Sunday, May 30, 2010

I like artists more than bean-counters. Go figure.

I’ve been thinking a lot about copyright of late, especially as it applies to people other than the ones who actually created something.

I’m doing my own translation of Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tiresias for next year for a slightly different reason than I adapted Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck for this year. In the latter case, I wanted to look at the structure of the play, especially given the manifold possibilities for ordering of scenes, etc. A new version seemed a logical approach, and gave me the opportunity to work with the student dramaturg and assistant director in what I hope was a unique experience for them. For Breasts, however, I think the standard translation in the Benedikt/Wellwarth Modern French Theatre anthology is just fine, but tracking down the rights to that translation is likely to be as difficult as doing my own. Plus, not only can I now say exactly what I think Apollinaire is up to, there’s no royalty to be paid, as he has been dead longer than the requisite 70 years. (We’d still have to pay a royalty on the translation if I didn’t use my own.)

The other day I happened to be wearing the show t-shirt from my production of Six Characters in Search of an Author a few years ago. Here’s a link to: the image we used for the show logo. One of my current students asked about it. I won’t go into the whole story here, but here’s the essence: the painting is by a very well-established artist named George Underwood. How well-established? Well, one indication is that he designed the album covers for David Bowie’s “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust,” Procol Harum’s “Shine On Brightly” and Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes,” and the inner sleeve for T. Rex’s “Electric Warrior.” (Trust me, younger readers, that’s a big deal.)

Anyway, I really liked the image, and I was able to convince the powers-that-be to at least check out how much it would cost to get the rights to use the painting, “Boccioni,” in our publicity. So our director of arts information e-mailed him, and within 24 hours she’d received a reply: it would cost us one copy of the poster, one copy of the program, and one show t-shirt. We quickly asked the most important question: what size t-shirt? This is a man who doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone, and he was flattered that a theatre department at a school I’m sure he’s never heard of liked his work enough to use it. As a result, his work was seen by hundreds of people who might not have seen it otherwise: or at least who wouldn’t have known who the artist was. We also made sure to plug his website every chance we got, even though we weren’t required to do so. Maybe somebody with the money to do so buys something there. Everybody wins.

Of course, intellectual property isn’t the only way artists help out those with a legitimate interest. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, for example, every playwright but one (plus a director and two scholars) whom I asked for an interview not only obliged, but re-arranged their schedules as necessary to accommodate my whirlwind research trip to Dublin (with a quick side trip to Oxford). Two of them bought me a pint; one made coffee in his rooms. The sole exception was Seamus Heaney, who had already won the Nobel Prize, and quite justifiably didn’t grant interviews to mere grad students.

I mentioned scholars… the same trends apply to them. When I was writing my dissertation my university invited a major scholar—someone whose name would be recognized by anyone in my business, regardless of specialization—to campus for a series of seminars. I somewhat hesitantly asked him if he might spare a few minutes to talk about a point of intersection between his research and mine. “Of course,” he said, and proceeded to sit down with me for over an hour and a half.

I was asked to teach an acting course a few years ago, and the (award-winning) book I had hoped to use as the primary textbook had gone out of print. While I could, and did, substitute another book, there was one chapter I really didn’t want to lose. So I e-mailed the author to see if I could get permission to photocopy those few pages. His response, paraphrased: “The book is out of print and will apparently stay that way. Photocopy whatever you want; I’m just glad you like it enough to use it.”

Ah, but the people I’ve been describing: they’re the artists, and scholars, and people who create things themselves. Artists’ agents, estates, etc.: another matter. A couple of years after Six Characters, I directed As You Like It and I wanted to use this painting by Maxfield Parrish for our logo. So we dutifully contacted the agent for the estate (Parrish died in 1966)… and they wanted $1500. I suggested that they perform an activity for which both physical dexterity and hermaphroditic tendencies would contribute to the success of the exercise. As it happens, I know something about the condition of the Parrish estate—his hometown is only a few miles from the family homestead—and the $250 or $300 we could have afforded and would willingly have paid would have helped them out a fair amount. I even thought about bypassing the agent and talking to the estate directly, but deadlines loomed and I wasn’t able to pursue that avenue. The result was that everyone lost: the Parrish estate got nothing instead of something, a great artist’s work wasn’t circulated the way it might have been, and, although I was happy with our ultimate logo, we didn’t get to use an image that actually inspired a lot of the concept and the look of the production.

So… now I’m in correspondence with a woman at Music Theatre International. One of my colleagues is directing the classic musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in the fall. For several years our program has assigned students in the non-major Theatre Appreciation class to read the plays they will see as a course requirement. Whether or not this is good pedagogy, the practice has always worked well logistically. Musicals are likely to be harder to work with in this respect (scripts have traditionally been rented instead of sold—don’t ask me why), but of the four musicals in the time we’ve had this policy, three of the libretti were available directly in published versions, and the other had been included in an anthology, so we were able to secure rights to “publish” it in a coursepack.

But How to Succeed has, as far as I can figure out, never been published in the traditional sense of that term. That complicates things considerably, because for whatever reason MTI seems really interested in keeping these scripts out of the hands of the public. And, of course, we can’t go to the artists themselves: lyricist Frank Loesser died in 1969; the book is by Abe Burrows (d. 1985), Jack Weinstock (d. 1969) and Willie Gilbert (d. 1980), based on a book by Shepherd Mead (d. 1994). All we want to do is have a bunch of people who don’t necessarily know a lot about theatre be able to comprehend what they’re seeing a little better in the hopes that they might ultimately like it more: the course is called Theatre Appreciation, after all. And, of course, we’d pay (or have the students pay) a royalty fee to include the text in a coursepack. But MTI, who must surely have had requests like this in the past, is reluctant. Of course, the fact that I can’t figure out a reasonable rationale for their behavior doesn’t mean they don’t have one. And I understand the need to protect the reputation of the product, but I bet they still grant production rights to Millard Fillmore Junior High in Spider Breath, Montana.

The headline-maker this week about copyright was, once again, about the estate of the person involved, not the person himself. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which (inexplicably to me) controls the rights to Albert Einstein’s name and image, is suing General Motors for over $75,000 for using the great physicist’s face superimposed onto the body of an underwear model in a promotional campaign for the GMC Terrain: “Ideas are sexy too.” Get it? The ad ran precisely once, in the “Sexiest Man Alive” issue of People magazine last September. I personally think GM ought to be sued for having such a stupid ad, but in strictly legal terms it appears the car company may have acted in good faith, believing they had bought the rights from “a reputable agency.” Apparently not. Anyway, HUJ, which apparently doesn’t have problems with the famous tongue-out photograph of Einstein, which appears virtually everywhere, believes the half-Einstein/half-hunk image is “not consummate with and causes injury to” the university’s “carefully guarded rights in the image and likeness of the famous scientist, political activist and humanitarian.” Sure they do. It’s really hard to side with a multi-national corporation against a university, but give me a damned break. They don’t give a crap about Einstein’s reputation, only what they can make out of the deal—and ol’ Al still apparently ranks in the top ten earners among dead celebrities.

And finally, I look forward to being, barely over a fortnight from now, in Ireland, one of the most litigious places on the planet. Early in the course which includes a 16-day trip to the Emerald Isle, we read The Colleen Bawn by Dion Boucicault, a champion of copyright law as well as being one of the premiere playwrights of the mid-19th century; he was also, ironically, one of the greatest plagiarists in history. But when we think of Ireland’s contributions to world culture, we think first of 20th-century writers: four Nobel laureates in literature in barely over 70 years a from a country with a population roughly the size of Houston’s. And what do the likes of Yeats, Joyce and Beckett have in common? [N.B., yes, I know Joyce didn’t win the Nobel Prize: go with me, here.] Well, for one thing, their heirs, many of whom have done little if anything with their lives except bask in the steady income generated by their forebears, are positively hemorrhoidal when it comes to anything to do with rights.

The Beckett estate is notorious for shutting down productions that allow theatre artists to do their jobs (God forbid that the scenic designer be given any authority, or that one of the tramps in Waiting for Godot be played by a woman). But at least our boy Sammy himself was equally persnickety.

