Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Jeremiah Wright

I am troubled by this guy, but not only for the run of the mill reasons concerning his effect on Obama. Of course, his decision to come out into the spotlight at this particular moment angers me. He seems not to care much whether Obama is president, but is instead interested in using his 15 minutes to preach the word of God as he understands it. But the issue of timing in this campaign season aside, I think Wright is better than this performer he has become and I wish that he could rise to his own rhetoric.

I have very little trouble understanding that there was a causal connection between American foreign policy and the attacks of 9/11. There is much debate about what Wright is quoting when he says he is quoting Ambassador Edward Peck in his sermon after 9/11 and I have not been able to find any credible source that can show a transcript or video of the Fox News interview that Wright is referring to. Regardless, I am not offended by the "chickens coming home to roost" comment, either. It is something said out of anger and frustration, and there is plenty of that to go around. The righteousness with which it is said is troubling to me, but that in and of itself is not what makes Wright's sermon problematic. What makes his blaming of America for the terrorism attacks of 9/11 problematic is that he does not, in the sermon or anywhere else I can find, say anything about the terrorists' use of God.

The sermon revolves around Psalm 137, specifically the line that says, "Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" (Revised Standard, Oxford Annotated, slightly different than the language Wright uses) He invokes this psalm to demonstrate where we should not go as Americans. He had seen a number of public religious services and the implicit calls for revenge in the pleas for God to bless our military in doing "what they gotta do," and he was troubled by this. He insists in the sermon that God does not want us to turn our anger on the innocents, that "violence begets violence, terrorism begets terrorism." But while he talks about how America has wronged Others of all stripes, he never once talks about how God fits into the terrorists' thinking, and that the terrorists have got God wrong just as we've got God wrong if we use His name as we enact our revenge for 9/11. In his interview with Bill Moyers, he explains black liberation theology in the following way:
The God of the people who [are] riding on the decks of the slave ship is not the God of the people who are riding underneath the decks as slaves in chains. If the God you're praying to, "Bless our slavery" is not the God to whom these people are praying, saying, "God, get us out of slavery." And it's not like Notre Dame playing Michigan. You're saying flip a coin; hope God blesses the winning team, no. That the perception of God who allows slavery, who allows rape, who allows misogyny, who allows sodomy, who allows murder of a people, lynching, that's not the God of the people being lynched and sodomized and raped, and carried away into a foreign country. Same thing you find in Psalm 137. That those people who are carried away into slavery have a very different concept of what it means to be the people of God than the ones who carried them away.
Now this is an insightful and profound understanding of how God and religion work in the minds of oppressors v. those of the oppressed. It follows an explication of how after every revolution, the winners write the history, so we Americans don't learn history from the point of view of the American Indian, we don't learn history from the point of view of the black slave, we learn it from the point of view of the founders. (This is, of course, not as true today as it once was.)

The trouble with his sermon and the trouble with what he's said to 'correct' the misunderstanding of his message in the past few days, is that while he explains how America has oppressed and how God does not bless the despicable acts of America or America's revenge on the innocent (our war in Afghanistan can arguably be characterized this way, and clearly Iraq can) and he explains how the oppressed view God differently, he never takes it that next step and says that God does not bless the terrorists' acts either. It is implicit in the sermon he gives, but the sermon leaves you with the distinct impression that not only does America reap what it has sown, but that the terrorists may have been justified and that God is angry with America. When this is clearly NOT the message he wants to convey to his congregation. America's indignation and misapprehension of its culpability does not excuse the terrorists' acts on 9/11, and this is what people are responding to when they hear this sermon.

What's lacking in Wright's sermon and in his characterization of America and its enemies is that America, in Wright's world, seems to be the only power that is damned by God. What he fails to acknowledge is that the terrorists have used their power in a manner that God would damn as well. I don't think his saying that would make a difference in terms of the media and the hype, but I am disappointed in him for not making this simple move. But, then, he is only human. As are we all.

The Charm and Wit of Antonin

Monday, April 28, 2008

I am a textualist. I am an originalist. I am not a nut.

