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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, May 31, 2004

Our Grandfathers

Fighting the primal male urge to skip
stones out along the water,
he might say, "This is where
I landed," or, "This is where
my friend died."

Or amid the bustle of that South Pacific
cruise ship, he might cock his head
a little and say, "We heard
the plane coming in before
any of us saw it."

Or with a EruoRail pass clutched in one hand
and a large-print mystery in the other,
he might say, "It took us months
to get this far," about the swift-moving
countryside. "Months."

Or standing awkwardly by the flag,
back bent and knees newer
than the rest of him, he might
shift that rumpled hat from hand
to hand, remembering.

Memorial Day, 2004

Sunday, May 30, 2004

I am MTEA

The Political State Report is, theoretically, non-partisan--it's just supposed to update people on the political haps in every state. Yet the PSR relies on volunteers to file reports. Wisconsin's only PSR correspondent right now is Owen, who runs the incredibly partisan Republican Boots and Sabers blog.

In other words, every single piece of Wisconsin news on Political State Report comes with Republican-colored commentary. Take this piece on TABOR: Owen quotes wholesale from an opinion piece by Frank Lasee--the guy who wrote the damn bill!--and then concludes with "I don't see anything in here that looks unreasonable." (For contrast, see my own take on TABOR here.)

Or this piece on a senate race poll that shows Russ (Everyone's Favorite Senator™) Feingold up by 22% over an opponent. Twenty-two percent! Russ has never won a senate race by more than 5%, and he's up by 22%! Yay, Russ, right? No. Owen says, "Of course, he shouldn't get too happy. Polls this early on are almost meaningless--especially for a Senatorial campaign."

What am I saying? Well, two things: One, somebody, perhaps one of my three or four faithful Wisconsin readers, really ought to head over to PSR and sign up as a Wisconsin correspondent just for some balance (Scott, maybe? I just don't have time myself). And two, I've been keeping an eye on Boots and Sabers for a while now, just to know thy local enemy, if you know what I mean.

Last week the state's standardized test scores were released. It's the sort of thing I notice, being a public school teacher and all. Owen noticed, too. He cited our oh-so-sympathetic-to-the-public-schools local paper's alarmist graphic showing exactly how poor Milwaukee's students do in reading. Now, I am a high school English teacher, and I know that when these kids get to me as sophomores--the year they are tested--many can't read at better than a eighth- or fifth-grade level. And I do my best with them to get them closer to where they ought to be. Now is not the time for me to run the litany of why Milwaukee kids do as poorly as they do on these tests, but believe me--I can go on hours.

Anyway, back to Owen: After the alarming graphic, he adds his only comment: "The next time WEAC tells you what a great job their membership is doing and demands more compensation, pull this story out of your pocket."

Quick quiz: If you're disturbed that the children in your city--in particular, the minority children--don't read at grade level, what do you do?
A. Try to identify causes of the deficiency
B. Encourage your audience to volunteer at their neighborhood schools
C. Apply for a teaching position because you know you can do a better job
D. Blame the teachers' union
Duh, blame the union, of course--if you're a Republican. (I wrote about that tendency last year.) In fact, blaming the union--any union--is a safe bet for any problem, if you're a Republican.

So I left Owen a comment, ending with this: "Yes, I say we--I am an MPS teacher, a high school English teacher in fact.  I won’t bother to get into why Milwaukee scores are low, since I doubt, Owen, it will change your opinion of me." Owen's response blew me away, though. I've had a hard time, over the last several days, trying to figure out how to respond, or even if a should. No, it was not some bile-filled, expletive-laced harrangue. It was this:
I don’t have a problem with teachers.  I think that the vast majority of them are good, honest, hard-working, dedicated people.  I’m the son of a teacher and have spent my fair share of time “behind the scenes” in schools.  What I have a problem with is the Union which puts the needs of the union and the educracy above the needs of the kids.
Can he be serious? He doesn't have a problem with teachers?

One of the things that drives me most nuts about being a teacher, and being a teacher heavily involved in my union, is the way people don't connect the union with the people it represents. If I could get one thing across to the general public--and even to some teachers I work with!--is that I am the union! If you don't have a problem with teachers, how can you have a problem with our union? On the other hand, if you have a problem with my union, how can you claim not to have a problem with me? I am the MTEA. I am WEAC. Period.

I'm not sure where the myth comes from that teachers' unions are somehow responsible for the problems in schools. I suspect two things. One, I think, is the idea that the union somehow protects all those horrible child-abusing, chain-smoking, slack-off bad teachers who should be fired. I have to say, of all the bad teachers I have known, it isn't the union protecting them. It's inertia, irresponsible principals, district bureaucracy--not the union.

Two, I think, is exemplified by this letter from Friday's paper. Now, the letter-writer's ire is directed at the school board, but the major burr under the writer's saddle here is benefits, which people tend to blame on the unions:
[The school board's] disdain toward taxpayers becomes obvious--especially with their attitude of lavishing Milwaukee Public Schools employees with benefits that begin to border on obscene when compared with those of employees in the private sector. The board rejected cuts in fringe benefits for part-time workers who now receive a full package of fringe benefits including health care.

While no one protests reasonable benefits, an institutional mind-set of MPS suggests employees are entitled to premium packages regardless of cost. Today, private-sector employees and retirees are experiencing benefit reduction or elimination as well as having to increasingly contribute toward any benefits they receive. The School Board displays total disregard for those private-sector taxpayers who are losing benefits yet are required to pay higher taxes so MPS employees can enjoy premium benefits.
Again, point missed here. What's obscene is not my benefits, it's the fact that other people don't have benefits like I do. National (and even local) teachers' unions are among the leaders in trying to change health care policy so that benefits like mine are not "obscene," but rather the norm.

Beyond that, let me remind everyone that the single most significant factor in student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. The benefits I get? They're all I have. I make half as much in salary, if that, as a comparable Master's degree holder in the private sector with my experience. If I want to move significantly on the pay scale, I have to fork over almost as much to pay for continuing ed. classes. I have to deal with adolescents. All day. Owen's right that I'm a "good, honest, hard-working, dedicated" teacher. And one of the single most important reasons I stay is that I have a union that will protect me and keeps my compensation package such that I can afford to be a teacher.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Something you don't see every day

Crime in Milwaukee hits 23-year low in '03

Wanna see it in a picture?


Personally, I'd like to credit Democratic leadership in the statehouse. That and great schools. Okay, really, it's all me.

What's curious is that the drop in crime has corresponded with some utter crap in the economy; typically it's the other way around. Of course, in the article, anyone who could reasonably claim any responsibility is, from the disgraced ex-police chief to the new police chief to the county executive. I especially like the exec's line here:
Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, a former Republican legislator from Wauwatosa who supported Wisconsin's truth-in-sentencing law in 1998, said that measure is a strong reason why crime is down.

"Your more serious criminals are still in prison, they are not on the street," Walker said. "It isn't the only reason, but it is one of the reasons why the rate is going down."
Sounds good, eh? Keep those criminals behind bars and the rate of crime drops like, um, dropping things.

What's the problem? Mostly, this: Wisconsin incarcerates its African American citizens at an alarmingly disparate rate. By some measures, Wisconsin has the highest rate of black prisoners in jail. By other measures, it's just a lot.

Here's yet another picture:


No matter how you slice it, this is a disturbing thing to consider, and it's exactly along the lines of what Walker has been doing all along: He's building a distinct mistrust between the mostly white suburban Milwaukee County residents and the mostly black City of Milwaukee residents. His entire administration has been all about how to keep taxes low and services lean for the (black) city residents who most need it so that the white folks who vote for him will turn out in 2006 to vote for him for governor. That's right, boys and girls: Vote for Walker and those scary black people won't bother you any more.

Grumble.

You're keeping your fingers crossed, right?

Probably not, actually, since I forgot to tell you. But yesterday I put in my R-E-S-U-M-E for a J-O-B with a C-A-N-D-D C-A-N-D-I-A screw it. Just keep your fingers crossed.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Happy Birthday Dear Folkbum

It's been a year. And, coincidentally or not, I've been honored today as the Political Site of the Day over at About Politics. (Yay, me!)