W.B. Yeats’s heirs are a little difficult to deal with, too, making the current exhibition at the National Library in Dublin all the more impressive. Yeats’s heirs, for example, have refused to allow publication of the version of The Countess Cathleen that was actually performed as one of the premiere productions of the Irish Literary Theatre. We know exactly what that version said (I’ve actually read the hand-edited script of Florence Farr, who played the supporting role of Aleel: it’s in the O’Hegarty Collection in the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas), but the play was revised both before and after production, and the actual performance script has never been published. (Well, technically it was, sort of, but not in a form any casual reader might find useful or enjoyable.) I was asked several years ago to write the introduction to a collection of Irish Renaissance plays. The editor had a contract with a very reputable publisher; he’d chosen the plays to include, including a couple by Yeats (for which he thought he had arranged for publication rights, and he got (understandably) a little grumpy with me that I didn’t finish my 30-page essay until spring break of 2001 when he had wanted it by February. A couple weeks after receiving my introduction, he e-mailed me to say that he liked what I’d done; he’d made a couple of minor stylistic changes and sent the entire manuscript along to the publisher. It still isn’t out. Guess why.

But the High Exalted Executive Omnipotent Poobah of literary estate jackassery is Stephen Joyce, grandson of James. A few of his many adventures in assholitude are chronicled in a now nearly four-year-old article from the New Yorker: he has granted and then withdrawn copyright permissions to letters, for example, threatening lawsuits like a grumpy old man chasing the kids off his lawn. He has thus left scholars with the choice of leaving out entire sections of their work or going ahead without the supporting documentation, making their work seem speculative when in fact it isn’t. Both results are detailed in that rather lengthy article, which, Gentle Reader, you needn’t read in its entirety. He has threatened lawsuits against anyone holding free Bloomsday readings of Ulysses, as if he weren’t going to make pots of money off people buying books because they heard enough to pique their interest. He has whinged that an actor who memorized lengthy portions of Ulysses had probably already violated copyright. Really. He is apparently quite proud of his constipation: “What other literary estate stands up the way I do? It’s a whole way of looking at things and looking at life.” It certainly is. Dubliners’ slang term for the statue of James Joyce leaning jauntily against his cane just off O’Connell Street is “the prick with the stick.” Stephen, apparently, doesn’t use a cane.

So, as I prepare for a third Bloomsday in Dublin, I note with a wry pleasure that next time, 2012, will be over 70 years after James Joyce’s death in 1941. Next year will also mark the figurative demise of Stephen as a major force in Joyceana, although presumably he will still control access to letters and papers which are literally in his possession—he claims to have destroyed some, and threatens to do so to others.

I’m not sure there’s a moral to this story. When They Make Me Tsar, work will enter the public domain faster, but my Tsar-ship still seems well into the future. In the present, we play by the rules. People, even business-people, are allowed to do things that aren’t necessarily in their own best interest. Exercising one’s legal rights is, after all, doing precisely that: doing what one has an explicit legal right to do. But the reason I would never succeed in either business or law is that there’s a difference between being a curmudgeon and just being an ass. At least I hope so. Give me the artist ten times out of ten.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A little old-fashioned outrage

My plan was to have this post be about the recent SCOTUS ruling in US v. Comstock, which found that the government does in fact have the right to hold indefinitely “sexually dangerous” inmates already in custody, even after their sentences have expired: the so-called Adam Walsh Act. I found it interesting that, based on what I know now, at least, I would have dissented from this decision, and that my colleagues in this opposition, apart from the four sex offenders who brought the case, would have been Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, and whoever wrote the editorial on the case for the Wall Street Journal. (I should note that my argument would have been different than any expressed by any of these folks.) I’m not sure which of those potential allies scares me the most, although I’m pretty sure it’s not the guys who did their time for possession of child pornography but weren’t released because some political appointee Attorney General was trying to look “tough on crime.”

But a headline caught my eye yesterday, and I recognized the fact that I have written a half-dozen blog pieces in the last five weeks, precisely none of them about what may be the most significant single event not merely of the year, but in decades. True, part of the reason is that the story is huge and ever-changing, so it’s hard to wrap one’s head around. But ultimately I do need to talk about what is the most significant story of the last month—yes, more so than Rand Paul’s “libertarian Tourettes” (to borrow a phrase from an old friend), more so than the demise of the widower of a minor movie star (that’s news? really?), more so even than the much-hyped finale of a television show I never watched. What is transpiring in the Gulf of Mexico right now could literally change the world permanently. And we concentrate on what? Fergie’s selling access to her ex? Yes, indeed… WHERE IS THE OUTRAGE?.

Where is the outrage that BP sold this project to the authorities based on assurances that something like this wouldn’t happen, or—in the extremely unlikely event that it did—that it would be promptly contained?

Where is the outrage that no one in the US government expressed a little skepticism at BP’s grandiose claims?

Where is the outrage that the Mineral Management Service people who were supposed to be ensuring safety at oil rigs were in fact getting all manner of gifts—everything from crawfish boils to bowl game tickets to jobs in the industry—from the people they were supposed to be monitoring? We’ll leave aside the sex, the snorting coke off toaster ovens, etc., that seems to have characterized the MMS’s relationship with the oil industry during the Bush administration. (Nice apophasis, huh?) There’s even a report that the new Inspector General’s report to be released later this week will reveal that “Federal regulators responsible for oversight of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico allowed industry officials several years ago to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil—and then turned them over to the regulators, who traced over them in pen before submitting the reports to the agency.” Wow.

Where is the outrage that, when there was a squabble between BP and Transocean representatives shortly before the disaster, BP’s desire for speed and their “we’re paying the bills” argument trumped Transocean’s safer approach?

Where is the outrage that minions of Transocean allegedly rounded up survivors, and wouldn’t allow them to talk to their families, even to assure them of their survival, until they’d signed waivers proclaiming themselves unhurt and Transocean not responsible. (Interesting that “not responsible” and “irresponsible” don’t mean the same thing here… I think we can agree that Transocean’s actions tended more to the latter than to the former.) Come to think of it, screw the outrage, where the hell are the indictments for kidnapping?

Where is the outrage that Texas Governor Rick Perry’s initial response wasn’t to express sympathy to the families of the eleven men killed in the explosion, but to describe the events as an “act of God,” to make excuses for the corporations involved, and indeed to encourage more drilling operations? This was a completely man-made disaster, an “accident” in the sense that someone who runs a red light in his car creates an “accident,” but what happened in the Gulf was completely preventable. Come to think of it, though, the only God Perry actually worships is his Lord and Master, the Big Corporation… and if it happens to be a big oil company, so much the better. So, you see, in Perry’s world, this really was an Act of God.

Where is the outrage that a week after the explosion, we were being assured not merely by BP but by the government that the spill was in fact much less serious than initially feared—when in fact it was at least 20 times worse than it was being portrayed?

Where is the outrage that, according to prominent scientists, NOAA responded very slowly, failed to conduct adequate scientific analysis of the damage, and allowed BP to consistently and brazenly under-represent the significance of the ongoing spill?

Where is the outrage that BP actively sought to thwart scientists from determining the true severity of the leak?

Where is the outrage that BP had already repeatedly violated numerous environmental laws, actually being convicted of two felonies, yet was allowed to continue to do business as usual?

Where is the outrage that Transocean is trying to invoke some obscure 159-year-old law to try to wriggle out of its responsibilities in repairing the damage caused by this disaster.

Where is the outrage that the representatives of BP, Transocean and Halliburton all pointed their fingers at each other at Congressional hearings instead of taking any responsibility for what happened? Where are the firings or the falling-on-swords of the people who made the risky choices that led to the disaster? And where were the Congressional interrogators asking the most basic of questions, like, “so, you all disagree about whose fault this was, but you’re all agreed that if someone hadn’t prioritized greed and convenience over safety, you wouldn’t have caused billions of dollars of short-term damage and possibly permanently destroyed an entire ecosystem? ‘Yes’ or ‘no,’ please.”? (N.B.: exemption to Senator Bernie Sanders on this one… sometimes I wish the family homestead in New Hampshire was about eight miles further west…)

Where is the outrage that the likes of Senator Lisa Murkowski—who would have a legitimate chance of being named Stupidest Political Figure in the State most places, just not in Alaska—want to limit BP’s liability to $75 million, roughly three days’ profit. Where is the outrage, in particular, of the Tea Party at the $10+ billion expense tag Sen. Murkowski would present the American taxpayer for someone else’s screw-up?

