Friday, October 21, 2005

Not Abandoned

...But for the moment, without anything interesting to say.

Like most people who read blogs, I've been transfixed these last few day and weeks by two stories: the Valerie Plame leak investigation and the nomination-process of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

On the first story, I've been watching the previously unknown-to-me firedoglake, run by a couple of former prosecutors and lawyers. It is these days the center of Plameology for the left, as Tom Macguire is for the rational right.

For the latter story, I've been following the span unravel at (right-leaning, libertarian lawyers) and at (the "base" in its glory). Leftists, upon witnessing the Republicans eat their own so publicly, have managed to keep their mouthes shut on an unprecedented scale.

Uninteresting, silly bloviatings below the fold.

On the former, I'm hoping, hoping, hoping that Fitzgerald has come up with a good deal of evidence for the indictments that he will surely be handing down soon. I'm not among those who would wave away with a dismissive hand charges of conspiracy or perjury, but for the sake of this screwed-up body politic we've got going on, and in the interest of finally trying to get this recent history right, I would really like the next, inevitable swing of the pendulum to be solidly grounded in fact.

Oh, don't get me wrong. I'll like to throw eggs at most of this administration, I harbor fantasies about seeing them in international tribunals, and I think that they've done irreparable harm to most of our remaining public institutions. They should be excoriated, ridden out of town on a rail, and serve as historic exemplars of an executive gone crazy.

But all of that has got to wait.

I've been thinking all of this since, oh, say, 2002, the year that Max Cleland got voted out of office for being insufficiently knee-jerk patriotic, the year that Republicans managed to incite sufficient hatred against the French that citizens were pouring good champagne into the sewers, the year that many liberals decided that if we couldn't beat them in their unilateralist fantasies, it was better to join them in the hopes of creating (by military force) a better world. And that's a selective memory working.

I was convinced by 2002 that the American people would understand and reject the Bush administration in 2004. I was wrong, obviously. All that reading foreign press, international policy journals, and then, later, blogs, clearly alienated my thinking from the portion of the electorate who thought that an executive's undemonstrated ability to represent morality more important than his demonstrated desire to wage unlimited war.

The Plame story is far more complicated, and those in the direct line of indictment, while significant in D.C., while important to political junkies, are names that might spark a distant neurotransmitter in the brain of the average citizen. No NPR program has really managed to explain what the hell is going on, and if they can't manage to do so in a twenty-minute segment, what on earth are the CNNs, Foxes, and local affiliates going to be able to do? They're allotted, what, 30 seconds for ground-laying and then, if lucky, five minutes for partisan bloviating? If the indictments are to have any political meaning, after all these bruising years of hardball politics, Fitzgerald has to come up with evidence that the average, turned-off, media-weary voter can understand.

I don't doubt that if indictments are handed down, the Washington long knives will finally be flashed, journalists will "suddenly" discover negative stories, and maybe some genuine assholes might face real time. These are all good things. But the voters are really, really cynical by now, I think. Clinton's impeachment remains rather puzzling for many people, even those who thought, as I did at the time, that a President should not lie to the American people--and really, really shouldn't have sexual relationships of any sort with young, naive, subordinates. Yet given all of those wrongs, which, as I spent many hours arguing with my European friends, really were wrongs, it seemed insane that a sitting President should have finally been trapped into this position. A lot of well-meaning and decently educated American voters--those who are not addicted to blogs--will wonder if the Plame scandal is simply a symmetrical version of the Lewinski scandal: a technical foul that is being blown up into Watergate for partisan ends. And I suspect that many of them are wondering by now whether the blue dress was really worth it.

There are so many reasoned analyses of why the outing of a CIA NOC operative is nefarious that I won't even interrupt my thinking to link to them. There are even some analyses that suggest that if agents or contacts hadn't been exposed to mortal danger, then the CIA would never have referred the case to begin with. That's the basic emotional hook for the TV audience, but even on NPR, that grounding of the story has always seemed abstract. If, when this story breaks sometime next week (I hope, for my sanity), more definite evidence about who Valerie Plame Wilson was and what she was doing is lacking, then I predict it'll be hard to move the sluggish TV citizen to get excited about indictments among the mid-level staff. Libby and Rove are big deals for political nerds, but not to TV Citizen.

I really, really hope that Fitzgerald has some hottt evidence.

