Archive for March 2012

Southern Cuisine?

March 22, 2012

John’s post about the resignation of a blogger who can’t see the racism in dressing up the President of the United States in drag and sitting him down with a bucket of fried chicken is enough to trip the last of my rage+sorrow circuits.  We’re back in Carthage Must Be Destroyed territory with our wingnut friends — and with the party Lincoln would no longer recognize, that G.O.P which has staked its hold on power for four decades with the nod-and-a-wink racism of the “southern stategy.”


I’m sick past endurance with the casual viciousness of our opponents.  Yesterday I blogged about Question Bridge, a project in which Black men get to investigate and reframe what it means to be male and African American in the U.S. today.  As I wrote then, that work performs the remarkable feat of allowing everyone, Black guys and anyone else, to listen in on conversations, feelings, experiences that are not routinely available to most of us in the ordinary business of living in the world.

One of the insights to be gained in doing so comes from direct testimony about a fact we all know, but don’t necessarily nor always feel in our bones if we aren’t ourselves in the midst of it:  that being Black and male and in public is to be constantly under scrutiny.  Not necessarily or even mostly in the horrifying deadly circumstances that Trayvon Martin found himself in, but just in the sense that there’s attention being paid, and that the burden of representing, and not just being, is always there.

And here’s where that bucket of chicken comes in.  That was no joke, not merely “southern cuisine” as the blogger put it.*  And the men of Question Bridge know it:

When I go out to eat dinner, I don’t worry about what the folks at the next table think of my order.  Never occurs to me.  This clip reminds me that this is my privilege, and a measure — an oblique one maybe, but still — of the work we’ve yet to do get over race in this country.

Which, by shoots and roundabouts, is another reason that the “I’m not racist in my heart” nonsense just can’t fly.  I don’t care if you love your kids or even (sacrilege here, I know) are kind to dogs.  If you put the kind of trash John referenced out into the world, you own it; that’s who you are.

*Funny how a Black guy from Chicago eating chicken is just enjoying in southern cuisine.  The first rule of racist club is never to talk about racist club.

Eavesdropping for Effect

March 21, 2012

I haven’t written anything about the Trayvon Martin murder, because I have nothing to say that hasn’t been said.  TNC’s been powerful on this, and I found James Fallows‘ take exactly on point, and what’s been said here speaks for me as well.  If I have any thought it is that if this isn’t our Emmet Till moment, we’re even more desolate as a society than I had feared on my worst nights. (And yes, Charlie Pierce went there, but I was thinking along this line before reading him. It’s hardly an unlikely remembrance.)

Yesterday, though, I couldn’t help but think about Martin’s death after one session of  a conference on the future of documentary.  There, I got the chance to hear, and later to talk to two of the collaborators behind Question Bridge — co-founder Chris Johnson and one of his colleagues, Bayeté Ross Smith.

That project turns on a deceptively simple idea:* find Black men with a question they want another Black man to answer, someone they may not know, someone of a different age, class, location, experience. Have them ask whatever it is while staring straight into a video camera.  The film makers then bring those questions to other men — strangers turned into confidants, who answer.  Again, they speak straight into the lens — or rather, through the camera directly to both the questioner and any eavesdroppers, you, me, whoever decides to click “play.

Here’s a sample:

There are a couple of things to note about the project from in the context of a new media conference.  The first is that this  is incredibly simple film making, as noted above, but that simplicity highlights the rigor of the craft involved, the meticulous attention to what its creators wanted to achieve as an aesthetic (and hence rhetorically) powerful piece of work. Think sonnets:  when you have fewer elements and more formal constraints, whatever you do right or wrong is there for all to see.  Put this another way, as I often preach to my students:  high production values do not mean necessarily expensive production.  It merely means you’ve thought out what you intend to do with great care long before you ever say, “turn over.”

Here’s another taste of the work, from a variant of the project intended explicitly for use in educational settings:

But back to Trayvon Martin.

Certainly, there’s nothing directly linking this project to that tragedy…except, as one of the two presenters yesterday said (I think it was Bayeté, and I paraphrase from memory), that such events are part of the fabric of Black male experience, part of the atmosphere in which Black men move.