Where is the outrage at the utter audacity that even as there was (and is) a gusher on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, BP representatives were trying to convince the Canadian government that their existing laws—requiring relief wells to be drilled essentially simultaneously with exploratory wells—are too restrictive and too expensive. The pessimists—some might say “realists”—are now suggesting that it may not be until a relief well is drilled that the situation in the Gulf has even a chance to get better instead of worse. This is a process which could take weeks or even months. While we’re on the subject, where is the outrage that we don’t have that law?

Where is the outrage that the dispersant BP insists on using—despite directives from the EPA—is both less effective and more toxic than alternatives. Anybody wanna bet it’s maybe a couple bucks cheaper?

Where is the outrage that the Obama administration claims to have issued a moratorium on drilling, but continues to pass out environmental waivers like they were comp tickets to a bad musical? Do they need a vocabulary lesson? Cuz that’s not what “moratorium” means, guys. Sarah Palin’s complaint that Obama is too linked to the oil companies is remarkably disingenuous, considering the source. Still, while oil company largess tends to be visited disproportionately on Republicans, the nearly $900,000 they funneled into the Obama campaign’s coffers represents a fair amount of money in my neighborhood. The difference between the two parties with respect to Big Oil is that the Republicans are completely bought and paid for, and the Democrats would just like to be.

Interestingly, when I posted the “Where’s the outrage” link on my Facebook page yesterday, the responses from three of my recent students were swift, engaged, and specific: comments on previous oil spills around the world, an analysis of the Gulf spill’s effects on oxygen levels, a clear articulation of the real severity of what is currently happening. Oh, yes, and this: “I think people forgot how to get upset after Vietnam.” Of course, coming off a semester of teaching a topics course on the Vietnam War and the American Theatre, I’ve been thinking that for a while. The Catonsville 9 calmly waited for the police to arrive so that they could be arrested: indeed, their arrest and conviction was part of their plan. The Kent State travesty wouldn’t have happened, at least in the way it did, had not a group of students been willing to go face-to-face with armed National Guardsmen. 668 protesters were arrested and over 1000 were injured, just in Chicago the week of the 1968 Democratic Convention. It would be difficult to get that many people today to take a shortened lunch break for a cause. Because it isn’t cool? Maybe. Because Kids These Days are spoiled, entitled, egocentric? Maybe. Because people just don’t care as much? Maybe.

But I know two things:
1). When They Make Me Tsar, BP CEO Tony Hayward will make good on his pledge to “clean every drop of oil off the shore.” With his tongue.
2). Where is the outrage? Right here.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The TBOE and two definitions of "authority"

Perhaps the best-known speech from one of Shakespeare’s least-known plays is this one by Ulysses in Act I, scene iii of Troilus and Cressida:
O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.
Clearly, ol’ Ulysses is upset about something, here, but, Gentle Reader, you might not be quite able to figure out exactly what it is that’s bothering him. The fact that I can help you out a little is in fact somewhat related to what I want to talk about in this essay. Let’s start with what the passage means, then move on to what I mean.

“Degree,” here, can be interpreted roughly as “respect for authority.” In this specific application, Ulysses is talking about the power of military commanders to have their orders obeyed without question—hence the observation on SparkNotes that “The speech is a perfect encapsulation of conservative politics.” But there are more things in degree and authority, Ulysses, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

We start by recognizing that there is no one definition of “authority”: lists 13. Several of these specific meanings become relevant to the discussion, but what is most important to me is that they are all related. “The power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine,” then, is etymologically linked to “an accepted source of information, advice, etc.,” to “an expert on a subject,” and to “right to respect or acceptance of one's word, command, thought, etc.” The clear (and optimistic) implication here is that “authority” in the sense of power is derived from “authority” in the sense of expertise.

Thus, the notion of degree, central to Renaissance humanist philosophy, may mean “knowing your place,” but such a construction simultaneously recognizes that skill comes in many forms. The “Renaissance man (or woman),” moreover, is not a person who has achieved mastery in many fields, but rather who is competent or better across a spectrum of pursuits. Indeed, the Renaissance prince was warned by the likes of Erasmus and Castiglione not to become too accomplished at ancillary occupations: one could not be a successful courtier without having basic skills in the arts, for example, but to develop into as good a painter as a professional artist would inherently mean taking time away from learning the more important, or at least more relevant, skills of statecraft. The English Renaissance playwright John Lyly, the subject of my MA thesis, provides numerous examples of this phenomenon in action: characters who attempt to learn something outside their intended role in society always come across as misguided (Alexander the Great in Campaspe) or even silly (Raffe the page in Gallathea).

We see examples of this in our world all the time. I can help you understand that Shakespeare passage because that’s what I’m trained to do: and I received that training at least in part because I demonstrated a pre-existing aptitude for the work. It helps me that I know something of history and philosophy, even that I have a basic understanding of scientific method. But that young woman from the Chemistry Department who presented at the Undergraduate Research Conference a few weeks ago left me in the dust beginning at about her second sentence. And that’s a good thing. To use an example from a different discipline: while I’d love to have a better understanding of derivatives and credit default swaps and all that other stuff that brought the world economy to the brink, the fact remains that there’s a opportunity cost involved: time I spend doing that is time I don’t spend preparing for my next class, next production, or next article.

In the purely practical world, I can fill my own gas-tank, change a tire, and replace a battery, but don’t ask me what’s wrong when your car makes that funny noise. But—and here’s the part that matters—the same mechanic who can diagnose and fix whatever’s wrong with my vehicle while I stand by helplessly might well struggle in the most elementary course I teach. In an advanced society, we have different skills. One might almost say that such distribution of work—jobs matched to workers on the basis of specific competencies—is the foundation of a modern economic system.

All this, then, can be taken as a paean to one kind of authority, the kind defined by expertise. It is not necessarily specifically not an endorsement of the other kind of authority, the kind defined by power. And that distinction, it seems to me, is what has come to define the political divide between the hard right and everyone else. The folks at Palin-R-Us are all about power—their own, at least—but not so much about that other kind of authority, the one having to do with mastery. And those of us cloistered in the ivory-towered, chablis-sipping, tweed-jacket-with-leather-elbows world of the (shudder when you say it) intellectual tend not to respond terribly well to the other form of authority: the one that presumes legitimacy based on the position of the individual concerned rather than on his/her actual credentials. (Think Heckuvajob Brownie.) The first time I ever heard the term “herding cats,” it was used by a Stanford dean to describe trying to manage the faculty at that institution. I would like to think that I, too, am roughly as herdable as the average feline.

All the actual evidence suggests that global warming is a real and serious phenomenon, and climatologists, geologists, meteorologists, and similar people who actually know what they’re talking about are virtually unanimous about the situation’s gravity, causes, and potential solutions. Evolution is accepted as the best available explanation of observed phenomena by an overwhelming majority of biologists, geneticists, et al. Every study conducted by qualified sociologists and similar professionals shows that abstinence-only sex education programs not only don’t work, but are often even counter-productive. The list goes on and on. And the right continues to pretend that their ability to drum up contention on Fox News qualifies as an actual challenge to this science. There was a point in time when the right was as accepting of evidence as the left was. The debate, and it was vigorous and authentic, was not over the facts but over the interpretation of those facts. But that was before the Jimmy Swaggerts and Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons found they could achieve personal wealth and power by preaching willful ignorance and often outright lies to their acritical flocks.

Be it noted: 1). I do not think science has all the answers, 2). I’m all in favor of skepticism, and 3). I recognize that minority opinions are valuable and often accurate (I hold a number of them, politically and professionally). That said, I do think biologists know more about biology than televangelists or right-wing think-tankers do. I am all in favor of questioning both methodologies and conclusions, but not of denying facts. And while minority opinions are useful challenges to conventional wisdom, minority fact-sets are generally just fabrications.