On the latter, the Harriet Miers nomination, I can only snort, pshaw, and hope for anti-abortion fundamentalists to lead the charge against this grammatically challenged crony. At this point in the process, the only positives remaining for Miers are:
--she's nice
--she's loyal
--she's Evangelical (I really hope this is a meaningless statement because otherwise the whole country is in for a wild fricking ride)
--some close friends say she's pro-life, while others say she has a strict Constructionalist philosophy
--she's diligent (despite letting that bar license expire--twice)
--she's details-oriented (the grammar in her quoted opinions and briefs is literally killing me)
--she understands judicial restraint (as tightly as she is to the most imperial presidency--perhaps--ever, this is not exactly a reassuring line of defense)
--her critics are elitist and sexist for demanding that a woman have measurable qualifications for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the country.
All I can say is, thank heavens Harriet Miers isn't applying for tenur She can't write, has little qualifications, and her professional colleagues think she's mediocre? If her candidacy should go down in flames, I think that she and David Horowitz could make great music together. As long as, you know, she was cool with Jews.


Saturday, October 15, 2005

When Melville Justifies Long-Standing Prejudice

From Moby-Dick, chapt. 80:
Now, I consider that the phrenologists have omitted an important thing in not pushing their investigations from the cerebellum through the spinal canal. For I believe that much of a man's character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are, A thin joist of a spine bever yet upheld a full and noble soul I rejoice in my spine, as in the firm audacious staff of that flag which I fling half out to the world!
Martha Graham (She of the Many Anecdotes) once pronounced: "Walk across the floor and I'll tell you your story!"

I'm with Martha and Melville: I believe I know something about the story of people by the way they hold themselves. If law professors are to find justifications for cops' hunches, surely I can hope that my verteregnomic predujices have some basis in reality.

(Inspired by.)


Friday, October 14, 2005

Single Moms and Gay IVF Donors.

Over dinner and drinks this evening, a very good friend of mine talked about a dilemma he was facing. A woman whom he has known for a long time has asked him to be a sperm donor in her attempt to conceive a child. The woman is 38 and knows that her window is closing. My male friend is tall, handsome, devastatingly intelligent, and gay. In an abstract sense, he would be an ideal sperm donor.

Yet he is also surpassingly moral: in other words, he feels, excruciatingly, the finer ends of his own responsibility. In my conversation with him this evening, he was already talking about the potential offspring with this woman as "his" child. He is keenly aware that if he were to participate in this plan, he could be contributing half his genes to a person who could live another 80 years. Since he knows very well the woman who has requested his sperm, he also knows that he won't simply be an anonymous donor for the child.

Because he's poor and intelligent, and because the woman is a smart lawyer, a very clear contract about responsibilities and rights will be drawn up before anything goes forward. And yet we all know, those of us who know this chappie, that he will feel more responsible than the law will ever require him to. He is already talking about this potential child (whom he's already gendered female, in his mind) as his.

I know that this way of talking is a heuristic device, a way of thinking through responsibility, but I can't take it simply as such: there is a brute, hormonal urge in most of us to see our genes propogated. And we want to be in control of our little half-clones' development.

I've thought about selling my reproductive matter, but I've always balked: while the medical inconvenience seemed nasty, the potential for remorseful second thoughts seemed, for me, nastier. The idea of providing reproductive matter to a good friend seems even more slippery, in the sense of difficult to chose between interfering and abnegating responsibility. It wouldn't simply be a question of money or of good will--so what would the donor be looking for? What role would he have? I have to say that the willingness of my friend to think through these moral questions and to think about how they might express themselves in a legal contract speaks volumes about his suitability to enter into such a voluntary arrangement.

For some reasons to consider this conversation as political, try Ann Althouse, or this related post at Obisdian Wings. Be sure to check out the comments at both sites.


Thursday, October 13, 2005

Moral Dilemma of a Bloggy Sort

There's a regular commenter on a high-traffic site who has gained a certain degree of credibility as a snarky hipster. Here's the thing, though: over the time I've spent lurking at that site, he's provided enough information about himself that I know exactly who he is.

He's a grad student in my own program, and the ex-boyfriend of a good friend of mine. He's a total tool--and I knew this much well before he behaved like a total asshole to my friend. He has perhaps the stupidest tattoo I've ever seen in person--the shape of a common soup vegetable outlined on his forearm. He was annoying, pretentious, and ultimately stupid in seminars; he was irresponsible and cowardly in his relationship with my friend.

So, here's the dilemma. Every single thing he's written on that site reeks to high heaven of false consciousness and pretension--since I know him--and yet it would seem so damned cruel to attempt to undermine him in a virtual space where he's found happiness. Not to mention the very real possibility that I might not be able to find the words to do so!