In that context, Question Bridge has an explicit mission:  to enable Black men to speak out loud about the experiences and emotions that frame their daily lives.  Big stuff — like the blueprint clip above, or seemingly small (though, I suspect, not really so) matters like the one raised here.  Obviously, when a 17 year old kid is shot down, and the police do worse than nothing, that’s clearly a circumstance in which plenty of questions and answers will resonate — those already asked, and those to come.

Question Bridge is up front and center on this core goal: it aims to connect Black men with each other to address core questions of identity across all the barriers of distance and difference.  But, of course, by its very form as a web/museum/school/socially mediated and sourced effort, it invites others in.  It’s a triangle, built on asymmetries of time and place, questioner at a remove from his respondent, both separated from anyone else in the world who chooses to listen in…all of which adds up to a conversation that can only take place in a documented, enwebbed world.

And speaking now as what I obviously am, a middle-aged white man living a life of great good fortune (so far and mostly), what is likely obvious becomes more so:  there are lots of conversations that I would want to have, that I think our society, our culture needs to have, that in the ordinary course of the way Americans live now are vanishingly unlikely to take place.  But at Question Bridge, they do.  Of course, the exchanges constructed by the artist-film makers involved are just that:  made works of documentary art, constructed out of a whole hierarchy of choices made within the project — and hence anything but a live exchange, with all of the chance and serendipity of face to face talk.

But so what? Or rather, that’s the point.

This work entrains me, anyone, in a chain of thought and reaction, question, answer, argument, that if I were actually in the room would not happen.  And if there is anything to take from Obama Derangement Syndrome, from the seeming mainstreaming of dog whistle racism (and the old fashioned kind) — from Trayvon Martin’s death with its sudden, horrible reminder that possession of skittles can be a capital offense in these United States — then it is that one of the hardest and most vital tasks out there is to allow words that would not otherwise be uttered or heard to find voice and listeners across this wide world.

I don’t want to overclaim.  No video is going to approximate the job of living someone else’s life, and as the men of Question Bridge point out, that’s just as true within a group as varied as Black men as it is outside that particular cut of identity.  But speaking as both a guy living in America right now and as a someone who tries to work with the craft of documentary to shift people’s minds, I have to say that this is one impressive project, a genuinely innovative and (to me, at least) deeply effective use of our new tools to braid human connections that did not exist before they formed in this space.

And with that, I’ll leave you with one last video — the project explainer and pitch:

*recalling, as Richard Feynman put it, that “simple” — or “elementary,” as the physicist put it in the context of an “elementary demonstration” of a proof –does not mean easy. Rather, it means that “very little is required to know ahead of time in order to understand it, except to have an infinite amount of intelligence.”

This is Why the Kristols and their Herd of Rampaging Ilk Haz a Sad

March 15, 2012

ABL and John have already hit this one hard, but, having dealt with the mouth puke that comes from reading the source text “outing” Sandra Fluke’s boyfriend as (horrors!) a Jew, I’m feeling the need to add my $0.02.

It’s probably not worth bothering with the historical idiocy used to underpin that source’s overt anti-Semitism, (no link to the asshole, but check out Tbogg for both righteous smackdowns and the connection if you want it).  But given the time I spent getting to know that notorious Jewish Socialist nutbag and traitor to all that is good and just in the world, Albert Einstein, I can’t pass without comment this one line:

New Bedford, MA, where Raphael Mutterperl ran the family’s manufacturing arm, was a hotbed of  Marxist trade-unionism in early 20th century America. Why? It was easy to “sell” radical trade-unionism to a whole people group who were brought up in the lap of Weimar Marxian ideology, because New Bedford had many new eastern-European Jewish immigrants living there at the time, including, of course, the Mutterperl family.

There truly aren’t enough integers to count the stupid in those two sentences, but just to offer one more of my futile nods to what we laughingly call “reality,” I’d like to point out that the Weimar Republic was, of course, an explicitly anti-Marxist political construction (see, e.g. the the decisions taken by the SPD government during the January Uprising, a of January 1919.

Hint: when the German Communist Party’s campaign to destabilize the the Social Democrat-led government turned into an insurrection, that government called for help from the old Kaiserene military elite, and deployed Freikorps, unofficial units of former soldiers led by right-wing officers, to crush the insurgency.)  The sense (sic!) of the phrase “Weimar Marxian ideology” is roughly analogous to this: “Pentacostal Islamic theology.”