"My Constitution is not living, it is dead." (quote attributed to Scalia in NPR story)

I began working on this post thinking I was going to write about what a jerk Antonin Scalia is by commenting on the first of three interviews with him on NPR this morning, but that led me to begin to research him some more and instead of just writing about what a jerk he is, I decided to explore the core of his Jerkness.

Justice Scalia adheres to a school of thought called originalism when it comes to the Constitution. This school of thought holds that the Constitution means whatever the framers thought it meant. So, in deciding whether something is Constitutional, we first look to the 'plain meaning' of the language of the Constitution. The 'plain meaning' is the meaning a 'reasonable man' would have applied at the time of the framing. (Everyone knows there were no 'reasonable women' at the time of the Constitution's framing.) To discern plain meaning we look to writings of that time, including dictionaries and, centrally, the writing of the framers. All well and good, except when we do that we find that the framers had serious disagreements over what the Constitution meant and should mean. In this type of situation, one assumes, the majority rules - in other words, whatever most of the founders thought is what the Constitution means. (I'm open to being corrected on this if anyone knows different) Once this process is complete, Scalia and others claim that their reading, unlike all other readings, is not an act of interpretation, rather it is the Truth. This is obviously a reductionist version of originalism, but I don't have time to write a thesis (despite evidence to the contrary given the seemingly thesis-length posts I've written from time to time).

This understanding of the Constitution is limited enough, but the apparent basis of Scalia's understanding of the Constitution's authority and the authority of the framers is even more difficult for me to swallow. In speaking on the death penalty to the University of Chicago Divinity School, Scalia discusses the morality of the death penalty and says that if a judge believed that the death penalty was immoral, then that judge would necessarily have to recuse himself from deciding death penalty cases (or perhaps resign altogether). Thankfully, Scalia does not find the death penalty immoral so he can keep his job. His reasoning? Look to the Bible:
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. (Romans 13:1-5)
After quoting this passage, Scalia goes on to say that "the core of [St. Paul's] message is that government - however you want to limit that concept - derives its moral authority from God. It is the 'minister of God' with powers to 'revenge,' to 'execute wrath,' including even wrath by the sword (which is unmistakably a reference to the death penalty)." Further on, he says that this reasoning has been the consensus until very recent times:
That consensus has been upset, I think, by the emergence of democracy. It is easy to see the hand of the Almighty behind rulers whose forebears, in the dim mists of history, were supposedly anointed by God, or who at least obtained their thrones in awful and unpredictable battles whose outcome was determined by the Lord of Hosts, that is, the Lord of Armies. It is much more difficult to see the hand of God-or any higher moral authority-behind the fools and rogues (as the losers would have it) whom we ourselves elect to do our own will. How can their power to avenge-to vindicate the “public order”-be any greater than our own?
According to Scalia, this attitude toward democracy, as less ordained by God than other forms of government, also results in horrible things such as civil disobedience. And still further on, he says, "The reaction of people of faith to this tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government should not be resignation to it, but the resolution to combat it as effectively as possible."

All of this is disturbing from the point of view of an agnostic, or whatever the hell it is that I am. I'm sure it is also disturbing to anyone who believes that leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were doing God's work. But it does allow us to uncover the incoherent principle which seems, on some level, to inform the Constitutional interpretation of Scalia: God loves winners.

All power proceeds from God, according to the passage Scalia quotes. The 'plain meaning' of this, according to Scalia, is that those who are in power are ordained by God, because they could not have gained power if God was not 'on their side.' Of course, this logic obtains no matter how seemingly evil or foolish a government may seem to us 'losers,' it is God's will and we should obey. But, by the logic of Scalia's "reading" of the Bible, if those who do not obey overthrow the government, then they clearly had God on their side, or at least at the moment of their 'winning,' God became their number one fan. And since God loves the winner, and the founding fathers were winners, then God loved the founding fathers. Therefore, whatever they thought was what God loves. The overriding principle that the founding fathers seemed to believe in was democracy. Therefore, God loves democracy. And since in a democracy, majority rules, then when we look to see what the founders thought (and thus what God thought), then we look to see what the majority of the founding fathers thought. Ding ding ding! That majority wins! Case closed.