All of this brings us—at last (you were waiting, weren’t you?)—to one of the leading news stories of the week: the decision by the Texas Board of Education to radically revise curriculum standards for social studies courses throughout the state. I’ve already commented, in the initial posting of this particular chapter of my blogging life (it’s essentially the second half of that essay), on what I think of these changes. If you didn’t read that piece, you can probably guess my attitude, either through knowing me personally or by reading the above paragraphs.

As I said in the earlier piece, some of the objections to the TBOE actions are a bit over-the-top. I really don’t give a damn if Dolores Huerta is included in the 3rd-grade list of good citizens or Henry Cisneros is included on the 4th-grade list of notable Texans. But in terms of both content and process, the Board deserves plenty of derision.

According to a report in that socialist mouthpiece the Wall Street Journal, here’s one example of what happened in January: “The previous standards [for 1st-graders], a decade old, defined good citizenship as ‘a belief in justice, truth, equality and responsibility for the common good.’ The new standards talk about respect for others, personal responsibility, and the importance of voting and of ‘holding public officials to their word.’ Board member Don McLeroy, who leads the most conservative bloc on the board, said that ‘responsibility for the common good’ does not belong in the standards because it is ‘a liberal notion’ that edges toward communist philosophy.” Snorted the Texas Freedom Network live-blogger in response, “McLeroy must be really unhappy with the folks who write Marxist claptrap like ‘promote the general Welfare.’”

Well, actually, yes, he is. Neither he nor his far-right cohorts do, in fact, care much for the Deist Gouverneur Morris, who is widely credited with writing those words from the Preamble to the Constitution, and still less for James Madison, crafter of the First Amendment… he thought there should be separation of Church and State, after all. Here’s one of many articulations of that fact, this one from an 1822 letter: “An alliance or coalition between Government and religion cannot be too carefully guarded against.” Thomas Jefferson, who wrote most of the Declaration of Independence? Nope: devalue him. He invented the term, after all. (To be fair, Jefferson was ultimately added back into the curriculum; Madison, the father of the Bill of Rights, wasn’t so lucky.)

In other news… The Board now lists “sectionalism” (whatever the hell that is) as the principal cause of the Civil War. Slavery? Third in line, behind states’ rights. The Venona papers, which prove basically that some of the people whose lives were ruined by HUAC and/or Joseph McCarthy were in fact guilty, are now credited with “confirm[ing]” HUAC “findings.” The conservative faction, generally all about required lists, shifted ground when Sonia Sotomayor was added to a standard on women’s contributions to American history… all of a sudden, that list is merely “suggested.”

Here’s a selection of the live-blogging done by a representative of the Texas Freedom Network:

• “In January the board deleted Bill Martin, author of the popular children’s book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, from the third-grade standards. Based on a simple Internet search by a board colleague, board members mistakenly confused Martin with another Bill Martin who wrote a book about Marxism. After an avalanche of derision, in March the board put the Brown Bear, Brown Bear author back in the standards. One wonders how these board members can still say with a straight face that they don’t need experts advising them as they rip through the standards, offering numerous revisions based on little more than their limited personal knowledge and opinions.”

• “Board member David Bradley wants third-grade students to study the impact of taxes and government regulations on consumer prices. In third grade? It passes.”

• “Now [Don] McLeroy offers his expected standard on global organizations: ‘evaluate efforts by global organizations to undermine U. S. sovereignty through the use of treaties.’ His justification is that U.S. sovereignty is threatened by cooperation with international organizations. This is typical right-wing paranoia. In fact, we’re looking for the black helicopters he must think are circling the building…. But guess what? It passes.”

Need I continue?

The problem here isn’t simply that these people are political hacks, gracelessly perverting the cause of real education for the sake of their religio-political agenda. It isn’t even the irony—not to say hypocrisy—of a right-wing attempt to impose restrictions on the individual freedoms not merely of teachers, but of principals, superintendents, and local boards of education by mandating inflexible and ultimately stultifying governmentally-defined “standards”—a paradigm which is, when one thinks about it, far more socialistic than anything the Obama administration has dreamt of, let alone attempted to enact.

No, it’s the Sarah Palin syndrome: the idea that “just folks” are who we want making our decisions. As I said in a piece on my old blog: “I [don’t] see the advantage to having someone ‘like me’ in positions of responsibility: I don't want that in my plumber, my arborist, or my dental hygienist: why should I want it in a Vice President? Worse yet, why should I be interested in someone less knowledgeable about the issues than I am? If I'm better with an axe than anyone I could hire would be, I'll chop my own damned firewood.” And most of these folks are way less qualified in any real terms to sit on a state board of education than I would be. (N.B. that doesn’t mean I think I’m qualified, just less unqualified than these people.)

The most vocal members of the conservative cabal that will influence curricula and textbook sales across the country for the next decade consist of: a businessman and executive in the state Republican party, a real estate broker, a small-town newspaper publisher, an insurance salesman, a dentist, and lawyer whose degree is from Pat Robertson’s Regent University (she’s the one who wrote a book in which she describes public education as “a subtly deceptive tool of perversion” and thinks it’s unconstitutional and “tyrannical”—just who we want on a State Board of Education, right?). Unsurprisingly, the one Republican on the TBOE who seems at all interested in educating rather than propagandizing (arguing, for example, that students should contemplate the “effects” rather than simply the “benefits” of free enterprise) is Patricia Hardy, who taught world history for thirty years. I disagree with her about a lot (it was her idea, for example, to strike Madison from an amendment that would have returned him, along with Jefferson, to the standards), but at least she’s worth listening to.

But the others scrupulously avoid coming into contact with anyone who actually knows what they’re talking about. The standards were created by a panel of teachers and scholars… then the politicos hacked them beyond recognition. Attempts by the Democrats on the board to have the standards reviewed by experts: rejected, as were the overwhelming majority of attempts by actually qualified people to address the Board during the decision-making process. Moreover, the evidence suggests that they aren’t even representing the wishes of the electorate.

According to a poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rossner Research, not only do Texans think curricular decisions should be made by “teachers and academic scholars” rather than by “an elected state school board” by an overwhelming 72-19 margin, but support for actual expertise goes up among parents (78-15) and even holds very strong among Republicans (63-24). Indeed, a majority (53%) of Republicans feel strongly that the TBOE should butt out. Similarly, belief that separation of church and state is a “key principle of our Constitution” comes in at 68-26 overall, and 59-34 even among Texas Republicans, who aren’t necessarily known for making that distinction. [N.B. the poll was conducted for the Texas Freedom Network, and pollsters are sometimes wont to provide results akin to what their client would like to see…]

If I were on the Board, I’d yield to child development experts on when certain ideas should best be introduced; I’d yield to historians and other social scientists on who’s more important than whom and what’s more important than what; I’d yield to elementary and high school teachers on what works in their classrooms. To the right-wing indoctrinators who, alas, comprise the majority of the TBOE, however, I’d yield on not one damned thing. Which, my friends, is why I have no future in politics.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The new old morality: saving a life is far worse than child molestation

I am not, nor have I ever been, a Catholic.

Still, while that church has certainly been directly or indirectly responsible for perpetrating or condoning a fair amount of evil in the world, it is equally undeniable that they’ve done a lot of good, too, and I hold no particular animus against them. That said, I have one question for the hierarchy of that august religion: ARE YOU FREAKING INSANE?

In 1899, when the Irish Literary Theatre was readying for its first-ever season, W.B. Yeats’s play The Countess Cathleen ran afoul of some Catholics because it shows the title character selling her soul to “demon merchants.” She did so, however, to redeem the souls of all of her subjects, and in fact at the end of the play she ascends to heaven as an angel says “The Light of Lights / Looks always on the motive, not the deed, / The Shadow of Shadows on the deed alone.” While this seems innocuous enough to most of us, the fact remains that Countess Cathleen does indeed literally barter away her soul. This fact, coupled with Yeats’s Protestantism and his preference for aestheticism over nationalism in his dramaturgy, infuriated a fair number of Irishmen. The author of the anonymous pamphlet “Souls for Gold,” for example, accuses Yeats of disparaging Catholicism, Irish womanhood, and presumably lamb stew with soda bread. There was enough turmoil that the company’s principal financial backer, Edward Martyn, a fervent Catholic, contemplated pulling his support. Yeats ultimately submitted his play to two leading Catholic clerics in Dublin; they approved it, and the show went into rehearsal and ultimately onto the stage.