But, gah. This guy is posting as a male-feminist on a feminist site, and I know for a fact that he was unwilling to accompany his ex-girlfriend to an abortion that she found traumatizing. I read his posts and I curl the lip.

I know myself better than to think that I'd really try to intervene in a site where he's got a public-sphere reputation going. What I have against him is my impressions and the reported wickedness from an interested party. Still, it's damned tempting.

And, yes, I'm sure I know who it is.


Thou shalt beget difficult teenagers, O thou Amalekite dog!

Sure to be handy: The Biblical Curse Generator.

Link. (Via)

I wish that the curse-generator could be more targeted, as in java-script that allowed one to imput proper names and generic nouns, but, hey, it's free and it's neat.


Tavis Smiley Returns to NPR

As self-promotional commercials inform me every hour or so, Tavis Smiley has managed to finesse his way back into the NPR line-up, although mercifully the show will be scheduled for an hour or so on the weekends. When the Tavis Smiley show got axed--shortly after Smiley's seemingly endless birthday celebration of himself--and was replaced with another African-American themed show, "News and Notes," hosted by Ed Gordon, it took me a little while to realize just how bad Smiley had actually been. Smiley's show was about Smiley: while he was good at getting conservative African-Americans like Condaleeza Rice to come on for interviews, and good at using his aw-shucks persona to ask pointed questions, his show always seemed amateurish and cliquish to me.

"News and Notes" suffers from some of the same problems that Smiley's show did: their regular "round table" features a grab-bag of African-American semi-public figures who are then asked to opine, without any particular expertise, on the hot topics of the particular day. The discussions usually offer few new thoughts and are often decidedly less serious than a decent political blog's comment thread. Ed Gordon deserves respect for his journalistic record and seriousness, though, and he seems to be able to anchor a show without insisting that it all be about him, unlike Smiley. "News and Notes" is also gradually allowing the very excellent Farai Chideya to take a more prominent role. She actively seeks out news stories, travels to do interviews, and actually reins in the often silly roundtable participants to keep them on topic. It's a national show, and Chideya is showing the potential to be a great national reporter.

Note to NPR: Smiley may have mad contacts, and he may be able to push forward business plans and exert external pressure to get it accepted. He's not likely to evolve much, and he's already a 50-50 proposition. But if you want to encourage black voices in the news, take a bet on Farai Chideya. That woman is doing journalism, is experimenting with what radio can do, is serious and professional, and has a kind of integrity that doesn't seem to be wrapped up in her ego.

Your call, of course, and since I'm not black, maybe what I think isn't terribly relevant to what you're trying to do with these shows.

[Update, here's Farai Chideya's bio from NPR. Good heavens: it's impressive. At this time there is no NPR bio of Smiley. My post was written purely off my impressions of their radio presences.]


Tuesday, October 11, 2005

All Things Orange Soup

When I first lived in France, a friend of mine lived with an extraordinary woman who had agreed to look after the one-year child of a niece, even though that woman worked full-time as a legal clerk. I was only the friend of the subletter, so I couldn't say how the arrangement worked out for the child; all I know is that the woman (the landlady of my friend, if you work it back) come home from work every evening and made a vegetable puree for the next days' meals of her niece.

We Americans who witnessed this sheer babacool dedication were very impressed and aspired to attaining similar oh-well-it's-mushed-vegetables je-ne-sais-quoi while impressing upon our Raman-raised friends our cultural superiority.

You know what? It's easy. Click through.

All things orange soup is a derivative of many fall squash soups. My version tends towards the Californian Fusion school, with a heady touch of let's-go-for-it.

The main ingredients

one butternut squash
1-2 carrots
1 sweet potato or 2 golden potatoes
1-2 onions

Peel and dice into 2 inch cubes or squares or what have you. (If you boil them enough, the shape won't matter.)

Cover them with water. If you're feeling sassy, add a bouillion cube or two, according to the vegetarianism of your household. I assure you, though, that the resulting soup can be interesting enough without bouillion. If you haven't made soup from scratch before, when I say "cover'em," I mean fill the pot up with water until the chopped-up vegetables are submerged. And if you fall within the category of people who need this explanation, can I forgiven for thinking that there is a world of exciting, cheap recipes in store for you?

