January 28, 2008

the boundaries, they are not so clear

“You African. You Jamaican, but you’re African to me.”

After a whole buncha finagling, I get Studley there to listen to me explain that I find it offensive and I get to speak on it, even though I’m not African. He tells me he is African.1

Oh yeah? Where you from?


I appear to have won this round, so I get to tell him that I find it offensive to try to insult anyone based on who they are (female, queer, black, white, African, American, whatever) and can he please make future insults without dragging in some whole group of random people who aren’t involved?

He tells the original girl, “You a Monday. You know why? Because don’t nobody like Mondays. That’s what you are. You a Monday.”

I love this. I think it’s a fucking brilliant insult: not offensive, not profane, absolutely clear in conveying how inevitably useless the insulted person or thing is. Then she starts explaining why he’s mad at her. They went to a dance together and she wouldn't leave with him because she had a white boy's number.

“White boys fuck like poodles and they’re not circumcised.”

This is where Studley officially jumps the shark as far as I’m concerned. So I drag him off to the internet to show him that actually more white men are circumcised than African-American men and can he please make his insults without talking out his ass? Only the statistics I get are actually from San Francisco and somehow had slightly more African-American than white men in the survey sample circumcised. Whatever. Because this matters. Why is being uncircumcised something he objects to anyway? The world may never know.

Then I start in on how he knows how white boys fuck. Are you a white boy?

“I am not.”

Have you ever had sex with a white boy?

“Absolutely not.”

So the only way I can think of that you know how white boys fuck is that you’re watching porn, and let me just tell you, if you get your ideas about sex from porn, you’re going to be wrong all the time. You’re telling me you have no personal or academic experience about this. When you start having sex with white boys

“And I never will.”

or when you become a sexuality researcher, then you’ll have something to back up what you’re saying.

I love Studley, actually. He’s super-interesting, and wrote his college essay about a childhood featuring appalling dysfunction, and how he got out of the crazy through sports. He’ll also listen to me talk about stuff and say, “you right,” which I confess I enjoy. And sometimes I think he’s actually listening.

1. African and African-American are not the same thing at my school.

January 25, 2008

defending the caucus

There's no way at all to argue that Iowa and New Hampshire accurately represent the country. They're both pretty much entirely white, they're small, there's not a single major city in either one. The Iowa caucus process shuts out anyone without transportation, childcare, or a schedule flexible enough to take a night off. And yet those few voters who are eligible to caucus in Iowa and vote in New Hampshire have a wholly disproportionate effect on the presidential nomination.

I still think there are good reasons to have those two states go first. All you have to do is look at the race now: Clinton and Obama are doing national media buys, spending $2 million a week to raise their profiles in 30-second sound bites; the rest of our candidate access is debates and whatever free media gets generated by manufactured controversies and horse-race journalism. That's what a national primary would look like, but all the time.

Because Iowa and New Hampshire are small and have no major cities, politics works differently. You hear about retail politics: what that means is that if you want to succeed in Iowa (and New Hampshire, as far as I know) you have to make your case to small groups of people at a time and actually answer their questions. My brother, who has decided that it was a priority for him to personally interact with candidates, has seen all the major Democratic candidates, asked a number of them questions, and met many other people who have had the same experience, not to mention reading eight or so months of constant local news coverage that described the candidates making their pitch to small groups of people and answering their questions.

Personally, I think that having this element to the campaign is invaluable. Anyone who wants to, anywhere the country, gets to watch news coverage of candidates actually interacting with actual people. You can't buy success in Iowa and New Hampshire, as Romney learned by trying to; you have to convince people a bit at a time. People might be dumb, and they might make dumb decisions, but that's democracy. At least these decisions are substantially less mediated by money than they would be in any large state, and certainly in a national primary. The big problem with our quasi-national Feb. 5 primary this year is that it costs; the only way to make that worse is to cut out the smaller early states, which at least provide a greater diversity of required campaign attributes.