Skip forward over a century, and we find the actions of another devout Irishwoman censured because of “the deed alone” rather than “the motive.” The victim this time, however, is a real woman, not a figment of some playwright’s dramatic imagination. She is Sister Margaret McBride, a hospital administrator at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, who signed off on an abortion when to do otherwise would almost certainly have resulted in the death of the mother. The fetus, at 11 weeks, wasn’t anywhere close to viability, so it was going to die anyway. The complication comes in the fact that, as the name suggests, St. Joseph's is a Catholic hospital, subject, apparently, to canon law.

Despite a directive that “Abortion… is never permitted” (interestingly, the church seems as much concerned with “the danger of scandal” as with morality in this statute), Sister Margaret apparently believed that Directive 47 of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, 4th Edition, of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gave her authority to make the decision she did. It reads: “Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.”

Church authorities, however, disagreed with her interpretation. For her actions in saving the life of the mother, Sister Margaret was promptly excommunicated by Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead. (Well, technically, I guess, she was excommunicated the instant she made the decision; the bishop simply confirmed it.) Yes, really. There’s even a statement from the communications director of the diocese claiming also that “anyone who has had an abortion is automatically excommunicated. But so are those who encouraged the abortion, helped to pay for the abortion, or performed the abortion, including those who directly assisted in its performance…. Those Catholics who gave their consent and encouraged this abortion were also excommunicated by that very action. So too is anyone else at St. Joseph’s who participated in the action; including doctors and nurses.”

Obviously, I’m no authority on canon law, but the Reverend Thomas Doyle is. He argues that Bishop Olmstead “clearly had other alternatives than to declare her excommunicated.” Again, I can’t say whether the bishop had no choice or whether he could have shown a little more compassion. Nor do I have any interest in telling the church how to run its internal affairs. If they want to say you can’t be a Catholic if you like mustard on your hamburgers, that’s their business, as long as it doesn’t affect anyone but their own membership.

I would make a couple of points, however. First, there is a point at which a Catholic hospital has to decide whether it’s a hospital which happens to be Catholic or a Catholic enterprise which happens to be a hospital. If it’s the former, then it and its employees need to be held to medical rather than religious standards whenever there is conflict between those two perspectives. That means the Hippocratic oath trumps canon law. And that means that saving one life instead of none should be applauded rather than punished. Conversely, St. Joseph’s is free to be a religious institution first, and only ancillarily a hospital. Of course, in any reasonable society with the separation of church and state, that would mean that they could not be supported by taxpayers—in the form of Medicare or Medicaid payments, for example. The hospital and the church need to choose. Now.

Secondly, one cannot help but notice the radically different responses of the church hierarchy to these events as compared to, say, child molestation by priests. According to Rev. Doyle, not a single pedophile priest was ever excommunicated; few were even defrocked. Rather, as has become clearer and clearer in recent months, these perverts were protected by the powers-that-be and shuttled from diocese to diocese without as much as warning the new constituents; their transgressions were kept out of sight in the hope that they might eventually be out of mind. Indeed, the New York Times reported in March that then-Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) failed to take any action, even to the extent of keeping him away from children, against a known pedophile priest in his own archdiocese; Ratzinger also intervened to delay the defrocking of a California priest who had been convicted of tying up and molesting two young boys, citing “the good of the universal church,” and the need for careful review and more time. By contrast, Sister Margaret was swiftly and unceremoniously shown the door. For saving a life. If there is an internal consistency here, I confess that it eludes me.

I suppose one could argue that, however heinous it may be, child molestation is not the taking of human life. One could argue, furthermore, that the circumstances don’t matter: that Sister Margaret’s actions admit of no explanation or contextualization. The taking of human life is the taking of human life, and those who do so, or who contribute in any way to doing so, whatever the motivations, are to be immediately excommunicated. This is a consistent and comprehensible rationale. This is why every soldier in the Crusades was excommunicated, why every Catholic who worked on the Manhattan Project was excommunicated, why Pope Pius XII, whose “neutral” inaction during the Holocaust cost probably tens of thousands of lives, was excommunicated. Huh? What’s that? They weren’t? Hmm… if I didn’t know better, I’d think that there was some selectivity in applying this whole killing-leads-to-excommunication thing. But what do I know? I’m a Protestant, and not a very good one, at that.

I do know this much, though. If I’m sick in Phoenix, I want to go someplace other than St. Joseph’s. And I’m sure future Sister Margarets have learned their lessons, too: when in doubt, let her die: it’s the moral thing to do. If you’re agitated at having to make such a decision, go diddle a 10-year-old. It’ll take your mind off things. But don’t get caught doing that, or we’re going to have to move you to a different hospital.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The week's election results and their impact... not exactly bupkis, not exactly not

So now it’s the aftermath. What to make of Tuesday’s election/primary results? Answer, as suggested here just before the vote-counting started: not much.

There were a lot of primaries held Tuesday in Arkansas, Kentucky, Oregon, and Pennsylvania; there was also a special election in the 12th district of Pennsylvania to replace the late John Murtha. Not much attention outside the immediate area is generated by most of these elections. Ultimately, the contests of most general interest were the Republican senatorial primary in Kentucky, the Democratic senatorial primaries in Arkansas and Pennsylvania, and the special election in the Pennsylvania 12th.

In Kentucky, tea-partier Rand Paul won convincingly, largely by out-loonying Mitch McConnell’s protégé, Trey Grayson. As I mentioned last time, however, even Paul scores a lot lower on the crazyometer than incumbent Jim Bunning, so I don’t see a lot of movement there. The point is that mainstream, sane, Republicans don’t really exist any more. Oh, there are a handful out there, but, speaking as someone who voted for more R’s than D’s up until about 2002 (nothing like the Texas Republican Party to make one start voting Democratic), I honestly can’t think of a single Republican anywhere whom I’d be more likely to support than oppose.

It was Mitch McConnell, after all, who opposed raising oil company liability cap for disastrous spills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico from $75 million to $10 billion, not because that change would be too precipitous or grounded in a visceral reaction to a specific event (can anyone say “Patriot Act?”), but (ahem) because that’s what Big Oil wants. You see, if the cap is that high, smaller companies couldn’t afford to take the risk, leaving the field open for the big boys alone. Yes, having taxpayers pick up the tab is a much better idea than expecting the responsible parties to be liable for their own mess. And Big Oil would rather have the cap raised because it would chase out all those Mom-and-Pop oil companies that can afford $75 million but not real money. This, my friends, is the argument of the comparatively sane senator from Kentucky. And not a single Republican said, “um… Mitch… maybe you should try an argument that isn’t preposterous on its face?”.

The point is that the Republicans had an opportunity to be a legitimate political party and chose not to. (N.B., in this construction, “legitimate” is a function of ethics and coherence, not of popularity.) Rather, they decided it was in their best interest to cultivate the largely racist base of the tea party movement, to fund them (covertly, of course), and to try to connect the dots from anti-black to anti-Obama to anti-Democratic to pro-Republican. But they made a calculated gamble in the process: in order to pretend that the tea party wasn’t really an astroturf creation of wealthy and well-connected Republican lobbyists (even though it was), they had to craft the message as anti-Washington elite rather than as specifically anti-Democratic. Trouble is, the actual rank and file of the tea party believed the rhetoric, and started acting like they, not the party bosses, ought to be calling the shots on the ground. And because the Republican leadership is devoid of ideas of how to solve real problems and therefore can’t attract the political middle, they need the tea partiers if they want to be viable. They can’t say what they know to be true: that the hysteria is unwarranted, that taxes are lower now than at any point since the Eisenhower administration (yes, I intentionally picked a link to that well-known left-wing propaganda rag, Forbes magazine), that intemperance may be a way to get noticed, but not necessarily a way to effect useful change.