And then there’s the bizarre take on New Bedford as a hotbed of Weimar (read Jewish) degeneracy.*   I actually checked out this fine young idiot’s link, which led me to a truly anodyne pamphlet on New Bedford’s Jewish history.  There, using the man’s own source, I discovered that any German Jews in New Bedford in the early 20th century were mostly descendents of migrant peddlars who arrived in town in the mid-19th century — hardly a likely well spring for “radical trade-unionism” born amongst Berlin Reds in the 1920s.

Eastern European Jews started showing up after about 1875 — but they could no more be Weimar fifth columnists than their predecessors and, what’s more…

…Oh, hell.  Why bother.  You get the idea.  The actual facts about the American immigrant experience hardly matters, not when your eyeballs fill with blood and your eardrums throb and all you can see or hear is Jew, jeW, jEw, JeW, jEW, JEw, JEW.

It is a necessary condition in the formation of this style of antisemitism that bone ignorance be combined with utter certainty, so it’s no surprise that our little friend proves such a putz.**

That he should be shamed, ridiculed, and embarassed to within an inch of his capacity to scribble in crayon is fine by me, but what really struck me on reading his attempt to combine word strings into something that reads roughly like English was that here we have the real answer to the question that sometimes pops up in neo-con Jewish circles:  why won’t their co-religionists join them in voting Republican?

I’ll give y’all a hint:  It’s not because — or not simply because — we think Republican policies violate the injuction to tikkun olam — to heal the world.  Nor that the claims of both tzedek and tzedakah, justice and charity, are ones that the contemporary GOP denies at every turn.  Nor even the argument that reflexive support of the worst impulses in Israel is the surest way to do Israel great harm over time.

No, at least in part, and on some level of deeply sensed distrust,  it is because I and lots of both secular American Jews and deeply devout ones know that when you scratch enough of those with whom our co-religionists would have us ally, you get this kind of dreck.

Put it another way:  listening to a party whose dog whistles against our first African American President have become as audible as air raid sirens, it’s not that hard to remember the rest of the package bundled with such loathesomeness.

There are a lot of reasons to support Barack Obama in the coming weeks and months.  One big one is that you have to remember that the folks putting the hate on what an African American in the White House symbolizes have lots more rage  to go round.  That this lesson gets daily reinforcement helps make this election season at once so fascinating and so repulsive.  For today’s reminder, and for that service only,  I am grateful to the imbecile who decided that the Jewishness of Sandra Fluke’s partner is such a profound mark of shame.

Oh:  and f**k you with a rusty pitchfork, you spawn of history’s sewer.  Also too.

*That’s what I think really lodged in this unfortunate writer’s excuse for a brain: Weimar, we know, is associated with not just Jews, but gay Berlin (oh! That Isherwood fellow again) terrifyingly non-uplifting art (who is this George Grosz and why can’t he paint nice pictures of flowers and birds?) too much sex and who knows what else besides. Anything with that much going on is a priori evil, and given that Marxism is wretched to the root as well, then what the hell….

**And no, I’m not referring to the traditional Amish Christmas nativity scenes.  Why do you ask?

Image: Unknown photographer,  Karl Liebknecht delivering the funeral oration for Spartacist comrades, late 1918 or early 1919.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of an Old Jew, 1654.


Guest Post: Koch vs. Cato? Not a problem for a True Libertarian

March 11, 2012

Jim Bales here, and my thanks to Tom for the loan of his soap box.

So, I’ve been following the back and forth between Brad DeLong and Jonathan Adler over effort by the Koch brothers to exert control over the Cato Institute, which they believe to be (or to soon be) a property they have majority interest in.

Adler argues that the direction the Koch’s would likely take the organization would be bad for Libertarianism. DeLong is amused that Adler’s position is “not the most full-throated libertarian defense of private property as the essential foundation of ordered liberty that I can imagine…”. Adler’s claim is that he is defends the Koch’s “right to do something [with their property] even as I criticize or lament [their] choice to do it.”

I think that Adler is, in fact, taking a non-Libertarian stance here, but DeLong is wrong to focus on property rights. While Adler defense of the Koch’s right to make the presumed changes is far from full-throated, Adler has never (to my knowledge) denied that the Koch’s have that right should they prevail in court.

