. Threatening the stability of the entire Middle East is the foremost omnipresent threat we must keep in mind and while a wholesale invasion of neighboring countries might be a temptation to some, it is hardly any solution. Warfare in the Twenty-First century has proven to be a different kind of containment that puts out fires as they are discovered and faces a guerrilla enemy who recognizes full well that the only way to stay alive to fight another day is to resort to a strategy of hit and run. In an older era, this was considered unsightly, cowardly, and against the unwritten rules of engagement. The Taliban feels no shame, nor any compulsion to adhere to a antiquated standard that, if adhered to, would quickly lead to its demise.

In Korea, the one wholesale success of UN forces was General Douglas MacArthur's amphibious Inchon landing, which succeeded in occupying almost all of the Korean peninsula. In response, Chinese dictator Mao Zedong deployed a exceptionally large contingent of troops to combat the threat and reclaim lost territory. These soldiers owed a large share of their funding and support to Soviet leader Josef Stalin, whose infamous paranoia might have worked in his own favor for once in this situation. As such, UN forces were driven back past the 38th Parallel and into South Korea; it is at this juncture that the war reached an unsatisfying Mexican standoff which still is in place today. The Korean War technically never ended. A state of war still exists between North and South, though it has been superseded by an long-standing truce. The effects of this can be seen today with the saber-rattling and manipulative posturing of the North Korean government, particularly with its desire to obtain a nuclear program or at least its desire to play cat-and-mouse with the rest of the world.

Though the United States may have the most formidable weaponry and military, this alone will not necessarily produce victory. I often doubt whether war over terrorism will ever be firmly declared with any satisfaction, or whether the best we can ever hope for is a kind of mutually agreed upon ceasefire and even partition. The only way one could really destroy every terrorist cell would be to either invade or bomb a garden variety of countries, most in the Middle East, which would inflame tensions around to the world to such a fevered pitch that World War III would certainly become a strong possibility. Changing the mindset of those won over to a combination of radical Islam married to terrorist tactics might be a better option. Proving how such attitudes are counter-productive, counter-intuitive, and ultimately futile would be needed strategies in accomplishing this task.

A combination of skillful diplomacy and a policy of military containment would seem to be as plausible as any strategy yet attempted. In saying this, I hasten to use the phrase "military containment" because it is beholden to another age where it served as frequent justification to stem the spread of Communism. Perhaps we ought to redefine for our own age what containment really means, and in this regard, I don't think it connotes long term occupation of any country. I do not have the answers and do not advance a strategy, because I am as flummoxed as even those in charge seem to be. Even those in the driver's seat of this operation have little more than educated guesses themselves upon which to justify their decisions and my hope is, as always, that we will embrace the most sensible course of action and always be willing to learn from what came before, regardless of whether it is welcome or unwelcome.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Parable of Speaking Truth to Power

The Parables of Jesus were spoken in symbolic language which lends them to a variety of different, though often interrelated interpretations. Indeed, the very structure of the words which form them make any one sole meaning impossible. It is this fact in particular that has made me skeptical of any church or any faith which stakes a claim to the "real" way. Biblical scholarship has revealed nuance and even irony in the original text itself, both of which must be taken into account before forming any one-sided reading. Jesus often spoke indirectly to avoid persecution by both Roman and Jewish authorities, but beyond the obvious, I have always seen the Parables much as I would an excellent work of poetry, one which provides a new, helpful, before unseen resonance with every subsequent reading. The intrinsic thread remains constant, but new permutations arise as I age and depending on what frame of mind I am in at that particular juncture in my life, I always glean something brand new.

When we talk about our own complicity in a system where those at the top dictate the course of action for those subservient to them, I return to the Parable of the Talents. In this day and age where we often believe that our own power, income, and sphere of influence owes its existence to making compromises with unethical major players, this Parable address our messy moral dilemmas. Here, the version in the Gospel of Matthew, which is cited most frequently.

14 "Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15 To one he gave five talents[a] of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17 So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18 But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.