Blogger tells me I have published well over 90,000 words in the last year, and that's just here. If you count what I've written elsewhere, it's probably twice that or more. No wonder I'm tired.

GoStats has eaten my stats twice, so my best guess for visitors in the last year is probably around 20,000. Haloscan won't tell me how many comments there have been from those 20,000 hits, since I won't shell out the $12 for the upgrade, but I'm averaging about 50 a month now. Figuring it was less than that at the start, I may have had around 500 comments.

For kicks, I reprint my very first post, from one year ago today:
(In)Auspicious Beginnings

Well, here's my blog. It only gets less interesting from here. Read on if you must. But first, go show your support for Howard Dean by signing up for the upcoming Meetup.

By the way, posts will focus on politics and my music with whatever else pops into my head.

Oh, this is dangerous. I may never do real work again!
And it's been all downhill from there.

And, hey, does anyone else think that there's a kind of irony for me, as a blogger, in knowing that the first anniversary gift is paper?

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Russ Reminder

Russ's ad will only be up for a few more days. I know some of you might be thinking about what you can get me for my first blogiversary (which is Friday this week!), and I would like nothing better than for you to chip in a little bit to help keep Wisconsin Feingold Country. Click on the ad and give!

Failing that, $51 for 51 over at the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee can't hurt! I've set a very achievable goal of just $500. Contribute here.

(By the way, when Russ's ad goes away, that space can be yours pretty cheap . . )

</shill>

A hopeful sign?

So today I'm driving home--well, really, I'm stuck in traffic on my way home--and in the lane next to me is a very pro-gun truck. "It's a right, not a privilege," "A man with a gun is a citezen; a man without a gun is a subject," that sort of thing on the bumper stidckers. There was also a "Protect gun rights" sticker, which I noticed was pasted over the top of another sticker. The first sticker was your standard long, skinny one, but the one underneath it was square enough that some of it stuck out and was visible. I recognized it as one of those 2000-era "Sportsmen for Bush" stickers. That's right--this gun nut has covered up the Bush sticker on his truck.

Not that an NRA die-hard will vote for Kerry without serious, serious prodding, but one less vote for Bush is one less vote for Bush. Yay.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

250

This is post number 250. I was thinking of doing something special, but I'll save that for my blogiversary on Friday. That's right--I'm turning one.

Plan? What plan?

Two things prompt this essay: First, last night in his speech, the Whopper™ said this: "Our commanders had estimated that a troop level below 115,000 would be sufficient at this point in the conflict. Given the recent increase in violence, we will maintain our troop level at the current 138,000 as long as necessary."

For a while I had stopped calling him the Whopper™, but if he's going to keep lying, he's got to expect it to come back. I'll explain in a minute.

The second thing is a comment thread over at Rosemary's (she's the Iron Blogger Republican) where I mentioned that it seemed like there was no real plan for Iraq. I stand by that assertion, though the conservatives frequenting her place seem to doubt me.

Anyway, here's my second attempt at blogging about the war in the last few weeks, though it is not now nor has it ever been a primary focus of mine. Sigh.

So why is the Whopper™'s statement a lie? And what are they saying at Rosemary's that relates? I tossed off a statement over there that the Whopper™ was finally getting around, in his speech last night, to laying out his strategy for Iraq--thirteen months late. The rejoinder? "It is naive to believe there wasn't a plan."

I'm not being naive, and I don't think it's unreasonable to expect some concrete statement on the part of our Commander in Chief about what the hell it is, exactly, that we've been doing and what's coming next. We're supposed to be handing over authority to someone, somehow, in five weeks, and we'll even leave ourselves, despite the Whopper™'s commitment to stay, if they ask us to.

But I do not think it is naivete to suggest that the planning for this occupation, what little there was, was not only spotty but absolutely misguided.

Anyone remember Eric Shinseki? Maybe you remember him as General Shinseki. He is the former member of the Joint Chiefs of staff who, back in February 2003, explained to Congress that we would need 300,000 troops to occupy Iraq:
Iraq is "a piece of geography that's fairly significant," Gen. Eric K. Shinseki said at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And he said any postwar occupying force would have to be big enough to maintain safety in a country with "ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems."

In response to questioning by Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the committee, Shinseki said he couldn't give specific numbers of the size of an occupation force but would rely on the recommendations of commanders in the region.

"How about a range?" said Levin.

"I would say that what's been mobilized to this point, something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers," the general said. "Assistance from friends and allies would be helpful."
That's right: When the Whopper™ says our commanders expected to have 115,000 troops to occupy Iraq, he's lying.

Unless Shinseki doesn't count. See, Shinseki was, er, relieved of command after he dared imply that Rummy's and Perle's and Wolfowitz's and Feith's estimates of half his number were wrong. Army Secretary Thomas White got the boot for the same reason. We should probably have had more troops for the beginning--and even now--but the administration's insistence that it knew what it was doing with so few troops has made it hard for commanders to ask for what they need.

And it wasn't just two squeaky wheels, either. Try this on for size:
Four years ago, those who devised an Iraq war game called "Desert Crossing" concluded that a large force would be needed to subdue the country. "We were concerned about the ability to get in there right away, to flood the towns and villages," says retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and the surrounding region when he supervised "Desert Crossing." "We knew the initial problem would be security."

The 1999 exercise recommended a force of 400,000 troops to invade and stabilize Iraq. But at the insistence of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, ground forces in the March invasion were held to less than half that: about 130,000 U.S. combat troops and some 30,000 British troops.
In other words, LIAR! (Read that whole story--it's really depressing how our lack of troops is but one reason why the occupation is sucking.)

Over at Rosemary's, I joked that there was a plan (familiar to those of you who know the Underpants Gnomes:
1. Utterly destroy an enemy we vastly outnumber
2. ?????????
3. Leave a stable, democratic Iraq on June 30
Was there really a step two? It depends on who you ask. There was a good sense last summer that, according to the damning headline here, the "Pentagon had no plans for post-war Iraq." "The officials didn't develop any real postwar plans because they believed that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops with open arms and Washington could install a favored Iraqi exile leader [the now-disfavored Chalabi] as the country's leader," says the story.

Last fall, word was that there was no planning for the occupation because, well, we wouldn't want to presume.
Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when asked about the subject in Nov. 5 hearings before the House Armed Services Committee, replied as follows: "We did not want to be planning for a postwar in Iraq before we were sure we were going to war in Iraq. We did not want to have planning for the postwar make the war inevitable."
So was there no planning? Well, it sounds like a handful of undersecretaries of things had made some plans, including keep US troops in country forever and a day, but they sound like pie in the sky, now:
Neither Mr Feith nor Mr Grossman would put a cost on the occupation.

The US, they made clear, is depending on Iraq's oil revenue to fund the administration of Iraq and its reconstruction. [. . .]

General Franks, Mr Grossman said, would be relying on the current technocrats in Baghdad to keep running crucial services such as health, education, water and electricity supplies. The US is hoping these people, who are from the Sunni minority that has ruled Iraq for decades under Saddam, will not abandon their posts. The concern is that if they fear retribution they may flee to Jordan or Syria.

Mr Grossman also made it clear that the exiled Iraqi opposition leaders now in northern Iraq would not be installed by the US military government and would probably be forced to take a back seat in the immediate aftermath of the war.
Did you catch that? Among other things, before the invasion the administration was telling us that there were no plans to install Chalabi. Afterwards, they admit that was the plan all along: Flowers, Chalabi, Handover.

At any rate, it's been clear for a long time that if there were a step two, it was inadequate, based on bad intelligence (mostly from Chalabi and his INC), and more faith-based than reality based. That's why things really do not seem so accomplished a year after that stupid aircraft carrier stunt:
[T]he reconstruction period in Iraq has been much more difficult than the White House predicted in the wake of last year's initial push into the country. The ease of the initial military thrust may have been deceptive. To trap the US with a draining insurgency might have been the old regime's strategy all along. In any case, the US underestimated the devastation, both physical and mental, that Mr. Hussein would leave in his wake.

"More could have been done in the pre-war planning for postwar operations," said retired Army Gen. John Keane, who was vice chief of staff of the Army until last fall, in a recent congressional appearance.