And yet, Adler’s hand wringing over the fate of Cato is decidedly non-Libertarian. To Libertarians, what happens to Cato really doesn’t matter. Their indifference is not driven by their belief in the moral sanctity of property rights. What happens to Cato doesn’t matter to Libertarians because of their dogmatic belief in the well-nigh omnipotence of markets.

For all true Libertarians understand that, just as the free market created Cato when there was a need for a high-profile Libertarian think tank, the market will most assuredly deliver a new, improved, Libertarian think-tank should the Koch brothers trash this one.

One might wonder why Adler has lost his Libertarian faith in the power of the free market — particularly the oh-so-free market for high-profile Libertarian think-tanks. That, I cannot answer.


Jim Bales

Image:  Titian,The Tribute Money, 1516.

Money Lenders 1, Temples 0

March 10, 2012

Ed Kilgore’s been doing a fine job as Steve Benen’s successor at the Washington Monthly. He’s smart, he’s got a good bullshit detector, and he understands that the modern GOP is doing it’s best impression of a bunch of Kamikaze pilots taking the helm of the Queen Mary 2.

But even the good ones swing and miss some times, as here, in this take on the rise in foreclosures on churches:

Do you perhaps think the closure of churches in the midst of a Great Recession might be as much a threat to the free exercrise of religious expression as, say, a requirement that church-affiliated institutions allow their insurance companies to provide contraception coverage for their employees?

I mean, I think I get what he’s after here, as he writes in the last line of his post.

Bankers wanting their payments are apparently off-limits to criticism, unlike a president trying to ensure something within shouting distance of equality in access to health care.

I’m fine with the idea that there is something fundamentally cocked up about our banking system and the foreclosure industry.  If Ed’s point was that church leaders should imitating Christ in seeking mortgage fairness for all, I’d be happy to join an amen chorus.

But a religious freedom argument? This is one of the silliest things I’ve read in a month of Sundays.  To gloss the comment I posted over at Ed’s place:

The threat to religious freedom in the contraceptive battle is comes with what others’ fundamentalisms do to my religious beliefs and ethical commitments.*

Requiring institutions operating under the color of faith to meet their obligations, freely entered into?  Not so much.

In fact, if we were to do what Ed implies, and give some folks a free pass on their mortgages just because they say they talk to gods in the company of like-minded souls, that would be one more step in the horrendous theocratic power grab we see happening around us.

Hell, if all it took to avoid paying off my mortgage would be to incorporate as the Eleventh Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (Reformed), sign me up. But the notion that a group or corporate body would claim immunity from basic life-crap like paying off the loan you signed up for just because you kneel in the right direction?  Oy.

IOW — this is just reflexive backward-collar genufluxion.  You own a piece of real estate; you borrow on it; you are subject to the same consequences that the rest of us face.

Again: if Ed were to argue that the steep rise in church foreclosure is another sign that our lending system has gone awry, and that there should be a  review of how to rescue underwater property owners of all stripes, that would be another matter.  But giving churches a break just because they are churches?  Dumb, dumb, dumb — and a sign that the first amendment really is hard for even smart people to grasp.

*More generally and formally, to allow one sect’s claim of religious authority to trump both other faiths and secular commitment to a public sphere is a bitter inversion of what it means to have liberty of faith and conscience in a anti-establishmentarian polity.

Image:  Amal Khurram, Shah Jehan with Angel musicians,  mid 1600s.

Let’s Review: David Brooks Really Is a Boil on the Body Politic

March 4, 2012

I’ve pondered the mystery of why Gail Collins bothers to rise to “civil” in her exchanges with David Brooks, much less why she affords him a dignity he does not deserve – that of treating him as someone capable of sustaining the logic of his own argument long enough to be worth engaging.

I’m guessing she’s either a much nicer person than I ever hope to be — or  else she’s running a year-over-year longitudinal experiment to see just how long Brooks can sustain the pretence of independence as he trundles to his pre-selected conclusions.  Seriously — has anyone here been suprised by the last couple of grafs of a Brooks column, no matter where each piece began?  Anybody?

Thought not.

So, on to today’s text and exegesis.  (Hey, it is Sunday, right?)