19 "After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.'

21 "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'

22 "The man with the two talents also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.'

23 "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'

24 "Then the man who had received the one talent came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'

26 "His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

28" 'Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29 For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

A common interpretation of this parable, indeed the one in which I was schooled, states that dispersing moral lessons of fairness, justice, ethics, humility, and compassion requires one to push past fear and be courageous in spreading the positive message of unity and love. Though our "talents" might be unequal to others, we can still make the most of what we have in working collectively towards good. Though each of us have different degrees of skills and spiritual gifts, what matters more is how we use them, not how many of them we possess. I find it interesting that while few of us, especially religious liberals or secular humanists would call religion an activist movement, we use this same line of logic and ancient tactics in encouraging those of like mind to action and also in spurring ourselves to spread the good news to whichever Gospel of Social Justice we find most to our liking. In this particular reading, perhaps unsurprisingly, our sympathies are extended to the Master, not to the last of the servants, who we assume is too scared of failure and too cowardly to have invested his master's money. However, this does present something of a problem when one recognizes the depth and breadth of the master's response, which if we are to take the third servant at his word, is cold and cruel.

Luke includes a similar parable, albeit one where every servant is entrusted with the same amount of money. In his version, we also know up front that the master is deeply unpopular with some of his some of his citizens and that he is willing to put to death those citizens who oppose him. Our sympathies, then, are not with the unforgiving master but with the one servant who was unwilling to invest the money entrusted to him. If the master's business ventures were corrupt, illegal, or unfair then it is only the third servant, entrusted with the least amount (according to Matthew's account) who acted correctly and whose conduct is beyond reproach.

William R. Herzog II in Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as the Pedagogue of the Oppressed gives an interpretation that shows the risk of challenging the established authorities.

The servant's frank remark shows him to be a "whistle-blower". He calls the aristocrat harsh and merciless, which are not God-like qualities. He exposes the sham of what has occurred: the other servants have allowed themselves to be used for exploitative purposes, for which they will be rewarded by the wicked aristocrat.

According to Herzog's reading, the point of the parable is to show how much it can cost for an underling to expose the truth about injustice in society. Indeed, this parable is the last Jesus delivers before his crucifixion, the ultimate consequence of his own speaking of truth to worldly power.

Without asking Jesus directly as to what he meant, the true meaning of the parable is up for some debate and indeed Biblical scholars have puzzled over it for centuries and may puzzle over it for centuries more. If we view the parable through Herzog's lens, we recognize that while the master acknowledges that his business ventures may be dirty and unfair, he still insists that some money could have been made if the servant had bothered to invest it in a bank. A more conventional interpretation, outside of a religious context, might read that even in a flawed system, one should at least attempt to make some profit if one feels disinclined to resort to unethical standards. By the end, the master vindictively punishes the third servant by giving all of his money to the most profitable servant, the one who he trusted the most in the beginning. This is a curious way of teaching a lesson and, not only that, quite extreme, almost sadistic in its application. Still, in keeping with the whistle-blower view, such things frequently happen to those who do question the system, threaten established power brokers, and end up being excommunicated from society or even threatened with death in the process.

Since this was the last parable told before the Crucifixion, the ultimate placement of this allegorical story might have been designed to instruct all believers to keep the teachings of the Master (Jesus) and spread them throughout the world and/or to serve as a lesson that all who challenge the system will run the risk of being persecuted. Refusing to engage in worldly sins while simultaneously turning the mirror to reflect the hypocrisies of the powerful is as needed as adherence to a code of ethics, though this degree of sacrifice does frequently create confrontation and conflict. Either interpretation one cites is worthy of contemplation in this age where we understand, now more than ever, the importance of organization and the great need for a common voice to institute reform measures. We note soberly that a great risk still exists for those whose weapon of choice is the unvarnished truth and whose target are those who swear by lies and rationalizations instead. It is written that the truth will set us free, but though it is the path to liberation, truth often comes with consequences, deserved or not.