Here's for the spices. Make a sachet d'epices (i.e., wrap in muslin and close with a rubber band) out of: two thumbs' worth of peeled and cubed ginger, two bay leaves, a teaspoonsworth of seasalt, a tablespoonsworth of fines herbes, a teaspoonthworth of cardamon, maybe a pinchesworth of red pepper flakes and curry powder. As always, after the vegetables have boiled into softness, lift out the sachet. (If you're laughing at my use of muslin, laugh into a void, yo! I bought a standard length of ktichen muslin about four years ago, and I've been making bitchin' soups and stews--with no tooth-pickin' required--ever since!)

Then mash and mash again your soup. If you're serving to company, maybe puree that sucker, and maybe add a dollop or two of creme fraiche to the mix. I've also been known to chug a quarter-cupsworth of orange juice into All-Things-Orange Soup at this final stage, but I would warn amateurs not to attempt any cream-based product other than creme fraiche with this move. Creme fraiche blends and cooks much more predictably than do most cream products. (In general, you want to add your creme fraiche right before serving. The creme's tastier absolutely fresh, and the rest of your soup will stay freshier without all that dairy to weight it down.)

In any event, you want to eat this soup with fresh basil and a sharp white cheese (I'm thinking Pecorino or Parmesian, although a sharp cheddar could also be exciting) added at the last minute. Oh, and freshly ground black pepper.

I serve it with a green salad, and I look for, usually in vain, white wines from Bourgogne, the Loire, or reasonably priced Puilly-Fume to serve it with. Usually I settle for a cheap Pinot Grigio. (I swear to all Gods that a Chardonney will probably taste nasty with this recipe, and if you insist on Zinfandels, do at least wait until the eating is over.)


Sunday, October 09, 2005

I've lived in my current NYC apartment, on and off, mostly on, for the last six years. On the way to the local bodega, there's always been this one building that's had people hanging out outside, smoking, chatting, usually looking pretty normal. There're people hanging out all over the neighborhood, I've always thought, so maybe this is just a particularly sociable building. But over the years, I started to see some signs of institutionalism in the building--starting with the "No Smoking Anywhere Inside" sign and then there were the awful pastels visible on the ground floor. My working assumption had been that it was a halfway house, and although I was curious, I kept forgetting to research further.

So I finally googled the address, and I discovered that this building around the block is a "Post Graduate Residence Center" for the "Mental Health Services" division of the NYC public health ministry. Further googling did not yield a definition of "post graduate."

Well, I haven't had any trouble yet. Let's hope for the best.


Saturday, October 08, 2005

Obligatory Serenity Review

I have a really good friend who does a mean "Comic Book Guy" impression because the stereotype just about fits him. He's about to become a high-powered NYC attorney; I don't know what this says about comic book nerds or lawyers, but one does worry. He often invites me out to movies that he's already seen but would like to increase the box office turn-out for. So, in recently, I've gone with this character to see Sin City, Batman, what was it? Begins?, and this evening, Serenity/

For the sake of those bloggish readers who are heartily sick of Serenity, I have put the rest below the fold. I don't think the full post contains any spoilers, though.
Seeing a cult film with a devout cult member has its upshots. I now know what the Whedon-fan boards are saying about the various aspects of interest in the movie--such as that one noted poster has taken to using the wise-crackin' pilot's quasi-zen line "I am a leaf in the wind" as a signature line, and that nobody has managed to find a source for the line. I was also apprised before the film that the actress playing River had been a professional ballet dancer, and so I was able to get into the many shots of her astoundingly expressive feet without feeling funny about it. I went into this movie with no back-experience in the Whedon universe--but someone was around to give me play-by-play background!

I very much enjoyed Serenity; it is high-camp space opera, with at least a couple of compelling characters. Not as many as the writer might have hoped, but at least a few. The ship captain Mel has some of the charms that Han Solo did: he is a sometimes mercenary pirate--but here he has a raffish morality as a former rebel--saddled with an impossible love and an unreliable starship. Government-trained psychic and one-woman army River is the center of the movie, but since audience sympathy for someone so exceptional is necessarily limited, the movie cleverly keeps her point of view to the sidelines, as far as could be possible.

I neither love nor hate the patented Whedon clever-banal dialogue. It's one way of going about dialogue, one a little more self-conscious than others, and it's usually finely calibrated in this movie. (Exceptions seem to show up when the plot desperately needs a transition.) Here, in general, the bantering dialogue helped to normalize the everydayness of a fantastical situation, so, in general, I'd say it created a net plus.