From the March 3 Brooks – Collins Opinionator column, we learn that both of our pundits think Romney’s turned himself into a joke, a conclusion few of us, I’m guessing, would dispute.

Brooks begins badly as he contemplates the campaign to date, “My first emotion is pity, and the tremendous ocean of it I feel for Mitt Romney.”

Pity?  For a man who’s single campaign competence lies in spending his friends’ money on destructive ads, while lying about his own and his opponents’ words?

Brooks too must have reserves of the milk of human kindness I lack; or else a brain softened by years of trying to unlearn that which would make more difficult the task of comforting the comfortable.

Me, I just hope that Romney discovers just enough self-awareness to condemn him in the coming decades of an increasingly irrelevant existence to ponder the degree to which his father would be ashamed of him.  I wish Mitt a long life — make no mistake about that.  A miserable one, but long.

But I digress…

Brooks goes on to give his man some sage advice:

If I were Romney, I’d spend the next period of the campaign reading the Stoics, maybe Marcus Aurelius: “Misfortune nobly born is good fortune.” Or perhaps Epictetus: “Difficulties show what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. Why? So that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat.”

I was going to break in here and call Brooks the intellectual pseud and poser he clearly is, when I realized that perhaps Collins is not quite so forgiving as she appears:

Gail: I do love the way you throw Epictetus in when I’m least expecting it.

Oh, snap!

I do think that talk of hooking up any GOP candidate with “a rough young man,” is exactly the image a supporter would wish to disseminate in the midst of a gay-and-women-loathing bash fest led by the most prominent Republicans around, but let that slide. I’m just loving the way Collins bursts Brooks’ balloon.  Of course she expects her dose of Epictetus; it’s how Brooks rolls.  But it does tee up nicely for her, doesn’t it — and no attentive reader will miss that which seems to glide past the glistening carapace of Brooks’ self regard.

It gets better, which is to say worse, when Brooks permits himself to lament the power of rich people within the GOP:

The primary campaign would be over if not for the Citizens United decision. If Gingrich and Santorum didn’t have “super PAC” sugar daddies, they couldn’t afford to run campaigns. They’d have dropped out and Romney would be cruising.

Super PACs empower protest candidates. Super PACs prolong primary campaigns. Super PACs weaken parties. The irony is that Barack Obama is the first beneficiary of the new campaign finance rules.

Uh, David.

If Super PAC’s (and their equivalent in the privilege a rich guy like Romney gets to self fund without limitation) did not exist, Romney would be dead in the water right now.  As your own newspaper reported two days ago, Romney has been consistently unable to present an affirmative case for his own candidacy — in just about every race he’s ever run, by the way.  But he’s been able to edge toward nomination by deploying negative ads with a scorched earth ferocity Stalin could have admired.  It’s that money, and only that money that has allowed Romney to overcome this fundamental truth: the more people know Mitt, the more they dislike him.

Brooks might be right, to be fair, that Gingrich’s Super PAC cash is all that made him viable.  But the reality is that it is Romney’s access to Citizen’s United-enabled cash in amounts far greater than the amphibian was able to muster is the only source of his “inevitability.  Brooks knows this, but he’s got an ulterior motive in asserting that Super PAC corruption tends to elevate only upstarts, whilst handicapping the “legitimate” candidacy of a Very Serious Person.

And that motive would be to fluff the establishment GOP.  Romney is their man. Truly, it’s the least surprising turn in journalism that Brooks goes on to tell Collins this:

I don’t know if he’ll be a great nominee, but I still think he’d be a fine president. I keep running into people who worked with him at Bain or when he was governor and they saw he was an awesome manager. Even Democrats say this.

Two things: 1) See Charlie Pierce for a taste of what folks say who actually watched Romney up close in Massachusetts.  As someone who was in fact conscious at the time and living not that far from the state house of our beloved Commonwealth, I can tell you that he is remembered as a guy who bailed on the state within two years, and ended his single term with such low approval ratings that it was even odds whether he’d leave town by air or on a rail.

2) Note a classic instance of the Brooks double tuck inverted weasel: “I keep running into people…Even Democrats.”

Oh yeah, tough guy?  Name them.