Of course, Scalia's God-loves-winners (and, apparently, simple majorities) theory doesn't seem to dissuade him from expressing his opinions when the majority on the court goes against him, but I'm sure he has an equally circular theory of evil to cover those cases.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Alton Logan

Last weekend, Alton Logan was released on bail after spending 26 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. (NYT article) News of wrongful convictions are almost commonplace these days with the advent of DNA evidence. But this case was different. In this case, two public defenders knew of Logan's innocence all along because of the confession of their client, Andrew Wilson.

It is often said that the creed at the heart of our legal system, with its elaborate due process protections, is that it is better that 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man be imprisoned. (Why 10? I don't know. For a discussion of that, see this blowhard.) In fact, it is some variation on this admittedly cliche sentiment that inspires the work of many public defenders - that our system should err on the side of protecting the innocent, that everyone deserves legal representation (well, every criminal anyway - if you're losing your home or having your children taken away by the state you have no right to counsel, but that's a subject for another post). And I think our legal system does lean more toward protecting the innocent than many around the world. But the story of Alton Logan sheds light on an instance where the 'system' not only failed to protect, but contributed to the suffering of an innocent man.

The issue at the center of this story is attorney-client privilege and the ethical responsibility of attorneys to keep their clients' confidences. (There is a difference between these two concepts which only attorneys would care about. I use them interchangeably for the purpose of this post.) The two attorneys, W. Jameson Kunz and Dale Coventry, make several arguments as to why they couldn't reveal the confidence until now: the rules of professional conduct prohibited it, they couldn't do it without harming their client, the system would grind to a halt if clients thought attorneys could reveal confidences, and it wouldn't have made a difference because it wouldn't have been allowed into court due to privilege.

I could say I am of two minds on this, but that would be overstating how I feel. My sentiments are expressed in the words of Alton Logan when asked if he could sympathize with the two attorneys who couldn't say anything without putting their client in jeopardy: "Sympathize with it? Yes. Understand it? No."

The two attorneys for Andrew Wilson were, in their view, barred from revealing this information under the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct (IRPC). I say "in their view," but there is wide agreement on this point among those who deal in rules of professional conduct, so these attorneys are not alone.

The relevant rule, IRPC1.6, subjects an attorney to discipline for revealing confidences or secrets disclosed by clients. There are exceptions, but preventing the life imprisonment of an innocent man is not one of them. (Note: the rules I cite are the newer rules because I couldn't find the text of those in place in 1982 online and I am fairly certain the analysis holds for both versions. Not good enough for a legal memorandum, but good enough for my blog.)

The first exception: attorneys must disclose confidences to prevent the client from committing acts that would result in "death or serious bodily injury." (Note that these are future acts of commission. A reasonable argument could be made that not confessing would result in "death or serious bodily harm" because the risk of death or serious bodily harm in prison is very high. But not confessing is an act of omission rather than commission.) Second, attorneys may reveal the intent of clients to commit lessor crimes. Third, attorneys may also reveal confidences when permitted under the rules of professional conduct and when required by law. (Note that we "may" reveal confidences when required by law - we are not required to.) And my favorite exception of all: we may reveal confidences when the client doesn't pay our bill. IRPC1.6(c)(3). Now, I will grant you that I have not been able to come up with a plausible hypothetical in which revealing a client's confession of a murder would be "necessary to establish or collect" an attorney's fees, but I think this is merely a failure of imagination on my part and not an inherent strength of the rule itself. In the end, it is pretty clear that the rules of professional conduct did not offer these attorneys an out. But this doesn't mean there was no out.

W. Jameson Kunz says, in the 60 minutes interview, "I [could not] figure out a way and still cannot figure out a way how we could have done anything to help Alton Logan that would not have put Andrew Wilson in jeopardy." But in the same interview they claim that their revelation would not have been helpful to Alton Logan because it wouldn't be allowed into evidence due to attorney-client privilege. These two statements contradict one another to a certain degree. How could evidence that would not be allowed into evidence harm their client?