General Keane said that he had not predicted how passive Iraq's people would be after 35 years of political repression, and how that would make them skeptical of all authority and wary of the Americans' insistence that they were liberators.

That sentiment is echoed by Mario Mancuso, a former Special Operations commander who spent close to a year in Iraq, including five months around Najaf. "I found a brutalized, traumatized, and paranoid people by and large," he says.

The US knew Iraqis as a whole were educated and industrious - the Germans of the Middle East, in an old Western stereotype. What they hadn't counted on was how much they had been beaten down, and how they would have to try and coax locals out of a battened-down survival mode. "We likely overstated how much they could help us," says Mancuso.
General Zinni is all over this now, with his new book a-coming:
Zinni says he blames the Pentagon for what happened. “I blame the civilian leadership of the Pentagon directly. Because if they were given the responsibility, and if this was their war, and by everything that I understand, they promoted it and pushed it - certain elements in there certainly - even to the point of creating their own intelligence to match their needs, then they should bear the responsibility,” he says.

“But regardless of whose responsibility I think it is, somebody has screwed up. And at this level and at this stage, it should be evident to everybody that they've screwed up. And whose heads are rolling on this? That's what bothers me most.”

Adds Zinni: “If you charge me with the responsibility of taking this nation to war, if you charge me with implementing that policy with creating the strategy which convinces me to go to war, and I fail you, then I ought to go.”

Who specifically is he talking about?

“Well, it starts with at the top. If you're the secretary of defense and you're responsible for that. If you're responsible for that planning and that execution on the ground. If you've assumed responsibility for the other elements, non-military, non-security, political, economic, social and everything else, then you bear responsibility,” says Zinni. “Certainly those in your ranks that foisted this strategy on us that is flawed. Certainly they ought to be gone and replaced.”
But no one's getting fired, except scapegoats on the ground in Iraq--Jay Garner, for example. Or, just this week, General Sanchez. None of the people who systematically ignore the recommendations of people who know what they're talking about. More likely it's the people who know--like Shinseki, White, and others--who get fired instead.

So was there a plan? Yeah, I guess. If you can call it that.

[UPDATE: For more on the speech last night, including more outright lies, see Mustang Bobby.]

Monday, May 24, 2004

And STAY Out!

Jackemoe over at dKos points us to some good news, for a change, in the WorldNetDaily. It seems that a group of fundamentalists is looking to take over a state and secede from the union:
Christianexodus.org has been established to coordinate the move of 50,000 or more Christians to a single conservative state in the U.S. for the express purpose of reestablishing constitutional governance.  It is evident that our Constitution has been abandoned under our current federal system.  The efforts of Christian activism have proven futile over the past five decades and, whereas desperate times require desperate measures, we are now in the most desperate of times.  The federal government is considering whether marriage, the foundation of civilization since Creation, should be reserved solely to a man and a woman.  Christians must now draw a line in the sand and unite in a sovereign state to dissolve our bond with the current union comprised as the United States of America.

The success of ChristianExodus.org will lead to an independent Christian nation where people may once again worship God under the protection of a friendly government.  In addition, such a nation will be free of burdensome taxation and federal meddling in local affairs.  Matter of factly, the liberties we have lost to liberalism over the past century will be restored in one fell swoop.
First of all, how can you not like an idea that so well uses "one fell swoop"? Trouble is, I think their website might be a bit behind in its updating. While the website is undecided about where they're headed, the WorldNetDaily article indictes that
after originally considering Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina due to their relatively small populations, coastal access, and the Christian nature of the electorate, [the group] says South Carolina has been selected as the target location.

The plan initially calls for at least 12,000 Christians [down from 50,000 on the website]willing to be active in political campaigns to move to the Palmetto State. [. . .] If all goes according to plan, Burnell is hoping to have a constitutional convention by 2014, with a president of the new nation – still to be known as South Carolina – elected in 2016, which is also a presidential election year in the U.S.
We'll all hate to lose Mertyl Beach, of course, but there are some serious advantages to this we have to consider in sacrificing South Carolina to the fundies. For example, there would be fewer of them around here. And wherever it is you are. And maybe the White House.

Yes, there is a certain A Handmaid's Tale kind of nightmarishness to it, but if we can have time to evacuate the good people of South Carolina who aren't interested in being citizens of Fundistan, then it just may work out.

I would join myself, but I'm afraid of the spam I'd get.

The Pen is &c.

Obietom points us to this letter published in a small-town paper recently:
This letter should serve as a notice to all letter writers, editorial writers and anyone else prone to public comment about President Bush. Referring to him as an "idiot," "imbecile" or such derogatory terms may result in your imprisonment for a total of 20 years--five years for libel and 15 years for disclosure of classified information.

DAVID A. BULTENA

Merced
Maybe you, too, should sign up as a GOP "Team Leader" so you can use their "Action Center" to get letters printed in your own hometown newspapers.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

The Folkbum Endorsement:
Russ Feingold for U.S. Senate


Yes, yes, I know there seems to be a pattern: Somebody buys a Blogad on my site and, suddenly, they get a nice long endorsement post. It's not quite that easy.

At first blush, a Feingold endorsement seems like a no-brainer. Hell, second and third blushes, too. But this is important: Russ has never been a big winner in his Senate contests, and this year promises to be no different.

One of the most bizarre things about this election season is that the Republicans seem to be recruiting self-financing candidates all over the country, people like Pete Coors in Colorado and Russ Darrow and Tim Michels here in Wisconsin. Some of it could have to do with some very wise RSCC people figuring out that the Whopper™ would have an incredible burn rate and would have to keep all his fundraising to himself.

This is a real danger, as Feingold believes in the kind of campaign financing that his eponymous bill requires. In fact, last time around, he had even stricter controls on his financing and spending. As a result, the race was startlingly close: Russ only pulled in 50.5% against fundie Mark Neumann. Even in his first race, back in 1992, he only pulled in less than 53%. And this in a state where Democrat Herb Kohl wins with better than 60% every time.

Here's what I like about Russ:
• He used to teach at the college I went to. Unfortunately, I started in 1992, after Russ had moved on to politics.
• He has never been afraid to take unpopular stands.
• He won his first Senate campaign by painting his campaign platform on his garage. (You can see vintage Feingold ads at his website!)
• And, in what may be his most daring vote, Russ was the one in the 99-1 vote for the USA PATRIOT Act. It is that vote that the Republican candidates seem to be hinging their campaigns on. Get this--they are calling him a coward. I mean, how can being the one in a 99-1 vote be the cowardly thing to do?

Russ Feingold is probably the blogosphere's favorite senator. Sadly, the blogosphere isn't voting here. (Well, I am. And Stacie. And Scott. But that's about it.) You can help, though. Take a moment to click through the ad on your right. You don't have to contribute--it would be nice, yes--but sign up on his email list. Check out the shirt that will make you erstwhile Deanies smile. Join the Russ Meetup, and meetup with Russ fans in your town. For god's sake, don't just sit there. Russ stands up for us--it's time to stand up for him.

WEEEEEEEEEE are the CHAMPions My FRI-ENDS

The verdict is in. Somebody defeated his challenger.

(Um, can anyone help me fit my swollen head through the door?)

Monday, May 17, 2004

The Battle is Joined

And according to the IB Republican (whom I am not debating) in the comments to my opening post at the Iron Blog, my argument is "weak." And this despite the fact that she supports the same position I do. Well, pthtptptp!

I think I argue effectively against the FMA, and the Challenger's arguments for it are thin, and based on information gleaned from the Heritage Foundation (motto: "Rigging data for conservitive causes since Watergate!") and Howard Kurtz.

Anyway, I'm not allowed to play in the comments section, so anyone who wants to chip in . . . What are you waiting for? Go!

Sunday, May 16, 2004

That whole "identity politics" thing was just the warm-up

This week it's for real. I have my first Iron Blog contest: Battle Gay Marriage.

I'm up against the ususpecting Jimmie Bise, Jr. of the Suburban Sundries Shack. (Makes me wonder if I should change the name of this blog to "Inner City Crack House.") If you've been here a while you know that I've weighed in on this before. Since tomorrow is W Day in Massachesetts, the issue is prominently in the news again.