Why specifically Iowa and New Hampshire? Because that's how it's set up. I can't bring myself to care much that it means that some people have more influence on the political process than others. Some people always have more influence on the political process than others. At least in the early caucus/primary system it's not only the wealthy who have more influence.

January 17, 2008

creeping relativism

A student got suspended last week for being disruptive in class, then not showing up to detention. He came in with his father today. The father is an African immigrant - Nigerian, I think - who speaks perfect school English and wears a collared shirt and a wool coat every time I've seen him. He's deeply concerned about his son's education. He asked what the school could do if his son misbehaved, and was dismayed to learn that his son could not be physically prevented from leaving the school building, nor could we beat him. He quoted Proverbs - "train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it" - and told me that when he was in school, a student who misbehaved would be held down by eight other students and whipped. He told me he had never embarrassed his father as his son was now embarrassing him.

I can't agree with him, really, and I'm obviously not going to beat the kid, but I don't judge him for it. I'm surprised to feel that way - with an American parent, I don't think I would. But this is a man who obviously cares about his son, and wants what is best for him, even if what is best for him in the long run involves some short term pain. My parents would have said the same thing, only the pain would have been mental rather than physical. It made me wonder: Americans often think that caning or other physical punishment is barbaric, and sometimes laugh at traditional cultures that punish wrongdoing with a specified fine (especially if the fine is denominated in livestock), but is it really worse than jails as we use them? We look away from the damage caused by confinement: the loss of productive years, the internal violence, the gangs that form on the inside, the physical damage caused by infections, rape, and assault in prisons. Who's to say it's better?

January 14, 2008

Obama: right on with his right on (at least now)

The whole mess about Clinton's comments on Martin Luther King (see this article for a run-down) is beyond absurd. Basically, Clinton argues that the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act required major work from Johnson, and a bunch of people jump on her by claiming she's minimizing Dr. Martin Luther King's contribution. But what she said is, well, true. Johnson got the legislation passed. As I recall from my international politics class, part of the trade for getting civil rights legislation was keeping the Vietnam war going; another part of it was that Johnson was a parliamentary procedure genius. So. Talking up Johnson's adroitness with the Senate and his ability to get legislation passed doesn't diminish King's extraordinary power to build social movements and effect huge social change, or say that Johnson started the civil rights movement; just, you know, the road from social movement to federal policy isn't all that direct. It's a pretty natural comparison for Clinton to make, seeing as she's running for president based on her experience and political adroitness - i.e., the ways in which she resembles Johnson.

At first, Obama's response was lame. (Aside: Dear presidential candidates: do not tear each other down; all the Democratic candidates are pretty good, and you're damn well going to endorse the nominee if it isn't you; try to imagine, in everything you say, whether someone could make an attack ad contrasting it with your later endorsement.) But his most recent statements? They're awesome. Including, but not limited to, the following:

"I think that I may disagree with Senator Clinton or Senator Edwards on how to get there, but we share the same goals. We’re all Democrats. We all believe in civil rights.... They are good people, they are patriots....I think that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton have historically and consistently been on the right side of civil rights issues. I think they care about the African-American community and that they care about all Americans and they want to see equal rights and justice in this country."

Right on with your right on. And now I swear I'm going to write about something other than why you should vote for Obama. In California. Where you just registered to vote.

brilliantly obvious policy

I was reading Barack Obama's website in search of more reasons to convince the Political Schmientist to support him, and came across two proposals that are the kind of thing that make you go, why haven't we been doing that for years?!

First, he proposes that instead of spending hours and hours calculating your taxes, the IRS take the W-2 and investment information that businesses already send them, do a data merge, and send you a preprinted tax return to verify and sign. If you want to do it yourself, you still can.

Second, and this is maybe even more genius, he's proposing having a checkbox on your tax return that will authorize the IRS to use your tax information for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, instead of making you spend hours filling out a separate form.