Now, revelation of the confession might have led investigators to re-open the case and actually find evidence linking the crime to Wilson. (physical evidence did exist linking Wilson). Whether this evidence would have been allowed in is an open question. Maybe. Maybe not. The gathering of the evidence would have been based upon an inadmissible confession, so it would have to be argued. I don't claim to know the rules of evidence well enough to dismiss this possibility. But on its face, the claim that the confession would not help Logan but would hurt Wilson seems incongruous. Add to that the fact that Wilson was eventually sentenced to life without parole in the crime he was being tried for, and the question becomes even less clear as to what 'harm' would have befell their client. True, he could have been put to death. My opinion of the death penalty as punishment aside, he would have been put to death for a crime he committed. Is this more or less harmful than being imprisoned for life for a crime one didn't commit?

The final reason these attorneys offer for their 26 year silence is that the system would grind to a halt if they were to reveal their client's confidence. The argument is that if clients think attorneys can reveal confidences with impunity, then they will not be honest with their attorneys and the attorneys cannot then make the best case for their client. This seems a reasonable enough argument as far as it goes, but it doesn't really wash in the context of such serious consequences (Should innocent men really be punished to protect the secrets of guilty men? Should clients expect that their crimes would be kept secret in these circumstances?) and it seems once again to contradict another thing the two attorneys said, that had Logan received the death penalty they would have revealed the confidence by appealing to the governor to stop the execution. In fact, Coventry went to the courthouse the day the jury was deciding the sentencing phase in the first of Logan's trials. As quoted by the associated press, "It's pretty creepy watching people deciding if they're going to kill an innocent man." I'll bet. (A new Fox reality show in the making perhaps?) So, the system is too precious to be toyed with to keep a man from what Logan himself called "a slow death, a lingering death," but not so important that these two attorneys would have allowed an innocent man to be put to death. This seems to be a difference without much of a distinction. Kunz and Coventry would undoubtedly argue that at least with life in prison there's still the possibility of freedom.

As difficult as it is, I find myself wanting to refrain from judging these two men, two young attorneys at the beginning of their careers who had to choose between being able to continue practicing in an area of law that they no doubt felt called to do on some level (no one chooses to be a public defender for the pay) and protecting the life of an innocent man. I think if there is any judgment to be made it is that neither of them seem to admit, even to this day, that this was the calculus at the heart of their decision. There is no question that the American or Illinois legal system would not have ground to a halt had they revealed this confidence because they likely would have been disbarred, or at least severely disciplined, and this would have communicated to would-be clients that their secrets were safe with attorneys. And as far as ethical dangers regarding causing their clients harm; these concerns are overridden by the moral dangers and justice concerns involved in letting innocent men be imprisoned. There was a path to Logan's freedom, but it passed straight through the careers of these two attorneys.

But the fault does not lie with these two attorneys alone. The fault also lies with a system that forced them to make this very difficult choice. There has to be a way to incorporate exceptions to the ethics rules to protect serious threats to liberty and life. In fact the current ABA model rules of professional responsibility do a much better job of this, allowing attorneys to reveal confidences "relating to a client's representation... to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm." This is a much broader protection for clients because it covers not just 'confidences' and 'secrets' but anything relating to a client's representation, but it also does a better job of serving justice in situations like this because it does not require that the confidence relate to future affirmative acts of the client.

Institutions will always be imperfect and will always result in hurtful imbalances of power. However, institutions exist to serve humans, humans do not exist to serve institutions. It is our obligation to remain alert to opportunities for institutional reform and to act accordingly. And, although I hope I am never in such a situation, I also hope that I would be able to speak the truth whether it was institutionally safe to do so or not.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Presenting... The Media as Capt. Renault

This week's Sunday New York Times ran an article exposing that many of the so-called experts regularly appearing as "military analysts" on television, radio, and in newspapers since before the Iraq war were (gasp!) Pentagon puppets. As one former analyst described it, "It was [the Pentagon] saying, 'We need to stick our hands up your back and move your mouth for you.'" One can only imagine which orifice the Pentagon used to obtain access to the spines of these military analysts.