And, let me just go on record as saying that in the three months since gays and lesbians have been married in this country (San Francisco started the trend back around Valentine's Day), my marriage is as strong as ever. At least, as far as I know.

So, anyway, blogging may be light around here because of that, work, and the tickets for this week's Patty Griffin show . . .

Friday, May 14, 2004

Or, I could have just said this:

This never gets any better. Sorry, Joe: you're wrong on this issue. In your "good, honest liberal" mode, you intend to show everyone how un-racist you can be by declaring that "Race DOESN'T matter." However, here's the little secret:

It does and it doesn't.

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter. Race doesn't determine intelligence, ability, health, wealth, status, size, or imagination. In a vacuum.

However, we do NOT live in a vacuum. Your ideas are purely academic in a practical world. Race DOES matter since it the founders of our social institutions made it matter. We HAVE to consider it as a factor--not to decide "who's better" but to figure out "what's really going on".

To declare that anyone with who declares a racial identity is bad... well, that's just foolish. Racial identity is, in my opinion, like race itself: neither good NOR bad. It's what you do with such concepts that matter. If you take the concept of racial identity and turn it against others in a feeling of superiority and then act on that, that is bad. But, if you take pride in your identity, racial or otherwise, and you do NOT use it to turn it against others... where's the problem?


--Grubi, who has his own blog, in a part of those identity discussions at OSP, demonstrating a brevity I seem to lack.

For the interested, this discussion is buzzing all over: Lots of OSPers have been talking. Obviously, Earl is, with two separate posts. Blunted on Reality hits it, too. And then there's all the suff I wrote.


You can find this mentioned at Nightcrawler, Sliver Rights, and S-Train. David at In Search of Utopia also has two different posts about it. Mac Diva discusses it at BlogCritics. It even a tangential mention from Uppity Negro in a post about Stephen Biko. My favorite is from Cobb, just one line with the title "Joe Steps in It." There's probably more, too.

A few hundred more words on Identity Politics
(mostly not mine, though)

This is it. I promise. Nothing more except in comments. Period.

Earlier this week I mentioned Todd Gitlin's The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars as a book that transformed how I look at identity politics. I didn't have the text in front of me at the time, so I did not pull out the relevant quotes. Today I have it, though.

What I remembered, almost word for word, was this:
From "the personal is political" it was an easy glide to "only the personal is really political"--that is, only what I and people like me experience ought to be the object of my interest. (152)
I was ready, at the moment I read that sentence, to hear it. It resounded with me, like this exhortation later in the book:
If there is not to be irresolvable conflict, then people have to agree to limit the severity of their differences [. . .]. They have to share a frmaework in which differences exist amid what does not differ [. . .]. If the value of thought were determined in a one-to-one fashion by the identity group, then there would be no way to adjudicate disputes but to cede--or secede. Not only would differences within the group be impossible, so would change. (209)
To paraphrase someone else, I was tired of being divided by identity politics. Can't we all, I wondered, be The Left again? This is especially true considering that I was thinking, and had it affirmed repeatedly by Gitlin, that the left (i.e., Democrats) had been so completely identified as being the party of special interests--we followed the "homosexual agenda" or we were powerless to stand up to "tree-hugging wierdos." At the same time, the right (i.e., Republicans) had become identified as the party that represented a uinified America. Hence the defection of so many blue-collar workers to Reagan; hence the votes against their own economic interests by Howard Dean's Confederate Flag wavers. All that talk about "the good old days" and restoring America to how it had been--in other words, removing those unwanted questions of white and male privilege--resonated with those afraid, consciously or not, of losing that privilege. Remember Michael Douglas in Crazy White Man Falling Down?
Business Week devoted a cover story to the complaints of white males who feel passed over in business. (The magazine has never run a cover story on job discrimination against blacks, women, Hispanics, or homosexuals.) (121)
Republicans were sure that identity politics would tear the country apart--unironically, of course:
Group self-enclosure was apparently acceptable when it was arranged by fraternities, sororities, and exclusive clubs, but in the hands of blacks and other minorities it is suddenly all the rage to denounce balkanization. The term was trundled out by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), never known for courageous fights against racial segregation in housing, schools, or hiring, when, in 1993, he denounced President Clinton's Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier as "an architect of a theory of racial preference that if enacted would push America down the road of racial balkanization. (154)
One thing I like about Gitlin's book, though, is that he gives us the identity politics history.
Politics in a multiracial society is alliance-making, and the work of alliance-making is not accomplished by adding up numbers. There is nothing automatic about it. (114)
The spirit of the New Left [in the 1960s] released long dammed-up forces of revolt. Subordination [. . .] became the basis for a liberationist sequence: first, the discovery of common experience and interest; next, an uprising against a society that had imposed inferior status; finally, the inversion of that status, so that distinct qualities once pointed to as as proof of inferiority were transvalued into the basis for positive distinction. It is only this third stage--where the group searches for and cultivates distinctive customs, qualities, lineages, ways of seeing, or, as they came to be known, "cultures"--that deserves to be called identity politics. (141)
There's a danger in that, he says, that we'll never get beyond helping only ourselves.

This whole mess started with an ill-considered post at Open Source Politics, and in that post and the discussion that followed, the writer could not fathom why anyone would need to build a racial identity. The unspoken end to that statement: a racial identity distinct from the default. As I discussed below, and in those threads, whiteness is that default, and I think we can all understand that non-whites may take umbrage at being asked to assume that default, or, as the writer literally said, that their non-whiteness "can and should be masked on the internet." It is only through an inversion of inferior status, achieved by celebrating the "culture," that we can begin to reach equality. Note: The privileged group has to recognize this also, that those "cultures" are worth equality. That's the idea behind multiculturalism, buzzword though it may be:
Serious multiculturalism is not a children's party where party favors are passed out to everyone to "celebrate" his or her "contribution"; it is reintegration into superior syntheses. (145)
Speaking of history--well, I was!--Gitlin acknowledges the importance of considering history when thinking about racial identity, or identity in general:
Identity does more than exclude. It transcends the self, affirms a connection with others. [. . .] Identity expands through space, binding a person to fellow travelers in the human project. But identity also extends through time, linking the individual with past and future, extending beyond the mortal body. (127)
Later, he writes:
All thought begins with person, and all persons are situated--in times, places, societies, cultures. That is to say, all thought begins within boundaries. [. . .] We consider the itemizing of "context" a necessary part of the full understanding of human beings. (203-4)
Now, my biggest problem, almost a decade removed from the epiphany the book wrought, is that Gitlin's a white guy. There is very little call among non-whites for the kind of setting-differences-aside work that has to be done to achieve real change. Gitlin one last time:
Advocates of identity politics will insist that the issue is not simply the leusiveness of categories or the American tradition of self-naming, but oppression and persecution. [. . .] But what follows from the categories once they are imposed? Identity is no guide to accuracy, to good judgment or political strategy. [. . .] Today's popular line of argument to the effect that people can only comprehend people like themselves does not convince. (208)
I invoked Howard Dean earlier, another white guy, making much the same argument--only, of course, blaming the divide on Republican policy. Either way, this is a discussion worth having this year, another year with the threat of defection by Democratic constituencies (cough-Nader-cough). In the end, I have to agree with many of the others who've said that this discussion, started badly, has been satisfying.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

For Joe: More on Racial Identity and White Privilege

The discussion of Joe's essay over at OSP has been, well, interesting to say the least. My biggest concern throughout has been, to Joe's great dismay, not the neat Philosophy 101 arguments he prides himself in crafting. To paraphrase:
The Posse Comitatus believes in Racial Identity.
The Posse Comitatuts is a racist organization.
Earl/ Prometheus 6 has a strong black identity.
Therefore, Earl is a racist, too.
It's a nice little piece of inductive reasoning, but so simplifies the complex fabric that is racial identity that in the process of pissing of Earl, Joe has given me what I live for: a Teachable Moment.

Yes, for those of you who don't know or haven't been paying attention, I teach high school. I teach in Milwaukee, Wisconsin's largest urban center, and the city with the only significant minority population. My school is very much majority-minority; my classes feature few if any white faces--even the upper-level, college-bound senior classes.

