Posted tagged ‘Power’

An Answer To Ross Douthat’s White Washed Vision

July 20, 2009


I actually agree with one of Douthat’s claims, that the formation of a new, post-racial power structure will eliminate the need and basis for affirmative action.  Where I — middle aged, privileged white man/member of the academic elite as I acknowledge I am — dispute Douthat is in his belief demographic changes in themselves lead to an end to discrimination.

Case in point, Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s arrest in his own home, after providing identification for the crime of having lost his keys.  Gates, for those of you who don’t know, is not merely a member of the academic elite, but as the holder of  a chair at Harvard; as a major author and editor recovering African American literature from its apocryphal status; as probably the best known and most influential scholar of African American Studies in this country; as a serial host of PBS broadcasts and ubiquitous interviewee —  he is fully paid up member of America’s academic aristocracy.  If you are familiar with David Lodge’s Changing Places novels, he is, in certain ways, (and I mean this as a compliment) someone that Morris Zapp would have called brother.

And yet, it appears, he is guilty of the crime of AWB — Affluence While Black.  Would a white professor — would I — have been arrested in the same circumstances.  The counterfactual is untestable, but I’ll venture a guess and say no.

And my point?  It is that Douthat matches in ignorance of the real world all of his uninformed arrogance in his judgements passed on it, and on much more accomplished people than he will ever be.

Yes, it is true that affirmative action for the victims of discrimination can morph into the same back-room privilege that puts 20 somethings with a gift for reasonable prose into a series of posts in which his lack of real world knowledge does not disqualify from opining on whatever.  In that context, I was struck in Douthat’s latest column by this remark:

It was a characteristic O’Connor move: unmoored from any high constitutional principle but not without a certain political shrewdness. In a nation that aspires to colorblindness, her opinion acknowledged, affirmative action can only be justified if it comes with a statute of limitations. Allowing reverse discrimination in the wake of segregation is one thing. Discriminating in the name of diversity indefinitely is quite another.

Douthat, proud possessor of a BA from Harvard (but no law degree) manages to dismiss Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in an almost Buckley-ian sniff of disdain.  The little lady is “not without a certain political shrewdness.”  How generous.

The Latina, of course, fares even less well:

It’s doubtful, though, that Sonia Sotomayor shares this view.

“It is firmly my hope, as it was expressed by Justice O’Connor,” she told Senator Kohl, “that in 25 years, race in our society won’t be needed to be considered in any situation.”

But O’Connor didn’t hope; she expected. And Sotomayor’s record suggests that there’s a considerable difference between these postures — that for the nominee, as for most liberal jurists, as long as racial disparities persist, so too must racial preferences.

Such fine parsing of hope vs. expectation; for one as blessed as Mr. Douthat, expectations do not fail but to be met.

How else does someone who has never worked a non-media job, never met a payroll, never worked a political campaign, nor, heaven-forfend, organized his community — someone who, by all that’s holy, has had even less contact with the real world than his NY Times predecessor, that self-made son, William Kristol — come to his conclusion, which is that Judge Sotomayor is part of the emerging rainbow conspiracy to use the fact of past discrimination to preserve illegitimate non-white power indefinitely into the future.

I don’t know if Douthat knows his own bad faith, or actually believes that his position in society was achieved without the exercise of advantage systematically denied to most — and differentially so for those of color.

I do know that he could not imagine himself in the position Professor Gates found himself in within his own home — and for good reason.  As Graham Greene had it in Our Man in Havana (that rare double:  a must-read book and a must-see film) the policeman educates the English expatriate on the distinction between the torturable and non-torturable classes, remarking that his own father had been an example of the former group.

Douthat is as firmly placed in non-torturable America as it is possible to be.  Gates, for all his greater accomplishment, institutional affiliation, and unmeasurably more significant wealth of experience is not.*

And that’s why affirmative action has not run its course; why O’Connor’s expectation and Sotomayor’s more modest hope that by 2028 we will inhabit the post-racial society of Martin Luther King’s dream may not in fact be realized by that deadline.  For all of Douthat’s insouciant assertion that Senator Sessions and his ilk are yesterday’s men, right now, today, those men and their ilk — and their scions, like Douthat himself — retain their privileged status where it counts:  both in power and on the street.

Mere numbers do not alter the fact of American life, racially charged.  Demography does rule, eventually– but only an actual end to discrimination, only the creation of a society where a black man being arrested for breaking in to his own home would actually be a surprise, will mark the point at which we may say for ourselves that we’ve finally put race behind us.

Don’t believe me?  Go Skip Gates’s bail.

Update: I was out of town over the weekend and didn’t read Frank Rich’s Sunday column on Sotomayor and her interrogators until this morning.  There Rich agrees with Douthat (or rather, Douthat follows Rich) in the claim — the  hope, I’d say — that Sessions, Graham, Coburn and the rest are dinosaurs, old, racist, sexist, pretentious, unreflective, hypocritical, morals-for-thee-but-not-for-me buffoons who have not yet realized that they are merely the walking extinct.  I share both writers’ hope; my expectation, however, is that powerful men know how to wield power, and that advantage will keep the kind of society that prospers such unworthy representatives ticking over for a while yet.  For a stray reason why, consider this story from the WSJ as highlighted by DK contributor Jerome a Paris.

Update 2: Via Gawker, Gates is released with charges dropped after four hours in jail.  With pix of Gates in handcuffs, being led from his own  home.

*Gates’ experience, btw, is no anomaly.  I have several black colleagues at MIT who, to a man and woman, have told me that (X)WB remains a pulling-over offense even here in the People’s Republic of Cambridge and its greater Boston environs.  To put it bluntly, Douthat has given no evidence in anything I’ve read of his that he has any idea of what people outside his charmed circle actually experience.  A wise Latina does in fact know better — but if Douthat is the standard she has to beat, it’s a very low bar.