My only real criticism of this movie would lie in the shallowness of its world-building. I simply don't buy that in a full-length movie there wasn't room for some more explanation about the galactic media network that ends up being the major plot-mover. If there is one hacker in a totalitarian galaxy, there are probably 50,000, and a hacker culture to boot. If there is one community living off the net, there are a thousand. This underground should add up to more in the movie's than simply symbolic characters and plot-points.

My Comic Book Guy friend defended Whedon hotly on this score, claiming that Whedon was going about world-building in a radically different way, but the defense seemed to rely on the possibility of further episodes. It's funny: we met up in the Barnes & Noble SF section and both claimed a lack of interest in long-ranging SF series.

If someone turns Mieville's novels into movies, then I'll go to the mat. For now, I'm willing to say: fun space opera, worth seeing if you appreciate broken-down spaceships, and there are a few touches in the movie that suggest something much more than the pop-culture that it inhabits. Pursuing those touches, however, would take away somewhat from the pop-culture perfection that this movie has just almost attained.


Thursday, October 06, 2005

Wampum Fundraiser

I would never have discovered blogs without the Koufax Awards. I was living in my own isolated, paranoid universe in 2002, reading Le Monde Diplomatique and various specialized foreign policy journals; I felt like the only American outside my campus to think that the Iraq war was the most dangerous idea I'd ever heard, and I had every reason to believe that my campus was about to become a central ideological front.

Then, on whim, I followed a link from
Salon to Josh Marshall's TPM. One day, he acknowledged an award that opened up a world of writing to me.

The Koufax made blogging visible to me. Frankly, the people at Wampum can realistically be said to have changed my--and, if you really think about it, if you're reading this, your--life.

If you posssibly can, be try to contribute here

[Edited to reduce appalling style.]


Republicans and the McCain Amendment

While the Rove machine hasn't yet fired up on the specific issue of the McCain amendment's restricting detainee treatment to the code delineated by the Army Field Manual, at the moment, the very hardcore base seems to be split on this amendment. (For some background on this amendment, start here

Here is the RedState thread about the vote. The split seems to divide along those who feel loyalty to the military and those who feel loyalty to the executive/party/Bush personally. Steve LA in this comment seems to embody the former, while Gamecock, in this comment, seems to embody the latter. Other commentors seem to be reserving judgment while trending one way or another.

Many trend toward trusting the executive war powers, which makes me very worried about what will happen if Bush and Rove decide to go to the mat on this one. Frankly, as above commentors have noted, I do not see that Bush will need to veto this, even if he intends to continue the very practices that this bill intends to outlaw.

But if he decides to insist on the executive privilege to override military injunctions against maltreatment of detainees, he will have to unleash a storm of PR to make that decision palatable. I wouldn't say that the PR wouldn't work, but then again, I would also say that this administration is fighting brushfires on dozens of fronts.

I think it very probable that the Republicans will lose their overwhelming majority in 2006. The ridiculous choice of Miers--an assured vote--seems almost to concede that in the future the majority will weaken. Had the administration really believed in the permanent Republican majority, Bush would have appointed Janice R. Brown, damn the consequences.

Yet as the scandals grow in power, the idea that this particular executive should gain additional privileges is starting to stick in the craw of its supporters. One institution after another is being compromised. I am hoping that the integrity of the military would be a last line of defense for the true Republicans. While I find the domestic policies of, say, Lindsay Graham, absolutely abhorrent, I respect entirely the position he's taken as a former JAG attorney, and on this issue, he's been an important swing vote.


Pizza Marseillaise

This is going to be something of a guerilla-recipe for my favorite quiche, since I never measure anything...

Ingredients needed:
--flour (margin: at least four cups)
--margarine (margin: two sticks)
--mustard, preferably whole-grain
--sharp white cheese, preferably gruyere or conte but you can substitute emmanthal
--tomatoes (margin: two)
--eggs (margin: five)
--creme fraiche (margin: 3-4 tablespoons)
--fines herbes

Time needed:
About an hour and a half, two if you allow for screw-ups.


Click through for how-to.

Step Zero.
Pre-Heat Oven to, oh, say, 350 or 400 degrees F.

Step One: Making the Pastry.
If you're confident in the store-bought versions, cool; skip this step. I don't understand pre-made food, get confused by their instructions, and am generally too disorganized to buy pastry-shells ahead of time.

To make your own, you need room temperature margarine, flour, water, and a little salt.

Put like two cups of flour in a mixing bowl. Add like 3/4 a stick of margarine. Dribble in like two tablespoons of water. Squish it all together with your hands.