Brooks has risen as he has because he’s been careful in ways that fellow conservative hacks have not (broken calculators, anyone?) not to give critics any specific claim of fact to test — at least not since this debacle. So it is here.  His taxi driver tells him what a great guy Mitt was.  (A beautiful dancer, perhaps.)  And…you get the point.

Oh, and our weapons are 3)  Collins nails him on the obvious solecism in the chain of “reasoning” Brooks offers here. He claims good managers make good presidents.  Uh…assumption not in evidence, or, as Collins says,

I cannot stress too often that running the country is not the same as running a business. Not even remotely.


Brooks doesn’t even try to respond to this; I’m guessing he knows he can’t.  Instead, he tries to rally just a bit more sympathy for his man:

One way to think about Romney is this: Are his troubles mostly a result of his weaknesses as a candidate or the oddities of the Republican electorate this year? I’d say it’s 30 percent Romney’s fault and 70 percent that large parts of the Republican electorate want someone who either is a joke (Cain) or can’t possibly win or govern (Santorum).

You know, I could almost go so far as to give this a “maybe.”

But actually…no.

The either/or here is an example of a classic fallacy, the problem of the non-excluded middle — not to mention a failure to analyze the direction of causality here.  On the one hand, the disaster could be overdetermined:  Romney could be both loathesome and confronting maniacs — but here I have to stand up for the poor Republican voter.  He or (increasingly rarely) she is not simply crazy in a vacuum.  These voters have become crazier  in part because Romney makes them so, because he is so wretched as a candidate and evidently so hollow as a human being.

All of which is to say that Brooks is in his I/My-Candidate-cannot fail-I/he-are-being-failed territory here. It’s not surprising to see him land in such a hole, though it ain’t pretty.  This is what happens when cheerleaders for oligarchy start to fear the mob.*

That said, I have to admit to a moment’s total agreement with our man BoBo.  He says:

Here’s what I think may happen. Romney gets the nomination and is defeated. Republicans decide they are sick of nominating “moderates” and next time they go haywire. Then the party gets really crushed…

To which I (and Collins) say, in essence, “from your lips to the FSM’s ear.”

But then, Brooks being Brooks, he has to go and botch the blow-off:

and sanity returns.

Good luck with that my friend.

*Oh, and can I vomit in my mouth at this little bit of Brooksiana?

Personally, I love the caucus process, while acknowledging its flaws. I remember once going to a Democratic caucus in Iowa where the supporters of John Edwards tried to lure away the vegan supporters of Dennis Kucinich by offering them steaks. It’s the sort of quirky artifact that us Burkeans love.

Now I get it:  the criteria for assessing the institutions of representative government are to be what what pisses off the kind of folks “Burkeans” disdain. I don’t doubt that Burke might have defended the caucus as a “prescriptive” institution, one whose reason for being was that it had been for a long time, and thus constitutes an accepted element of the system of governance.  (That this Burkean argument rests on assumptions that American democracy has explicitly rejected is a separate matter.)  But Edmund Burke, for all his traditionalism, was not an asshole.  And that is a fact his self-proclaimed heirs may wish to ponder.

Image: Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala, Court jesters playing bowls, 1868.

William Hogarth, An Election Entertainment, c. 1755

And Another Question to Ask Mr. Romney:

March 2, 2012

Do you, sir, agree or repudiate this statement by BYU religion professor Randy Bott:

“God has always been discriminatory.”

(From  a Washington Post piece by Jason Horowitz. via Max Perry Mueller in Slate)

Well, Mr. Romney? Is that your view? The divinity divines consequential differences amongst the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve?

Further: do you, Mr. Romney, agree or repudiate this view:

….The Mormon Church’s own longstanding priesthood ban was, according to Bott, not racist. Rather, it was a “blessing.” Prior to 1978, blacks weren’t spiritually mature enough to be ordained with such authority. Bott compared blacks to “a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car,” and told Horowitz that misusing priesthood authority—like crashing dad’s Oldsmobile—could have put blacks “in the lowest rungs of hell,” reserved for serial killers, child rapists, world-class tyrants, and “people who abuse their priesthood powers.”

Take your time.

Image: Domenichino, Adam and Eve,  between 1625 and 1623.

[OT PS: am I the only one who finds those decapitated kid’s heads with wings to be supremely creepy?]