I suspect that Rand Paul will probably win in the fall. Jack Conway, who defeated Lieutenant Governor and former senatorial candidate Daniel Mongiardo in a very close (43.9-43.2%) primary contest, isn’t widely known, the national media hasn’t been ooh-ing and aah-ing at his every move for the past month, and Kentucky is a Republican state. On the other hand, unlike Paul, Conway has won a statewide race (as Attorney General), by 21 points, no less, and there is another interesting fact: whereas the Republican primary was the one that got all the publicity, it was the Democratic primary that turned out the voters: as I write this, there have been 530,412 Democratic ballots counted, compared to 351,927 on the Republican side: better than a 60-40 divide. That’s a blowout. Moreover, Mr. Paul’s not-so-enlightened-on-human-rights side is bubbling ever closer to the surface. Will any of this matter? Probably not: it's Kentucky.

In Arkansas, nothing is yet settled except for the fact that it’s damned unlikely that Blanche Lincoln will serve another term. Whenever an incumbent fails to reach the 50% threshold in a primary, it’s pretty serious. But Lincoln, who seems to believe in little except expediency (defined in purely personal terms, of course) barely won a plurality, pulling out a 45-42 advantage over Bill Halter, according to the most recent numbers I can find. Any vote for the #3 candidate, D.C. Morrison, of course, was explicitly a vote against Lincoln (the way a vote for “undecided” was a vote against Hillary Clinton in the ’08 primary in Michigan), so it’s clear that Halter currently has the momentum in this race even if he didn’t garner the most votes in this round.

Lincoln still has a big bankroll of mostly corporate money (having it is a good thing; where it came from isn’t, at least in the eyes of many Democrats), so she could quite possibly reverse the trend before the June 8 run-off. But even if she does, she’s wounded by this fight in a way that Halter isn’t, and she’ll have to scamper to the left for the next couple of weeks, then back to the right in the general election, all the while trying to avoid the probably spot-on characterization that she has no real core beliefs other than trying to get re-elected. This seat is very likely going Republican in the fall: it’s almost a better thing to lose now—then the cry could be “if only you’d picked me, we wouldn’t have ended up with John Boozman.” Boozman won 53% of the Republican vote in an 8-person race: pretty impressive. I don’t see Lincoln standing a chance against Boozman; Halter would also be an underdog, but he could at least balance the corporate backing Boozman will receive with labor support.

And so we come to Pennsylvania. All through the election coverage the talking heads yammered on about how Barack Obama didn’t do enough to help Arlen Specter, who was in fact beaten rather handily (8 points, over 80,000 votes) by Representative (and ex-admiral) Joe Sestak. The line-up of Specter supporters included both the President and Vice President, the Governor, the mayors of the state’s two largest cities, labor leaders… indeed, if you’re a player in Pennsylvania Democratic circles, you endorsed Senator Specter. And Sestak has all the charisma of a dry mop. So what happened?

Three things: 1). the White House may have seen its obligation to Senator Specter as simply an endorsement, and indeed may (and should) have come to the conclusion that Specter was going to lose, anyway, and that doing so after being enthusiastically and actively supported by Mssrs. Obama and/or Biden would be to lose political clout without a sufficient potential upside. (Would having Sestak be appreciably worse in any way? No? Well, then…) Moreover, Sestak appears to be the stronger candidate in the general election: a Quinnipiac poll shortly before the primary, for example, showed Sestak, as people got to know him, cutting his deficit from 8 points to 2 against Pat Toomey, whereas Specter slid from 5 to 7 points behind. So the support for Specter from the Obama administration was probably a little less than fervent for a reason. Which brings us to…

2). Arlen Specter has become a hollow echo of his former self, reduced to pedestrian and rather coarse opportunism, an egoistic attitude skewered by Sestak’s campaign in this ad, which shows the long-time Republican all cozy with George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, and closes with the devastating tag, “Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job… his… not yours.” Ow. And wow, too. The fact is that this election wasn’t lost because Obama didn’t do enough. It was lost because the candidate was a frail, philosophically unreliable, 80-year-old, me-first jerk named Arlen Specter. As one Pennsylvania Democrat put it in a comment on one of a number of on-line stories on Sestak’s victory, “I wouldn’t vote for Arlen Specter if Jesus climbed off the cross to ask me personally.” Wow, dude, what do you really think? The problem with the Specter candidacy, then, wasn’t insufficient support from fill-in-the-name-of-somebody-important-here, but that it was the Specter candidacy. To quote the sage aphorism of Nikolai Gogol in The Inspector General, “Don’t blame the mirror for your own ugly mug.”

Finally, 3). Amidst all the big-name politicians and labor leaders, all the organizational prowess of the Pennsylvanian (and especially Philadelphian) Democratic machine, somebody on the Specter campaign forgot to tell the voters that they don’t matter, that they were just supposed to do what they were told. Turns out, tea party Republicans aren’t the only ones who object to being taken for granted. So, Democratic voters—well over half a million of them—went with the superior Democratic candidate… and that isn’t the guy whose party affiliation is predicated on avoiding challenges rather than on political philosophy.

At last, we come to the only real election of the week (not counting the bizarre special election in the Hawaii 1st scheduled for Saturday), the special election in the Pennsylvania 12th. No one quite knows what to do about this result, a conundrum perhaps best exemplified by the story on the NPR website, which called Democrat Mark Critz’s victory over Republican Tim Burns “what may have been the most significant result of the night,” but made no mention at all of the race in the first six paragraphs of the story.

Not surprisingly, the best analysis I’ve found is over at Tom Schaller’s piece there seems to have the right mix of reasonable tea-leaf-reading and equally reasonable reticence. Schaller suggests “the big story--if perhaps overstated or extrapolated too widely--is that Critz' victory is likely to change the Washington conventional wisdom on just how big the expected Republican gains in November will be.” Be it noted: Washington Conventional Wisdom and $1.40 will get you a small coffee at Java Jack’s.

About the only thing that’s clear about this outcome is that RNC Chair Michael Steele’s assertion that “This race should serve notice to Democratic officeholders everywhere that no seat is safe and that voters will not accept business-as-usual” is laughable even by Steele’s standards. Whatever else is true, the fact that a Democrat won a double-digit victory in a district the Republicans thought was in play is not good news for the GOP, especially when this district had been specifically mentioned, not by the pundits but by the RNC, as just the kind of place where the GOP would make significant gains this November. The Pennsylvania 12th is the only district in the country which went for John Kerry in 2004 and for John McCain in 2008: that may be taken as a signal that the area is trending to the right… or as evidence that John Murtha was all too accurate in his observation in October of 2008 that “there is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area.” (Or maybe they just like guys named John.)

All that said, as Schaller points out, Critz’s win was nonetheless narrower than his former boss Murtha’s in the 2008 election, even when Murtha was “embattled,” largely by the above-quoted commentary on his constituents. Moreover, Critz isn’t exactly an Obama Democrat: he opposes TARP, claimed in campaign commercials he’d have voted against the health care bill (although he also opposes repealing it), and has an “A” rating from the NRA. Moreover, Republican claims that he assiduously avoided nationalizing the race are no doubt accurate: he concentrated on local issues, whereas Burns ran against Obama and Nancy Pelosi (!) more than he ran against Critz. It remains to be seen whether the GOP learns anything from this failed strategy as the November elections approach. My guess: nope.

So… what, in the jargon of the punditry, is the “take-away” from all this? Well, as I said at the top, not much. There is some evidence that the once-projected GOP takeover of both house of Congress isn’t going to happen in either chamber. But the fact remains that there’s no way of telling what will happen this fall. How the economy is doing will be the big issue, and, frankly, there’s no telling at this point. I doubt the Dems will actually gain seats, but any prognostication now that doesn’t include the word “if” is likely to be a little less accurate than astrology, Tarot cards, or visits to the oracle at Delphi.

Tip O’Neill’s mantra that “All politics is local” fared better this week than any other analysis, and one suspects that it will continue to be sage advice for future candidates. The other observation is really simple: despite all the efforts—on the left and (especially) the right—to thwart such an eventuality, it’s still the people who decide. That is the glorious and terrifying essence of a democratic system.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What today's primaries really aren't about...