Adjust ingredients as needed. You are aiming for a consistency that will be soft but neither too sticky nor too wet. If the pastry is too wet, add more flour. If it's too dry, add more margarine first and then more water. The final color should be more of a pale yellow than an off-white: don't be afraid of the margarine-y goodness.

Once you're satisfied with the pastry, cover it and chill it for a bit.

Take out a nine-by-nine pan (square, circular, it matters nought). Grease the pan.

Then roll that dough out to a nice, thin quarter-centimeter. Quiche crust is supposed to be thin, baby. If you ended up with extra pastry, say "hooray!" and put it away for another project some day soon.* Manoeuvre your pastry into your pan, pat it into place, and prick it all over with a fork.

Step Two: Assembling The Goodness
This is the step the makes your Pizza Marseillaise different from all those other quiches, the step with all the specific ingredients.

Take a giant tablespoon of mustard, and spread it directly onto the pastry shell. Then take more mustard, and more, and more, and create a layer of more mustard than you could ever imagine a human mouth biting into. It will be okay, I promise.

Grate a bunch of your sharp white cheese onto the mustard layer. French folks will kvetch if you put too much cheese into a quiche; Americans will not mind.

Slice very thin one of your tomatoes. Lay the slices atop the cheese. You want a authoritative (although thin!) tomato coverage, so if you need to use the second tomato, go for it.

Step Three: Eggs!
Beat up four eggs and three tablespoons of creme fraiche. Add distinct amounts of salt and black pepper. Pour into the pan. Make sure you get the egg mixture into all the nooks and crannies.

Do you have enough egg mixture? No? Then take another egg, beat it with some more creme fraiche, and see how you're doing. It's important that when you add another egg you mix it with a proportional amount of creme fraiche because otherwise, you'll have an uneven consistency.

Step Four: Final Touches
Before you put your Pizza Marseillaise into the oven, cover the top of the uncooked egg mixture with more fines herbes than seems decent--at least three teaspoons' worth.

Cook for like forty minutes. Check on it obsessively after then. You want it to have 1)risen significantly, 2) started to brown, and 3) "gelled" sufficiently for a fork to come out clean and dry.

Serve almost immediately. I always serve this quiche with a green salade and a dry red wine--think a Medoc or a Saumur.

*You want to use your leftover pastry before it goes all dry and nasty. I shamelessly use the exact same "recipe" for quiches and tartes.

Here is the quick and dirty recipe for Tarte aux pommes: roll out pastry, put it into a pan, spread a bunch of organic applesauce on top, cutely arrange thin apple slices on top, sprinkle with lotsa sugar and some cinnamon, bake at like 350-400 until golden and soft.


Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A Few of the Many Reasons that the "Race Card" Annoys

Alas, it now seems clear that Hating on Charles Bird is a failure, and most likely because I personally am insufficiently judgemental. Had I really hated CB, perhaps the site would have flourished. Alas.

In the interest of comity, might I suggest to Charles that the phrase "the race card" sounds a priori dismissive to people who have been worried about the subtle long-term effects of racism? It is a step up from the frankly offensive term "race-baiting," but it is hardly neutral. It's a short-cut phrase, indicating frustration at African-American complaints about racism, justified or not. It has often been used in a highly politicized context to downplay African-American complaints, and I know that Rush Limbaugh has used it to marginalize African-American activists at all levels.

I would suggest that the "race card" looks very different from the perspective of poor--or even middle-class--black people, who might take what you seem to see as racial pandering as the honest representation of their communities' views and interests? Can we white people feel so assured about the equal treatment in our country as to dismiss allegations of even subtle racial bias?

I'm not a black person, I've never lived as a black person, yet I've read the essays of those who have. Almost all of my black students seemed to feel a kind of self-justifying pressure that my white students didn't feel. Admittedly, my adult black students were more keenly aware of being black than my teen students were, but it would be hard to separate out generational differences from class, working-experience, the general school of hard knocks. And however embittered they may be, the students I encounter are those who have beat the odds and have made a bet on their futures: hardly representative, in important ways.

To get back to the idea of the "race card": in last week's New Yorker, there was a long article that among other things dealt with the black reation in New Orleans to Hurricane Betsey. There were rumors of the levees' having been deliberately blown, there were rumors that black people had been specifically targeted. These were, as they are today, urban legends that support uninformed people's worst fears. But why do these fears have such a foothold? Why do black people in the South believe that white Americans would prefer they disappear? Maybe because for decades, from the Jim Crow laws to the Tuskagee experiments, from segregized schools to police shooting, black people haven't really had much reason to be trusting.