They're technically simple enough not to get screwed up in implementation, and they make perfect sense. Why don't we do them already?

January 13, 2008

what to eat, #5

Our cooking gas got cut off last Thursday and didn't come back on until a week later (long story involving some confusion about the lease and a gas leak), so we were eating whatever we could make in a toaster oven, electric water boiler, and mini food processor. This is one of the tastier meals. Mostly we ate frozen pot pies.

Black Bean and Goat Cheese dip
black beans
garlic goat cheese (or chevre + raw or roasted garlic)
sundried tomatoes (oven dried in this case, from the summer's adventure with a case of seconds)
chopped parsley
bread and vegetables for dipping (pepper, fennel, carrot, spinach leaves...)

Heat water in the electric water boiler. Pour it over the dried tomatoes and let them steep a few minutes.

Dump black beans, goat cheese, garlic, and tomatoes in the food processor. Whirl. Taste. Add more of anything it needs more of. Don't add the tomato liquid, because you'll make the dip too soupy.

Add parsley and whirl a tiny bit.

Toast some bread. Eat the dip with toast and sliced vegetables.

Note that this recipe is completely independent of the stove if you use either canned beans or a slow-cooker.

January 10, 2008

what you feel v. how you vote

I was 10 when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, and I still remember how mean people were to Hillary. That's how I experienced it, too: people being mean. People hated her hair, her clothes, her make-up, her last name - she couldn't be feminine enough, she wasn't enough of a woman. The same flak continued right through the 90s, with the extra dose of hatred because she didn't leave Bill: now she wasn't enough of a feminist, or she was nakedly careerist. The media-fueled hatred comes straight out of the inability to categorize her as either a super-feminine woman or an ultra-feminist hard-ass. She's a gender-bender, in a very broad sense, and it makes people uncomfortable.

All of this makes how you feel about a candidate a particularly unreliable guide to non-sexist (or non-racist for that matter) voting. All this is part of why I ignored non-policy issues at the beginning of the campaign: I think most of the way people evaluate character and electability is through their own feelings about the candidate, and that seems both unreliable and really vulnerable to bias.

I'm still not voting for Clinton, on policy and judgment grounds, and also with some concern for the kind of support she would have. But I have no sympathy for the "I just don't like her" argument. Shame so many people do.

January 8, 2008

Obama for President

A few months ago, I decided I was supporting Edwards based on his health care plan. I still think he has the best health care plan, though Hillary's is awfully similar, and I still think Obama's plan is terribly flawed in its lack of a mandate. Over at the Political Schmientist's, Andrew argued in comments that the mandate's not that big a deal; Am said what I would have said: "the lack of mandate is... a fundamental difference in the way the plans would operate, namely, that it would drive the average cost of insurance up because people could wait to sign up and pay in until they needed to (i.e. were sick). one of the key reasons that other universal health care plans actually work is that they contain mandates on both ends."

But now I'm supporting Obama. A couple of things changed my mind. I'd made my earlier decision based entirely on policy, on the grounds that all politicians are fake, so I couldn't evaluate character or judgment that effectively, and that electability was anyone's guess. I've changed my mind about both of those things. Obama's life has been consistently dedicated to his espoused principles, and that sheds really powerful light on his character. I still think policy is important, but I also think that judgment and the future of the progressive movement count an awful lot. More than that, I don't think Edwards is a viable candidate: he's not polling well in South Carolina (his home state!), he's not that well-funded, he's not polling that well nationally. I don't even think Edwards would be a good VP candidate. He doesn't balance Obama in terms of experience, and while he's a white Southerner, he doesn't pull much voting power in the South considering that he didn't even carry SC in 2004. So the race is between Clinton and Obama, and I think a Clinton nomination is the worst of the three quite good options we have available.