Program Notes: Iraq disaster/NY Times does good edition…

July 1, 2008

Read this on the fate of wounded Iraqi soldiers. (h/t TPM)

Weep, then think.

Two issues related to the themes of this blog come to mind. The first is that this is an example of the kinds of issues that lie behind the broad point I tried to make in this post about why we have alreadly lost whatever was worth “winning” in Iraq.

There, I used the most simple minded of quantitative arguments to assert that the destruction of life in Iraq had already topped the threshold that other experiences — the Civil War, World War I — suggested produced lasting, conflict-perpetuating damage to the societies that suffer them.

Behind the blunt statistics — the fact that 2 percent or more of the Iraqi population have died as a direct or indirect result of the conflict — lie the individual stories that produce their individual quanta of grief, shame and rage. Today’s New York Times article, the well written and wrenching work of Michael Kamber, does what good journalism should do: tell particular stories that provide the specific human experience that drives the larger trend of events.

What does it do to an army to know that it’s wounded are left on the heap? What does it do to a society if the best organized and armed group assumes its polity and its generals are willing to abandon them? Nothing good. If you are looking for places where the seeds of future conflict sprout, this is a good place to start, IMHO.

The second point is the one that should be obvious by now within our public discourse, but strangely isn’t. Kamber writes that “In the United States, the issue of war injuries has revolved almost entirely around the care received by the 30,000 wounded American veterans.” That’s true — but what has been missing from that coverage is the issue that lies at the heart of this account of Iraqi problems: the ongoing cost of caring for the novel populations of wounded soldiers in modern war. It happens for American soldiers more than for Iraqis, I believe, but broadly, more seriously wounded soldiers survive now than did in previous wars due to advances in frontline and later medical care.

As Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz have documented in their insufficiently well publicized studies, the cost of caring for US wounded is going to drain hundreds of billions of dollars from the Treasury for decades.

That cost, of course, is the reason wounded Iraqi vets are receiving such a poor shake; it helps explain at least some of the disgraceful lapses in care US soldiers have endured. It also leads directly to the bigger story that Stiglitz and Bilmes have tried to tell: the true cost of major modern conflict is a disastrous burden for any society to bear.

When they actually added up all the numbers, the indirect cost of the war to the US economy turned out to by conservative reasoning to double the direct costs — on the order of 1.5 trillion dollars over time.

That’s about 11 percent of the total output of the US economy in current dollars — and while that seemingly devastating cut in our wealth is eased by the decades-long schedule over which the money will be fed to the maw of war, ask any economist what compounding does to seemingly small cuts (or gains) in output. Again, nothing good in this case.

This post could go any number of directions from here. One stray thought: all that missing US money could have done a lot of good in taking care of the Iraqis we arguably most need to think well of our presence in their country.

But there is a much more important point to be made than yet one more plaint about tthe venality and corruption of the war here and there: Governments — and empires — fall when the economic cost of maintaining control over resistant or even indifferent satrapies rises too high.

I don’t give long odds for an Iraqi administration that cannot take care of its army; if the kind of indifference Kamber documents in today’s piece persists, I’d bet that power will fragment, flowing to those people and groups that promise and deliver the kind of social web that have so aided Hezbollah and Hamas in their ascents — not a good prospect for all kinds of reasons.

And as for us: whether or not we meet our moral obligation to take care of our own soldiers and those Iraqis who we led into in the conflict we initiated, the American imperial adventure in Iraq has already demonstrably weakened us within a world with rapidly shifting centers of influence, wealth and power. It has done so in all kinds of ways, as Andrew Bacevich expertly and efficiently documents in today’s Boston Globe. (Again, h/t TPM).

One of the most obvious ways that this is taking place, one which is (as Bacevich points out) strangely absent from our politics right now, is that the kind of cold-eyed quantitative analysis provided by the likes of Bilmes and Stiglitz strongly suggests that the Iraq war could be the kind of pure econmic drain that kills empires. Derangement of state finances and overextended military adventures have afflicted empires both old and new.

For a cartoon tour through the controversial history of imperial decline, think the Syracusan fiasco that doomed the Athenian empire, the fate of the Qing dynasty after half a century or more of devastating internal rebellion and sustained external conflict, and then the collapse of the European empires under the weight of the material and moral costs of wars large and small. Go on one step more, and ponder the impact of the twin costs of the mostly cold conflict the Soviets waged to retain control of their western provinces — the Warsaw Pact nations — and the hot one fought and lost in Afghanistan.

The US weathered Vietnam with its global position largely unchanged, perhaps even strengthened, given what happened to its leading rival for power.

The world is different now.  To draw out the political point that I hope is obvious even unstated:  the cost of John McCain’s vision of indefinite war in Iraq  may well turn this conflict into our Somme.  Even if we “win” in Iraq, in the sense that we retain a compliant client in power, basing rights and contractual control of that nation’s oil, we are well on our way to losing the larger and much more important conflict.

How do I know? The fact that we cannot, or will not pay for the proper care of soldiers who fought on our behalf tells me so.

Images:  Francisco Goya, “The Disasters of War (Los Desatres de la Guerra),” plate 56, c. 1810.  Source Wikimedia Commons.

John Singer Sargent “Gassed,” 1918. Location:  Imperial War Museum, London.  (The painting is huge, and no internet reproduction can create the effect of seeing the real thing.  IOW:  Stop in to the IWM if you have the chance.)  Source, Wikimedia Commons.