I would argue that such terminology as "the race card" has tended to discredit black complaints, legitimate or otherwise.

Unwarranted attacks of racism should be examined--carefully, by those who have thought through the legacy of racialist thinking in the US. And those who would declare victory for multiculturalism without working through the ongoing problems should really quit their whining about France.


Monday, October 03, 2005

Call Me Irrationally Thrilled

Miriam Abacha, the Nigerian widow immortalized in song here, has been supplanted by the Iraqi war widow Fatima Rasheed Khalifa. I am honored to have received her pleas for financial details.

This spam is pretty damned clever, though. Her husband dies in coalition bombing, yet her goal is to use contributions for humanitarian medical assistance. Oh, and she has breast cancer and has been unable to conceive. Left, right, male, female, give me money!


Abortion, Public Health, Law, Politics, and a Grand Shut Up Already

A very good friend of mine stayed at my place this last week. She's a medical student, finishing up her rotations. She's at the emergency intake psych ward right now (*shudder*), but soon she'll be moving to a division she's more familiar with: women's health, aka OBGYN and abortions. We talked a lot about the Supreme Court and current abortion law.

I knew that there were areas where it has effectively become very difficult to get legal abortions, but I hadn't really heard that emergency rooms doctors in states like Kansas and Texas were already seeing septic shock cases from back-alley or home-attempted abortions. Even given the legal framework in place now, this is going on under the radar.

All of the elegant arguments from first principles fail to address the problem of public health. Life is an excellent value, one that can be established and debated in boozy late-night arguments until you're convinced that anyone opposed to your argument would rather you, personally, were dead. The idea of public health, on the other hand, requires that policy-makers take a hard look at real statistics and to take measures to reduce actual, measurable harm.

Women dying of septic shock from back-alley abortions counts as a harm. Can we prevent her dying of septic shock? Easily. Would it be right to do so? Unless as a society, we want her punishment for ending a pregnancy to be death, yes, I think it would be.

I would argue that the pro-life movement has had all the success that a rational populace should grant them. Enough people have sufficient moral qualms about abortion that they're either taking birth-control much more seriously or they're bearing their children to term. Enough already. When Senator Coburn tearfully brought up the spector of the 40 million aborted children in the US, my first, crass thought was Good heavens, where would we put all those people? Maybe when we have serious sex education in the poorest districts, maybe when we see contraceptives supported by government, maybe when Plan-B doesn't get axed on the basis of ideological posturing, then maybe feminists like myself will be willing to stop obstructing limitations on abortion rights.

The Platonic value of Life doesn't really register as much on my consciousness as do real women, suffering from real septic shock, from very real attempts to end pregnancies that for one reason or another, the law decided were beneath its notice.

And, yes, while I've been thinking about this all week, it was the nomination of the cypher Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court that determined me to write it out. There are probably only two things we can surmise about Miers: as a Bush insider and White House counsel to this lot, she is sympathetic to executive power, and, as a member of the Valley View Christian Church, she is anti-abortion and skeptical about equal protection laws. Since she has very little paper-trail that won't be explained away as professional advocacy or hidden behind client privilege, it's hard for me to feel as bad as I might otherwise do about tarring her by association.

By the way, for all those who advocate a return of the abortion to the states, here is my most recent, and admittedly somewhat muddled cri de coeur on that idea. Short version: thanks for condemning poor women in backwards states to poverty.


Sunday, October 02, 2005

Why Do They Persist In Being So Damn Poor?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, discussions and allegations of racism, classism, race-baiting, class-warfare, and what-have-you have been flying across the internets.

While I don't believe the most paranoid rumors (that the levees were purposefully breached, that aid was slow because white people wanted black people to die), I am convinced that race was a factor in the tragedy of New Orleans, and that race continues to play a factor in the poverty in the United States, if only because people who were excluded from the earlier phases of capitalism have a whole lot of catching up to do in the later stages of capitalism.

In the early 20th-century, many black Americans in the South worked as tenant share-croppers, all said and done. They weren't slaves, but they weren't citizens, by any means. Many black people who stepped out of place were reminded of where they belonged, either indirectly or violently.

So, the Civil Rights Act comes along in 1964. Remember: the white "Greatest Generation" have become heroes by now. The black veterans, who often fought in segregized troops, are still trying to gain access to voting privileges, if not for themselves, then for their mothers and grandmothers, who might be the illiterate children of former slaves.

Okay, so I think of that African-American timeline, and then I contrast it with my knowledge of how American financial practices have developed over the past century.