A lot has been happening lately, much of it worthy of some attention here: the oil spill in the Gulf, the Texas Board of Education’s continuing war on actual education, the Department of Education’s report that Virginia Tech violated the law in not notifying students more quickly of the horrific events unfolding on that campus three years ago, the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, the new immigration law in Arizona, Facebook's accelerating assault on personal privacy, the ongoing inability of the most ostentatiously pious of the right to practice what they preach (ad nauseum) and the recent Supreme Court decision allowing the corrections system to hold “sexually dangerous” prisoners indefinitely, even after their sentences expire, for example.

I suspect I’ll be commenting on one or more of those topics over the next few days now that grading hell is beginning to recede. [By the way, I do, time permitting, take requests.] But I want to get this short essay up now: before the election returns in the two primary races I’m talking about start coming in tonight, so that what ends up happening, whatever that is, won’t be seen as influencing these remarks.

There’s some interesting stuff happening out there: a couple of congressional races this week, a good possibility of Rand (son of Ron) Paul winning the Republican primary for Senate in Kentucky. The latter, where a Tea Party darling stands a good chance of actually being elected (not merely nominated) would interest me more if the race were somewhere else. As a one-time resident of that state, I can tell you that no electoral absurdity perpetrated there will ever surprise me. And, frankly, Rand Paul could never be the idiot that Jim Bunning is. Just as an Elena Kagan confirmation would move the Supreme Court to the right (because she’d be replacing John Paul Stevens), a Senator Paul, should that happen, would move the Senate toward the left… or at least toward the sane. Moreover, whether the Democrats can hold on to seats in Pennsylvania (today) or Hawaii (Saturday) is less interesting to me, though probably more meaningful: the Pennsylvania seat is in a very conservative district (carried by McCain for example), the Hawaii seat is probably going to be lost because of internal wrangling in the Democratic Party.

No, the races I’m interested in are on the Democratic side in Arkansas and Pennsylvania. In the former, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter is challenging Senator Blanche Lincoln; in the latter, Representative Joe Sestak is running against Republican-cum-Democrat Arlen Specter. The reason these races interest me is that the punditocracy is claiming that victories by the challengers, get this, “will raise questions about the effectiveness of the Obama political team and Organizing for America.” OK, I’m saying this once: NO, IT FREAKING WON’T.

Neither Lincoln nor Specter is a principled moderate. Lincoln was a major thorn in the side of any real health care reform, even threatening to join a Republican filibuster against any proposal including the public option. Then, when challenged from the left, she ran campaign ads in predominantly black districts talking about what a good Obama-supporter she is. Specter used to be a principled moderate, just as John McCain once was. But now he’s interested in one thing and one thing only: the longevity of Arlen Specter’s senatorial career. That’s why he changed parties—not because he’s really a Democrat, but because he was going to get his ass handed to him in a Republican primary if he stayed in the GOP.

True, President Obama has endorsed the incumbents: publically, at least. And he and his staff supposedly tried to talk the challengers out of running. Of course, he did. What the geniuses at MSNBC (and elsewhere) can’t seem to wrap their tiny little brains around is that he did so because it’s his job as leader of the party. I find it difficult to believe that he’d really rather have Lincoln and Specter than a couple of real Democrats like Halter and Sestak. Notice that he hasn’t exactly been working the stump for the old guard. It’s expected of him that he say nice things about current office-holders from his party. He did that. But he’s pretty much staying out of both races. Were I of a cynical disposition (perish the thought!) I might suggest that he doesn’t want another conspicuous loss (like, say, losing Ted Kennedy’s seat) in a race where he took an active interest. But it’s also true that 1). Lincoln and Specter would be projected to lose their seats in a general election, regardless of what happens in the primary, and 2). Halter and Sestak would both be more reliable votes for the Obama agenda were they to be elected (and since they actually stand for something, they might have a better chance in November than the folks they’re challenging would).

I know, pundits need to pretend they know something the rest of us don’t. I just wish they wouldn’t talk such drivel.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Two Cinco de Mayo stories (and a coda)

Two of the more intriguing stories this week concern Cinco de Mayo, the quasi-holiday celebrating a Mexican military victory against the French in 1862. Little observed in Mexico—Mexicans quite reasonably regard their independence day, September 16, as their principal patriotic holiday—Cinco de Mayo as a modern-day festival is largely an American invention. It appears to have its roots in the Californian Hispanic community as early as the 1860s, but it didn’t rise to prominence until a generation or so ago, when a few enterprising companies, breweries foremost among them, began to market their products in tandem with a largely fabricated holiday.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Corona, enchiladas, and mariachi bands as much as the next guy, and I’ll even grant that the Mexican victory at Puebla may have had an under-appreciated effect on American history by thwarting Napoleon III’s attempts to supply the Confederacy and thereby de-stabilize the Union. Moreover, while commemorating a single victory in a war that was ultimately lost may seem a bit strange, it’s no more bizarre than Texans’ obsession with a battle that was in fact a colossal defeat (the Alamo) or Irishmen’s concentration on the disastrous Easter Rising of 1916 rather than actual independence a few years later. Nor does the contrived nature of the event bother me: Chicago was dyeing their river green for over 30 years before Dublin really began any kind of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations other than in a truly religious context. Cinco de Mayo may be, in the words of HuffPo columnist Eric Lurio, “totally fake,” but it is also “harmless” and “as good a day as any to party”: the equivalent for those of Mexican heritage to Polaski Day for Polish-Americans or Columbus Day for Italian-Americans.

Sort of.

For one thing, Cinco de Mayo sort of wants to market itself as a pan-Hispanic celebration and stay specifically Mexican at the same time. And whereas St. Patrick’s Day revelers proclaim everyone Irish on March 17, Cinco de Mayo celebrants tend to hold the rest of the world at arm’s length: “we’re Mexican and you’re not… but buy our flautas, anyway.” Most importantly, there’s still some serious tension surrounding the extent to which Hispanics in general and those of Mexican heritage in particular have chosen to integrate (or not) into American culture. It falls a good deal short of racism to wonder why ballots or telephone instructions on getting an American passport need to be available in Spanish (but not in Chinese or French or any of the other dozens of languages which are the native tongues of American citizens), or why incessant illegal border-crossings from Mexico are not regarded as a threat to national security, but an absent-minded smoker who inadvertently tries to take a Zippo onto an airplane is.

Not surprisingly, then, emotions are a little raw on both sides. Hispanics in this country are indeed subjected to discrimination, and are not infrequently the victims of racism. Those who are in the country illegally are especially subject to exploitation. But, at one level, “official language” legislation and similar initiatives only seek to concretize what was standard practice for every other ethnic group ever to enter the US: if you want to be an American, be an American. Obey the law (including immigration law). Learn English. Don’t forget your heritage, but participate in the larger society. It doesn’t seem too much to ask, so while many of the manifestations of Anglo disgruntlement are exaggerated or even offensive, the stimulus itself is easy to comprehend.

And so we come to the draconian, probably unconstitutional, and politically stupid new immigration law recently signed into effect by Arizona governor Jan Brewer. First: an explanation of my choice of adjectives… Draconian: while the intent of the law is subject to dispute, it is clear that local police are required to demand papers of anyone who is “reasonably suspected” of not being a citizen; anyone thus suspected must have immigration documents on their person, and bigoted jackasses citizens can indeed sue any enforcement agency the tin-foil hat brigade thinks isn’t sufficiently aggressive in harassing apparently law-abiding folks. Probably unconstitutional: the new law claims for the state prerogatives constitutionally reserved for the federal government. Politically stupid: Gov. Brewer and bill-supporter John McCain are facing primary challenges from their right flank. Rather than do what’s right (or to articulate a cogent rationale for the law), they’ve decided to pander to the most xenophobic elements of their base. Note in particular the extraordinary hypocrisy of the tea partiers, who are all about smaller government except when governmental intrusion into people’s lives comes exclusively at the expense of the more darkly complected among us. The result is a profound alienation of Hispanic voters from all things Republican. These are, of course, the very people the GOP had hitherto been making a concerted effort to attract by emphasizing shared social values.