There are wonderful laugh lines in the article, including the depiction of retired military brass being wooed by "uniformed escorts to Mr. Rumsfeld's private conference room" and lunches where "the best government china [was] laid out" and seating was arranged using "embossed name cards." Of course, it took more than a little Martha Stewart charm (military-style) to lube the former military brass for their puppetry. Inside access (all puns intended) to the Pentagon and hefty defense contracts for their private business ventures sealed the deal. As one analyst said regarding their access to the military market, "It was like being embedded with the Pentagon leadership." (emphasis provided) But more disturbing than the propaganda machine "exposed" by the Times article (I mean, is any reader actually surprised by the "psyops on steroids" that the Pentagon was/is engaged in?) is the unconvincing feigned shock the NY Times is implicitly engaging in. Thus, the reference to Casablanca in the title of this post.

For those who don't remember (or never saw) the movie, Capt. Renault (Claude Rains) is a local corrupt police captain and Nazi accommodater (though he turns quasi-good-guy in the end). There is a scene where the police raid Rick's Cafe, and Rick (Bogart) confronts Capt. Renault:

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Captain Renault: I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
[aloud]
Captain Renault: Everybody out at once!

The NY Times and the media at large are like Capt. Renault raiding Rick's Cafe - shocked, shocked! This article made waves across the mediascape yesterday (and will no doubt continue to) as the public faces of various media outlets expressed outrage that the Pentagon would dare to engage in such underhanded tactics. Meanwhile, there is little in the article or in other coverage I've seen that turns the lens back on the media itself to contemplate its own culpability in this. Where were the lower-thirds on CNN, ABC, NBC, MSNBC (Fox, obviously, doesn't count) identifying these 'analysts' as consultants to or partners in companies competing for military contracts? Why didn't NPR introduce them in their current capacity as opposed to "Retired General so-and-so says...?" The fourth branch, as the media is sometimes referred to, has fallen and it can't get up. Of course, the first step toward getting up is admitting that you've fallen, and the media won't even do that.

Now, I'm sure there will be half-hearted gestures of mea culpa and reflection over the next few days, just as the Times article devoted a dozen or so paragraphs in a three and a half page story to what might appear, perhaps, to be a lack of vigilance on the part of the media. But it will be brief (after all, the PA primary is tomorrow, and there's a war on, and the economy is in trouble - the show must go on) and it will be framed in a predictable way - there may have, perhaps, at times been a perceived lack of due diligence in vetting the military experts, but these analysts were "expected to keep the network informed about any outside business entanglements," as one ABC spokesman put it. Right. I forgot. The onus is on the mob hit man to disclose his affiliations when speaking about the innocence of crime bosses.

The media has blood on its hands. The media was spoon-fed bullshit and ate it up and shit it out and then the consuming public ate it up, and the very machine that spoon-fed the bullshit then used the re-constituted bullshit to say, "analysts on (insert news corp here) today said the war is going fine." And then the media served this up to us again. An enormous feedback loop serving no one but the people feeding the bullshit machine. Not a conspiracy - conspiracies are not sustainable because they rely on secrecy and secrets eventually leak out. What is sustainable is people looking out for their own selfish interests and, in light of those interests, failing to speak truthfully, failing to, as Whitehead says, "forge every sentence in the teeth of irreducible and stubborn facts."

The problem isn't that the Pentagon was (and is) running a propaganda machine. The problem is that it has worked so well for so long. And it only works because people are complicit, whether through puppetry, parroting, or silence. The hope, of course, would be that this type of story will cause people to reflect on the sources and purposes of information and that the next time we will pay attention. Of course, the trick is to recognize that the "next time" is now, that there is no time like the present to begin practicing attentiveness.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Elitism

I've been trying to figure out how to respond to the elitism debate (and I'm not talking about last night's debate in which it took 46 minutes to get to an issue besides elitism, Jeremiah Wright, the Weather Underground, and flag lapel pins). I think Jon Stewart's is the best analysis I've seen so far. (see video below) People don't cling to guns, religion, racism, and anti-immigration sentiment because of their economic circumstances - these are traditions that are passed down from generation to generation. This isn't 'bitterness,' it's a way of life.

Perhaps this will all blow over, or perhaps like John Kerry windsurfing this will be part of the downfall of an intelligent and capable leader. God forbid our president be smarter than us! I'm with Stewart on this one too - "Not only do I want an elite president, I want someone who's embarrassingly superior to me." As he asks the candidates, "If you don't actually think you're better than us, then what the fuck are you doing?"