Clinton and Edwards have both talked good talk about economic justice, but all of Obama's choices - from his career decisions to his votes - have fallen right in line with what he says he believes in. Contrast this with Edwards's stint at a hedge fund (which he's said was for research into the inner workings of the financial world, for whatever that's worth), Clinton's private law career, and both of their voting records. They're centrists. Clinton votes right-wing on defense issues, and made some very troubling foreign policy votes: authorization for force in Iraq, voting to declare Iran's Quds Force a terrorist organization (which managed to be extraordinarily hypocritical and intemperate at the same time). You can explain those as political calculation or you can explain them as bad judgment, but you can't explain them as a reason to support Clinton. In fact, for me it's a deal-breaker for primary support. Edwards did not focus on economic issues in the Senate - Am argues that it's because he was representing a conservative Southern state, but he never ran for reelection; his rhetoric is consistent, but his actions are not. The word about his career in law is that he chose cases he knew he could win, and it seems like he may have done that in the Senate too (patients' bill of rights, minimum wage increases) - that's not the road he's on now, so it's hard to tell how he'd do. Regardless, I think that the consistency of what we hear about Obama's values, priorities, and decision-making counts tremendously in his favor.

Policy counts, but the worst aspect of the disastrous Bush presidency has not been any specific policy; it's been the fact that Bush has organized his administration around secrecy, personal power, and corporate greed, and fed an ultra-polarized rhetorical climate that allows fools like Ann Coulter to argue that political disagreement is tantamount to treason. Obama is the only candidate whose actions speak clearly against that culture. Clinton is closest to Bush in staffing her campaign with disciplined, secretive folks driven by loyalty; she would be an incredible improvement on Bush, but not as clear a change in this specific way as Obama.

Enough about this. Honestly I think all three candidates are pretty decent people for politicians who are trying to get elected to office, but Obama's exceptional. Moving on.

There's also a lot of new information out there on electability, all of which suggests to me that Obama is not just someone who can win, but a movement-building opportunity for the Democratic Party. Many of us have complained about lack of investment in the future by the Democratic Party, as exemplified by the Terry McAuliffe/Howard Dean fight over having Democratic organizations in all 50 states - this is our chance to do something about it just with a candidate. Obama's base of support is amazingly young: 36% of his support in Iowa came from people under 30 (by my calculation from this data). Through actual political science, someone found out that people form their party IDs young; with Obama, we'll have a lot of young people coming in who will be Democrats for life. Not only that, but he has great support from independents, and pretty good support even from Republicans. Clinton has stronger support from hard-core Democrats and older people, but voting for her misses a tremendous opportunity for the future of the party and the country.

I'm also concerned by the tremendous amount of hatred for Hillary out there. I really think most of it is sexism, or was originally sexism and has acquired some more legitimate trappings. However, and I say this with great reluctance and a lot of uncertainty, I still think the visceral hatred of her might be a good reason for her not to be the nominee. One of my best friends in Des Moines from high school has said he'd vote for McCain or Huckabee over Clinton; I got really angry about that, but I also think it points to Obama's value as a movement-building candidate who appeals to a lot of people personally and is a progressive. This is not a narrow effort to go for the most moderate candidate, but a search for a candidate who will depolarize the country (as Obama is doing not only rhetorically but through his support base) while building a long-term progressive movement. Edwards and Clinton have been deep, deep in the hateful muck of the last few years; Obama might get us out of it. Their policies are still fairly similar, and I don't think a health care policy - necessarily subject to Congressional battles about its details - is worth this trade.

On the other hand: like Am said, we have a great, great candidate pool. I'd love to vote for Obama or Edwards for president, and be pretty darn happy to vote for Clinton. Even more exciting, the Democratic front-runners are approximately seventy-two million times as attractive as the Republican front-runners. Because that is what will help us in November.

Tomorrow/when I get to it: more about blatant media sexism and why people hate Hillary (Gloria Steinem was right, but that doesn't change my vote); why the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries aren't so bad as a way to get the nominations started.