I, on the other hand, am white. I'm like the whitest guy I know. I'm so white, I've been known to bid on folk-music concert tickets during the public TV fundraising auction. You just can't get any whiter than that.

I was raised and educated, however, in an integrated suburban school district outside of Cincinnati. I was in those upper-level, college-bound classes at my own high school, with a handful of black and Asian students along with us white kids. However, (cliche alert!!!) my best friend was black. I was on the forensics team and chess team with kids who were not white. Even the theatre group had non-white students.

Hold up, you might be thinking by now. This is about you and Joe, you want to say. What's up with the autobiography?

Good question, even if you weren't thinking it: What's up with the autobiography is that to have any discussion of race or identity, you've got to be clear about where you come from, what your biases are. If everything's not on the table, the discussion will be dishonest, hollow. You need to know where I've been to know why this is such an important conversation to be having with Joe.

See, in high school, I was oblivious to the true nature of my identity, and of the identity the black and Asian students I knew had constructed for themselves. Well, maybe I shouldn't say the nature of my identity; perhaps origin is a better word for it. At some point in the comments section to Joe's original essay, I cited Socrates' notion that the unexamined life is not worth living. I don't know about you, but I, for one, had never even considered examining my life by the time I was 18.

College brought the first inklings that perhaps my life needed examining. A seminal moment came my first year when, spurred by an alarming amount sexual assault and the college's reticence to deal with it, women on campus organized a speak-out. (amarettiXL, in the comments to Joe's essay, provides a solitary example of that kind of thing.) The whole campus, virtually, turned out to listen as a group of women read other women's stories of having been sexually assaulted on campus. The microphones opened, then, and other women could tell their own stories, including my friends. It was one of the single most powerful events I've ever witnessed: In terms of how much it created upheaval in my own psyche, I'd rate it up there with watching CNN on the morning of 9/11. (Note: I am not trying to deny or denigrate the power of 9/11 for anyone--this is just my own personal history here.)

There is no way to put in words the feeling of having your worldview rocked so completely as mine was that night. All of the questions I had never asked--had never thought to ask--about being male were suddenly staring me in the face, demanding answers. For the first time I realized that I was, in fact, accountable for trying to answer those questions.

I was left horribly, horribly uncomfortable, and horribly, horribly numb. That's a good thing. Change is not--should not be--comfortable. Ever.

My college, despite a strong feminist/ activist faction, was sorely lacking in racial diversity. The city the school was located in diverse, though not majority-minority, like Milwaukee. The campus I was on, though, was overwhelmingly white, even moreso among the faculty. So I never really had to deal with questions of race as much as I did questions of gender while there.

But I have found myself, in my professional life since college, constantly confronted by race. It is not uncommon for me to find myself the only white person in a room. While the banality of such situations--now, at least--does not bring on the shock of upset that I felt the night of the speak-out, I have had to continually re-assess my own sense of self, how I react to those around me, and my overall understanding of how identity--particularly white identity--is constructed.

So I read things. I take classes. I listen. I try to learn. As I said to Joe in that long comments thread, I am not the same person I was at ten, and I am not the same person I will be at fifty, and it's not just because my age will change.

A few summers back I had the opportunity to participate in the PEOPLE program at the UW-Madison. It's a summer enrichment program for college-bound kids geared specifically at minority students from urban centers like Milwaukee, Racine, and Beloit. Teachers from those school districts are teamed up with UW education students, and they teach writing and science seminars to kids from those districts.

The teachers also got the chance to take a three-credit graduate seminar for free. Plus we got paid. It was a sweet deal all around, really. But that's not the point.

The point is that the seminar instructor, Mary Curran (now at Rutgers), a grad student wrapping up her PhD at UW, took her job seriously, and the title of the class, too. It was "Teaching Writing to the Urban Adolescent," or something close to that. And so the group of us teachers, mostly white, mostly young, had quite a remarkable conversion experience.

It was then (and now we finally get to the relevant stuff!) that I first really, really, really examined what it means to be white in America, to consider withe privilege. Some of what I read then I think bears repeating:
Notice that I have been able to say all of the above [a short description of her life to this point] without mentioning race, whether as a defining feature, as impediment, or as benefit. And that, in fact, is part of the trick of whiteness, in this historical moment and in those parts of the world wherein I have been white. [. . . R]ace pivilege is the (non)experience of not being slapped in the face. [. . . F]or us, whiteness is "a privilege enjoyed but not acknowledged, a reality lived in but unknown.
That's from Ruth Frankenberg's opening essay, "When We are Capable of Stopping, We Begin to See," in the book Names We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity (you can actually see the first couple of pages of Frankenberg's essay scanned if you click "search inside.") Frankenberg is probably best known for White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (which you can also look inside). The titles can probably give you a sense of where she's coming from.

One of the things that drove me nuts about Joe's responses to what I and others were telling him is that he kept denying whiteness as a social construction and saying that "white privilege" remained unproven. In comments to my "Identity Politics" post, below, he said to me
[Y]our use of "white privilege" is unsubstantiated and makes several fallacies at the same time--ad hominem (you take my race into account when you evaluate the argument, which is racist and illogical), and ad nauseam (you say the same buzzword several times as if it'll make it true).
Hiding behind ad hominem has been one of Joe's favorite tactics in this debate. Yes, taking his race into account may well be, technically, ad hominem, but in a debate about race, and about identity, the race and the identity of the debaters is certainly fair game. For example, I cite, in that "Identity Politics" post, repeated in comments at OSP, James Baldwin's words about coming to grips with a cruel paradox of race in this country.
These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use--I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine--I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme--otherwise I would have no place in any scheme.[emphasis mine]
Joe asked me, "Baldwin is an authority . . . why?" Simple: When it comes to matters of black identity, I trust a black man (or woman) to address them far better than I can.

Frankenberg, as a white woman, has a claim on addressing white identity. Note: This is not the Posse Comitatus's "white (or Christian) identity." This is how Frankenberg came to become herself, as seen through the lens of race. And in her passage above, she, well, substantiates the idea of white privilege.

Frankenberg's not the only one to do so, though. Peggy McIntosh's classic 1988 essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" opens with one of my favorite lines about race, ever: "I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group." I think Joe suffers from the same problem.

Now, this is not a problem that is necessarily bad to have: Joe first called Earl at Prometheus6 a racist because Joe sees these individual acts of meanness:
Earl Dunovant is black. He's not black like some people I know, who simply have a black skin; Earl is a self-professed "black partisan" who has a strong black identity. [. . .] The concept of a black identity is as racist as this of a white identity. [from his original post] Define "white identity." Then, define "black identity" in the same terms. Then, show that there's a qualitative difference between them. The fact that the KKK kills more doesn't excuse Nation of Islam and Malcolm "non-violence is criminal" X. [. . .] The fact that you're oppressed doesn't excuse groupthink and racism, and yes, defining oneself according to race is racism. [from the comments]
Joe wouldn't be a good liberal if he didn't stand up against what he saw as a wrong. And, in fact, I trust that Joe is the kind of guy who disapproves of the vaguely racist water-cooler joke, or the overtly racist David Duke types. These are good things.

But he does not see race in terms of the invisible systems McIntosh sees. While accepting that institutional racism yet exists, Joe exhorts Earl (and, presumably, other "black partisans") to get of whatever high horses they're on:
If you're oppressed, end the oppression and move on, but for fuck's sake, don't consider yourself different than whoever oppresses you because you have a different skin color. And even if you are different, due to, say, sexual orientation, or social class, then don't think for a moment that being a minority or just plain oppressed makes you somehow better. When your oppressor does that to you, you rightly accuse him of bigotry; and yet you applaud such behavior when you do it.
Aside from thinking that black partisanship or black pride means thinking you're as good as, rather than better than, anyone else (except maybe the bigots), there's a flaw there, which is that Joe does not ask the obvious question, the way Mcintosh does: "Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. [. . . O]ne who writes about having white privilege must ask, "Having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?" And in a paragraph that, eerily, almost word-for-word rebut's Joe's assertions, she adds that
Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the U.S. think that racism doesn't affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see "whiteness" as a racial identity. In addition, since race and sex are not the only advantaging systems at work, we need similarly to examine the daily experience of having age advantage, or ethnic advantage, or physical ability, or advantage related to nationality, religion, or sexual orientation.
In other words, addressing and redressing racism is not the responsibility of the victim, but the burden of the privileged. And it is in this way that Joe's whiteness is absolutely relevant to the debate. (PS--go read all of McIntosh's essay. There is a reason it is a classic.)