The problem with what Obama said is that it's the obverse side of what his campaign has been all about - unity. The reason Obama's message resonates is because we are a country divided along many lines. Those divisions are tribalistic in nature - this is not an American trait, it's a human one. We have circles of compassion and the more distant you are from my circle, the less compassion I have for you. Obama's campaign is premised on his (genuine, I think) frustration with the divisions in the country. His speech at the Democratic convention, the one that thrust him into rock star stauts, was about how we need to begin looking at what brings us together rather than those things that keep us separate from our fellow Americans and fellow humans. A call to unity is premised on a thesis of divisions, deep divisions. Obama's mistakes were: 1) he singled out small town people for critique - the same types of bigotry and anti-outsider sentiments exist in every city, neighborhood, suburb. Of course those sentiments are aimed at different 'Others,' but every community has its Other; 2) he floated some theory of economic causation where economics is just another line of division - the class line - which Americans are loathe to discuss (when asked in polls, very few Americans consider themselves 'poor,' even those who are); and 3) he apparently didn't frame the comment in the context of Hope and Unity. In other words, he did let slip the 'mask' as Kristol said in his column, though Kristol misidentified the mask. I don't believe Obama is disdainful of small town America, I think he is deeply disturbed by the divisions in the country as a whole, that the feelings of frustration he has about these divisions and the ways they impede solutions to the real problems real people are suffering motivate him as a public servant, and he was speaking in a specific context - raising money for a specific race, the PA primary - and forgot to make sure he included the laundry list of ways in which all Americans are guilty of provincialism and tribalism.

This is not the 'true' face of an elitist closet Marxist, it is an unfortunate misstep that I hope will not cost him the nomination. But if it does... we as Americans do not have the sophistication that Obama continually credits us with to be able to tell the difference between real issues and hype. Anyone who watched the debate last night couldn't help but recognize how press-driven these manufactured issues are - Hillary exaggerating the threat when she landed in Bosnia, Obama not wearing a flag lapel pin, Wright, the Weather Underground? For chrissakes, is this really how we'll decide who the nominee should be?

Father of Chaos Dies


A butterfly somewhere decided it was time for Edward Lorenz to leave us. His influence and work live on.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Vogue: the Race Issue


Vogue's Shape Issue has become the Race Issue. I hadn't heard about this story until this morning when Chicago public radio's 848 broadcast a commentary by Jessica Young about the cover. I immediately wanted to respond to that commentary (I'll get to it), but when I got home and started looking around on the internets I realized that there was a national murmur going on about this Vogue cover. I don't know where, but somewhere in the blogosphere somebody started talking about how the Vogue magazine cover was strikingly similar to the poster for the 1933 film, King Kong.

Granted, I know nothing about sports and even less about fashion, so maybe I'm just ignorant, but I do believe I am fairly media literate and have a broad vocabulary when it comes to images. I have to say - I don't see anything inherently racist about this image. It seems to be a picture of a basketball player doing what basketball players do - look intimidating and powerful while dribbling a ball - paired with an image of a fashion model doing what fashion models do - look glamorous in that unattainably beautiful fashion model way.

On one level, it's just another image saturating my walk through the checkout line. If I personally was to object to anything it'd be the idea that somehow this is what I should want - to be Vogue, to be a superstar, or at least that this is what I should be paying attention to - fame, fortune, glamor - but then that's my quasi-Marxist lens, as limited as the racism-is-everywhere lens.

On another level, and I think because Annie Leibovitz is such a great photographer, it is an image that strikes lots of chords - sexual, emotional, and yes, deep down under all of it, I guess I have to admit, racial. I don't know. As I write this I begin to sigh and let my shoulders fall in resignation to those who would make this image about race. How can it not be about race? It's an image in a line of images connected to a particular place and time, that place and time being America, a country that has been and is racialized and, for much of its history, racist. The image has a genealogy, conscious and unconscious, which perhaps includes the King Kong poster, perhaps it doesn't. Does the image take meaning from the photographer behind the lens or the lens in front of the audience? Clearly both. I know all these things- as a student of literature I have been schooled in and enjoy the art of deconstruction. But something about this debate bothers me, and I'm having trouble pinpointing it. I think the problem is that the conversation participates and legitimizes narratives of victimization and racism in its own peculiar way.