I used to work for a company that bought and sold historical documents. One exhibit that I had a major hand in setting up displayed turn-of-the-century stock certificates. They were beautiful, with hand-wrought etchings of the company name, logo, and officials, but what grabbed everyone’s attention was the coupons. Stock certificates, until some time in the early 1900s, were issued with detachable coupons—bits of paper with recognizable engravings—that could be redeemed for cash. In the historical document trade, an early 1900s unclipped stock certificate from a successful company would be considered rare and valuable.

My grandad grew up in that era of clipped coupons. He believed in dividends and in not touching one's capital, and he died feeling poor although his portfolio and his real estate value said otherwise.

Ok, next generation. That grandfather's son learned the wisdom of trading on value, rather than dividends. My father targeted companies he saw as comers, invested in them, and set an optimal price for selling out. He has multiple degrees, one of which is in math.

Next generation: me. I have little interest in statistics, but having inherited some capital, I feel an obligation to try. My grandfather gave me shares in stocks for Christmas--some of them were shares in worthless goldmines, some of them were profitable shares in drilling companies (all Canadian!). My father is almost resolutely middle-class and gave me advice accordingly; he was very receptive to my crise de conscience that ended with my investing in a Calvert fund.

This tangent is actually my point: even though I am not rich, per se, I have access to an understanding of how to understand capital, investment, dividends, interest, stock value, and all of the apparatus of wealth. My grandad was dirt-poor during the Recession--but he was white. He invested in mines and in the broader Canadian index. He suffered during the late 90s and early 00s because of his profound belief that touching capital was wrong; he lived like a pauper out of the obstinant belief that the companies he'd invested in should be paying dividends that amounted to something. And that's a comparatively well-to-do white family! Imagine for a second what your family story would look like if your grandad was dirt-poor during the Recession and was black. My grandad believed in the market, but it surpassed him in abstraction; I doubt very much that African-American people in my generation had grandfathers with anywhere near as much faith that their futures could be so improved. This generational involvement in the abstract means of wealth-generation has real implications over time.

Back to the financial market today. Did you know that black and Latino people were twice as likely as Asian or white people to be victims of identity theft? That's according to the Council of Better Business Bureaus and Javelin Strategy & Research, as reported by USA Today. Should it really be a surprise that the people who have the least access to education are the most vulnerable to fraud?

Sebastian Holsclaw, a conservative thinker whom I respect, recently suggested, quite rationally, that reasons besides race could explain the specific rates of denial of mortages to minorities. I agree that this analysis is entirely true, given present conditions.

I would however argue that expecting people who have been discriminated against on every level to suddenly understand the mechanisms of modern finance so as to leverage Google stocks against their S&P500 holdings would be simply insane. It would be simply insane in the privileged middle-classes as well, and I hope people are scaling back their expectations accordingly.

But tell me: how many people whose wealth is based on the share price of tech stocks are willing to imagine what the sons and daughters of sharecroppers see in their future? How many people whose wealth is based on the careful management of 401Ks can think of what retirement looks like to union workers? Remember how Mike Tyson burned through his fortune? How he's trying to fight, well past his prime, because he's in debt? Even if we leave to one side all of the legal fees from the man's well-deserved wife-beating indictments, the guy made millions and wasn't educated enough in money to stay out of the hole.

Maybe Tyson is a bad example. Let's take instead the 40-something African-American woman I ran into outside the El Cerrito DMV, a few years ago. She had a job, not one that paid her much, but she insisted that she was a working woman. She was filing to renew her driver's license, as I was, and she was pissed off because somebody had been using her name to write checks. It was complicating her renewal, as I recall. I asked her whether she'd checked her credit, as it was clear that someone had stolen her identity. She had never even thought about that possibility. She'd had money stolen directly out of her account, she'd had mail lifted, and she didn't have the abstract financial thinking to wonder about her credit record. She worked for her living and insisted that she was an honest woman. All I could think to say was that maybe she should google "identity theft," and go from there--but I doubt she was familiar with computers, and I doubt very much that she was familiar with google. So what is this lady going to do? Her lack of experience with the apparatus of modern scams, finance, banking, ID protection, etc, is probably going to set her back far further than the average middle-class white person would, in the same situation.

My point? The mechanisms of modern capitalism require a competence that more often than not comes from being around people who have money. A few people will always prevail against the cycle, sure, but they are the exceptions. Now remember again how recently the Civil Rights Acts was passed, how recently Affirmative Action measures started to have teeth.

How ready are you to blame poor black people for being poor?