Joe is like the poor student from this Robert Jensen piece:
Here's what white privilege sounds like: I'm sitting in my University of Texas office, talking to a very bright and very conservative white student about affirmative action in college admissions, which he opposes and I support. The student says he wants a level playing field with no unearned advantages for anyone. I ask him whether he thinks that being white has advantages in the United States. Have either of us, I ask, ever benefited from being white in a world run mostly by white people? Yes, he concedes, there is something real and tangible we could call white privilege.

So, if we live in a world of white privilege--unearned white privilege--how does that affect your notion of a level playing field? I asked. He paused for a moment and said, "That really doesn't matter." That statement, I suggested to him, reveals the ultimate white privilege: The privilege to acknowledge that you have unearned privilege but to ignore what it means. [emphasis mine]
Jensen goes on to note something Joe should pay attention to: "In a white supremacist culture, all white people have privilege, whether or not they are overtly racist themselves." Or, back to McIntosh: "I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks." Even Frankenberg says "We are frequently complicit with racism even when we are absolutely confident that we are not."Ampersand (who is white), the source of the initial quote that set Joe off, chimes in with similar feelings in the comments to Joe's original essay.

Joe can't even take the first step, though, and admit that he's white: "Ask me what race I am," he says, "and I'll tell you that unfortunately, I'm human."

Perhaps part of the reason Joe saw my use of "white privilege" as an ad nauseum fallacy is because he didn't seem to see any of this. (I should give full credit to Tomato Observer for being first on the scene with that argument, though.) Joe's reluctance to see is not unexpected. Apart from the fact that obliviousness is an advantage to white privilege, Joe probably, like many good, liberal whites, likes to think of himself as race-neutral, or colorblind. Frankenberg addresses that: "Another component of my whiteness is, in fact, my seeming neutrality, my seeming unmarkedness." McIntosh add, "whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow 'them' to be more like 'us.'" But we are not neutral, we are not unmarked. We only seem that way in comparison to the Other.

Back to Frankenberg:
What is whiteness? It is, in part, I would success, a mere mirroring of a mirroring, a "not" of a "not." Whiteness comes to self-name, invents itself, by means of its declaration that it is not that which is projects as Other. And there is a level at which whieness has its own inbuilt complacency, a self-naming that functions simply through a triumphant "I am not that."
Defining yourself as "not that" is not necessarily racist. Joe would have us believe so. The difference is whether or not you know you're doing it. Baldwin knows; in fact, I would hazard a guess that most people of color, women, and gays and lesbians know.

The whole point of black identity, for example, is that you begin to define yourself in your own terms, rather than as the Other.

Dar Williams has this great line--they're all great lines!--I'm reminded of here: "I will go outside to join the others/ I am the others/ And that's not easy/ I don't know what you saw/ I want somebody who sees me." And that's part of overcoming white privilege: See the Other not as the Other, but as another, separate, individual self. "Racialization is relational," Frankenberg says. And no, this does not make Joe's point. Joe would have us believe that Earl's, or Baldwin's, attempts to come to terms with being a member of the subordinate class by finding things within that group to celebrate, they are being racist--engaging in that racialization.

I need to sidetrack here: One of the other disturbing tactics taken by Joe, in the comments to his original post, at least, is a denial of the importance of history in these discussions of race. Yes, Joe Taylor may be the only liberal who thinks that history has no place in a discussion of racial identity in this country. Literally. He said, in the comments, "The issue is not so much historical as it is philosophical; the issue, let me remind you, is racial identity, which can be brought down without any historical debate."

Frankenberg begins her essay by citing Audre Lorde's oft-repeated saw about bringing down the master's house. I thin that we cannot, absolutely cannot go any further without recognizing, once and for all, that in this country there has been, and continues to be, both literal and metaphorical masters' houses. She goes on:
Racial positioning and self-naming are contextual and thus their transformation must always entail collective processes, ones that take place, so to speak, within history, rather than as individual journeys.
Let me paraphrase it: If you are at all going to come to terms with who you are, you must have some sense of where you're from.

I figured out one reason why, I think, Joe might be confused about the place of history in these discussions; he wrote, "I don't consider anything as 'my heritage' unless I wrote it. [. . .] So you're proud of things you had no involvement with? Unbelievable. Or, rather, it is believable, regrettably, because you are in the majority in this country, considering that people are somehow proud of being born in the USA, again something they weren't involved with."

I think Joe is confusing "heritage" with "legacy," for starters. But beyond that, Joe is missing what he really needs to have if he plans to be a writer, and that's a recognition that every writer must place him or herself in a tradition, either to buck it or to embrace it. I won't go all Santayana on him, but Joe had better come to grips with history, especially as it relates to his whiteness, and the privilege it entails.

With a previous post about this, all my comments to Joe's essay, and this massive missive, I have written well over five thousand words from Joe's lone few-hundred word post. It is something I take seriously, and, I suppose, in the end, that's one of the things that frustrated me most about Joe's responses. He treated all of us who wanted to talk not in cold, logical terms with utter disregard and contempt. Anyone who said anything about anything that did not "logically" contradict his assertion that racial identity, black pride, or the like, was attacking him or making non-sequitur arguments. And yet, racial identity--identity, period--is not cold and logical. It is fluid, it is explosive, it is the essence of what it means to be human. Joe's callous disregard for these facts led to a real sense that this was not argument, not a give and take, but merely beating our heads against a wall.

I hope that somewhere, buried in this, is something that will crack the wall just a little.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Updates

• Well, it seems Joe "Redeye" Taylor has given up over at OSP. I guess that's good; Earl/ P6 was torn between ignoring and ridiculing him, and I suppose this makes the decision easier.

• My letter will be printed tomorrow. This time I did get a call from the intern who throws the LTE page together--Kelli, her name was. Well, it sounded like it was spelled with an i; I didn't ask. The letter is here. There's no editorial about John Gard, though.

• Saturday's show at the Coffee House is still on. You'll be there, no? If you throw your underwear, I'll throw you a guitar pick.

The Iron Blog has its first challenge going on, between IB Republican Rosemary Esmay, the Queen of all Evil (glad to see they finally passed those truth-in-labeling laws!) and one of her regular nemeses, Ara Rubyan, of E Pluribus Unum. The Battle? Rumsfeld. I say, sauteed with a side of french fries (natch). My first battle is next week, apparently with a topic TBA. I do so hope it's 1980s Marvel Comics. I can take anyone on that.

• Bryan Kennedy's ad only runs through Friday. I cannot put this more strongly: CLICK; DONATE.

"Violence Doesn't End Violence"

So says Mariane Pearl, mother of Adam Pearl, wife of the late Daniel Pearl. You probably remember Danny Pearl; he was 2002's Nick Berg. (2003's Nick Berg was supposed to be Jessica Lynch, but she is not following the script.)

Last night here in Milwaukee, Mariane Pearl spoke as a part of a local lecture series known as "From the Heart." Other speakers on the list are Fergie, Naomi Judd, and Sharon Stone. Also included in the series, though, was Kim Phuc Phan Thi, who most of you probably recognize from this picture. (Here's what she looks like now.) Caveat: I did not actually see either lecture, Pearl's or Phan Thi's.

I'm not really known for writing about the war. I started blogging for real only about a year ago, a while after "Mission Accomplished," and in the run-up to the war I let others more qualified than I make the case against it. But, by accident of geography, I have something to say about it now, from Mariane Pearl and Kim Phuc Phan Thi, who recently graced my town with their presence.

We can blame the death of Nick Berg on anyone we want, it seems. Al Qaeda is an easy one, though the terrorist in question, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was at best only a sometime ally of Osama bin Laden, not full-blown al Qaeda. CBS is another easy target, one that conservatives have not neglected, for airing photos of Abu Ghraib torture. We can blame the Abu Ghraib culprits. Or the Iraqi police and U.S. forces that held Berg past his scheduled departure date. Or Rumsfeld. Or the Bush administration in general (especially with news that given the chance to capture Zarqawi, the administration passed to bolster its case for war).