In this narrative, LeBron James is an ignorant black man who has succumb to the larger white culture and allowed himself (and thereby all black men) to be stereotyped as a gorilla, a savage. LeBron James is a victim in this scenario. A victim or a sellout, and the two are interrelated. He is a victim because he has sold out. This I don't buy, for two reasons. First, LeBron James is supposedly famously concerned with his image and he himself has dismissed the hoopla, saying he was just "having fun." Of course, many will respond that he, like a long list of other black men, is not conscious of what his image communicates or has limited capacity to understand the implications of his behavior. And perhaps these people are right: he has been labeled as a man without a social conscience for not signing a letter from the Cavaliers condemning Chinese support of genocide in Darfur. But the more compelling reason to not buy into this narrative is that it is the mirror image of the backhanded (and ultimately racist) comment one can imagine Archie Bunker saying, "He's a credit to his race." The notion that one black person stands in for all black people is as absurd from the perspective of a race-conscious person as it is from the perspective of a racist. LeBron James is LeBron James on this cover, he is not Black Masculinity. Now, the obvious counterargument is that Vogue did in fact make a big deal about the fact that this was the first black man ever (and only the third man) to be on the cover of Vogue. But does that mean that Richard Gere and George Clooney are not merely themselves but White Masculinity or, even more absurd, Masculinity itself? If so, this gets back to my initial critique of the cover which is - why do we grant Vogue the power to tell us who we are or who we should want to be?

Returning to the source of my consternation, Jessica Young's commentary on 848 this morning took another tack. She asserted that what bothered her about the cover is that it was yet another rich famous black man eschewing women of his own race for a beautiful white woman, thereby alienating her, a black woman, because it "venerates a standard of beauty which [she], as a black woman, will never possess." This is, perhaps, the most bizarre response I have come across. First, it seems to suggest that if LeBron James were posed with a black supermodel, this would be a less alienating standard of beauty, as though it is Gisele's skin color that makes her brand of beauty unattainable to the average woman. And this is a "brand of beauty" - it is an image for sale, a perfection out of reach but toward which we are always to strive. Second, this critique appropriates a discourse of anti-miscegenation that can hardly be said to have a positive history in this country.

Perhaps my response is more about the power we grant to commercial images in our society. We, as the consummate consumers, allow simulations to stand in for reality and expect our corporations (and our superstars) to bear the burden of and light the way toward our collective aspirations. As if what is on the cover of Vogue magazine, or any other advertisement, is (or should be) the best of what America should strive for. It is symptomatic of a larger expectation that the market can save us. In the end, the market ends up co-opting and ultimately trivializing even the most serious discussions we as Americans should be having. A call for a conversation on race morphs into a conversation about a basketball player and a supermodel on the cover of a magazine whose sole purpose is to sell more images to us, more superficiality.

I think in the end even this blog post participates in a conversation that is ultimately superficial. The real questions we need to be asking ourselves are not as easily digestable as the images on the cover of Vogue magazine. The images we need to be looking at and discussing are much less glamorous - the faces of poverty and suffering in this country and throughout the world. And the questions of race and class spurred by those images are much less heady, and require much more of us. There are very real problems on the other side of the war photographer's lens, for instance, that require pragmatic thinking and doing. That work is much less comfortable. We must imagine ourselves as an Other who none of us would wish to be. Much easier to indulge in the fantasy that we are LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen and that they are us. Much easier, and much less relevant.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Justice v. Profit

The New York Times ran an article yesterday on cases involving pharmaceutical companies that are making their way through the Federal courts. The drug makers are basically arguing that approval by the FDA pre-empts plaintiffs' rights to sue in state court. Since there is no Federal tort law, this means that individuals injured by drugs will have no recourse against drug makers if they are injured or killed by the drugs they are taking. The fact that these companies are making this argument is apalling enough, but the fact that this argument is succeeding is the real kick in the teeth.

The Supreme Court has become business's best friend. I won't go into all the details, since others have written more articulately on it already (See Supreme Court Inc. in New York Times magazine from a couple weeks ago), but these medical cases seem to highlight the way in which the judiciary has become the third and final branch of our government to be beholden to corporate interests.