A crackdown on illegal aliens (I agree with my friends on the right that calling these people “undocumented workers” is akin to describing drug dealers as “unlicensed pharmacists”) may be necessary, but turning Arizona into a police state isn’t likely to win a lot of votes from people named Hernandez or Montoya. Real solutions, of course, are complicated, and probably involve sanctions (stiff fines and/or jail time) against those who employ illegals without a good-faith effort to determine prospective workers’ authorization to work in the US. They also involve a recognition of the positive influence such workers, legal or not, have had on local, state, and national economies. They inevitably involve considering the family as a valued social institution, with a concomitant commitment to making reasonable accommodations in order to keep families together—something the “family values” crowd is (needless to say) loath to do. Whatever the right policy is, sending Officer Bubba out to harass anyone who might be “foreign” isn’t the way to go.

Let’s be clear, here. This legislation is all about Mexicans, and all about demonization, alleged protections against racial profiling notwithstanding. Let’s face it, bills get passed because of a perceived need, and there is no one suggesting that Arizona is suffering from an infestation of Icelandics. So, if two of my students are walking down the street in Yuma, the one more likely to be hassled is the American citizen named Sanchez rather than the actual alien named Brynjarsdottír. That said, if Texas were to adopt such a law—and our governor and state legislature are both stupid and racist enough to do so—then Ms. Brynjarsdottír, who speaks fluent but slightly accented English, could be stopped and incarcerated for not bringing her visa to a late-night tech rehearsal. Anyone who thinks that couldn’t happen has never met a small-town cop.

And now… finally… story #1. The Phoenix Suns sported “Los Suns” jerseys for their NBA playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs on May 5, Cinco de Mayo. The impetus came from managing partner Robert Sarver, with apparently full support from the players. Canadian citizen and star point guard Steve Nash was especially outspoken about what he perceives as “a bill that really damages our civil liberties.” For the record, the Suns won that night (indeed, they went on to sweep the series—their first playoff series win, let alone sweep, against the Spurs in five tries), and analysts started talking about the team’s “toughness.” Coincidence? Perhaps. But a sense of something larger than the self is an essential element in any team effort, and the Suns may just have found it. Also for the record: replica “Los Suns” jerseys, previously marked down to clearance prices at local sporting goods stores, are now selling like proverbial hotcakes at three times their previous price.

Needless to say, there has been considerable furor over the Suns’ action. Rush Limbaugh blustered predictably: “get liberalism out of it,” he sputtered, describing the Suns’ protest as “cowardice disguised as supremacy” (whatever the hell that means), and above all employing the supremely ill-timed “politics and ESPN are like water and oil in the Gulf of Mexico.” Considerably more effective was the snark on under the headline, “Word ‘Los’ On Suns Jersey Compels Arizona to Repeal Immigration Law.”

A more measured approach comes from Michael McCarthy, who writes, “I’m all for the Suns wearing their Los Suns alternate jerseys to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. But Sarver said they wore the alternate jerseys to protest Arizona’s recent immigration law. The national TV audience was not given a choice whether they wanted to participate in the debate or not.”

The majority of the commentary, however, trends towards that of the Tampa Tribune’s Joe Henderson, who quotes Suns GM Steve Kerr as saying, “It's hard to imagine in this country that we have to produce papers. It rings up images of Nazi Germany.” Henderson himself concludes, “Yes, as a nation we need intelligent debate on the tough immigration issue, and we need a national policy that makes sense. That's really what Los Suns are trying to say, and they have done it well.”

I’m not sure about this one. McCarthy makes a good point. I don’t want to see sports turned into politics, although it is sometimes inevitable, whether we’re talking the Duke lacrosse team, the John Carlos / Tommie Smith black power salutes at the Mexico City Olympics, or the political careers of Bill Bradley, Jim Bunning, or Jack Kemp. On the other hand, sports have often been influential in changing the debate—witness the profound influence of, say, Jackie Robinson—and, if the Suns team is really as unified on this issue as they are represented as being, then why not? After all, there’s nothing controversial about the uniforms themselves: they’d already been used twice earlier this season. Are we really going to fret that someone did a perfectly reasonable thing for the wrong reason? Ultimately, I think not.

The other Cinco de Mayo story is easier to parse. In Morgan Hill, CA, a group of five boys wore American flag clothing—bandanas, shirts, shorts—and were told that such apparel was inappropriate. So far, it sounds like something from my youth: in those halcyon days, clothing featuring a flag motif was often worn by protesters against the Vietnam War, and, because such designs tended to be found on the seats of jeans, or in other places where the symbol might touch the ground or otherwise be defaced, we were forbidden to wear anything with an American flag. Now, of course, such apparel is considered patriotic.

Anyway, these guys show up at school wearing this stuff and the Head Moron Assistant Principal tells them they’ve got to take it off, go home, or face suspension. You see, it was Cinco de Mayo, and expressions of American patriotism were deemed insensitive to Hispanic students. OK, I’ll say this once: Give me a damned break.

Yes, these students’ protests that they weren’t trying to spark conflict were, to coin a phrase, lies. But if we were to remove every disingenuous little jackass from high school, the halls would echo forever because there’d be nothing and no one there to absorb the sound. If, as the assistant principal is alleged to have said, there would have been nothing wrong with what they were wearing on any other day, the fact that it happened to be May 5 matters not a whit. (By the way, where was the actual principal for all this?) More to the point, these little jerk-offs got exactly what they wanted: publicity. It was a veritable Fox-gasm out there. Lots of pundits, self-styled and otherwise, intoned (can one “intone” in print?) that this is what happens when liberals run schools. No, this is what happens when craven idiots run schools. It’s a logic problem: if some school administrators are liberals, and some school administrators are craven idiots…

The righteous dudgeon was indeed thick on the ground on both sides. I was particularly intrigued by the comments of one Annicia Nunez, quoted in the AP article: “I think they should apologize ‘cause it is a Mexican Heritage Day. We don't deserve to get disrespected like that. We wouldn't do that on Fourth of July.” One wonders about Ms. Nunez’s citizenship. Is she a Mexican-American, in which case there’s certainly no reason to be upset at an expression of American pride, any more than an Irish-American would have a right to complain about the Stars and Stripes on St. Patrick’s Day? “We [American citizens] wouldn’t [“disrespect” the US] on the 4th of July”? How freaking magnanimous of her! Or is she actually Mexican, a guest in another land, partaking of that country’s resources, and complaining about the locals’ actually liking their own country? Either way, Ms. Nunez, you and yours are not owed an apology—not for what has been reported, at least. If there were threats or even taunts, maybe. But an adolescent in an Old Glory shirt falls well short of the disrespect you do indeed deserve if you are as egocentric and as ignorant of your own heritage and its manifestations as you appear to be. And if your appreciation of all things Mexican is really so profound that you are offended by that which is American… enjoy your trip south, and don’t hurry back.

There’s also, by the way, a local variant of this story. At Klein Collins High School in Spring, TX, a self-righteous little brat named Nick Collins tore down and threw away a Mexican flag that had been displayed in the school on Cinco de Mayo, got a three-day suspension, and had to pay for the flag. Gee, almost as if vandalism were a crime, or something. Then he went sniveling onto right-wing talk radio to whine about how he was sore abused. Needless to say, he got to play martyr, and Michael Berry, the host of the radio show, will pick up his financial obligation as a publicity stunt out of a deep concern for justice. Of course, other national flags had been similarly displayed without incident in the past, rendering suspect young Collins’s protestations that it wasn’t that he has something against Mexicans and/or celebrating Cinco de Mayo… or perhaps it’s just that his powers of deductive reasoning aren’t very advanced.

On the other hand, Collins's assertion that the display of the Mexican flag was disrespectful to the American flag because of its relative placement may have merit, and would have been a reasonable observation/complaint to bring to school officials. But the fact that he simply tore down the flag rather than talking to authorities, the disingenuous assertion that he'd measured the heights of the flags in question, and the secondary placement of this line of reasoning in Collins's own rhetorical stance all suggest that he was grasping at straws rather than making a principled argument.

One thing about all this kerfuffle… there’s plenty of people to cheer against.