Please leave comments! They make me want to write more!

January 7, 2008

no good options

Last week, this week, both wild. We came back to school on Wednesday; by Friday, there was a fight in the lunchroom that ate my 7th period class. Maybe six kids just didn't make it back up; another two or three left in the middle of class, either called by a vice principal or too angry to stay in the room; two kids had an argument that led to one of them threatening to shoot the other; four kids were screaming so they couldn't be calmed down at all. Maybe eight kids got suspended in all.

While I'm generally pretty inclined to tell my students to suck it up and conform to school expectations (be quiet while I'm talking; get to class on time; yes you have to do homework), this isn't one of those times. Turns out they're in an untenable situation in which normal high school drama meets a community with a lot of casual violence. Two kids were dating, now they're not; one of them won't let it go, and it's making their friends take sides. Some of the friends think (correctly) that this is the type of petty bullshit that will be forgotten within six months, so they don't want to take sides. Except that the kids who have taken sides respond to that by saying that if people won't take sides, they're on their own if they get jumped. The security situation in the neighborhood is such that kids who don't have other people 'riding' for them are vulnerable to getting bruises and maybe worse if a rumor starts, or they argue with someone, or they're just in the wrong place at the wrong time. So keeping your friends is a safety issue. And how do you keep your friends? You ride for your friends, escalating this petty bullshit so there are more fights, less learning, more chances for someone to really get hurt.

It's striking to me how much this matches what I know of civil war violence (especially from the Political Schmientist, who is hereby invited to weigh in). Slightly less polarized, because most of these kids are not involved in any kind of national gang factions, but the same risk in trying to sit out the conflict. Historically, this city has had less presence from national gangs than most, partly because there was a strong Mafia presence (or so I'm told), partly because we've been busy tearing ourselves apart (like Baltimore in The Wire).1 That may be changing - I've heard a lot more national gang talk this year than last year at school, which is about as anecdotal as you get, but hey. In a chaotic environment in which people are used to having to take sides to protect themselves from violence, adding a national gang presence would be immediately polarizing - like adding an ideology. Instead of primarily local conflicts, there would be more sources of enmity and violence, with the same high penalty for non-involvement. Same petty bullshit, even more ways to get killed.

A good chunk of this originates in the extent to which my students and the other people in their neighborhood are marginalized and denied necessary resources by mainstream economic and governmental insititutions. As a tiny example: this NY Times article lists the average student load for counselors in public schools as about 311 students, and describes that as a very high load for a suburban New York school. At my public inner city school, where parents are by and large unable to get their children desperately needed therapy for learning disabilities, trauma, and mental health issues, there are four counselors for 1800 students. That's a student load of 450, almost 50% higher than the student load in affluent suburbs, in a situation where counselors need to provide far more services (not because kids are crazier, but because parents have fewer resources on their own). Multiply this many times, and you get the school system; throw in a criminal justice system that has alienated and angered the community, and the difficulty of getting jobs, and it's no wonder people have no love for the mainstream. In this environment, gangs flourish as state competitors, offering state services like security and support in bad times, and economic opportunity unavailable through mainstream sources. The neighborhood has a lot of state contact, but it's almost all negative - unsurprising, then, that alternatives become available, competitive, necessary, even when they are absolutely poisonous.

1. The Wire is probably the best TV show ever made, and I've only made it through Season 1. I haven't watched that much Sopranos, so I'll make that disclaimer up front, but here's the thing: the Wire has vast social commentary, minutely observed characterization, beautiful filming, some of the best acting I've ever seen, incredible moral complexity, throw-away lines that say more than an entire season of some other show. And it has that in every episode. I'd argue for The Wire over The Sopranos if only for the critical importance of understanding urban poverty. And if you want to know what inner city poverty is like, you could make a worse start than working your way through it. It's violent, it's depressing, it's complicated, it's about half in dialect, and it's worth every second. Now go back to what you were reading.