The Supreme Court already decided for the makers of medical devices in a similar case in February. (Supreme Court Shields Medical-Device Makers) In that case, a man was severely injured and then killed by a catheter balloon that exploded in his heart, and his estate sued the manufacturer. In an opinion consistent with his wont to increase executive power, Scalia argued that since the catheter underwent FDA approval, the individual had no right to sue under state law. This means if the FDA doesn't go after a manufacturer for misrepresenting (lying about?) their product, as in the case of the birth control patch discussed in yesterday's NYT article, the manufacturer will never be held accountable. So we can expect our drugs and medical devices to be only as safe as the current administration thinks they should be. For example, under Bush we've been given an administration that believes government cannot do a good job at anything and has done its best to practice what it preaches.

People can rage all they want about how litigious we've become and the outrageous awards in plaintiffs' lawsuits, but the truth is the courts are an important tool in curbing individual and corporate malfeasance. Yes, there are a certain number of frivolous lawsuits, but if the Economic Policy Institute (an admittedly center left organization begun by, among others, Robert Reich) is to be believed, tort litigation is not nearly as all-powerful an enemy as Bush, et al. would have us believe. Our form of government relies on a system of checks and balances, a back and forth that, theoretically, arrives at a win-win (or, if you prefer, lose-lose) solution for us, the governed. Increasingly, however, government for the people by the people has become government for the corporations by the corporations. The built in system of checks and balances cannot work when all the players are on one team.

I don't know what the solution is. The Left has all but given up on challenging the inevitability and naturalization of capitalism. Corporations are people too, under the law, so maybe government for the corporations by the corporations is just the winning out of one group's interests over another's. But I think the intimate relationship between power and money is one way in which America, for all its promise, has not gotten out from under the power imbalances of the past. Corporations seem to have no taxation and representation, while the rest of us remain taxed and unrepresented. I acknowledge the hyperbole of that statement, but the dominance of corporate interests over those of the average citizen is problematic for democracy and we the (real) people seem to be losing ground every day.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Why Hillary should not bow out.

I am going to do something that very few people admit to. I am going to change my mind. Watch out - here it comes!

Maureen Dowd suggested in her column yesterday that Hillary's continued presence in the race makes Obama a stronger general election candidate because he gets to sharpen his teeth on her. Although I think Dowd does participate in the sexism everyone accuses the media of in her column (casting Hillary as a woman "worried about her fleeting youth and the fickleness of men"), I think she may have a point. And it helped me to clarify something I have already been thinking - that Hillary should definitely not bow out of this race.

In my March 9 post I suggested that Hillary's remaining in this race will weaken Obama's candidacy because she is doing McCain's job for him. This is the opposite of what Dowd has said, and as I said, she may be right. (that's a piece of the change of mind I spoke of earlier) But there is an even more important way in which Hillary's remaining in the race will strengthen Obama's campaign - it allows all the people in all the states to have their say about who the nominee will be. And at the end of the day, if Obama has received more pledged delegates and has won the popular vote, there is little to recommend the superdelegates support Hillary as the nominee. And after a few weeks of moaning, hopefully a majority of Hillary supporters would come together with Obama's supporters as Democrats to defeat McCain in the general election. This is the only democratic way to do things. Those who are calling for her to leave the race now are misguided - if the Hillary supporters in the remaining states don't even have the chance to cast their miracle-begging votes, they will feel disenfranchised and may abandon Obama in November, something we cannot risk. So while I roll my eyes every time I hear Hillary proclaim that she is staying in this race to protect the sanctity of democracy, the truth is her remaining in the race until all the states have had their primaries will, I beleive, strengthen an eventual Obama candidacy by virtue of that candidacy being arrived at democratically.

However, I think Howard Dean's call for the race to be decided by July 1 is the proper course. At that point, I think all superdelegates should feel obliged to support whichever candidate has the most pledged delegates and the greatest popular vote. To continue bickering about whether Obama should be the candidate into August is just a waste of time and money, and if Hillary were to receive the nomination via a brokered convention, God help the Democratic party. And maybe he would - after all, miracles do happen, or so I'm told.