But I like what Mariane Pearl said about the matter:
Those who killed Danny and those who killed Nicholas Berg are despicable people but violence doesn't end violence. [. . .] It's a horrendous murder similar to the one Danny went through, and proof that violence leads to violence. This cycle of violence is not likely to end.

Terrorists like al-Zarqawi (or al Qaeda) don't need an Abu Ghraib to retaliate for, of course. They are fighting what they perceive to be a war against decades, if not centuries, of Western aggression and oppression, of which Bush's War is just the latest example. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows that eye-for-an-eye revenge cycles solve nothing and advance no causes but bloody violence.

Kim Phuc Phan Thi speaks out against these cycles of violence whenever she can. She's a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace, and sees her role as a peace activist as divine. "God used me that day," she says about the day her village was napalmed and the infamous photograph was taken. By most accounts, the image of a naked, burned, screaming child on the cover of every major daily paper in this country began the turning of the tide. Public support for the Vietnam war ebbed, and serious questions about our tactics and conduct in the war followed. Phan Thi, since her defection to Canada in 1992, has continued the work for peace that her picture began. "Sometimes I like to think of that little girl, screaming, running up the road, as being not just a symbol of war, but a symbol of a cry for peace," she says in her speeches.

The photos (and, potentially, video) from Abu Ghraib, before they were replaced in our consciousness by images of Nick Berg, could have been the same turning point in this war as Phan Thi's was in Vietnam. They may yet be. And what disturbs me most about them, aside from the very real chance that the tactics depicted therein were not just sanctioned but ordered by U.S. commanders, is the underlying current of payback. This includes new allegations that some of the abusers/ torturers very clearly had Jessica Lynch in mind as they performed their outrages at Abu Ghraib and in particular Camp Bucca.

I said before that Jessica Lynch is not following the script that Danny Pearl and Nick Berg did, and by that, I don't mean that she escaped death. I mean that Pearl's death did and Berg's death is currently fueling very real, very dangerous levels of "Let's go kill us some brown-skinned people!" Don't believe me? Drop by some bastions of the right blogosphere (y!sctp!), like LGF, the Freepers, or those rottweiler guys.

But Lynch, like Phan Thi and Mariane Pearl, is not calling for more blood. She is not calling for genocide, extermination, carpet bombing. She is not enabling the bloodthirsty mob.

And the Berg family, too, is placing the blame somewhere besides the Muslim world. They are laying the blame squarely on us. To an extent, this is because Nick Berg was detained by Iraqi police and (possibly) CPA forces. But the Bergs were against this war from the start. They knew, as I did, and probably many of you, that taking revenge on Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi people--for surely innocents would die--was not the answer to any reasonable question. It was not a key step in the "war on terror" or toward advancing any plausible national interest. It was Bush's revenge for the Gulf War's failures; it was the American public's revenge for 9/11 after bin Laden proved illusive and Afghanistan proved unsatisfactory.

Listen to those who know, please. Listen to Jessica Lynch, Mariane Pearl, Kim Phuc Phan Thi: Violence does not end violence!

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

On Gard, the Daily, and the Freeze

Some interesting tidbits, which may add up to something. I don't know.

First, I will note that I sent a tremendously condensed version of my post two posts below this (on TABOR) to the local daily, including the parts about Assembly Speaker John Gard's (R-Peshtigo-in-theory) quashing of a bill to stop the automatic gas-tax increase in Wisconsin every year after taking $30,000 in road-builders' campaign money. (Roads are funded in part by the gas tax.) The irony, so you don't have to scroll down to look for it, is that Gard said we needed a property tax freeze in Wisconsin because things like high gas prices take too big a bite out of our pocketbooks.

This morning, the paper ran an editorial reaffirming the stance they took on the tax freeze the last time it came around. "Before lawmakers mandate property tax levels for localities or amend the Wisconsin Constitution to include a so-called taxpayer bill of rights," the Journal Sentinel notes, "they ought to pause and realize that piecemeal public finance makes no sense. Wisconsin needs a complete review of how taxpayer money is raised and spent at every political level and jurisdiction." Kind of like what I have been saying.

So this afternoon I get a voicemail from someone from the paper asking about my letter. He said he wanted some more information on the allegation (my word, not his) about Gard.

I did some Googling and digging and found the relevant info. Senate Bill 43, from Tim Carpenter, and Assembly bill 242 from Spencer Black, would have frozen the automatic increase in the gas tax. The bill died in the Senate, but Black notes that after the bill was recommended 11-1 out of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, John Gard was the one to refuse to let the bill onto the floor for a vote.

Remember, your friendly neighborhood Republicans control both houses of the Wisconsin state legislature right now. Also note that one of the key reasons TABOR may have died in utero is that the automatic gas tax would either need to be explicitly exempted or else these increases would require a referendum. Now, honestly, who's going to vote for a gas tax?

I called the man back, and it turns out, according to his voicemail, that he was not the intern who throws together the LTEs. He was the editorial writer for the paper. Yes, I now know the name and voicemail number for the nameless, faceless editorial voice of my local paper.

The paper is good about posting its editorial content the night before on-line. So I bring you a preview of tomorrow's editorial page. No, my letter is not there. But the third editorial tomorrow begins with "Assembly Speaker John Gard (R-Peshtigo) scoffed at a proposal the other day [. . .]." Makes me wonder if this guy is on an anti-Gard kick. I sure hope so. And keep an eye out: The paper hasn't run any tax-freeze letters yet, so mine may yet be coming.

Oh, and for the incredulous, here's a little bit about why I say "John Gard (R-Peshtigo-in-theory)." I cited this article in my last TABOR piece, but it's such a goldmine of Gard-bashing, I can't resist going to it again.
Gard has been criticized for collecting an $88 a day expense allowance while living much of the time in his $158,000 house in Sun Prairie just north of Madison. Legislators who live outside Dane County may claim $88 a day for expenses when they are working in Madison. Legislators who live in Dane County may claim $44 a day. Gard claims he is entitled to the larger allowance even though he has a home near Madison because his official address is Peshtigo.
Always out to save the taxpayers a buck, eh, John?

Monday, May 10, 2004

Identity Politics

When I was in college, I read a book that changed my life (didn't we all?). It was Todd Gitlin's The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars. The book is about identity politics and how, because the American capital-L Left is so busy being concerned with the constellation of cause of import to the individuals within it, liberal causes lose to conservative ones all the time.

After a turbulent four years at a liberal arts institution where the liberal was as important as the arts, reading the the book my senior year was like having a billion light bulbs going off in my head. I had been both the victim and the perpetrator of identity politics-related campus trifles. When you're 19 and someone whom you consider to be on your side rips your head off for something you don't understand . . . Well, let's just say the petty internet squabbles you see springing up everywhere are nothing compared to the indignation.

But Gitlin laid it out pretty clear. Sadly, I'm writing this at home and my copy of the text is at school, so I can't pull out the relevant quotes. But suffice it to say, Gitlin bemoaned the slide from "all politics is local" to "only the local is political." And, as one who, as I said, was both victim and perpetrator of the provincial, I finally had, I thought, a language to try to unify all of us on the campus left (there was very little campus right) who were, after all, on the same side.

And I still think that, especially in times like these, there are moments when identity politics must be subordinated to a greater goal. In this case, the election of (yawn) John Kerry and as many Democrats as possible to Congress. But identity politics is not something that goes away quietly, or hardly ever.

I was reminded just recently that identity politics is a bugaboo. Over at my occasional home Open Source Politics, Joe Taylor (who posts here as both himself and Redeye, and is the proprietor of Redey's corner) took issue yesterday with something fellow OSPer P6 said: Turns out, P6 is not only black, but a self-described "black partisan." Joe, who is white, finds that tantamount to racism. He writes,
The concept of a black identity is as racist as [that] of a white identity. Blacks aren't different from whites in mental and physical capabilities, unless one counts the fact that blacks are more resistant to sunburn. A racial identity has to be manufactured and exclusive and contradicts reality, regardless of the race or ethnic group involved.
I have to admit that I've also been reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, which is all about the evolutionary and social constructs of culture and cultural identity. While a lot of the people who read Gitlin find Pinker and his evolutionary psychology ilk to be a threat: If there are evolutionary reasons for the way we act, then the whole theory that personality and culture is socially constructed goes out the window. Pinker, of course, splits the difference: There is an evolutionarily defined structure to the brain, but where and when we are born still plays a large role in who we are.

Anyway, back to Joe: He notes that "a racial identity has to be manufactured." P6's whole point is that there is a body of culture to be proud of for himself, an identity that places him on a continuum of culture that he can embrace and call his own. P6's latest post at OSP covers exactly that.

It is also important to note that for minorities, women, and gays and lesbians (among other groups prone to "identity politics"), taking the time to discover and celebrate the identity that your group has as a group is vital.

I'm reminded of a passage from James Baldwin that I use with my seniors:
I know, in any case, that the most critical time in my own development came when I was forced to realize that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use--I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine--I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme--otherwise I would have no place in any scheme. What was the most difficult was the fact that I was forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself, which the American Negro has had to hide from himslef as the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt. In effect, I hated and feared the world.[emphasis mine]
In other words, Baldwin--and others, like P6--have a choice: They can either accept their place in a white world, or they can accept that they have no place in any world. Or, the third way, the one P6 has chosen: They can celebrate their own world. This is not a choice Joe Taylor will ever have to make. This is what, in a roundabout way, I have been arguing with Joe about in the comments thread to that initial post: Joe is suffering from the opposite of White Man's Guilt (again to borrow from Baldiwn). That's White Privilege.

Joe actually asks in the comments to P6's post linked to above, "So you're proud of things you had no involvement with?," as if it is impossible for him to conceive that the great achievements in African American culture P6 lists--from WEB DuBois to Langston Hughes to Malcolm X--could bring anyone a sense of pride.

Poor Joe, as a victim of White Privilege, doesn't see the need for P6 (and, by extension, James Baldwin?) to find those things to be proud of. I don't know--Joe hasn't gone there yet--if Joe wants us all to be proud of everything, or if he wants us to wait and only take pride in the things we ourselves do. Either argument, as it turns out, would suit Joe, our White Privilege victim, since, as a straight, white man, the whole of that Western Civilization is Joe's culture. Everything that James Baldwin found to hate about himself is everything that Joe, by accident of birth, is privileged to have.

Being a victim of White Privilege means never having to acknowledge that you have it. Also, it means never even having to acknowledge that you're white. "Ask me what race I am," Joe writes in his first post, "and I'll tell you that unfortunately, I'm human." Straight, white, and male is the default in this country. When we talk about an American culture, it's ours (I am, after all, straight, white, and male). It is only in reference to those other groups--the identity politics groups Gitlin wants to unify and Pinker wants to explain--that we have to begin applying prefixes to. It is within the accomplishments of the culture that members of that group can begin to construct an identity outside of the identity that people like me and Joe are born into.

Ironically, I've found that recognizing that privilege is an important step toward a building a personal liberal politics that actively solicits and involves other identity groups. Joe is a good guy--after all, I think he's basically playing on the same team that I am--and someday he'll begin to figure it out, too.

We may never reach the day when we are a colorblind society (and beware those seeking an end to affirmative action in the name of colorblindness), but if we can all finally become color-aware, including aware of our own color, Joe, which isn't "human," then we will be well on the way toward building a coalition on the left that can stomp the Jebo-fascists but good.

[A note to any and all conservative/ Republican readers, new to my place through Iron Blog, I should point out that I call Joe a "victim" of White Privilege only to the extent that his blinders make him say idiotic things. And if this talk of identity politics confuses and confounds you, just consider it your average, everyday leftist infighting, and move along. Nothing more to see here . . .

Oh, and Feministe makes the blogroll

UPDATED with the Baldwin quote I was thinking of.]

Sunday, May 09, 2004

TABOR update

Last week I wrote about TABOR, the inaptly named Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, and how it was bad, bad voodoo (scroll down to Wednesday May 5). Today, we get word from Madison that GOoPers are abandoning any hope of reaching consensus on TABOR as a constitutional amendment, and instead they're planning to re-introduce their idiotic property tax freeze legislation. That's the bill that was vetoed once by Governor Jim Doyle already, less than a year ago.

Today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has the poop. And I do mean poop. Because once again this legislature, which has repeatedly refused to address both cost controls and tax fairness, is once again ass-backwards in trying to control property tax rates first.

IF the legislature would attempt to bring increases in health care costs in Wisconsin--and particularly here in SE Wisconsin--to closer to the rate of inflation (instead of three or four times it), then we can talk about freezing the property tax.

IF the legislature would allow Gov. Doyle's school finance panel to hammer out a fair, equitable new school-funding formula that (I hope) does not rely almost exclusively on the propetry tax, then we can talk about freezing the property tax.

IF the legislature would address the fact that homeowners' share of the property tax revenue is nearly two-thirds, while the taxes paid by business keeps falling, then we can talk about freezing the property tax.

Even if all of these "ifs" were true, the property tax freeze, like TABOR, is still based on the asinine assumption that elected officials are greedy bastards who don't know how to control themselves when it comes to spending. State Assembly speaker John Gard, theoretically from Peshtigo but who owns a house outside of Madison and is barely ever in Peshtigo, demonstrates both this rude attitude toward local elected officials as well as his own blind spot toward state spending. Consider (from the link above):
Hundreds of local governments voluntarily limited their property tax levies to the guidelines GOP legislators pushed last year, according to a study by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Those communities proved that a property tax "freeze" is reasonable, Gard said. [. . .] A strict limit on property tax levies beginning with this December's tax bills, and in the following two years, is needed so local officials don't go back to their high-spending ways, he said. [. . .]

Gard said some pockets of Wisconsin are climbing out of the recession, but "there's a whole lot of people still that have not the same level of disposable income in their pocket as a year ago. Look at gas prices out there, that's eating up a sizable chunk of people's income."
Hm, folkbum wonders. Why are gas prices so high? Well, of course, there is that unpleasantness in Iraq. But is the something else? Oh, yes:
Since 1985, motor vehicle fuel tax hikes have been made under an indexing adjustment provision of Wisconsin law. The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that the automatic indexing of the state’s fuel tax rate each year results in approximately $3.2 billion in additional fuel tax revenues from 1985 through 2004. Out of the projected April 1, 2004 tax rate of 29.1 cents per gallon, approximately 10.1 cents is the result of such automatic indexing, and the cumulative change in the motor vehicle fuel tax rate due to indexing will result in approximately $340 million in additional revenues to the transportation fund in 2004. [. . .]

Almost a year ago, [State] Senator [Tim] Carpenter introduced Senate Bill 43, which would eliminate the automatic indexing provisions of Wisconsin’s motor vehicle fuel tax, and would require the legislature to authorize, by vote, any increase of this tax.
God forbid we should do anything to cut spending on roads (or prisons, but that's another show). But roads, check this out:
In his first year as Assembly Speaker, John Gard raised more large individual contributions from powerful special interests outside of his Assembly District than any previous candidate for the Legislature, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis shows.

Gard raised $248,925 from individual contributors in 2003. Of that, $232,663 came in large individual donations--contributions totaling $100 or more in a year from the same contributor. Most of these large contributions--$227,708 or 97.9 percent--came from outside his district. [. . .]

Special interests contribute to legislative leaders, and especially Gard, to get the pet projects, perks or state spending they want, or items that they oppose shot down.

For instance, Gard received $30,350 in 2003--more than any other legislator--from road builders and transportation interests who benefited handsomely from Gard’s leadership role. Earlier this year Gard killed a legislative proposal that would have ended automatic annual increases of Wisconsin’s gasoline tax, which is one of the highest in the nation at 32.1 cents per gallon. The measure had the support of Democrats and Republicans but was opposed by road builders because the gasoline tax pays for the ever-growing list of multi-million contracts they receive to build roads.
Sometimes I still have it in me to ask how Republicans think they can get away with this kind of crap. Sometimes I just can't wait for November when we have a chance to vote their hypocritical selves out.